Today we commemorate the death of one of the greatest Saints in the Church. We in the Church do not shy away from death as the world does but see it as the entrance from life into true and everlasting life. For us still here in the world the death of the righteous reveals to us many spiritual truths to aid us on the path of salvation.
We have only just finished the celebration of the Dormition, the falling asleep, the death of the Theotokos, and here we are again celebrating the death of another Saint. With the passing of the Mother of God we are given so much light and joy. We are reassured of the fulfillment of the promises of resurrection seeing her to be the first of mankind to receive the fullness of the future resurrection already.
The death of the forerunner is a completely different matter. While the Dormition is often referred to as the summer Pascha, St Justin Popavich refers to the beheading of St John as a second Great and Holy Friday. Like on that day the ugliness and depth of the fall of man and our current state is brought to the forefront and placed before our very eyes.
Here we see a man, Herod, who is given completely over to sensuality and physical pleasure. He has put off his own lawful wife and taken for himself the wife of his brother in contrast to all the laws and morality. Being unwilling to heed the calls of the Baptist to repent from his ways and unable to bear the ridicule of his shameful deeds Herod locks the Baptist in prison. Then while in a drunken stupor he foolishly promises his “step-daughter” anything she wants after delighting in watching her most immodest dance. She at the prompting of her mother asks for the unthinkable by asking for the head of the Forerunner, so that her mother can continue on with her debauched lifestyle without reprimand. Lacking a fear of God but fearing rather to look weak in front of the men assembled for his feast he grants the girl her request.
This whole dark scene could be seen as the backdrop and foundation of the current situation in our country. The pursuit of pleasure and happiness are considered the most important of activities. The greatest of virtues is open-mindedness. Which is simply defined by the idea that I should be free to engage in any activity that I find to be pleasurable, which brings me “happiness” so long as I am willing to not impede anyone else from doing likewise. Even if what either of us might consider to be pleasurable might be immoral, indecent, dangerous, or harmful.
The idea that these activities truly being sinful have an effect not only on the individual engaged there in but on the whole of society is completely foreign to modern men. Reaching out in love to others who are trapped in these lifestyles is greeted with open hostility. If anyone were to stand up and declare that any such activity might in fact be wrong, if they should even hint that it might be a sin and displeasing to God they are immediately publicly defamed, labeled as hateful and a bigot. The preachers of truth and repentance have been shut up in a social prison and silenced. Those still crying out for repentance are ridiculed to the point of being ignored as mad men.
For those of us who have heard the call to repentance and have tried to respond, having come out of such a society, we find that we are permeated through and through with the desire for pleasure, laxity, and happiness. Just as soon as we turn to the Lord we are pained by the longings for these delights, both large and small, that have given us so much fleeting pleasure. Many simply turn back, while others deceive themselves and those around them into thinking that they can have both the Lord and these worldly delights. But the heart of man cannot be divided. We cannot serve two masters and the process of throwing off the shackles of the first master is long and exceedingly painful.
It is possible that the times we come from might be unique in it’s level of laxity and ease of finding pleasures. For truly as fast as you can think of something and type it into your web browser anything can be dancing before your eyes. With a few clicks of your mouse you can buy anything and have it sent to your doorstep.
However this is not a new struggle for man. Everyone from every time and society has had to struggle with this. In fact this struggle goes all the way back to the fall. For in the Scriptures we see that the devil in the form of the serpent having tempted Eve with the thought of being equal with God she then turns to the forbidden tree and the Scriptures relate, “… when the woman saw that the tree [was] good for food, and that it [was] pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make [one] wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked.” So we see that in addition to the prideful thoughts, the disobedience, the lack of repentance and self-justification we see sensual pleasure playing a role in the actual fall of man itself.
Understanding the fall of man and its effects are crucial to properly understanding the need to struggle against the inclination for physical pleasure and passing happiness. Modern man has lost this prospective and thus has lost the understanding of such struggles. Many people do not understand the need for vigils and long services, fasting, daily prayer rules and the like. They see nothing wrong with just going to the movies or dancing, eating a triple sized cheese burger with all the fixings whenever they want. They think that since God made them and loves them then He obviously wants them to be happy so there is nothing wrong with seeking happiness in created things. This in one sense is right of course. God truly wants us to be happy but He would rather that instead of corruptible and temporal pleasures we take delight in the eternal and divine Joy which is God Himself.
When man fell and he was severed from the source of life an interesting thing happened. Man who was created to love and having cut himself off from God turned his love back in on himself. This is the reason that we need to struggle against these vain pleasures and empty forms of happiness. They only serve to feed into our own self-love which being not the true intended output of our love only deepens our loneliness and emptiness which demands more pleasures to try and fill the void within us, but to no avail. Only by turning away from our own self love and re-enthroning God within our hearts and turning all of our love towards Him can we begin to find fulfillment and true happiness.
There is a quote by St John of Kronstadt, when remarking on caring too much for the flesh, which expresses how Orthodox ascetics properly disdained the pleasures of the flesh. He said, “it is remarkable that however much we trouble about our health, however much care we take of ourselves, whatever wholesome and pleasant food and drink we take, however much we walk in the fresh air, still, notwithstanding all this, in the end we sicken and corrupt; while the Saints, who despise the flesh, and mortify it by continual abstinence and fasting, by lying on the bare earth, by watchfulness, labours, unceasing prayer, make both their souls and bodies immortal. Our well-fed bodies decay and after death emit an offensive odor, while theirs remain fragrant and flourishing both in life and after death. It is a remarkable thing: we, by building up our body, destroy it, while they, by destroying theirs, built it up, by caring only for the fragrance of their souls before God, they obtain fragrance of the body also.”
This is the key to properly understanding why we strive to abstain from fleshly pleasure and worldly pursuits. Its not that we have a morbid fascination with being miserable or in pain or that we see our bodies as something evil that must be punished but because by pandering to our flesh we are distracted from the one thing that can truly grant us joy, which is Christ our God.
Now I stand before you as your brother and you know me, I am certainly no ascetic so I do not speak these words as one having proper experience but through the multitude of the lives of the Saints we see these things to be true and as such we must proclaim them as being true. If we are unable to follow the example of St John we most certainly must not act as Herod and shut up the truth so that we can live as we please. We would do best to imitate him who was there at the truly Great and Holy Friday, saying as the thief “we receive the due reward of our deeds” but “O Lord, remember us in Thy Kingdom.”