Bearing within Us the Dying of the Lord Jesus6 October 2021
Today’s Epistle reading preaches with assurance the paradoxical and antinomical truth that in the life of the disciples of Christ, sorrow and joy, death and life depend on each other and alternate, as long as there is faith in God and surrendering to the love of Jesus Christ. Before the fall there was no pain nor sorrow. After the fall, however, man was deprived of the life-bearing relationship he had with the all-holy God, and the poison of death entered his life. Death was not created by God, but was the result of man’s self-will and God’s justice. It was the just retribution for disobedience to the divine will, but also the means to put an end to evil. In the latter times, Christ Himself came to earth. His life was glorious with the power of the Holy Spirit, but also mingled with infinite suffering and unfathomable pain. The Lord revealed unto us that afflictions, suffering and even death, become means to express perfect divine love. His own death was a perfect expression of His love and obedience to the Heavenly Father, but also of His love for fallen man.
Ever since His death on Golgotha, love is manifested through suffering and life triumphs through a righteous death. Man was given the privilege to imitate Christ and to also express his love through voluntary suffering and death for the sake of God’s commandment, which leads to eternal victory. Yet how can the Christian taste of this voluntary death when he suffers no persecution from outside? Even in our peaceful times, man’s self-love and carnal mind, as well as the mind of the surrounding world, never cease to go against his life-bearing voluntary effort to taste death. Man can bear the dying of the Lord through the ascetical practices of the Church, such as fasting and bearing shame in confession. Also, when man humbles himself before his brother without claiming his own justice, but taking upon himself the responsibility even for the transgression of his neighbour without murmuring, he puts to death his own ‘dignity’. Yet at the same time he knows that he ‘is passed from death unto life’. He who cuts his own will in his contact with his brother, overcomes death. All those who follow the Lamb, bear about ‘the dying of the Lord Jesus’, and that not from time to time, but ‘as sheep led to the slaughter’ for the sake of His Name, they are ‘killed all the day long’ ‘at all times and in all places’.
Thanksgiving is a very powerful shortcut in spiritual life. If man does not begin to complain in self-pity when his life resembles hell, but offers thanksgiving to God, he will encounter Him Who descended to the bottom of hell for his salvation. The love of Christ overcame even death: the martyrs drowned death with the blood of their martyrdom, the holy ascetics with the tears of their repentance and intercession for the whole world; the apostles and later the holy Fathers took upon themselves the death and the afflictions of their brethren, so as to impart to them the charismatic life wherewith the Lord filled their heart, as the apostle says: ‘Death worketh in us, but life in you.’ If the Lord suffered the death of the Cross, how can His disciples avoid tasting pain? How else could they feel His love for man? It is precisely for this reason that the grace of the Holy Spirit imparts to the saints the longing to suffer for Christ. The faithful that follow Christ must not rely on their own strength, but on the almighty power of God, without Whom man can do nothing. In order not to lose heart on the thorny path of suffering, they must entrust their whole life to His invincible protection.
They can endure hardship with patience due to the knowledge they have of Christ. Saint Sophrony writes: ‘If we know the Eternal Truth lying at the root of all being, then all our anxieties affect merely the periphery of our existence, while within us reigns the peace of Christ […] The essence of Christ’s peace is perfect knowledge of the Father.’ Following His example, the true Christians may appear in the eyes of this world as ‘troubled on every side, perplexed or cast down’, but paradoxically, they are ‘not distressed, not in despair, not destroyed’. ‘The excellency of this power’ from God strengthens the faithful to conclude with Him the covenant of no longer living for themselves, but for God. Christ’s grateful disciples consider afflictions as the highest spiritual gift, through which the Lord honours His own. It is through such suffering that the consolation and life of God will also abound in them, enabling them to deliver themselves to combat unto death against sin. At the same time, they become themselves a consolation for their fellows, imparting to them their life, while receiving death from them. Just as through His suffering love, Christ saved the world, so also His disciples, through the suffering of their own love, become the salt of the earth that sustains the world.
