Saturday, October 21, 2006

Our Lady and the Logic of the Kingdom

The following is substantially my homily of October 1, 2006, which is the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, celebrated by the Slavic Byzantines. I think it is beautiful to have a feast day simply to commemorate the protection lovingly offered by our heavenly Mother. (There were two Gospel and Epistle readings, because the feast fell on a Sunday.) It’s kind of long, so go get yourself a cup of coffee and plan to sit for a while!

We heard in the Epistle from St. Paul that we are the temple of the Living God, which means God wants to dwell in our midst and He makes it clear: “I will be your Father and you will be my children; I will be your God and I will dwell with you.” But, there’s still a condition there. You know God’s love is unconditional, but our salvation is not, and as we see many times in the Scriptures He says what you have to do and what you have to avoid to be saved. Anyway, He says, “Touch nothing unclean; separate yourselves from evil and then I will be your Father and you will be my children and we will dwell together.” We have to do something on our part so that God can dwell within us, because God cannot dwell with the unclean since He is the All-Holy, and Scripture says nothing unclean can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, what does that have to do with the feast of Our Lady? I don’t know, because that reading wasn’t chosen for the feast! That reading is for this Sunday, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. But there is a connection: first of all, she herself, beyond anybody else, can be called a temple of the Living God because God lived in her bodily and not only in spirit as He lives in the rest of us. So she is that. But she’s also been “commissioned” by God to lead us along this path to separation from evil and from uncleanness toward the fullness of life as children of God. He made us her children as well, so that she could lead us to that blessed land of Paradise where we will all be God’s children and He will be our Father, with a happy ending forever.

Her protection is something that is expressed in a kind of guidance in our life, because as I mentioned before, her protection doesn’t mean that she protects us from every possible hardship or suffering in this life. If she did that, then we would be nothing but a bunch of selfish brats; we would never learn the lessons of life and we would never grow in Christ. So she’s not going to protect us from things that are going to help us grow and mature in our life, humanly and spiritually in the faith. But she will protect us from things that will take us away from God, that will threaten our salvation. However that works out practically, we leave that up to her. So basically, we shouldn’t expect her to protect us from everything, every stubbing of toes or whatever, and we shouldn’t get mad at her when she doesn’t, because some people do that. After the fall of Constantinople, I’m told that the Greeks stopped celebrating this feast because they said, well, she didn’t protect us from the Turks, did she? But that’s not the attitude that we should have.

I was reading a little snippet from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s journals, and he mentions something about preaching on this feast. He didn’t say much about what he preached, but he did say something that’s interesting in the context of wanting to be protected from every little thing. He said, there’s a kind of a symbol or icon of our present, soft, affluent society: the painkiller. That’s an image of our desire to avoid suffering at all costs. Now that doesn’t mean that if you’re in some serious, severe pain you shouldn’t take some medication to alleviate it, to make it tolerable. That’s OK and that’s good. But the mentality is wrong that thinks that every time I have a little pain somewhere I have to run and take a pill and get rid of the pain, because pain has to be excluded from my life. “I have to be comfortable, I have to be happy,” but that isn’t what life is like.

You know, I had a little experience of this just yesterday. I was up on my roof cleaning off all the last year’s worth of pine needles and junk that accumulates on there before the rain comes, and there was a branch of a pine tree that was hanging right on the roof. I like trees around me, but I don’t like them actually lying on the cabin. So I went and I snapped off the branch of the pine tree. Well, the tree was not happy with that. It snapped back and scratched up my arm in the process. It’s funny because a little bit later on—it didn’t hurt much, but it was stinging a little bit—my first thought was, oh, I should get something to put on this to soothe it a little bit. Then I said, wait a minute! What are you going to preach about tomorrow? So I just left it, and you know, aside from a few little reminders, I forgot all about it. We shouldn’t be preoccupied with such minor afflictions.

That’s why the protection of Our Lady is of a higher caliber than just keeping little aches and pains and troubles away from us. It’s meant to lead us in the right direction to teach us the truth about the Kingdom of God and what that means in our life. She dwells in a different environment than we do. She is in the Kingdom of Heaven. She sees things with the eyes of God. She has the great panorama and shares in God’s own vision of the world and of life and of our future and destiny and everything that has to go into the way we live in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s a certain kind of logic of the Kingdom of Heaven that she tries to teach us, so that we know how to live, because the logic of this world is not the same as the logic of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We see a little bit of it in the Gospel today about Martha and Mary. Martha was pretty much living according to the logic of the world. You have guests so you fuss with pots and pans, table settings, and all kinds of stuff. But Jesus said, you’re too busy. And not just too busy, but too troubled by this, and you’re yelling at your sister at the same time. But Mary was living according to the logic of the Kingdom because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his word. And He blessed that. He said, that’s the good part, and it will not be taken away from her.

