2 April OS 2016 – Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent; St. Titus the Wonderworker; Holy Martyrs Amphian and Aedesius
The first reading at Vespers today, Genesis 22:1-18, presents one of the most powerful images in all the Old Testament: Abraham taking his son Isaac up Mt. Moriah, to sacrifice him, in obedience to God’s command. We know, of course, that the story has a happy ending: The angel of the Lord appears at the last moment, stays the father’s hand that holds the knife, and the boy lives. God commends Abraham for his faith and obedience, and a ram turns up, stuck in a thorn bush, which becomes the sacrifice instead. Abraham, however, did not know that this was how things were going to turn out. He acted simply on faith and obedience.
The typological significance of this passage is profound: Here there are two “types,” that is, two prophetic images, of Christ, both Isaac and the ram. Abraham, the Father of Faith, is an image of God the Father offering His Only Son in sacrifice for the salvation of the human race, and Isaac, carrying the wood for the sacrificial fire on his back up to the top of Mt. Moriah as Christ was later to carry the Cross up to Golgotha, is an image of the Redeemer. Later, at the climax of the crisis, Isaac becomes an image of fallen man, unable to redeem himself, for whom Christ, the Lamb of God, is slain instead, as the ram is slain in Isaac’s stead.
The moral teaching of this event is obvious: Abraham becomes for all time the very image of faith and obedience. God had promised that through Isaac Abraham would become the father of many nations. Here, it seems, He is going back on His promise. But Abraham does not say, “Wait, this is not fair! You promised!” Without a word, he sets out to do God’s will.
For each of us, there will be one or probably several crucial moments in our lives, turning points, at which we choose to follow the path of the Cross, the path up to Golgotha, or to go the other way. To remain faithful to marriage or monastic vows, to confess Orthodoxy in today’s church situation, to remain moral in our personal, familial, social, and professional behavior – all of these today require a near-Abrahamic level of faith and obedience. In the eyes of the world, indeed in the eyes of supposed fellow Orthodox or fellow “Christians” or fellow “nice people,” our choices will likely appear foolish, insane, or even criminal, more than once. It is not the condemnation of villains or nitwits which will wound us, but that of our friends. At these moments, we must close our ears to all these other voices and obey only that still, small voice that spoke to Elias at the mouth of the cave, when he thought himself all alone and wanted to die; we must obey the voice of God.
To hear this voice, however, and to discern what it says, we must be pure of heart and sound of mind. Above all, we must be in the grace of God.
To be in the grace of God, one must profess the Orthodox Faith, be in the Orthodox Church, and, moreover, be leading a conscious and active life of prayer, spiritual struggle, and participation in the Holy Mysteries. Spiritual life, like physical life, does not tolerate a vacuum – if the divine energies are not active and dominant in the soul, other energies will be. The stark and unsettling truth is that the vast majority of baptized Orthodox, as far as one can tell, are really in the category of energoumenoi, those whose psychic life is being energized not by grace but by the energies only of fallen nature and of the demons. They have not lost the grace of baptism, but it is not active, not energized, because they are living with a burden of unconfessed and unrepented sins, many of which they are not even conscious of, and they are either almost never receiving Holy Communion (old style nominal Orthodoxy) or they are receiving it all the time but disastrously without preparation (new style smiley-face Orthodoxy). If we followed the ancient discipline, they would all have to leave when the deacon dismisses the catechumens, because they are not eligible for Holy Communion.
I know that all of this sounds tough, daunting, even discouraging. But this is so because we rely on ourselves. If we really and truly relied on God, nothing would seem, indeed nothing would be, impossible. In the blink of an eye, all would appear in a totally different light – joyful, calm, and grace-filled, if only we turned to the Lord. Recently a friend gave me a new edition of the wonderful My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt, and after many years I am re-reading it. I wish I had not waited so long! Two nights ago, I read this:
“How easily and quickly can the Lord save us! Instantaneously, unexpectedly, imperceptibly. Often during the day I was a great sinner, but at night, after prayer, I went to rest, justified and made whiter than snow by the grace of the Holy Spirit, with the deepest peace and joy in my heart! How easy it is for the Lord to save us in the evening of our life; at the end of our days! O! Save, save, save me, most gracious Lord; receive me into Thy Heavenly Kingdom! Everything is possible to Thee. ‘To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).'” (My Life in Christ, Part I, p. 26; Holy Trinity Publications 2015).
The evening of our life draws near, for this life is short. How easy for the Lord to save us, if only we lived for Him! Let us, then, pray most earnestly for the grace to forget ourselves and live totally for the Lord and by His power. The path before us would become clear, and we would have the strength to follow it.
We live in difficult days, and more difficult days lie ahead. We must, without delay, renew our struggle to lead the grace-filled life of prayer, fasting, frequent confession and Holy Communion, and all the fundamental activities of the Orthodox life, if we are to have indomitable faith and hope in God, and discern and obey His holy will at the many crossroads we have yet to face on the path to Paradise. May the holy patriarch Abraham, the exemplar of mighty faith for all generations, intercede for us, that we may follow unerringly the hard path up Golgotha, which is also the path to Paradise. After remaining faithful, to the end, in this short and sorrowful life, may we find rest in his bosom as we await the Second Coming of the spotless Lamb, the Redeemer of our souls. This is God’s desire for us, and He is all-powerful to make it so. Amen.