Question: How do we convert pain and affliction into prayer in order to find life?
Archim. Zacharias: Without the Lord we can do nothing, and so there is no more safe and efficacious way than always clinging to the Lord and having Him as our fellow-Traveller, as our co-worker in labour of salvation. We present to Him everything we live: if it is joy, we present it with thanksgiving and glorification; if it is sadness, we pour out our heart to Him imploring His help and consolation; if we have a difficult task to accomplish, we rely on His help. Our natural reaction to suffering is self-pity and complaining. It is not easy to transform this natural reaction into something good. When we live under the dominion of sin, we become selfish and capable of committing any transgression in order to survive in this world. ‘Everything we do without faith is sin,’ whereas, when through faith we surrender to the will of God, everything changes. Sometimes we may undergo a serious or even terminal illness. We pray to God and, though we may not receive healing, we receive nevertheless grace and consolation that help us rise above our suffering. We give thanks to God for the honour He gave us to endure suffering and therefore become akin to His spirit. Even when suffering is caused by our own sins and mistakes, we can still offer thanksgiving to God for forbearing our sins and patiently waiting for our radical conversion, so that His will may prevail in our life.
Question: What to do if our greatest affliction is our character which is not Christ-like at all?
Archim. Zacharias: When I first came to the Monastery, I said to Father Sophrony: ‘I do not like my character, I am not serious enough.’ He laughed and said: ‘Well, if you go to a madhouse, you will find majestic seriousness.’ Then I understood that we may have a difficult character, but if we live with repentance, grace will overshadow all our defects and we shall suffer no harm. In the end we will only have peace and meekness. Just as in the case of terminal disease, we pray, and though we may not be healed, grace is nevertheless given to us to rise above the pain and overcome even the natural defects of our character, because the grace of God is super-natural.
Question: What can we do when the grip of the passions on us is stronger than the love of Christ? How do we pass from death unto life?
Archim. Zacharias: By kneeling down and confessing to God exactly that which is taking place in us: ‘Lord, You see, I am weak and unable to resist these passions without Your help. But, You Lord, come and dwell in my heart, and through Your power make me strong not only to resist these passions, but also to receive Your will as the law of my existence, which will rise my life above this world and its passions.’ Always, when we feel weak, we must confess our infirmity to God and call upon His help, surrendering humbly to His power. We must remember that through His help we can become victorious even over our weakness. The victory is His, but He is well-pleased to share it with us.
Question: How can we acquire the peace of Christ during tribulations?
Archim. Zacharias: Above all through humility and continuous thanksgiving to His Name. Thanksgiving is a certain humility, a meekness that accompanies our life. Today’s Epistle says that the illumination that came through Christ makes us disposed to become servants of our brethren: ‘For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.’ When we have this disposition to render more honour to the ohers than to ouselves, we are always joyful, because this is the spirit that accompanied the Lord throughout His work of salvation. I have recently heard a most beautiful word from our Archbishop Nikitas: ‘We, the priests of the Church, should be the “second class citizens”. The “first class citizens” should be all the people that come to us for help.’ This wonderful word is equivalent to what Saint Paul says: ‘In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves… Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’ ‘The mind of Christ’ is precisely this humility of holding all the others in greater honour than ourselves. Man must have great freedom to have such an attitude. Father Sophrony says that, ‘Being slain for the sake of one’s brethren is the best possible weapon for delivering them from servitude to the devil.’ This is the ethos of Christ’s disciples, and more especially of His priests and bishops. Unless the priest humbles himself before every person who comes to him, he cannot impart to them spiritual benefit. This word of our Archbishop encourages a certain spirit among the bishops and clergy, and is in the same line with what we often say about the task of every priest: ‘He that serveth is greater than he that sitteth at meat.’
Question: Why does man reach the point of even destroying himself, when others make remarks to him? Is it because of selfishness?
