Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Beginning of the Indiction, Venerable Symeon the Stylite and Martha his Mother
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London, 1 September/14 September 2014
1 Corinthians 1.21-2.4 - Matthew 22. 2-14
At the height of the Christian Roman Empire, the great legal reformer Emperor Justinian, issued a decree (that is, an indiction) to ensure that everyone use a common dating system for contracts, official acts and legal documents. This had the remarkable consequence of moving the date of the imperial new year from its date from time immemorial - the Birthday of Augustus, pagan founder of the Empire, on September 23rd - to September 1st.
You will recall that St Luke describes how the Birth of Jesus took place in the context of another administrative decree from that very same Caesar Augustus, at a time which St Paul identified (Galatians 4.4-7) as “the fullness of time”, when there was peace throughout the known world of the Empire. So it is significant that, by the mid sixth century, the prestige of the founding Emperor was no longer common ground for the citizens of the Empire, or part of its identity. Instead, it is Jesus Christ himself. To this day, September 1st is the first day of the monthly Calendar for the Byzantine Churches of the Christian East. It remains programmatic for us all, because September is still the beginning of our academic and school years, and all of us feel the new working year really begins after the summer, with the burden of work to be done with the coming of the season of the harvest. This is reflected in the chants for today, which celebrate the bounty of God’s providence towards the people in the fruits of the creation: “Fashioner of all creation,” we sing in the Troparion for today, “Bless the crown of the year, O Lord, with Your goodness…”. Recently, September 1st has thus become for a large part of the Byzantine tradition a day of celebration and prayer for the environment, its careful stewardship and protection.
But today is also Sunday, a day when we think not only of this world, and its chronology and destiny, but of the Kingdom that is to come. In this Sunday’s Kontakion, in praising Christ our God, we go one further than this creation to the next: “With Yourself … You raised the dead and shattered the sting of death, and delivered Adam from the curse, O Lover of Mankind”. As St Paul reminds us, we set our affection on the things that are above, and not the things of the earth, because likewise we have died and our life is hid with Christ, in God (Colossians 3.2). In other words, we have to be whole people, leading holistic lives. Just as we are not complete persons if we live only with our material preoccupations, ignoring the human dimension that is spiritual, our soul; so we cannot live in the Resurrection of Christ, which became our defining characteristic when we were baptised in him, if we withdraw ourselves from the physical fact of the world and the body, as though they do not exist.
We have a clue to managing this seemingly impossible dual identity of ours - being citizens of the Kingdom of God, at the same time as active participants in the bountiful, beautiful and hopeful world he has created - in the words of today’s other observance, the feast of St Symeon the Stylite, of whom we have sung: “Seeking things above, you joined yourself to those on high; you made your pillar a fiery chariot, through which, O venerable one, you became a companion of the angels. With them, unceasingly implore Christ God on our behalf.” (Kontakion of St Symeon). Living in the company of the beings of heaven, he was also dwelling into advanced old age in the world, facing God at the same time as being seen by people, inspiring them and never forgetting to intercede for them.
We can put it another way. The great country, blues, and Gospel singer Johnny Cash captured an old saying, when he wrote a song about people who let their own light shine, without shining the light for others; who go to stand on the spiritual high ground for themselves, but don’t take the hands of those reaching to be lifted up there too. He sings, “You’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good” (The Rambler, 1977). This is precisely it: Christ wants it that, the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be.
We can put it another way still. In today’s Gospel, we have the extraordinary tale of the guests who are too grand or ignorant to attend the wedding of their king’s son. The doors are thrown open for all to attend, not just the chosen few, even to the extent of gathering in the people who live on the streets. Then the king throws someone out of the banquet for not wearing the appropriate finery. At first sight, it looks unjust that the king rounds up last-minute guests in the middle of what they are doing, and then punishes them for coming unprepared. Many scholars explain this away by saying that St Matthew has just added together two separate stories with a wedding theme; but I think they are missing the point. For Jesus begins by telling a story with a popular theme, familiar to us from the Magnificat: the rich put down and sent empty away, while the humble and poor are exalted in their place – a typical “them-and-us” story. But then he gives it a twist to surprise us all out of our complacency and self-satisfaction, rich and poor, powerful and powerless alike. In the Epistle, St Paul explains what Jesus means: “God establishes you in the Anointed Christ, and anoints you by putting His seal on us, and giving us His Spirit in our hearts as a first instalment.” So there you have it: first, God the Father compels us to come into the wedding feast of His Son and seals our adoption as His own sons and daughters, co-inheritors with Christ of the whole Kingdom itself. Then the Spirit is bestowed in our hearts as the first instalment of our new way of living. But those who misuse or waste this first flow of grace will lose when it comes to the ensuing graces, whoever they are: “Many are called,” Jesus observes, “but few are chosen.”
What in us has become of this first instalment of grace? Has it simply got stuck in our hearts, or does it show in our minds in the way we decide things; does it show on the outside through the way we act? Where is the grace upon grace? Where are the signs of spiritual progress, after receiving not only the King’s invitation, but the honour of a new standing in His Kingdom? Why do we look and behave and think as before? In the case of that unchanged wedding guest, something showed the king that everything he had been given had made no difference, for there was no sign of new growth in grace beyond that “first instalment” from the Holy Spirit. Either he was living in the world, cutting himself off from the heaven that had been planted in his heart; or he was living on a personally fulfilled religious plane, with no sign to show for it in the world and for the world. The guest thrown out was not fit for the Kingdom, not because he had made no effort, but because he was enjoying heaven for himself, and living as though nothing had changed. He was not, as the Lord’s Prayer implores, seek the Kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”. He was not a whole person, living spiritually and holistically in the world. He was unable to be what the Christian must always be seen to be: a new creation in Christ, a different way of humanity.
So what is this difference to humanity that, for instance, an astonishing saint like St Symeon, or a new Church Year resolves us to seek and emulate? Well, first, St Matthew reports how, even when we fast and lament, we should not put on the act of sorrow and penitence for public consumption, but anoint ourselves with the oil of gladness (Matthew 6.17), just like at a wedding. Joy and confidence in Christ as the centre of all things, then, are the first signs to the world of the presence of God in our midst. Secondly, as we face the prospect of war and the vicious destruction of Christianity in the lands that cradled the Church from its birth, the only point of Christians is that we are people not of revenge and ancient hatreds, of self-pity and recrimination, but of persevering forbearance and inexhaustible forgiveness, people serving reconciliation and bringing healing, people of faith in Christ’s promises, hope in His ever coming Kingdom, and unconditional love for God and neighbour - and enemy.
These are the precepts of heaven for a new Church Year: the more heavenly minded we are, the more earthly good we will be in serving the coming of Christ’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.