Irradiating Grace


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 9, 2020 at St. Mary Orthodox Church

We spoke last week about leaving behind our “smaller” minds, our egoic and worldly operating systems so we can enter into the “larger” mind, the selfless and heavenly operating system of Christ. Let's explore that through the lens of today's Gospel reading.

First, I want to read a quote from the great Maximus the Confessor. He was a genius, often very much above my pay grade.

“Grace irradiates nature with a supernatural light and by the transcendence of its glory raises nature above its natural limits.”

So, Christ, the very Source of Grace, lifts the water of the Galilee above its nature, and his human body above the nature of human flesh, and calms the storm with a word, blessing and fulfilling nature to its divine purpose. As he illuminates matter with divine fire, the sacramental nature of the world and all that is in it is revealed. His walk across the Sea was an epiphany of grace.

This is how grace works. It reveals the true nature of things. Bread and wine become Christ's Body and Blood and remain, at the same time, bread and wine. Creation is fulfilled by grace and revealed as sacrament. Human beings become divine by “partaking of the divine nature" and yet remain human. Humanity is fulfilled and revealed, transfigured in grace. The Sea of Galilee became a walkway and yet remained water, water is revealed in its fullness as a servant of its Creator.

The Lord even now irradiates all things with his grace, all things and all people. As Bishop John put it once, “I believe God is speaking to everyone in the world at this very moment.” We have but to open our hearts, minds, and souls to the sound of his still, small voice and the constant flow of his irradiating love to hear it.

As Jesus walks on the raging Sea of Galilee the disciples in the boat are thrown into confusion, just as we would be if we had been there. Their limited minds could not grasp what they were seeing. They were shocked and frightened and, at the same time, enlightened. Epiphanies serve this purpose: to drop-kick us into wonder. We need to be awakened from our long slumber, shaken awake by divine contradictions to our normal way of seeing.

Let me tell you a story of a little epiphany I heard about from my dear friend, a priest in the Southwest. A young woman and her husband came to him thinking perhaps to join his church. They were both Orthodox. He had not been practicing and she had been. She came complete with her head covered (since the parish she had been attending was very strict and rigid) and spoke with him.

Her question was, “Why is one part of the Church so rigid and inflexible, while another part is so warm and kind?” He wisely said, stick with the warm and kind part. Then he asked her, “When is the last time you were happy?” She thought for awhile and said, when I was a small child, running and playing in the backyard. He continued, “Do you have a picture of that?” She replied that she would look and indeed she found one and sent a copy to him. And there she was running and playing and smiling from ear to ear. He told her, “That’s the real you. Let see if we can recover her.” She heard his wisdom and she and her husband joined the parish. The husband said, “This is the place we should be.”

This, too, was an epiphany of grace. Through his wise counsel she was able to allow the irradiating grace of Christ to lift her above the churning water of the trauma that robbed her of her joy. The truth lies beneath the storm, the calm, happy, joyful, and graceful You is there just below consciousness, underneath the layers of skin we call ego. I like what David Bentley Hart wrote about the ego, “Practically all of us go through life as prisoners of our own egos, which are no more than shadows cast by our own souls…” Christ came to set us free. To transform the shadowy and self-centered ego into an instrument of truth, light and compassion. When we pray for “captives and their salvation,” we are praying for more than those locked away in physical prisons, but also for those locked in spiritual and psychological cells.

One of my spiritual friends and mentors once told me that human beings build their own prison cells, only we are not so good at it. We can only manage to build cells with three walls. If we would only turn around, we would notice that the way out is right behind us. The problem is that we are all institutionalized. We don’t really want to leave, or even if we manage to, we often go back because the prison is familiar and more comfortable than freedom. Like, as it says in Proverbs 26:11, (colorfully I might add) “a dog returning to its own vomit, a fool repeats his own folly.” (Proverbs 26:11)

But we must remember that the destiny of our personal prisons, the storms of life and its shadows, as well as suffering itself, is finite. No feeling is final and no situation is forever. Tolkien writes about this in The Lord of the Rings. Gandalph says:

…in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach."

Grace is an energy of God that lights the way into the kingdom. Let me end with this beautiful quote on contemplation by Anthony DeMello, “Contemplation produces wonder – no matter what it observes, a sunset or a stone. That is the prerogative of children. They are so often in a state of wonder. So they easily slip into the kingdom.” So can we.