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Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Matthew
Today’s Gospel reading recounts Herod’s wickedly killing St. John the Baptist, which ever after tormented his conscience.
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. – Matthew 14: 1-13
St. Theophan the Recluse points out that Herod jumped to the conclusion that John had been resurrected because the tyrant had an uneasy conscience:
…He could have thought of anything, yet he thought of no one but John. Who led his thoughts in that direction? His conscience. From it you cannot hide unconscionable deeds; you cannot correct its judgment with anything…There is a voice within us that we must acknowledge is not our voice. Whose is it? God’s. He Who gives us our nature, gives us this voice. If it is God’s voice, we must obey it, for creatures dare not contradict their Creator. This voice says that God exists, that we completely depend upon Him, and therefore we cannot but have a reverent fear of God. Having this fear, we must fulfill God’s will, indicated by the conscience… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 148-149
Conscience is one of three innate attributes of the human soul which demonstrate undoubtedly that man is the creature of a personal God Who intends for man to know Him, to obey Him, and to love Him. These attributes are conscience, the fear of God, and the thirst for God. God placed them in human nature, but the inherited sin of Adam prevents them from performing their proper functions. Holy Baptism awakens their natural energies, and thereafter the saving and sanctifying liturgical and moral life of the Church, if undertaken consciously, with the fear of God, develops them. In the saints, we see them developed to the highest degree.
Conscience speaks first: It is the voice of God telling us what is right and what is wrong. Our gnomic will, the darkened, opinionated, and unsteady will we have inherited from our First Parents because of the Fall, may choose to obey or not obey this voice. Humanistic thinking mistakenly identifies this will as “free will,” but in fact this fallen will both frees and enslaves itself by turns, depending on its choice of good or evil. We must force it always to obey God and thereby recover our natural, Edenic will, which always chooses according to conscience and is thus the only truly free will.
Heeding the voice of conscience energizes man’s potential for the fear of God: As he trains his will to obey the innate Law of right and wrong, man naturally begins to fall down before the Lawgiver in reverent awe, humbly acknowledging God’s absolute right to command and to judge him, fearing lest he should displease his Creator and desiring to offer Him the un-hypocritical worship possible only when he has a clean conscience.
Living according to conscience in holy fear, man begins to feel his thirst for God, that is, he begins to energize his potential not only to know and obey God, but to love Him, to be united to Him, to have Him dwelling within. At this point, the spiritual life properly speaking can begin, characterized by attentive, regular prayer and by the regular reception of Holy Communion for which he has actively and attentively prepared under the Church’s direction. This spiritual life in turn becomes a foretaste of Paradise, and the Christian acquires a firm hope of salvation, disposing himself to receive the grace of persevering in faith and repentance to his last breath.
Sadly, these instinctual powers – conscience, fear of God, thirst for God – planted in each man by the Creator and restored through Holy Baptism, find themselves starved, crushed, distorted, and eventually ignored in the life of of those Orthodox Christians who choose to live in such a way that conscious moral struggle, daily repentance, and attentive prayer are foreign to them. Their way of life is indistinguishable from that of the mainstream society around them, and their Orthodoxy is purely an external identification. This may be true even if they go to church regularly and take part in the external functions of parish life.
Moreover, today we live in an age of unprecedented apostasy by the historical Church hierarchies, so that it is likely that only a small percentage of those identified outwardly as Orthodox Christians actually possess – ontologically, that is, and not only notionally – the true Faith, are in union with a valid hierarchy, and have access to valid Holy Mysteries. And within that small remnant, the True Orthodox, how many of us really grasp the enormity of the situation we are facing and the radical response that this requires? Is it not true that many of us, including those who speak freely and often about the apocalyptic character of current events, nevertheless consistently make choices that ensnare them in distraction and worries, a habit that precludes a repentant life of conscience, fear of God, and thirst for God?
It is this situation within the historical Church bodies that has allowed the current apocalyptic scenario to come about. The outward forces visible and invisible, the dark powers of evil that we love to blame, as real as they are, constitute in fact mere circumstances allowed by God to test us, fully in accord with His all-wise providence and His sovereign will.
Thoughts such as these should indeed make us sober, but they should not make us sad, for God is sovereign, the Master over all things. And, what is more, He is paying attention to each of us personally, He desires our salvation infinitely more than we do, and He is waiting to give us His all-powerful help in time of need. Let us be glad then and fear not. The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us heed the voice of conscience, live in holy fear, and desire to love God with all our hearts. He will take care of the rest.
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. – I Peter 4: 17-19