Sermon for the Beheading of the Forerunner (2017)

Sermon for the Beheading of the Forerunner (2017) - Holy Cross Monastery

We have come to the end of the Church year. Today, we commemorate the last notable feast of the whole Church year, the Beheading of the honorable and glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John.

Maybe we find ourselves full of passions, or benumbed by insensibility; maybe we are being carried away by vainglory and pride, not even noticing their growth within us, thinking all the while that we are fine and spiritually sound.

We are all here, each and every one of us; we all have our passions which need to be uprooted by God’s grace; we all have our sins which we are aware of, and those of which we are unaware of; we have our strengths, our own talents, our own spiritual and natural gifts; and all of us have our own weaknesses, inabilities and ignorance.

One man is seen to be peaceful, yet more simple of mind; another is seen to be highly intelligent and educated, yet full of turmoil and passion. Another one of us might be in despair because he sees his lack, not only of spiritual strength, but also of mental ability.

One man is comfortable where he is at, not really thinking of his salvation, but maybe daydreaming about something he is going to do after Liturgy, or tomorrow, or some plan which he would like to begin next month.

Another person may at this moment be overcome by spiritual weakness, distracted and pained by his vexing thoughts and warring passions, possessing no hope of ever recovering, and knowing nothing beyond his present state.

Wherever we find ourselves, we all nonetheless need to seek perfection. Are we peaceful? Let us also see to it that we are pure and chaste.

Are we chaste? Let us see to it that we also strive to acquire sensitivity to our neighbors, more sympathy for the suffering, and the pain and contrition of a broken and weeping heart.

Are we solid in our so-called theological understanding? Then let us also come down a little to earth out of the clouds, and anchor our souls with lowly service, humility, repentance, self-condemnation, and compunctionate prayer with tears.

Are we fresh in our spiritual life—recently received into the Church or monastery? Then let us not be deceived by what we think we already understand, and let us not be carried away by our beginner’s grace and zeal, thinking that we shall remain unchanged forever.

Are we seemingly calm, bright, cheerful and attentive? Then let us realize how far we really are from God, and let us seek to find how insensible we are and how often we mistake our lack of spiritual fervor for divine dispassion.

The holy Baptist came preaching: Behold the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world; prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and all the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places into plains.

Every man is in need of repentance. Until our dying breath, no man is safe and sound, no man is able to relax. Of course, there are times of grace, consolation and peace. Maybe they come often to us after having struggled for many years. Or maybe they are as tiny foretastes of the future Kingdom of light, coming to sweeten us at times of despair, granting us hope and strengthening our souls to press on in the battle.

Whoever we are, wherever we are, at all times, places and circumstances, we always need to seek repentance. Repentance implies change, transformation, a translation from something lower unto something higher; therefore, no finite and created being is left without the need to ascend higher.

Even John, the angel in the flesh, needed to ascend higher. Though he was righteous in human understanding, yet no man is as perfect as the Infinite and Perfect Godhead.

Have we been purified of our passions? Then we still need to seek the perfection of love, an ever burning heart, prayer for all the world and unceasing tears.

Have we been enlightened with true spiritual knowledge, not from books and natural reason, but from the divine Light Who is God? Then let us behold ourselves in His Light, and let us see what is yet lacking in us.

Have we been filled with the Spirit, and has our heart been lifted up into constant compunction, prayer and love for all men, even our enemies? Then let us seek even more perfection.

Repent ye, cried the Baptist, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. Behold the Lamb of God! That is: all of you: seek purification, seek the wisdom, seek the mind of Christ, seek to see God everywhere.

Maybe we feel as if our soul is dead and buried; maybe we sense that our heart has become like unto a barren womb; maybe our mind is darkened and turned back into itself in unbelief, unable to perceive anything but our own disorder, and we feel imprisoned and tortured and put to death by our countless sins.

There is still hope! Rejoice, thou barren, that bearest not, for more are the children of the desolate, than of her that hath a husband! This applies above all to the most pure Virgin Mother of God; yet, Elizabeth too was barren, though she had a husband. And all of us at times sense our souls to be barren.

We have come to the end of the Church year, maybe only to find ourselves spiritually exhausted, numb, useless, uncaring. Maybe we do not have even one tiny impulse to seek God; or worse, maybe we feel ourselves to be pure and in need of nothing.

It is not a sin to enjoy with thanksgiving the peace of God’s grace, and at times to experience his comfort and deep contentment; for this is a gift of God even to us fallen men in this ever-changing world.