Archim. Zacharias: There is a weakness, but do not forget that we have enemies as well, who exploit every weakness in us in order to destroy us. If we want to prosper in the spiritual life, we must learn how to guard our heart against the thoughts of the enemy. If this struggle becomes ‘chronic’, then naturally, in the blink of an eye, we can repel every temptation. We learn this by praying constantly to God, by frequent confession and asking for the help of the spiritual fathers, who are able to protect us and initiate us in discerning the devices of the enemy. There is no easy way of ascending to heaven. A good soldier is he who disentangles himself from the cares of this life, in order to please Him that recruited him. As soldiers of Christ, we must learn the simplicity of heart, in order to protect ourselves from thoughts that the enemy keeps in front of our eyes continually until we accept them and commit the sin. If we avoid them from the beginning, we will become stronger than the thoughts.
Question: Is there any connection between the antinomies present in the Person of Christ and the antinomies that man comes to experience through grace?
Archim. Zacharias: Yes, our life is antinomical because there is nothing common between the eternal Kingdom and life on earth. The Kingdom is completely ‘other’ and the world in which we live is completely different. There are hardly any shadows that may faintly resemble. Yet, through His coming to earth and by filling the whole universe with the energy of His grace, Christ made it possible for us to unite with Him and ascend in spirit to His Kingdom even from this life. This is the major antinomy in our life. Just as Christ became double (divine and human) through His incarnation in order to save us, so we must become double (human and divine) by working our sanctification. Thus, the antinomies present in Christ are imparted to man by grace. Father Sophrony writes: ‘The saints, fully deified by the gift of grace, are included in the eternal energy of God to such a degree that all the attributes [and I would add “all the antinomies”] of divinity are communicated to them, even to the point of identity, for in them, God will be all in all.’
Question: You often use words like ‘paradoxical, wondrous, strange, otherness’. Do they all describe the antinomical character of Christian life?
Archim. Zacharias: Exactly. If you read carefully the prayers at Pentecost, they speak continually about the paradoxical event that occurs on that day: ‘Strange things have the nations seen today in the city of David…’ The great paradox consists in the fact that, though we are weak and wounded by sin, the almighty God condescends in His mercy to bend over us and make us partakers of His Spirit, which makes us drunk with the joy of salvation; He condescends to become weak and vulnerable for our sakes in order to help us become partakers of His life without frightening us. The antinomy is that the all-powerful God works by attraction, not by imposition. Those who truly love the Lord, appear to this world to be mad, but this madness of the love of God has conquered the world. Christ did not let ‘all the reproaches of them that reproach fall upon Him’ because He enjoyed it, but because it was the only way to redeem the world. He hid His power and came down as a vulnerable, but sinless human being, in order to be able to transmit to us the word of the Father and sow the seed of immortal life in us. Then He proceeded to His death so as to leave His whole life and His Body as our inheritance. It is by partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ that we find strength and consolation, whereby we overcome the afflictions of this life and ‘run the way of His commandments’. There is no logic in His dying for His enemies, and those who love God have this madness of imitating His way, for they know that this way saves them and the whole world.
Question: Since the Lord has opened for us the gate of Eternal Life through death, why is it that we are still so afraid of death and suffering?
Archim. Zacharias: We are afraid because we are not yet changed entirely, we have not totally surrendered to His will. Those who have surrendered are not afraid; they even desire to be released and be with the Lord for ever. Saint Ignatius of Antioch was begging the Romans not to stop his martyrdom. He longed to be consumed by the beasts, and become like the corn gathered from the fields, ground and baked as bread which we offer in the Liturgy and which becomes the Bread of Life. He wanted his whole body to be crushed and ground by the beasts so as to become bread for the glory of God. If we have already acquired a strong union with God, we are not afraid of death; we are even desirous to come to the fulness of that longing, when we pass from this life to the next, when this curtain of our flesh no longer prevents us from having the full vision of the Countenance of the Lord.