Do not worry and do not be afraid, that’s the basic message of today’s gospel reading. Don’t worry about your life, what you eat, your body, or what you wear. Don’t worry about how long you’ll live, because, after all, worrying won’t help. I suppose we could also add, don’t worry about the coronavirus or our nation’s political and economic woes. Don’t worry about anything, but strive for just one thing, God’s Kingdom.
It probably goes without saying that when Jesus says “don’t worry,” he’s focusing on the subjectively negative experience of anxiety and the feeling of distraction that comes with it, as opposed to just acknowledging a concern for something, and taking appropriate action. The Greek word Luke uses has these negative connotations of anxiety and distraction, and he uses this same word when Jesus tells Martha she’s anxious.
On November 8, 1952 C.S. Lewis responded by letter to a Mrs. Johnson, who had asked him, “Is the Bible Infallible?” Here is what he wrote:
“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is… Myth (… specially chosen by God… to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible… as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context…) can be taken for use as weapons.”
That quote from C.S. Lewis reminded me of a scene from the 2004 movie, Saved! It’s a movie about a girl named Mary attending a Christian high school, and when she becomes pregnant, she finds herself ostracized and demonized, as all of her former friends turn on her.
In one particular scene Hillary Faye, the most popular girl at school, and her two friends confront Mary in a combination intervention and exorcism. At one point, after Mary points out their hypocrisy, Hilary Faye shoves Mary yelling, “Oh my God, you’re making accusations as we’re trying to save your soul? Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus… he loves you.”
The sixth Temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, was rebuilt at Delphi in 320BC. Inscribed into the temple were the words “Know Thyself,” a popular pearl of wisdom, both then and now, attributed to a host of Greek sages from Pythagoras to Socrates, but whose origin has probably been lost forever. To “know thyself” has a variety of possible meanings, including as a warning against hubris or as a call to control one’s emotional life. But, the most compelling sense of that phrase, especially in light of the Gospel, is knowing who we are in the truest sense, the kind of knowing present in the depths of our heart. It’s this kind of knowing that allows us to claim our inner spiritual wisdom and authority.
In contrast to such inner authority, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day held religious and spiritual authority for the Jewish people. Jesus said they sat on the seat of Moses, possibly referring to an actual seat they taught from in synagogue, but certainly, metaphorically referring to their role in maintaining and passing on the tradition of Moses, particularly as expressed in religious law.
Jesus also said to follow the scribes and Pharisees teachings, but not do as they do, because they did not themselves practice what they taught. I suppose that’s not too surprising given how often Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites, both for their actions and words, even accusing those on the seat of Moses of hindering people on their way to entering God’s Kingdom.
When we’re watching a good movie, and find ourselves swept along by the story, it’s easy to see the movie as having a reality of its own. We forget that what we’re actually seeing is only light dancing on a screen, and we relate intimately with the people and situations of the story as if they were real. We can even become so absorbed in the story that on some level we think we’re in the movie, like when something scary happens and we jump as if we’re in any real danger.
We can describe this shift in perception between what seems real and is real as a loss of a certain kind of freedom living within us. We move from being freely aware of light projected onto a screen to being caught in a misperception, no longer noticing the light or the screen, but only seeing the story as it unfolds. This loss of interior freedom is usually experienced as a fun kind of escapism, and it’s often just what we’re looking for when we need to unwind a little. We might even get annoyed if something gets in the way of that experience, like when filmmakers try showing movies at high frame rates, and people complain that the movie looks “too real.”
The ancient desert monastics had a lot to say on the subject of interior freedom, and the consequences of losing that freedom. They called this interior freedom apatheia, and it meant for them no less than abiding in the Kingdom of God, being free to love God with all one’s heart, and being free from the kind of suffering born from being a slave to sin. They described how this interior freedom allows us to see God’s Light and Truth in the world, as when Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.” Evagrius Ponticus turns our gaze inward to discover our true nature, writing: “If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven. But to do that without interior freedom is not possible.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus this way, recognizing him as the one who would free us from the slavery of sin. And since Passover celebrated the delivery of the Jewish people out of slavery he thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb, exclaiming here is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we consider sin, what typically comes to mind are the actions we take, or even the thoughts we have, that are judged as immoral or unethical, or that violate some aspect of religious law. Sin can also refer to a state of being. When John says Jesus takes away the sin of the world, he intentionally uses the singular form of the word “sin,” referring to the condition of being a slave to sin, blinded by our own willfulness instead of willingly letting our eyes be opened to God’s Kingdom. In other words, this condition of sin is what the ancient monks would have described as the lack of interior freedom, and Jesus was offering a way back to this freedom.
