Becoming the Light of the World Through the God-Man: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19

            Not long ago, I got on a treadmill at the gym, set the pace and incline as usual, and was then amazed at how easily I began to walk on it.  For a moment, I thought that my physical fitness had reached a new height and that I would need to find ways to challenge myself further, for what I had been doing now felt too easy for me.  Then I looked more closely at the treadmill’s control panel and realized that the pace was set on kilometers per hour, not miles.  Since kilometers are much shorter than miles, the walk was less of a challenge simply because the pace was a lot slower.  My illusions of having achieved a high level of fitness then vanished in an instant.

There is a similar temptation in the Christian life to think that we are doing better than we actually are because the pursuit of lesser goals has replaced our true calling. Then we can pat ourselves on the back for achieving far less than what the God-Man has made possible for us as “partakers of the divine nature.”   Were Jesus Christ merely a human teacher of a moral code or an example of a virtuous life, then perhaps it would make sense to take from Him what fits easily within our lives and to disregard the rest. And were He not truly human but only divine, we could never share in His healing of the human person in God’s image and likeness and perhaps could focus only on the piety and morality that we could muster by our own strength.

Our true vocation in Christ is very different from either of those options because He is neither merely another religious figure who could be useful in our lives nor is He a remote God Who leaves us to figure things out on our own.  Instead, Christ is fully God and fully human:  one Person with two natures, as the 630 holy and God-bearing fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon declared in the year 451.  The point is not simply a lesson in Church history, but the proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully human in order to make us “partakers of the divine nature” who shine with His holy light.  He must truly be one of us in order to restore and fulfill us in the image and likeness of God such that we may become “the light of the world.”

If we set our sights low in the Christian life, then we will mix in with the darkness that is all around us and be of no particular help to anyone, including ourselves.  In today’s gospel reading, the Lord warns against a very appealing misinterpretation of His ministry, namely, that He came “to abolish the law and the prophets.”  Some who call themselves Christians today think that Christ was too kind and gentle to speak a harsh word about sin of any kind. Obviously, those people have never read the gospels.   Christ called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers “(Matt. 12:34) and told the chief priests that “tax-collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matt. 21:31) He saved the woman caught in adultery from stoning, but told her to “go and sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11)   Others think that Christ could not really have meant it when He said that those who embrace the passion of anger are guilty of murder, that those who lust are guilty of adultery, and that we must forgive those who offend us from our hearts if we are to receive His forgiveness.  Surely, they think, that is setting the bar so high as to be unrealistic.

Actually, the Savior made it very clear: “I have come not to abolish them [i.e, the law and the prophets], but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  He did not diminish or reduce the commandments, but intensified them by going literally to the heart of the matter.  No longer was it enough to refrain from murdering someone with our hands; now our hearts must be purified of the anger that leads to insult and deadly violence.  No longer was it enough to stop short of having intercourse with someone other than one’s own spouse; now our hearts must be purified of desire for intimacy outside the uniquely blessed union of husband and wife. No longer did it suffice to limit our desire for revenge to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”; now we must turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love even our enemies as God loves us.

Christ has fulfilled the prophecy spoken by Jeremiah: “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jer. 31:3) By the power of the Holy Spirit, the Savior heals and strengthens us so that we may become radiant with the light of the gracious divine energies shining from our hearts like a city on a hill or a lamp on a stand such that people “may see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.”  That is simply not possible apart from our personal participation in the Lord’s restoration and fulfillment of the human person as a living icon of God.  Instead of humbly and mindfully offering ourselves to Him for the healing of our passions every day, we too often want a religion that serves whatever assumptions, preferences, and attachments we find most appealing. That path leads only to the spiritual darkness of worshipping ourselves and our vain imaginations.   If we follow it, we will be captives of the passion at the root of Cain’s murder of Abel:  the resentment that fuels anger and leads to building ourselves up by putting others down.

In today’s culture, there are many secular and religious versions of that temptation.  There are progressive, moderate, and conservative versions of it.  There are racial, economic, and social versions of it.  What they have in common is that they cannot heal the soul and make us radiant with the light of Christ.  We must be very careful not to import such agendas into our pursuit of the Christian life or to allow them to distract us from it, for they are not worthy of our vocation to become “partakers of the divine nature” in the God-Man, as proclaimed by the fathers of Chalcedon.  Instead of helping us to become transparent to the uncreated light, they are like the divisions about which St. Paul wrote: “foolish disputes, and genealogies, and contentions, and controversies about the Law; for they are unprofitable and vain.”  We must remain on guard against the pernicious influence of such nonsense today in almost every facet of culture.

By the grace of our Lord, we may become the light of the world as we do what the world does not prize:  praying in secret; struggling to fast as we best we can; giving generously to the needy without drawing attention to ourselves; forgiving and praying for those who wrong us; mindfully rejecting the temptation to praise ourselves or to condemn anyone else; and confessing and repenting of our sins on a regular basis.  Whenever we start to think that following this path has become easy or that we have somehow mastered it, we must check to see when we started to count kilometers as miles or otherwise became content with watering down the demands of obedience to our Lord, Who calls us to acquire the purity of heart necessary to see God.  That high calling should sober us up from our spiritual delusions pretty quickly, for who can claim to have mastered it?

Finally, this story from the Desert Fathers reminds us all of the heights to which Christ calls us and which we have certainly not yet attained:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

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