Galatians 3:23-4:5; Matthew 6:22-33
Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki, who gave the ultimate witness for Jesus Christ by refusing to worship pagan gods and giving up her life after suffering brutal persecution from the Roman Empire. A beautiful young virgin, Kyriaki came from a wealthy family, but she refused the offer of marriage to the son of a magistrate who wanted their money. The magistrate then denounced the family as Christians to the Emperor Diocletian. Even when offered great riches and marriage to one of the emperor’s relatives if she would worship the pagan gods, Kyriaki refused and miraculously survived horrible tortures from four different rulers. The Lord appeared to her and healed her wounds. The next day her prayers destroyed a pagan temple, and the wild beasts to which she was later thrown would not attack her. Kyriaki gave up her soul right before she was to be beheaded.
If we want a powerful example of obedience to Christ’s teaching that one cannot serve two masters, we need to look no further than the witness of the St. Kyriaki. She had wealth from her family, great beauty, and a way to become powerful, prominent, and even wealthier by worshiping false gods. The eye of her soul was so pure, however, that she knew Christ not as a religious figure from the past, but as God. Because she was filled with the divine light, she saw clearly that the blessings of this life must not become idols that would turn her away from the Lord. Because they are His gifts to us, she knew that we must offer them and ourselves faithfully to Christ, recognizing that there is nothing more important than seeking “first His Kingdom and His righteousness.”
The witness of St. Kyriaki provides an especially vivid portrait of what is at stake in recognizing that we cannot serve two masters. It is not hard at all to see that she faced a clear choice between the Lord and the things of the world. Where we tend to fall into trouble is when our choices are less clear, when the contrast between faithfulness and idolatry is not as stark. In our time and place, it is unlikely that someone will straightforwardly promise us great wealth and power if we will deny Christ and worship another god. It is far more likely that we will endure subtle temptations to put fulfilling our self-centered desires before obedience to the Lord. Because the eyes of our souls are not pure and clear, there is much darkness in our hearts. We lack the spiritual vision clearly to see ourselves and all the circumstances of our lives before God. Without recognizing what we are doing, we often blindly stumble into worshiping the false gods of pride, pleasure, and possessions. Instead of learning to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” with the trust that “all these things shall be yours as well,” we easily fall into the trap of serving idols even as we think that we are being faithful to the Lord.
Saint Paul reminded the Galatians that to be in Christ as children of God is not a matter of obeying a mere code of conduct. Through baptism, we put on Christ like a garment such that the distinctions between people as we know them in this world lack ultimate spiritual significance. Christ adopts us as His children by faith and heirs to the ancient promise to Abraham, regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives. The transformation does not concern simply outward behavior, but goes to the heart. The ultimate question for us all is whether we are becoming radiant with the gracious divine energies of God from the depths of our souls. If we are, then we will gain the spiritual clarity to discern when temptations arise that would turn us away from faithfulness to the Lord. That is how we will learn to see clearly when a false master threatens to turn us into idolaters.
We must be especially on guard, then, against the temptation to equate faithfulness to Christ with simply doing this or that good deed or holding an opinion on any issue. It is possible to check off all the right boxes in terms of our behavior or ideas, but still to make our faith simply a means of trying to get what we want on our own terms in this world. Throughout history in ways small and great, many have fallen prey to the temptation to use Christianity to serve their own pride and desire for power, pleasure, and possessions. It is possible to distort even the most obvious dimensions of true discipleship into ways of serving ourselves and our agendas over those we consider our, and perhaps even God’s, enemies.
As St. Paul taught, being in Christ may not be reduced to outward obedience to a religious or moral law. It is, instead, to be so united with Him in holy love that the eyes of our souls are filled with His brilliant light as every dimension of our life becomes radiant with His gracious divine energies. The more illumined we are in Him, the more we will see ourselves and all the blessings and challenges of this world in relation to Him. This is not a healing that we can earn or give ourselves, for we are justified by faith in a God we not cannot control or make in our image. We must, however, cooperate with our Lord’s mercy as we deliberately open our darkened souls to the healing light of Christ.
Doing so requires that, like St. Kyriaki, we make sacrifices that demand something of us. She did not become a glorious saint by doing what was easy or popular or somehow figuring out how to consider herself a Christian while worshiping false gods just a bit. No, she bravely drew a line and refused to cross it, no matter what. If we want to acquire the spiritual vision necessary to seek first our Lord’s kingdom and righteousness in a world full of temptations, we must all mindfully turn away from thoughts, words, and deeds that we have made false gods. We must recognize that we have been trying to serve two masters and that we must make painful choices in order to offer ourselves to Christ for healing.
In order to discern what those choices are, we must mindfully embrace the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, regular confession of sins, and asking for and extending forgiveness to others. We must be vigilant against wasting our time and energy in entertainment, conversations, relationships, or other activities that threaten to enslave us even further to our own self-centered desires. Like St. Kyriaki, we must dare to be out of step with cultural trends that present the good life as being contrary to denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following our Savior. His way has never been easy or popular, though many continue to identify themselves with Him while making the world their false god. Instead of trying to use Christ to raise ourselves up over against anyone or any group, we must simply be faithful as we keep the eyes of our souls wide open to the presence of the Lord. The more He illumines us with His holy light, the more we will be able to recognize, name, and reject the particular forms of darkness that threaten to blind us to the glory of His kingdom. By pursuing this path faithfully, we will learn to see all the blessings and challenges of life in light of Christ as we turn away from worshiping false gods and serve Him as our true Master. That is how we too may follow along the path of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki and all the saints.