On the Commemoration of the Beheading of John the Baptist
Sermon Preached by Fr Antony Hughes on August 29, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
St. John knew who he was. Self-knowledge, say some of the Holy Fathers, is the greatest of all the spiritual gifts. He was the Forerunner, the last prophet of the coming Messiah, that is, of the Old Testament. Most of all he knew who he was not. He was not the Messiah.
IN THOSE DAYS, as John was finishing his course, he said, "What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie."
Today we remember John’s martyrdom as an end, but also as a beginning. Endings do not close doors, they open doors. John finished his course just as the public ministry of Jesus began. There was no more need for a forerunner. The Messiah had come.
The Baptist’s brought a message of repentance based on the Law of Moses, but Jesus calls us to a deeper repentance based on Grace and Truth. It is not simply a repentance of deeds, but of intentions; a transforming repentance that reaches from the exterior to the interior, to the deepest levels of human being, conscious and unconscious.
“Thou shalt not kill,” The Law of Moses says. The Lord says, thou shalt not be angry for anger is the seed of murder. Unattended to it leads to death. The Law says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The Messiah says, thou shalt not even entertain lust in your heart for lust is the seed of adultery.
Our hearts and minds are storehouses of seeds, both for good and for ill. Repentance means to make a selection between them and to choose to plant and nurture only those that are good. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that the commandments of God are for the transformation of chaos into order. Sinful actions are the sign of a disordered life, of a heart filled with the fruit of unhealthy seeds. Holiness is the sign of an ordered life, of a heart filled with good and wholesome fruit.
Thus, repentance is not only for the confession of exterior sins, but even more for the discovery and confession of the turmoil within: distracting thoughts, tumultuous emotions, fear, poisonous, unrelenting sorrows, and the subconscious conditioning that moves us without our knowledge to act and react as we do like slaves to an evil master. We must be purified of everything that disturbs the soul. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” St. Isaac puts its this way:
“Purify yourself and you will see heaven in yourself. In yourself you will see angels and their brightness, and you will see their Master with them and in them…
The spiritual homeland of the person whose soul has been purified is within. The sun that shines there is the light of the Trinity. The air breathed by the entering thoughts is the Holy Spirit the Comforter. With the person dwell the angels. Their life, their joy, their cause for celebration is Christ the light of the Father’s light. Such a person rejoices every hour in the contemplation of his soul, and marvels at the beauty that appears, a hundred times brighter than the brightness of the sun…That is the kingdom of God hidden within us, according to the words of the Lord.”
If our spiritual practice is not leading us to a deepening and daily transformation from the inside out, then it is weak and ineffectual. If so, it is a sign that we have missed the message of the Gospel and must be open to seeing anew what we thought we understood. The spiritual life is a continual movement from death to life, from darkness to light, from turmoil to peace. There is a path from sin and the misery it causes available to us, but it is a road that demands our all. We are not called by the Lord to simply give all that we have, but to give all that we are. That includes everything, bad good, bad, and indifferent on every level of human consciousness. As St. Isaac also reminds us, the human heart is an infinitely deep chasm filled with angels and demons. To ascend to heaven is to descend into its depths and allow the light of Christ to penetrate each and every corner.
It is He who leads us, from level to level, healing, exorcizing, cleansing strengthening all the good that is there. This is the way of the Cross, the road to purification after which, writes St. Maximus, the Lord Himself can be born in us just as He was in His Virgin Mother.