Let's Be Light
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
I hope and pray all of you are observing social distancing and hygienic vigilance. It is the special kind of asceticism our Lord is offering us for Great Lent this year.
There is a healthy kind of fear that is full of potential for preserving life and comforting our neighbors. There is an unhealthy kind of fear that paralyses and mitigates love, turning opportunity into an exercise in futile narcissism, which is, in fact sinful. We have a choice. Contribute to the solution by love or be part of the problem through unhealthy fear. We must not allow unhealthy fear to make us indifferent to the suffering of the world.
Unfortunately, in America we have been groomed by our worship of rugged individualism and second, by our craving for instantaneous satisfaction to respond poorly to instructions. America has become a consumer society and we are its victims. We are used to being able to do whatever we want when we want. Now we are asked to curtail our desires and to consider the welfare of our neighbors thinking more about how our behavior effects them. This is a normal Lenten practice. It is the Christian way of life.
Love is not always entertaining. Life is often difficult and even harsh. A good thing about this pandemic is that it has the potential to break through the spell of consumerism under which we have been enthrall and open our eyes to what is really important. The great, heroic nature of humanity is waking up. The waters are cleaner, the air fresher. The mornings are filled with birdsong. Nature is responding to the sudden halt in our incessant drive to produce, and we are taking notice through necessity. There are lessons to be learned. I pray that people will pay attention.
Through suffering our facades can more easily fall away, the veil over our eyes can be lifted, we can even become enlightened if only for the duration. The best definition of enlightenment I know is the ability to see things as they really are. Here then Is a little slice of reality. There is no security in life. We are in the middle of a pandemic and we must take significant precautions. Death is not that thing that awaits us after a long life, but rather our constant companion. And so, we are invited to live fully now in each and every moment. Each one is an irreplaceable gift which is why it is called “the present.” God is with us always, now and in the whole eternity of nows. This is a great mystery.
Walt Whitman said it this way, “I hear and behold God in every object yet I understand God not in the least …”
There is a martyrdom offered to us, not just now, but always. A martyrdom in the service of others. I think of our first responders who do not even have enough personal protective equipment. And I think of saints who gave themselves for the life of the world, like St. Maria of Paris and her companions, Fr. Dimitry, and her son Yuri, like St. Joseph of Damascus torn apart by the pogroms in 1860 as he went from house to house offering communion to those who could not flee certain death as it approached, and people like Fr. Damien the Leper, a Roman priest who went to live among lepers in Hawaii, contracted the disease and died as one of them. We are not all called to such extremes, but we are still called to be martyrs.
Into the breach we offer the Gospel. The unfailing love of God, his presence in and through all things, and our faith in the miracle of the Cross, and the power of Resurrection. In the midst of suffering there is hope. In the gathering gloom there is light. And that light is Christ and that light is us when we awaken to his abiding presence.
So, let’s be light. That is what is needed most and that is who we are. That is how we were created. The light may be lost within us, but we can, like the Good Shepherd who searched for the one lost sheep, find it and bring it home. This line from “Amazing Grace” makes more sense to me now than when I sang it in Baptist Sunday services, “I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.” The pandemic is a call for us to be true disciples. To do that we must wake up, live in the present, love the one we’re with, and do whatever job it is that we are given as it appears to us moment by moment.
The isolation we have been forced to observe is really only the manifestation of what has been true for a long time. We have been disconnected from God, ourselves, one another, and the earth. Survival depends on connection. It begins with connection with ourselves.
Hear this from St. John Cassian: “The doctor of our souls has…placed the remedy in the hidden regions of the soul.”
And this from St. Maximum the Confessor: “If St. Paul says, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, and all the treasuries of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in him, then all the treasures…are hidden in our hearts.”
Connecting with ourselves we discover God. And then we become aware of God in our neighbors. It is a circle dance from one to the other, a perichoresis, a mirror of the internal life of the Holy Trinity.From Trinity to our neighbors, and to us and round and round it goes like a wheel.
Above all meditate and pray and fast. We must learn the invaluable blessings of silence and solitude. “Be still and know” God. Have faith that God is with through thick and thin. A faith that does not work during dark times is no faith at all.
When we discover the true meaning of self love which is marked by extreme humility and kindness, then we can share love extravagantly. True self love, you see, is kenosis, self-emptying, never self-aggrandizement. Love does not boast, is not irritable, or touchy. In perfect love there is no fear and no deception.
Meditate, pray, share, love without limits. Be a light to the world. That is our little ascesis for this time.