John’s two disciples don’t seem to have recognized Jesus the way John did, but they did trust John, and so they followed Jesus. Gazing upon them from that place of interior freedom, Jesus felt moved to ask the two what they were seeking. They answered by asking where Jesus was staying, although a better translation of the original text would give the sense of abiding, as in “Teacher, where are you abiding?” Of course, Jesus was abiding in God’s Kingdom, and in what’s probably a reference to Jesus giving sight to the blind, he responds “come and see.”
Then we’re given what might seem like an odd detail. The disciples abided with Jesus at around four o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek text, that line reads as “The hour was about the tenth,” with the dramatic emphasis landing on that final word. Many bible translators must have assumed we’d want to know what time of day that meant by our clocks, but keeping with the original text opens a richer layer of meaning.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, suggested the tenth hour was symbolic of a coming to wholeness or fulfillment. St. Augustine saw the number ten in a similar way, while also recognizing it as a symbol of ancient Jewish Law. He understood the tenth-hour reference to mean that by abiding with Jesus, the Law had been fulfilled.
The Law had covered the moral and religious transgressions referred to as sins in the plural, while Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law amounted to addressing the underlying condition of sin. As the Passover Lamb of God he offered his disciples the way out of bondage, freeing them from that condition of sin. Interior slavery becomes interior freedom, and this fulfills the Law, because while abiding with Jesus in God’s Kingdom that long list of sins just doesn’t seem like much of a problem.
In chapter 8 of John’s gospel Jesus tells some of his Jewish followers that the truth would make them free. They respond indignantly saying they’ve never been slaves to anyone. And this was one of Jesus’ toughest jobs, convincing people who think they’re free that in truth they’re still enslaved.
Jesus responds to them saying “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
By “free indeed” Jesus means abiding with him in God’s Kingdom, that place of interior freedom from which we see God’s Truth clearly. We’re “free indeed” when we’re no longer enslaved to the sin mentioned in John the Baptist’s original proclamation. Jesus takes away sin, and it is the sin of the world. The world, or more specifically being attached or overly identified with the world, is the sin we’re freed from when we abide with God in Christ.
It may help in describing this interior freedom and the sin of the world to revisit the movie metaphor. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you become so completely caught up in it that you forget, on some level, that it’s only a movie. Your awareness shifts from watching light move across a screen to seeing only the story as it unfolds, a story that seems very real. The movie represents the world, and the enlightened screen represents the Truth of God’s Kingdom.
If we’re in the world, but not of the world, then we participate in the world, experiencing all its ups and downs, while also having the interior freedom to see the world as an expression of God, seeing God’s Truth in all things, including ourselves.
On the other hand, if we’re in the world and of the world, then we’ve become enslaved to the world, forgetting that the world in all its many forms is an expression of God’s Goodness. If we’re of the world, we might even believe that our identity in the world is who we really are, forgetting our Truest selves as children of Light.
The good news is that Jesus offers us a path back to interior freedom. This path, though, is counterintuitive in its simplicity, especially in our culture of extreme busyness, productivity, and the need to always be doing something. The way of Jesus, it turns out, is mostly about doing nothing. That’s one reason Meister Eckhart called the way of Jesus the Wayless Way, because it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but about coming to rest where we already are.
It might not seem obvious, but if you’re completely absorbed in a movie, forgetting it’s just light on a screen, your mind is expending energy and effort to sustain that illusion. Or look at it this way, if you’re watching a movie, caught up in the story, how much effort does it take to notice the movie as just light on a screen? It takes no effort at all, just a shift in awareness which happens quite naturally when we’re at rest.
