10 December OS 2015 – Wednesday of the 30th Week after Pentecost; the Twelfth Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Menas, Hermogenes, and Eugraphos
Today’s Gospel reading for the daily cycle is Luke 21: 5-7, 10-11, 20-24:
At that time, as some spake to Jesus of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And they asked him, saying, Master, but when shall these things be? and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass? Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven. And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
There are many profound subjects covered by these few words of Our Lord, out of which St. Theophan the Recluse chooses to concentrate on one: the passing nature of all earthly beauty.
The disciples were indicating to the Lord the beauty of the temple building and its furnishings, but He said, “The days will come, in which there shall not be let one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Luke 21:6).” This is an inscription to go under all the beauty of this world. In appearance it seems durable and everlasting; but after a day or two you look, and it is as though it were never there – beauty withers, strength is exhausted, fame fades away, minds are overcome, and clothes are worn out. Everything carries within itself a destructive power, which does not lie like an undeveloped seed, but is an unceasing activity, and everything flows to its end. “The fashion of the world passeth away (I Corinthians 7:31).” “Surely man walketh about like a phantom…he layeth up treasure, and knoweth not for whom he shall gather it (Psalm 38:8-9).” But we keep rushing around vainly. We are caught up in cares, and there is no end to our cares. We encounter constant lessons around us, but we do everything our own way, as though we were blind and saw nothing. And it is correct to say we are blind, or blinded; we do not expect an end either to ourselves or to anything surrounding us or possessed by us. And what else? Arranging our surroundings as we see fit, we are certain that we stand firmly, as on a rock, when actually it is more as though we are standing in a quagmire, just about to sink. But we do not feel this, and we give ourselves over to careless delight in passing things, as though they would always remain. Let us pray that the Lord might open the eyes of our mind, that we might see everything not as it seems, but as it is. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 273-274
Of course by now we are all used to the Church telling us, “This world passes away, think about eternity, do not get caught up in worldly cares, etc.” We nod assent while thinking “Well, that is all fine and good, but what am I supposed to do about my earthly duties? Am I supposed to give away everything, leave my family, and go live in a cave somewhere?”
There is, of course, a right answer to this, that involves neither “going to live in a cave somewhere” – though one day this may indeed be thrust upon us, whether we like it or not – nor the opposite extreme: being obsessed over temporal matters and earthly goods to the point at which we live primarily – or only – for this world.
If we are monks, the answer to how to live is laid out for us – we give up private ownership, family life, and even our own will, in order to pursue our salvation single-mindedly. If we are Orthodox Christians living in the world, we are to make moderate use of the good things of this life in order to support a way of life in which the primary goal is the salvation of the soul. This includes everything involving family, work, and property.
How can we begin to find the right balance?
The first step, of course, involves organizing our week around Church attendance and our day around daily prayer.
Another essential step is to study how we spend the rest of our time outside of Church services and prayer, and to adjust our priorities based on what we see. We need to cut out or at least radically reduce that which is completely unnecessary – completely voluntary distractions that end up consuming an enormous amount of time, energy, and, often, money. No one can honestly say that he “needs” to spend all of his waking hours when not at work on looking at the Internet, video entertainment and “gaming,” or going to parties or sports and entertainment events. Most certainly no one needs the casino or the racetrack or NASCAR races or rock concerts. Of course we need healthy activities outside of work, but even the devotion and time and money given to older, legitimate interests – like hunting and fishing or craft hobbies or flower gardening or playing a musical instrument – must be given in moderation. No one need spend every evening and weekend on his hobby.
We must also study our budget and be honest about how we spend our money. Do we put the Church first, our family’s truly essential needs second, and superfluous things (“fun” items) third? Or do we foolishly put superfluous “fun” things in the “essential” category to the detriment of our commitment to the Church and to the detriment of our family’s spiritual and economic welfare? Do we lead a truly modest way of life, or are we caught up in the illusory life manufactured by Hollywood and Madison Avenue? It would probably be disturbing to discover how much a typical “successful” Orthodox family in North America spends on participating in or watching sports, acquiring endless gadgets and needless retail purchases, on endlessly renovating a large and mostly empty house, on having hundreds of cable TV channels, on assorted leisure activities, and on “fun” vacations (i.e., not pilgrimages to holy places or obligatory family visits) compared to how much they give the Church and the needy.
These two basic activities – keeping up a prayer life and constantly correcting our priorities – are solid means of cooperating with God’s grace in maintaining our proper perspective: that we are pilgrims and strangers passing through this world, not permanent residents. Let us pray the Lord to grant us the prudence to allot our time, energy, and material resources well, so that we will live as we should: as people who are in the world but not of it.
This is a God-pleasing Christmas gift we can give the Incarnate Lord, as we continue the Holy Fast in preparation for the Great Feast of His Nativity.