But it is a sin to think ourselves in need of nothing. Woe to you that are full, says Christ! For ye shall hunger! Woe to you that are rich! Woe to you that laugh now in proud insensibility! For truly you are poor, blind, wretched, naked and useless, yet know it not. Blessed are you poor, you sorrowful, you broken-hearted, you who see and feel your weakness and need for God.

We have come to the end of the Church year. We have to commemorate this Feast of the Beheading of the Great John, the Preacher of Repentance. Maybe we feel as if the head of our repentance has been cut off also. Maybe we sense that we are completely barren of any spiritual fruit. Maybe we feel silenced by spiritual deadness, numbness and a lack of care for our salvation. Maybe we have become comfortable in sin and our conscience cries out no longer.

No matter who we are and where we are at, we need to seek the grace of repentance. Repentance is not a one-time act. It is not as if we can say, “O, I have stopped drinking, I have stopped gambling, I am okay, I have repented. I don’t fight like I used to, and I am peaceful with others.”

Maybe so; but we cannot stand still. For those of us who are vaingloriously content with our spiritual lives, we have saints like St. James the Faster to warn us that no man is safe until his death. For, although he was confirmed in a strict and ascetic life for 50 whole years, a clairvoyant miracle-worker and able to cast demons out by one word; yet—God save us—he committed rape and murder!

For those of us who see ourselves consumed by every passion, and we feel hopeless of any recovery, and we do not even know what to look and hope for, nor do we really care; again, we can look at saints like St. James the Faster, who arose out of the grievous pit of sin.

We might find ourselves sometimes looking at saints like St. John the Baptist, and we might be overwhelmed by their holiness. We think that we cannot really relate to them, because they lived perfect lives from their birth.

However, we often forget that all the saints, even the Most Holy Mother of God, were born into sin, with a fallen nature like all of us, they were men and women of like passions, yet they became victorious by God’s grace.

Some saints preserved themselves in purity from their births. Some led terrible lives and repented later. Some preserved the grace of their baptism spotless; others fell and repented, fell again and kept repenting. We all have saints that are close to our hearts, whom we love, for various reasons.

But when we look to saints such as St. John, who was sanctified and filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb—just like the Prophet Jeremiah and the Mother of God were before him, and just like St. Nicholas and St. Euthymius were after him—when we look to St. John and the other most lofty saints of our Church, let us not despair, nor let us think that we over-praise their holiness, as if it were just a poetic device, as if their lives were mythically perfect.

I think all of us will humbly confess that we have not been sanctified from our mother’s womb. But, I do not think that all of us understand that those saints who were sanctified while in the womb were given a special gift of grace to preserve them because of the responsiveness of their heart to God, their faith and mighty struggles for God, which the Lord beheld before their conception.

But, on the other hand, many other saints began on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It is said that 3 of St. Pachomius’ disciples often spoke among themselves about his virtue, saying:

“Whenever we listened to the words of our father, Abba Pachomios, we were greatly helped…(and) we saw how, even when he kept silence, he taught us by his actions. We were amazed by him and we used to say to each other: ‘We thought that all the saints were created as saints by God and never changed from their mother’s womb, not like other men. We thought that sinners could not live devoutly, because they had been so created. But now we see the goodness of our God manifested in our father: for see, he is of pagan origin and he has become devout; he has put on all the commandments of God. Thus even we also can follow him and become equal to the saints whom he himself has followed!’”

This is almost an unbelievable saying; but this was spoken by saints about saints.

St. John had a special place in the dispensation of Christ, going before the Lord and preparing His way. But we are called to enter also into his ministry, paving a way to the Lord, and opening the hearts of others to Him. Truly “without holiness no one will see the Lord”, and this is why St. Paul tells us to “let our gentleness be known to all men.” For, the visible life of Christians is, for most people outside of the Church, the only manifestation of who Christ is.

St. Symeon the New Theologian says that, although there is only one unique Theotokos, God-bearer, the Virgin who gave birth to God in the flesh, who is more honorable than all mankind and all the angels; still, we are all called to be theotokoi—that is God-bearers. Truly, she alone gave birth to Him in her heart as well as her body; but all of us are called, as St. Paul tells us, to give birth to Him in our hearts. And in a mystical way, because of the flesh which Christ received from the Virgin, which He now grants us to eat as divine food in communion, this makes Christ, so to say, ever-incarnate within us, transforming our lowly bodies and deifying our souls.

We may not be someone great, and probably never will be. But we can all seek our true personhood which is hidden in Christ, ever throwing ourselves before Him in weakness and humility, confessing that our spiritual repentance and growth is simply impossible without His help, but that all things are possible with God. We can all seek from God the grace to ever ascend into His fulness, and to realize who we are and can become in Him, finding our unique place in His Church, His Body.