Abiding in Christ, in God’s Kingdom, is the fulfillment of God’s greatest wish for us. God wants us to reclaim our interior freedom and be free from the sin of the world. God wants us to escape the slavery of sin and abide in the eternal Peace and Joy of Christ beyond understanding.
We fulfill God’s wish for us, receiving this amazing grace when we follow where Jesus leads, abiding with him and finding deep rest for our souls. When we let ourselves rest in God’s presence, we let go of all the ways the world has us in its grip, so we’re free to be in the world, but not of the world. From this place of rest, we allow God to heal us and make us whole, dying with Christ, and rising as new creations in Christ.
Abiding in Christ is the fulfilment of God’s desire for us, and the fulfillment Jesus brings us as his disciples. Our hope is that we follow Jesus’ Wayless Way back to our true home, God’s Eternal Kingdom, where we bear witness to God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in all things.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whom we commemorate today, was born on July 19, 1754 with the given name Prochorus Moshnin, and on November 20, 1778 he arrived at the Sarov wilderness monastery as a new monk. Prochorus was inclined towards solitude and asceticism, and with the blessings of the head of the monastery, Father Pachomius, he would spend Wednesday’s and Friday’s in isolation in the forest, practicing the Jesus Prayer.
Prochorus spent eight years as a novice, and was then given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels of heaven, and referring to his fiery love for the Lord. After the death of Father Pachomius, Seraphim received the blessing of the new head of the monastery to live a solitary life in the forest a few miles away, returning only for Saturday evening Vigil and the Sunday Liturgy.
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary
When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:
Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day
What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”
And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.
Luke 1:57–80, Nativity of St. John the Baptist
On June 25th, 2010, nine years ago today, something amazing happed for which I’m eternally grateful. It was a Friday, around noonday, and even now I’m not sure what to call it. I’ve heard people talk about “conversion experiences,” but that never seemed to quite fit somehow. I started attending a church shortly after it happened, and the pastor there suggested it was a kind of “spiritual awakening,” which did sound a bit closer to the truth. But the description that felt most true, and came naturally as my mind tried to make sense of it, was that it felt like being born again. It felt like being utterly annihilated only to rise again as something new, simultaneously terrifying and beautiful. It was as if God, getting inpatient and tiring of being subtle, grabbed me by the ankles, held me upside down, and shook violently until… well, I’m still not sure, but let’s just say that a lot of spiritual and psychological loose change fell from my pockets.
I remember coming back to my senses slowly, and then carefully sitting up. Two very kind and helpful souls, were sitting to either side of me, and, looking very concerned, one of them asked if I was “OK.” My first reaction was spontaneous and tearful laughter, because “OK” seemed like a vast understatement if ever there was one. And then something curious happened…. I opened my mouth with every intention of giving some sort of answer, although not knowing what I was going to say. But when I opened my mouth nothing came out, and nothing would come out. I was struck completely dumb unable to speak or utter any sound at all, and even more curious, I didn’t feel any surprise or fear over this. I just tried to be helpful by pointing at my throat and shrugging. It’s probably because of this experience that when I read today’s gospel, I felt a strong kinship with Zechariah.
Years ago, I would often practice something called “authentic movement,” a kind of contemplative, movement-based exercise with similarities to Carl Jung’s active imagination. In authentic movement you typically have your eyes closed, cultivating an inner stillness of the heart from where you listen for subtle impulses and intuitions guiding spontaneous movement. There would also normally be an observer, whose role it was to witness your movement, and then together you would explore the experience.
I was introduced to the practice as part of a class taught by one of my instructors at the time, a woman with extensive skill and experience as a dance therapist, also trained as a psychological analyst. And I remember one class in particular when I was assigned the role of mover and she the witness.
Starting from a place of stillness, with my eyes closed, I very soon felt a kind of a pull toward what seemed like a source of light. I began reaching for it, orbiting it, losing track of it, then finding it again. In felt like a dance in which we sometimes made contact, and then the distinction between myself and the light would seem to blur. As the time of movement came to a close, I slowly opened my eyes, and found the instructor, my witness, gazing at me with an open, gentle expression.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.