The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.’ The others replied, ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle to achieve half our works.’ They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what will happen?’ He said, ‘The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.‘
In other words, as we’ve discussed before, in the last days, in this generation, because of the myriad temptations that come upon us, maintaining one’s faithfulness to Christ will be a greater work than raising the dead. Notice, here, that we are not talking simply about belief, about a “faith” per se, but of a faithfulness to the Son of Man. Beliefs can change. Beliefs don’t affect anyone outside the believer, but faithfulness is a whole other animal.
This faithfulness isn’t simply an intellectual assent to a set of dogmas. It is that, but it is more. It is a way of life. It is an act; a movement. It is dynamic, not in that it is easily changeable, but because it is practiced to such a degree that it is not easily discarded. One who is faithful is seen, in the best sense, as stalwart, stoic, and dedicated. In a negative sense, a faithful person is described as bull-headed, stubborn, unyielding, or dogmatic. Our world does not care for the stalwart dogmatist because these people get in the way. They are constant reminders that we, in our own personhoods, are not the ultimate authority. They cause discomfort, these faithful witnesses, to our concepts of open-mindedness and progress and so they are described using the negative words. Yet, at the same time, those who are “faithful” to the notions of progress and evolution are seen as dedicated and courageous.
In both Gospel readings today we are confronted with opposing notions of faithfulness. Set before us is the choice of what, or whom, to be faithful to, and the consequences of such faithfulness. In the reading from Luke, Christ teaches the people a concise form of the Beatitudes which includes verse 22 (EOB):
Blessed are you when men shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil for the sake of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets.
It is interesting to read this passage in Greek because the word, “men” here isn’t the word for male. It is ἄνθρωπος which literally means human being. When taken in its plural form, we can read it as humans, human beings, or a collective humanity. So, let’s read it again with that translation:
Blessed are you when human beings shall hate you, and when they shall exclude and mock you, and throw out your name as evil for the sake of the Son of the Human Being. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven, for their fathers did the same thing to the prophets.
Christ is the Son of the Human Being, the Son of Humanity. His is the image in which the human being is created, and He is the full and ultimate cooperation between the transcendent God and humanity. Yet humanity hates Him. Moreover, humanity hates those who are faithful to Him because they, like the prophets, like Christ Himself, are reminders of what true humanity is.
Let us take a look at the second Gospel reading today: that of the Gaderene demoniacs. These two men live among the tombs, among the dead, and in Luke’s account, they’d been bound with chains numerous times in an effort to keep them there. They are kept away from polite society because they are the reminders of how far we have fallen. Through their pitiful existence, they reveal the truth that we have marred the beautiful image of Christ that each of us bears. When Christ encounters them, they immediately know who He is. The demons know His power; they know His origin. Isn’t it interesting that the ones who show how far humanity is fallen are the very ones who recognize Christ for what, and Who, He is.
When Christ heals the demoniacs by sending the demons into the herd of swine, the people of the town come out and ask him to leave. Luke goes into a bit more of how that encounter between Christ and the townsfolk took place. He writes (Luke 8:35-37 EOB):
Then people went out to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone out. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. All the people of the surrounding country of the Gadarenes asked Jesus to depart from them, because they were extremely afraid. So he got into the boat and went back.
Again, in Greek, the word ἄνθρωπος is used to describe the ones healed from their demonic imprisonment. These people come out and see humanity clothed and restored to its right mind and they were afraid. They asked the Author and Redeemer of Humanity to depart.
When we look at the world around us today, does this become familiar to us? We, as Orthodox Christians, are sometimes caught up in a multitude of people being faithful to innumerable idols. Just in the past few weeks we have been struck time and again by competing idolatries and there seems to be no safe place for us. We cannot agree with faithfulness to a passionate life no matter how much we love people who pursue it.
By the same token, being faithful to Christ means that we cannot make a judgment about another’s soul. Being faithful to Christ means we cannot make statements about whether or not someone is condemned. We must remember that the rise in militant, and evangelical, atheism is a direct result of centuries of attacks on the sacramental life of the Church and the so-called stubborn traditionalists who hold to Holy Tradition. And these attacks weren’t by gays, or atheists, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or any other group. These attacks were by Christians.
These attacks have not stopped as time has gone on, but have been increasing in frequency and intensity to such a degree that much of modern Christianity in the West is anti-dogmatic, anti-traditional, anti-sacramental, anti-human, and I daresay, anti-christian. As much as the modern secular culture is nothing other than faithfulness to the self, so too is this modern pseudo-christianity.
We, in the Orthodox Church, are not progressives. We are Traditional Christians, which means we are to love unconditionally; that we are to forgive unconditionally; that we do not judge another’s soul, but look to our own sins.
Being faithful to Christ means submission to Christ. It means becoming dispassionate through the sacramental life of the Church. It means being in church. It means prayer and fasting. It means dying to ourselves. Just as you cannot love two masters, you cannot be faithful to two. We cannot be faithful to Christ and faithful to the world and its passions. Being faithful to Christ means being faithful to being genuinely human, and seeking to become fully human once more even though there are, in our midst, those who vehemently oppose this restoration of the original image – humanity as the icon of Christ.
In this faithfulness to the real Christ, the scriptural Christ, we are given joy. Let us be clear. Faithfulness to Christ will necessarily mean we are not faithful to the world, to the passions, or to any idol we’ve set up for ourselves. As a result, we are in opposition to those who would degrade and dehumanize the image of Christ. But their efforts to do so cannot rob us of our freedom in Christ. They cannot take away our joy or peace. They cannot take us out of the hand of God, nor separate us from the love of God.
Our faithfulness to Christ ensures our participation in the Kingdom of God; in His divine life. Being faithful to Christ means that we are faithful also to the human person and its fulfillment. And in this faithfulness, and Christ’s faithfulness towards us, we should most certainly leap for joy.