The many lives of the saints are like an ever-flowing continuation of the Holy Scriptures, showing—just as in the lives of the ancient Patriachs, Prophets, Apostles and their disciples—how the Holy Spirit Who is living and active in His Church, is able to make Christ to live in lowly men; ever-showing how God is wondrous in His saints!

Our lives too can become, so to say, a continuation of Holy Scripture; we too can become living words and icons of God unto His glory.

God made a barren womb to give birth to John, the greatest of those born of woman. God made all things, all living things—the many plants, the flowers, the animals, the whole universe, individually unique yet harmoniously attuned to every other creature—God brought all of this creation, even all-radiant angels, out of nothing.

God made a Virgin a Mother! He made God a Man and makes men gods! He brought life out of death, eternal and life-giving salvation out of His murder! God has made publicans and harlots to cast off their sins and enter into His eternal Kingdom; God has made saints out of sinners.

For, there has never been saint who was not a sinner; even those like the Mother of God and St. John felt their sinfulness before the only Sinless God, though they were perfect and pure by human standards. There has never been a saint who did not feel themselves sinful and in need of the Savior. This is the universal teaching of the Church! There has never been a rightfully-crowned dispassionate person who did not first struggle with passion.

God has raised us up human nature unto the throne of His Father! The Holy Fathers daringly proclaim His goodness: that by His whole incarnate dispensation, having ascended to heaven with our human nature, He has made our lowly nature equal to the Father!

Will He then leave us forever in our spiritual bareness? Will He forever abandon us who are in despair? Will He not see our weakness, hear our cries and fulfill all of our prayers, even granting us things that we could have never even imagined? Will He, Who is our Beginning and the Author of our life and salvation, not complete what He has begun in us?

There is a great mystery. For, the ancient Holy Fathers—according to St. Ignaty Brianchaninov—prophesied that the Christians of the last days would be completely poor in regards to works and virtue, but that suffering various afflictions, many would become greater even than them.

Surely, if we are sober, we will not deceive ourselves, thinking that we will be more glorious than St. Anthony the Great or St. John the Baptist. But, we can be bolstered by hope that we will be judged with justice by God—that is, He shall take into consideration every last detail of our lives: our upbringing, our environment, our circumstances, our knowledge, our inclinations, our inherited weakness, our sicknesses and every last thing.

The saints say that there is not much reward—if even any reward—for those who are naturally virtuous. But that there is incomprehensible rewards for those who are inclined towards various passions, who nonetheless struggle against them and by the grace of God overcome them. But, even more than this, they also say that even if we die in the middle of our struggle with our passions—falling and rising, falling and rising—God will count our bones as holy relics; such is His great mercy!

The way has been opened. The Baptist has gone before us! The Lord is waiting. He has saved us and will save us! He will not abandon us! Let every valley be filled, and let every broken heart and weak, despondent soul be gladdened by the great power and mercy of our most-sweet Savior Jesus, Who exalts us who are hell-bound beyond the highest heavens! Let every mountain be brought low, and let everyone who sees himself to be already pure seek humility and a truly broken heart.

With the Baptist—who yet spoke after his head was cut off, and who preached to the spirits in hades—with him let us cry out: I shall not die, but live, and I will tell of the works of the Lord!

When we have been exhausted, let us comfort ourselves a little with this thought! And when we have become conceited, insensible and self-content, let us strike a little fear into our hearts by seeing the eternal torments laid up for the proud, who think themselves to be sufficient without God’s grace.

If all we can do is wait—even without a glimmer of hope—then let us wait for the great activity of God. For it has been written for us—and not just for those barren in body: Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not! For many are the children of the desolate than of her that hath a husband!

So let us hear with spiritual ears these words: Rejoice, thou barren soul, which doth not bear any spiritual fruit. For God’s power is without limit and is not confined by our weakness nor our smallness of mind and vision, nor even by our unbelief! For He will grant us many children—that is, good thoughts, radiant, God-like virtues, endless joy and spiritual purity and peace—just as He granted John, the greatest man, to come forth from a barren womb and an unbelieving father.

For, although we once were barren and without a husband—that is, although we once were spiritually dead and severed from the glorious and life-giving communion of the Holy Spirit—He shall nonetheless descend when He wills, and grant all things which we hope for and desire and seek, and many more which the mind and heart of man could never even dream of, forming Christ in our souls, and granting us to become true children of the Heavenly Father, both here and now, and forever, unto the endless ages. Amen.

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