Contemporary Issues Last Updated: Feb 8th, 2011 - 05:50:02

Be not Anxious (Matthew 6.22-33)

Jan 24, 2011, 10:00
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Source: St. Botolph’s Parish, London, UK 



Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6.33)

‘If you’re dying and you’re holding on’, a wise man once said, ‘you’ll see demons tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, you’ll see that the demons are actually angels, freeing you from the earth’. Heaven and hell do not begin in eternity; and they do not begin after death. Heaven and hell begin now – and you alone decide which is which. If you are dying, and you struggle against the rebellion of your body, against the organs shutting down, you will feel the agony. You will feel it in your tense muscles and your gasps of breath. But, most of all, in your thoughts: a fall into unknown space, regret for all that you have lost or never had. Longing for the loved ones that you leave behind. In your agony, you shake your fist against the injustice of death – and everything that binds you to this life, rises up and torments you like so many demons. But, if you have asked pardon of God and your neighbour; if you focus the fading light in your eyes on Christ our Crucified God and his All-Holy Mother who held him in her arms, on your own patron saint and guardian angel who stand on either side – in short, if you yield to God, you will see what is happening. You are falling asleep in the first rays of dawn. You will soon awake in light unapproachable. Agony or peace, heaven or hell: it all depends on how you look at it. The demon who shrieks ‘Give me your life!’ may in fact be an angel, whispering: ‘Come home’.

Coming into the Orthodox Church is like dying. You die to a whole host of practices that you once identified with being Christian and English: hymnals and organs, old churches dotting the English countryside. You die to old fears of ‘Popery’, incense and ‘Byzantine’ vestments and kissing holy icons with staring eyes. You die to fears of dark ‘foreigners’, with strange accents and fierce, flamboyant ways. Most of all, you die to the notion that the church in which you grew up was a part of the Church of Christ, rather than a church founded by men. You die to a million habits that defined your culture, now that you are a part of ours. You enter a foreign faith. If you struggle against it and hold on to old habits, you feel the agony. You miss old hymns and familiar faces. You long to attend familiar places of worship, or – God forbid – to ‘take communion’outside the Orthodox Church. I see it all the time in converts who never convert. You shake your fist at the ‘exclusive’, ‘intolerant ‘Orthodox Church that forbids you to worship elsewhere or marry outside of it. Every habit that binds you to your former faith rises up and torments you as soon as the Orthodox Church challenges it. Why? Because no one can serve two masters. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Now the consumer culture around you sees no problem. ‘Go ahead’, it says, ‘have it all. Be married to one person, sleep with another. Join the Orthodox Church, then worship anywhere you like. Buy this, sell that. Hoard money that the bankers gamble away. Stuff your life with the latest gadgets, stuff your head with the latest “ideas”.Your life belongs to you, doesn’t it? Why not hold on to it?’ Only our consumer culture never warns you of the cost: never knowing who you are at all.

To ‘have it all’, you must be constantly on the move. You run, anxiously, from person to person, place to place … church to church. You rush around, frantically, hoarding goods that you have no time to enjoy. The perfect consumer, never at rest. So, when the time comes to leave it all and you are still holding on, you see demons tearing your life away.

One of those demons is a priest who tells it like it is. No wonder so few priests ever dare to preach the Gospel. The Gospel is not about holding on, but letting go.

Is it so difficult to understand? To know who you are, you must commit yourself to only one: one love, not many; one life that you are willing to give for the one you love. Ask a monk or nun who is tried and tested in the religious life. Ask a husband or wife who has been married for years. When a newly-tonsured monk rises from under the sheet that covers him, and speaks his new name aloud, he has made his peace with God. He has died to an old life and been reborn to the new. When newly-weds find out, the hard way, that the wedding crowns are really a crown of thorns, they have made peace with God. They have died to an old life and been reborn to a new.

Love cannot survive if you hold on to your old life. It only survives if you die to your self, for love of another. That is the only way that any of us ever finds out who we truly are. It is the only way that we ever find peace.

A consumer culture tells us: ‘Be anxious, don’t miss out on anything’. Christ tells us: ‘Be not anxious, it is all in my hands. Do I not feed the birds and clothe the grass and the lily growing in the field? Are you not worth more than these? Will you live long – will you live well – by rushing anxiously from place to place, choice to choice. How many things will it take to fill your life? asks Christ. How many ideas, hoarded from different churches or books or philosophies will it take to answer your only serious question: ‘What is the real meaning of my life?’ Is life not more than food and drink and clothing, more than moving here and there, unable, unwilling to rest? How long will you serve two, three, or a million masters, and hold on anxiously to the life that you claim is yours? So long as you insist, ‘My life is mine’, you will see demons tearing your life away. But as soon as you commit yourself to the Kingdom – the Kingdom that we bless in the Divine Liturgy, the Orthodox Liturgy –words that challenge your entire way of life, set you free to enter the new.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ: the words of the Gospel are harsh so long as you hold on to your old life. Let go, and they are sweet. The crown of marriage, or monastic life, is a heavy cross so long as you hold on to your self-will. Let go, and the burden is light. The Orthodox Church is a severe taskmaster so long as you hold on to Protestant ideas and habits, worshipping where you like, ‘taking communion’ wherever you wish, refusing to die to the past. Let go –and your anxiety is no more. Fix your gaze on our Crucified God and his All-Holy Mother, on your patron saint and guardian angel who stand constantly by your side. Yield to God: surrender your whole life into hands of his Orthodox Church. Then, nothing that brought you here will be lost. The first rays of dawn will begin to rise on the horizon. The new day will begin to break, and the angels that you imagined were demons pursuing you will whisper gently: ‘Welcome home’.


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