Galatians 6:11-18; Luke 12:16-21
Barns and temples are very different places. Usually when we think of barns, we think simply of structures to house farm animals or to store crops, not of places with much spiritual significance. The rich man in today’s gospel lesson thought of his barns only in terms of his earthly possessions, of which he had such an abundance that he looked forward simply to relaxing, eating, drinking, and enjoying himself. He did so to the point of making his possessions an idol. He was rich in the things of the world, but poor towards God. He was ultimately a fool, for he based his life on what was temporary and could never truly satisfy him; as a result, he lost his own soul. His barns were a temple only to himself.
We live in a culture that constantly tempts us to follow this man’s bad example. More so than any previous generation, we are bombarded with advertising and other messages telling us that the good life is found in what we can buy and possess. With cell phones, clothes, cars, houses, entertainment, food, and medicine, the message is the same: The good life comes from buying the latest new product. During the coming weeks leading up to Christmas, this message will be particularly strong. It is one thing to give thoughtful gifts to our loved ones in celebration of the Savior’s birth, but it is quite another to turn this holy time of year into an idolatrous orgy of materialism that encourages us to worship a false god. Unless we deliberately reject the temptation to make the coming season simply an excuse for self-indulgence, we will risk falling into paganism.
Orthodox Advent, or the Nativity Fast, began on November 15 and extends through Christmas Eve. We have these forty days to prepare to welcome the Savior at His birth. We do so especially on November 21 when we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. Instead of looking for fulfillment in money and what it can buy, we must use these weeks to follow her example of preparing to receive Christ into her life. Sts. Joachim and Anna took their young daughter to the temple in Jerusalem, where she grew up in prayer and purity in preparation to become the Living Temple of God when she freely consented to the message of the Archangel Gabriel that she was to become the mother of the God-Man Jesus Christ. The Theotokos was not prepared for her uniquely glorious role in the salvation of the world by focusing on making as much money as possible, acquiring the most fashionable and expensive products, or otherwise simply pleasing herself. No, she became unbelievably rich toward God by focusing on the one thing needful through a life focused on hearing the word of God and keeping it. That is how she became His Living Temple.
In ways appropriate to our own life circumstances, God calls each of us to do something very similar. To be a Christian is to be a temple, for the Holy Spirit dwells in us both personally and collectively. The only way to become a better temple is to follow the example of the Theotokos in deliberate, intentional practices that enable us to become rich toward God, that open our souls to the healing and transformation that Christ has brought to the world. We must share personally in His holiness if we want to welcome Him anew into our lives at Christmas.
The rich fool became wealthy by investing himself entirely in his business and possessions to the neglect of everything else. In contrast, the Theotokos invested herself so fully in the Lord that she was able to fulfill the most exalted, blessed, and difficult calling of all time as the Virgin Mother of the Savior. In order for us to follow her example by becoming better temples of Christ, we also have to invest ourselves in holiness. The hard truth is that the healing of our souls does not happen by accident, especially in a culture that worships at the altar of pleasure, power, and possessions. So much in our world easily shapes us daily to become a bit more like the rich fool in our gospel lesson, regardless of how much or how little money we have.
Today we are addicted to electronic screens on phones, computers, and televisions. What we see and hear through virtually all forms of entertainment encourages us to think and act as though our horizons extended no further than a barn full of possessions. The measure of our lives then becomes how well we can satisfy our self-centered desires for pleasure with money, food, sex, the praise of others, or whatever else we may want. Since such things can never truly bring peace to those created in God’s image and likeness, it is no wonder that so many people in our society are terribly lonely, anxious, and unsatisfied. It is no surprise that addictions to everything from pornography to drugs and alcohol are so widespread. It is not shocking that divorce, sexual immorality, and abortion are commonplace in such a culture. We have become all too accustomed in our society to acts of mass murder, as well as to words and deeds of hatred toward the very neighbors whom Christ taught us to love. We easily come up with every excuse imaginable to disregard the needs of wretched people in whom we encounter our Lord.
Slavery to self-centered desire is at the root such sins, and it is simply a form of idolatry. It is a way of offering ourselves to the false god of self that can never liberate us from the fear of death. The barn of the rich fool was a pagan temple in which he worshiped only himself. If we live according to the standards of our world of corruption, we will become just like him by seeking to lay up treasures for ourselves to the point that we will shut ourselves out of the new life that Christ has brought to the world.
We cannot determine what other people do or what is popular in our society, but we can control what we do each day. During this Nativity Fast, no matter the circumstances of our lives, we can all take steps to become, as St. Paul wrote, “a new creation.” That requires joining the apostle in refusing “to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” So instead of coming up with excuses to seek fulfillment in indulging our passions, we must take up the cross of intentionally living in ways that will help us become better living temples of the Lord. Instead of finding ways to praise and serve ourselves, we must unite ourselves to the Savior in His great Self-Offering for the salvation of the world. That is how we will prepare to welcome Him at Christmas for the healing of our souls.
The first step in doing so is to set aside time for prayer in a disciplined way. If we do not pray every day, we should not be surprised when it is extremely hard to pray in Church or when we lack the strength to resist common temptations. We also need to read the Bible daily. If we fill our minds with everything but the Holy Scriptures, we should not be surprised that worry, fear, and unholy thoughts will dominate us. We will gain strength to reject such temptations by regularly opening our hearts to God in prayer and devoting ourselves to the study of the Scriptures. Fasting is also crucial. If we do not fast and otherwise practice self-denial in a way appropriate to our current state of spiritual health, we should not be surprised when self-centered desires for pleasure routinely get the better of us and make us their slaves. We must also share with the poor. If we do not give generously of our time and resources to others in need, selfishness will alienate us from both God and our neighbors.
Advent is also a time for humble confession and repentance. If we refuse to acknowledge and turn away from our sins, we will remain enslaved by guilt and fall into despair about leading a more faithful life. We will lack the spiritual strength to follow the Theotokos in receiving Christ into our lives unless we turn away from our false gods and intentionally reorient ourselves toward Him. That is why we should all avail ourselves of the holy mystery of Confession as we prepare to welcome the Lord at His birth.
During the Nativity Fast, we must all take the steps we can to turn our barns into temples. Remember that the infant Christ was born in a barn, which by virtue of His presence became a temple. The same will be true of our distracted, broken lives when we open ourselves to the One Who comes to save us at Christmas. The Theotokos prepared to receive the Savior by attending to the one thing needful, to hearing and keeping His word. In the world as we know it, that takes deliberate effort, but it remains the only way to become rich toward God. Christ is born at Christmas to bring us into His blessed, holy, and divine life, which is infinitely more beautiful than the death of slavery to self-centered desire which leads only to misery. He is born to make us “a new creation” in Him. As the Lord said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”