5 July OS 2017: Tuesday of the Seventh Week of St. Matthew; St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos, St. Sergius of Radonezh, Holy New Venerable Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia
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’s immediately concluding that John had been resurrected shows the tyrant’s 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
Three innate attributes of every man’s soul demonstrate undoubtedly that man has a spiritual life, that he is the creature of a personal God Who intends for man to know Him, obey Him, and love Him: conscience, the fear of God, and the thirst for God.
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 (ignorantly identified as “free will” by humanistic thinking), may choose to obey or not obey this voice. We must force it always to obey and thereby recover our natural, Edenic will, which always chooses according to conscience and is thus the only free will.
Heeding the voice of conscience energizes man’s potential for the fear of God: Training his will to obey the innate Law of right and wrong, man then naturally falls 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 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 a periodic but not infrequent reception of Holy Communion correctly prepared for. 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, find themselves starved, crushed, distorted, and eventually ignored in the life of almost all people, not only those outside the Church, but also those Orthodox Christians who live outside a strict Church environment, and today this is true more than ever.
First of all, only the grace of the true Holy Mysteries, beginning with the true Baptism, can heal these powers of the damage of the Ancestral Sin. Second, once healed, these powers must be energized through practice, in obedience to the Tradition of the Church. The first can take place only in the Church, and the second can take place only within a strict Church environment.
Shallow, confused, modernized, half-hearted practices within Orthodoxy – purposely concocted by false shepherds or simply allowed by lazy ones – lead to the pitiable state in which the masses of nominally Orthodox people find themselves today, which is that they actually belong to the order not of Communicants (whether they are outwardly receiving Holy Communion, real or imagined, or not) but to the order of the Energoumenoi, that is, that demonic energies and not grace constitute the decisive factor determining their choices and their actions, and the baptismal grace resides in the soul only in potential, unenergized, if in fact they were validly baptized to begin with.
It is difficult to discern who is in the worst shape: A) Those who do not have the true Holy Communion available to them because of heresy, B) those who have the true Mysteries available to them and know how to prepare properly but receive rarely because of neglect, or C) those who receive often without the traditional preparation because of modernist ideas. All three states are fearful in the extreme. Most of us true Orthodox (“Old Calendarists”) fall into the B category, and we congratulate ourselves on being neither heretics nor impious, like the poor people in the A and C categories, but we need to stop and think: If we have available the grace of the Holy Mysteries and the correct spiritual guidance on preparing for Holy Communion, we therefore have the greatest responsibility. What are we going to say to Christ after we die, when He asks us why we received His Precious Body and Blood only once a year (or not at all!), because we did not want to fast or go to confession regularly? Because we did not want to give up certain habits? Because movies or parties on Saturday night were more important than Vespers? Because making money on Sunday was more important than God?
It is this situation within the Church that has created the current “apocalyptic” scenario. The outward forces visible and invisible, the dark powers of evil which we love to blame, as real as they are (more real in fact than most can allow their minds to admit), constitute, in the final analysis, mere circumstances allowed by God to test us, fully in accord with His all-wise providence and His sovereign will. We have misused our minds, wills, and desires, and this it is that lets devils rule men, foment this Revolution, instigate this post-Christian revolt against God. If the Orthodox do not live for God, who will?
These thoughts 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 has told us exactly what we need to think and do and desire, and He gives us the power to do it.
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 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