One of the greatest attractions to me towards the Orthodox Church was the continuity of practice and, more importantly, memory.
There’s an old story about a British journalist visiting the library of one of the ancient monasteries on Mt. Athos in Greece. He was walking among the stacks with the monk librarian and the old monk was talking about this and that saint or writer and telling stories about the people who wrote the books in the library.
At some point the journalist began to notice a subtle but significant reality. The monk was talking as if he knew these people and as if they were still alive. This struck the journalist rather odd and he commented to the monk about what he had observed.
Now it was the monk’s turn to be perplexed. He told the journalist “We spend our lives not just knowing the ideas of these writers but they, themselves. They are our brothers and they are with Christ and Christ is not dead, so neither are they. Don’t you folks believe Jesus rose from the dead?”
This leads to both our Gospel and Epistle Lessons today. In our Gospel Lesson (Luke 11:47-54; 12:1) our Lord Jesus gives a series of “woes” to the religious leaders of His day. And He finishes His lesson with the warning to avoid the “leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” (Luke 12:1) You see, the Pharisees claimed to be faithful to the tradition of the faith they had received, but they had perverted the faith with a loss of the love necessary to fill tradition up with the warmth of true devotion. They had reduced all too often the intentions of the faith to draw all to God to a mere outward observation of certain rules and regulations while forgetting the weightier matters of mercy and love. Their hypocrisy made that which was beautiful into the exact opposite of what it was to be.
We must always beware of that little bit of “leaven” that infects the entire body!
And our Epistle Lesson from Hebrews 11:33-40; 12:1-2 teaches us about the important of remembering well those who preceded us in the journey of the faith. The lesson goes from example to example of heroes of the faith that kept the faith and practiced the faith consistently in their lives and left us with the good examples to follow in our own lives. Finally, we are confronted with this: “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1)
The wisdom preserved for us today in these lessons leave us with two insights that we simply can’t ignore if we are ever going to seriously lay claim to the name “Christian.” First, we have to stay awake to the temptation to put our faith on “automatic pilot.” This only leads to a wooden practice of the faith that reduces our devotion to merely “following the rules.” When that happens we empty the faith of its true intent and that is to teach us how to LOVE God and each other. This doesn’t mean the wisdom of the faith is unimportant or the practice of the faith is only sentiment. Not at all. It means we hold these instructions as coming from the lives of real people to real people and not merely a religious philosophy!
Finally, we have to break the back of pride in our hearts. I came to Orthodoxy because I could no longer justify making this up as I went along. I had to abandon the “cafeteria” approach to the faith and humble myself by submitting my life to other lives who had lived this faith before me. I wanted to be part of that communal memory that held the lives of that cloud of witnesses. I had to abandon my notions of self-sufficiency. Being in communion, actual communion, with my brothers and sisters still alive in Christ became more important to me than my own talents, insights, and comfort. This kind of humility is simply not optional. If we are ever going to be Orthodox on Purpose we will have to hold dear the real people who came before us and see our obligation to the faithfulness they left for us.
Today, as we journey to Bethlehem to witness the enfleshing of God for our salvation, let us root out all the “leaven” of hypocrisy by repentance and being vigilant agains the loss of love for God and others. AND let us take seriously the irreplaceable gift of the Saints to our successful practice of the faith today. Stand in front of your icons today and say “God is wondrous in His Saints!” And fall in love all over again with the God Who already loves you more than you, yourself, know how to love!