Source: The Grapevine: A Newsletter of St. Lawrence Orthodox Church, February, 2011
In the beginning chapters of the book, Unseen Warfare, St. Theophan tells us plainly, “If a man wants to realize his weakness from the actual experience of his life, let him but for one day observe his thoughts, words and deeds. He will undoubtedly find that the greater part of his thoughts, words and deeds were sinful, wrong, foolish and bad.” This simple truth is offered to us not as condemnation, but as a simple tool for realizing what need we have of being perfected by Christ—regardless of how satisfied our ego is with our current, imperfect state. After humbly realizing and accepting our terribly imperfect state, we utilize additional tools of virtue: private prayer, attending services, fasting, prostrations, keeping vigil, good works, bridling the tongue, and amyriad of other practices of personal asceticism. And yet these too are the means, not the end, for, as St. Theophan continues, “I tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man can desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.”
Yet a man’s effort at every virtue cannot of itself perfect this drawing near to God and dwelling in union with Him. To man’s voluntary effort must be added the grace of God, which is encountered in its fullness only in the sacramental life of the Church. It is the gifts of grace, primarily conveyed in Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist and Confession, that begin the process of perfecting a human being, drawing him near to God and initiating eternal and infinite union with Him. To refuse to acknowledge our own imperfection, to refuse a life of virtuous practices, to refuse the fullness of grace offered by Christ through His holy Church, to refuse to enter into Confession for the sake of receiving the Eucharist and renewing our Baptism and Chrismation, is to freely choose a destructive existence in everything “sinful, wrong, foolish and bad.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Great Catechism, observes that a Christian who is baptized but experiences no change in his life is, in the words of St. Paul, “a man who thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, and deceives himself.” In addition, St. Gregory offers us the example of Zacchaeus, from whom we can learn what it means to realize our own imperfection, make a voluntary effort to be united to Christ, and experience the beginning of perfection through obedience to Christ, repentance, and transformation.
Initially, Zacchaeus comes up short in a lot of ways. He’s not tall enough to see over the crowd, he is a tax collector, made wealthy by extortion, and despised by the people. Yet when he hears that Christ is about to pass his way, “he wanted to see who Jesus was.” This is the initial act of faith that we must never abandon.Who is Jesus? If He is the Son of God, our lives are about to be transformed forever. Does each of us believe He is the Son of God? The real answer to this question is manifested in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Thorough repentance often includes admitting that we ‘know’ Jesus is the Christ but we don’t truly ‘believe’ this. Zacchaeus wanted to know who Christ was, so he climbed the tree. When Christ calls him down from the tree, “he made haste and received Him joyfully.” And when reviled for his sins, Zacchaeus repents and makes a radical change of life. After the Resurrection, Zacchaeus became a disciple of the Apostle Peter, who eventually appointed him bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, where he faithfully served the Gospel and died peacefully.
We too come up short most of the time. Often as well, when we look inside ourselves, the chaos within paralyzes us rather than motivating us to action. We must be a people of action. Do I believe Christ is the Son of God? Yes! Have I been baptized into his Church and for the remission of sins? Yes! Do I confess my sins for the renewal of my Baptism and in preparation for holy Communion? Yes! Do I pray regularly in church and privately for discernment of my own condition, the illumination of my soul, and the continual advancement of my salvation? Yes! Do I observe my life and actively work, study, and discipline myself consistently for the eradication of sin and ever-increasing spiritual understanding? Yes!
We do not need self-help books; we have Christ and His holy Body, the Church. To procrastinate or ignore this simple reality is to choose ignorance over knowledge, death over life, emptiness over fulfillment, mortality over immortality, and in the end hell rather than heaven. Like Zacchaeus, we too must want to know who Christ is and enter into communion with Him. Now is the time to take action. Today is the day of salvation. For in the end, even a lifetime is too short.
You might also like:
Sunday of Zaccheus by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Sermon on Sunday of Zacchaeus