Passing the Apostolic Torch (2 Cor. 4, 6-15)

4 October 2021

The most prominent ‘torchbearer’ in the Church, Saint Paul the Apostle, lit his torch from the uncreated light of Christ, though he lost his bodily sight: ‘he who is to illumine the world is darkened’, says one of the hymns from his feast-day. God the giver of light ‘in the person of Jesus Christ’, ‘imprisoned’ Paul outside Damascus and ‘shone in his heart to illumine the knowledge of his glory’. The newly-enlightened Paul also lost the Pharisaical self-assurance that, through his own ‘virtues’, he’d be able to keep burning the torch which Christ had lit. He now realized that he was no more than an ‘earthen vessel’, who certainly contained within himself a priceless treasure, but also continued to be fragile and only ‘the preeminence of the power of God’ could protect him and make the true light radiate, especially in the dark storms of afflictions and persecutions.

Naturally, this ‘preeminence’ of grace, which ensured Paul didn’t despair and lose heart wasn’t a permanent, comfortable ‘recliner’. At the risk of being accused of arrogance, Saint Paul had written to the Corinthians in his first letter that ‘I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain, but I worked harder than any of them’ (15, 10). Without patience, effort,  pain and sacrifice, we can’t achieve the ‘life-giving mortification’ of the self. This mortification has first and foremost to do with the works of sin and the passions, though it often involves the risk of bodily death. It becomes a continuous ‘game of hide and seek’ with death, in which ‘the life of Jesus in our mortal body’ is clearly revealed and glorified.

The manifestation of the light of the Resurrection

Among the many imitators of Saint Paul is Saint Avramios, who was sent to illumine a pagan town in Mesopotamia in the 3rd century. All those who’d been sent there previously had returned thwarted and injured. Avramios first built a beautiful church  and began to serve there. The pagan residents were impressed by the church, but beat Avramios almost on a daily basis, often leaving him half-dead. The saint had to endure this ill-treatment for three whole years before he was able to convince the townspeople ‘dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death’ that ‘the preeminence of the power’ and the patience they beheld in the saint were from the one true God. For three years, the saint ‘bore the mortification of the Lord Jesus in his body’ and in this way the life of Jesus was clearly manifested in his body.

The most brilliant manifestation of the life of Christ occurred at his Resurrection and his victory over death, through which he gave us the prospect of incorruption for our mortal flesh. It’s the event which constitutes the foundation of the faith of all the ‘torchbearers’ of the Church. They lit their torches from this light of the Resurrection and it was this light which was their message and testimony.

Keep the torch lit

But if you’re going to light your own torch from the Light of Christ’s Resurrection, you have to lose your confidence in the created lights of the ‘wisdom of this age’, and accept the ‘foolishness’ of the apostolic message. This is a ‘foolishness’, however, which has been franked in the rivers of blood of the apostles, martyrs, confessors. And if you’re to understand that this light is the greatest treasure of your life you have to think of all the treasures of this world as ‘ashes and mortar’, as Saint Kosmas Aitolos puts it, because here ‘there are moths, rust corrodes and thieves break in and steal’.

This- among a great many other things- was understood by a certain Nikolaos, from Metsovo, who, out of fear for his life, converted to Islam at the time of Turkish rule in Greece. He then relit his torch from the Light of the Resurrection, confessed his faith and was martyred, accepting death as a torch himself when the decision was taken to burn him. His holy skull was bought by a Christian who hid it by building it into the wall of his house. But when the house changed hands, the new tenant discovered the sacred relic when he noticed light coming from that part of the wall one day. It was the day of the commemoration of the saint, whose ‘earthen vessel’ continued to shine even in the wall, illumining ‘the knowledge of the glory of God’.

By his prayers, may we also make our own ‘earthen vessels’ receptive to the divine light, so that ‘as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God’.