15 December OS 2016 – Nativity Fast; Wednesday of the 28th Week after Pentecost; 13th Week of St. Luke; Holy Hieromartyr Eleutherios
The Gospel reading for today is Mark 8:30-34:
At that time, Jesus charged His disciples that they should tell no man of him. And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he spake that saying openly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned about and looked on his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men. And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For his commentary (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 279-280), St. Theophan the Recluse adds the verses immediately following these, Mark 8:35-38, and considers the passage as a whole:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
St. Theophan links three of the Lord’s sayings above to three main obstacles to our salvation: Our self-pity, cupidity (desire for worldly things), and desire for human respect (embarrassment).
First, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Our chief obstacle to denying ourselves is self-pity, which is very much encouraged by the world today: “Treat yourself, be easy on yourself,” and so forth. Everyone today feels sorry for himself; everyone is a “victim.” But this is the opposite of what Jesus Christ expects of us. If you feel sorry for yourself and blame others all the time, no one can help you, for you are falling down a black hole from which there is no escape. We must ask the Lord for the grace of forgetting ourselves and for the virtue of courage. Also, we must force ourselves to be grateful to the Lord for everything that He is and that He has done for us. We must force ourselves to forget ourselves and think about doing good for others. We all know how liberating this is.
Second, “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Every one of us, both rich and poor, fears want and desires plenty. To a moderate extent, this is healthy, an aspect of the instinct for self-preservation that God gave man after the expulsion from Paradise, so that he would take care of himself. But it is common, in fact nearly universal, for this instinct to run amok and become what we call in Greek pleonexia (plenty-sickness), a constant nagging feeling that we always have to acquire more and more, that we never have enough. This is a profound spiritual sickness, and those who are not healed of it cannot really believe in God, for they have placed the idol of material security above their hope in God. The tricky part here is that even very religious people justify piling up material security endlessly by saying that they have a duty to provide for their family. Enough is never enough. We overcome this sickness by the grace of God, for which we must pray daily, so that we will have the discernment to know what is truly needed and what is not. We also must force ourselves to give to the Church first, before paying our other bills (and certainly before vacations, luxury items, and entertainment!), to demonstrate in reality (not words and dreams) that God comes first. Remember, supporting the Church out of our substance (not our surplus) is not charity but simple justice, a minimum we owe God. Alms are another matter, and indeed we must also set aside something for those more needy than ourselves. These two practices – tithing and almsgiving – liberate us from worry and set our feet firmly on the rock of God’s commandments, and, suddenly, we find that we are much richer than we thought. We go from basing our decisions on fear to basing them on hope in God.
Third, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Those who are embarrassed by their Orthodoxy in front of others will never enter Paradise, for they worship men over God. The next time you are tempted to hide your Orthodox Christian convictions for the sake of not being rejected by someone in front of you, ask yourself, did that person die for you on the Cross? No. Did Jesus Christ die for you on the Cross? Yes. To whom do you owe your loyalty? Whose respect do you want? Think about it. Only those who are willing to suffer for their Faith, including the psychological discomfort of human disapproval, go to Paradise. There is no path to salvation that involves always being admired by worldly people. If worldly people admire you, take stock of your life, for you are probably in spiritual trouble. If worldly people think you are an idiot, well, you may be an idiot, but at least you have the possibility for coming to grips with what is real, while they are stuck in an unreal world, a hall of mirrors from which people rarely escape.
When God became a human being, He chose to be a poor child of a poor family, with nowhere to lay His head. Self-pity, love of riches, and the admiration of worldly people are totally absent from the scene at the manger. Let us ask the Word made Flesh to help us be like Him.