Then again, St. Paul makes a distinction between all these things which are really the difference between this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. He says, what accord is there between light and darkness, between iniquity and righteousness, between Christ and the devil, between the temple of God and the temple of idols? That’s the great contrast, several contrasts, between the logic and ways of the Kingdom and that of this world.

Also, Peter was all beaming with pride after having finally said something right, and Jesus blessed him, saying: my Father has revealed this to you that I am the Son of God, the Messiah. Peter was all excited, but then immediately he falls back into the logic of this world and he tries to talk Jesus out of his passion and death, our salvation. So Jesus says, you think not like God but like man. Again, there’s that contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We see that this plays out constantly through the Scriptures, and that’s something that we are called to recognize and to live.

Again, in the other Gospel reading, that logic of the Kingdom comes in a very pointed way when Jesus says: love your enemies. That’s not the logic of this world. He says if you love those that love you what good is that? Sinners do the same thing. So the logic of the Kingdom is that you love those that don’t love you, or worse. And similarly He says, well, if you lend to those from whom you expect full repayment, what good is that? Right away He says that sinners lend to sinners and expect the full amount back. So the logic of the Kingdom, then, is you lend without expecting anything back—but that doesn’t mean we should test each other on how we live according to the Kingdom by borrowing from each other and not intending to repay anything back!

The point of it is that we have to have a different mentality, a different way of looking at things. That is what Jesus has tried to teach us through the Gospel and what this whole mystery of Our Lady as the guide and protectress in our life, what that is supposed to manifest. Because she, as our protectress, protects us not only from soul-destroying evils, but also from the wrong attitudes, the wrong ways of thinking that keep us on the level of the logic of this world and don’t allow us to transcend it and move toward the logic of the Kingdom, the way to the Kingdom by which alone we can enter.

We have to pray that we will be given this insight into the ways of the Kingdom of God because that’s how we have to live. That has to be our vision of life. You can’t get your vision of life from the TV and the movies and the magazines, because that’s the way of the world. That’s the distorted vision. That’s a vision that can get so distorted that it takes you to the exact opposite direction of the Kingdom of God. That’s why we have to constantly come back and celebrate the mysteries of God, listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, the Word of God, because that’s what He came for. God sent his Son so that He could tell us the truth about life. He’s not just another wandering prophet who had a few disciples and died and that was the end until the next wandering prophet shows up. No, He is the Son of God, and He came into the world to tell us what life means and how to live life in a way that is pleasing to Him, how to live life in a way that will take us to the Kingdom of Heaven.

We have to listen and we have to change our way of thinking and not to just go with the flow and think that everything’s OK because everybody around you thinks the same way so you might as well do the same thing. No, Christians sometimes have to stand out like a sore thumb in the crowd. But it’s the sore thumb that’s the light of the world that others should hopefully notice and want to be a part of and to join. We have to have that witness to the world. So let us pray to God that we will be open to that and not just blindly follow the reasoning, the logic, the mind of this world. St. Paul says we have the mind of Christ, so we have to develop that.

Christ has come into the world to bring that message of the Kingdom. And when the logic of the Kingdom confronts the logic of the fallen world what is given to us is the wisdom of the Cross. The way that the logic of the Kingdom functions in the fallen world is through the wisdom of the Cross, about which Paul speaks so eloquently in his writings. That is how we have to look at things. We have to look at things through the mystery of the Cross, through the sacrifice of Christ, what it cost Him to bring the Kingdom of God into a fallen world and to raise it up through his Resurrection.

But then we can’t also get haughty and think, oh, we have the wisdom of the Kingdom, and then we look down on the world and point the finger at the world, at the massa damnata of the world. Well, that’s not it either, because we have to also look in ourselves and not just say God’s ways are not the world’s ways. Well, look in your soul and you will find out, oh no! God’s ways are not my ways either! Because God’s ways are not pettiness, are not selfishness, are not grumbling and complaining, are not doing all the little things that we try to get away with when we think that nobody sees us. Well, that’s not God’s way, that’s not the logic of the Kingdom, but rather the mind of the world which we have to overcome.

So let us ask Our Lady to be with us, to help us, to protect us by teaching us the ways of the Kingdom and leading us carefully, step by step, all the way there. And then we will rejoice as being part of that great family of God who wants to say to us: I’ll be your Father and you will be my children. He wants that for us, forever. We can do it. We can follow Him if we choose that. But to choose God is to renounce evil and to renounce the ways of evil, which are all around us. We must decide and make that choice. God has given us Our Lady and the Saints, and our Guardian Angels, to help us. Let’s take their hands and let them guide us step by step on our daily pilgrimage toward the Kingdom of Heaven.