Galatians 4:22-27; Matthew 8:28-9:1
Conventional family ties are certainly a blessing from God, but they are easily corrupted by our common inclination to make matters of less than eternal significance our ultimate concern. The story of the Old Testament is largely an account of the family of Abraham and Sarah from generation to generation. It is shockingly realistic about their myriad failings to follow the blessed path revealed to them in preparation for the fulfillment of the ancient promises in Jesus Christ. Those failings included a tendency to forget that God’s blessings were neither ends in themselves nor the sole possession of their family heritage.
The two demon-possessed men in today’s gospel lesson were Gentiles who had no ancestral claim on the ministry of the Jewish Messiah. They had lived a miserable life in the tombs and no one, not even their pagan relatives and neighbors, would come near them out of fear. Nonetheless, the Savior had mercy on them, casting out their demons and restoring them to a recognizably human existence. By the conventional standards of that time and place, these men were strangers and enemies who in no way deserved what the Lord did for them; indeed, they were so overcome by evil that they were apparently unable even to ask for His healing. Nonetheless, the Lord’s mercy transformed them so shockingly that the people of the area actually asked Christ to leave as a result.
When we consider how the Lord came into the world, we should not be surprised at the boldly unconventional nature of His ministry. His mother Mary was a virgin betrothed to her older relative Joseph as a guardian when she became pregnant by a miracle of the Holy Spirit. The Theotokos herself was the long-awaited child of Joachim and Anna, an elderly and barren couple who mourned their childlessness, which was considered a terrible fate for those called to continue the family line of Abraham and Sarah. In the fullness of time, God heard their prayers for a child whom they would offer to Him in the Temple, for her parents took the young Mary there at the age of three to prepare to become the virgin mother of the Messiah.
Today we remember Anna’s dormition, the end of her earthly life. She knew that her motherhood was an extraordinary blessing and that God had a unique role for her daughter to play in the salvation of the world. Like Abraham and Sarah in their great old age, Joachim and Anna became parents in a fashion for which they could take no credit whatsoever. For the elderly to have babies is as astounding as the Jewish Messiah exorcising demons from Gentiles. Both, however, draw also on the deepest roots of the heritage of the Hebrew people, for as God promised Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18) As St. Paul wrote, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Gal. 3:16) Now all who have faith in Him are heirs to the fulfillment of the promises to the original righteous and barren couple, Abraham and Sarah. To quote St Paul again, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3: 29)
Like old people who find themselves expecting babies, those who know that they cannot thank themselves for their blessings are in the best position to cultivate a sense of gratitude toward God. Perhaps gratitude is the most basic religious impulse of all in giving thanks even for existence itself, for the astonishing reality that there is something rather than nothing. It should not be surprising, then, that the root meaning of the word “Eucharist” is precisely “thanksgiving.” No doubt, the more that we grow in our awareness that we did not create ourselves and cannot bring healing to our souls or the maladies of others by our own power, much less conquer the abyss of the grave, the more inclined we will be to offer ourselves, our children, and all the blessings of this life for fulfillment according to God’s gracious purposes. Anna, the elderly mother of the Theotokos, certainly knew Whom to thank for the fulfillment of hopes which, by any conventional standard, she should have abandoned decades earlier.
Today we also commemorate two other women who offered themselves to God in difficult and unexpected ways. The Deaconess Olympias was from a noble and wealthy family in the fourth century. A widow after less than two years of marriage, she had immense riches and the strength of character to refuse strong pressure from the emperor for her to marry one of his relatives. Instead, she gave away her money and land to serve the poor and strengthen the Church, lived an austere ascetical life, and undertook the work of a deaconess in ministering to widows and orphans, catechizing women, and making provision for the material and spiritual needs of those she served. She also freed her many household servants and saw them as her equals.
John Chrysostom became Olympias’ spiritual father, and they had much in common due to their asceticism, generosity, spirituality, and love of the Scriptures. She supported him during the trials that led to his exile and death, and his letters to her during this time reveal a deep spiritual friendship. Like Chrysostom, Olympias also suffered from the unjust persecution of enemies and died in exile.
Eupraxia of Tabenna was also the daughter of an elite couple in the fourth century. With the blessing of her widowed mother, Eupraxia embraced monasticism from childhood and later, when reminded by the emperor that her late parents had betrothed her to the son of a senator, she responded that she was already the bride of Christ and asked him to use all her wealth to support the Church and the poor. Eupraxia pursued a strict path of asceticism and happily performed menial tasks in the kitchen of the monastery. She responded to criticism with humility and endured various physical trials with patience. God worked miracles of healing through her, which led Eupraxia to become even more humble. When the abbess foresaw her death, Eupraxia prayed only for more time to repent before dying peacefully at the age of thirty.
Sts. Anna, Olympias, and Eupraxia did not focus their energies on using their blessings to serve themselves or to gain success according to any earthly standard. Their lives all involved hardship and disappointment; they bore burdens that they surely did not desire or anticipate. They did not try to use religion to gain power over others, but gave of themselves in order to extend God’s blessings to the world. Anna gave her long-awaited daughter to grow up in the Temple, which must have been a very hard thing to do. The spiritual formation that Mary received there surely helped to give her the strength to say “yes” to her calling to become the Theotokos as the virgin mother of the Savior. Olympias and Eupraxia both refused the most comfortable lives possible in their society, as well as the joys of marriage and parenthood, in order to pursue their particular vocations. The opposition and difficulties that these saints encountered makes their faithfulness shine all the more brightly.
Looking to the examples of Sts. Anna, Olympias, and Eupraxia and the shocking deliverance of the Gergasense demoniacs, we can see that to truly share in the life of Christ is not a way of serving ourselves or the popular standards of any time or place. It is instead to make an offering without limit that may well draw the opposition of others. Our greatest struggles, however, will surely be with ourselves in remaining focused on fulfilling whatever calling God has for us in the ongoing salvation of the world. We are all heirs to the promises to Abraham by faith in Christ. Our challenge is to persist in living accordingly, especially when we are tempted to accept the false promises of our passions and the temptations of the world. Like the saints we remember today, let us turn away from such distractions and instead orient ourselves toward the blessedness of a Kingdom that remains not of this world. Let us offer all our blessings back to Him with gratitude, for that is the only way to live as those who know that the good things of this life are not ends in themselves, but points of entrance to eternal life.