There are two important truths we ought to remember on this feast day. The first is that there is no Christianity without the full, unequivocal divinity of Jesus, the God-man. The second is that the truth is only manifest when we come together in a communion of love.
Let’s talk about the first truth. By now, we’re used to hearing our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ mentioned in the same breath as all the other great sages and luminaries of the human race, who have ennobled it over the centuries with their philosophical and moral insight. We know the names of the usual suspects—Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Plato, Aristotle, Muhammad, Gandhi. Just as in Jesus’ own lifetime, there are many down the centuries and today who consider Him a mere man—perhaps the greatest of men, but a man nonetheless. In Islam, He is revered as a prophet, though not one as great as Muhammad. Then there are those ‘enlightened’ secularists like Thomas Jefferson or Leo Tolstoy, who wish to separate the moral teaching of Christ from the good news of the Gospel—that God has come to dwell with men, that He died and rose again for our sins, that we too might be made gods, and dwell with Him and His heavenly Father in eternal glory and bliss.
For many people today, this all sounds like superstitious nonsense. Surely any perceptive mind or sensitive soul can recognize the beauty of and the nobility of Jesus’ moral teaching—the golden rule, love your neighbor, love your enemies. These are the greatest moral precepts ever spoken by man; but why must we believe that the man who spoke them is also God? Does their inherent beauty not suffice to compel the heart’s assent? Doesn’t all of this supernatural nonsense just cloud their simple clarity?
Jefferson and Tolstoy certainly thought so. But they run into a problem. Because Jesus didn’t ask us to be His admirers; He called us to be His followers. He commanded us to take up our own Cross. Knowing what’s right and affirming it is one thing; but it’s another thing entirely to do it, to carry it our faithfully over the course of one’s whole life. Brothers and sisters, look into your own hearts. Do you readily find the love that Christ commands us dwelling there, burning hotly, unfazed, never shaken? If you do, then you are blessed. But one does not attain such a state without shedding blood in the struggle against sin. It is preserved in the same way.
Perhaps you’re not sure whether the love of Christ truly dwells in your heart. Try reading the Sermon on the Mount and putting it into practice—bless those who curse you, do good to those who mistreat you, love your enemies. We find that our natural faculties, our natural capacity to love is insufficient for these things. Our heart is damaged by the Fall, marred by sin. When we try to follow Christ’s teaching, then all of the passions born of the self-love that’s nestled in our fallen heart rear their ugly heads. St. Paul depicts this struggle when he says, I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:22-23).
So for all their benign rationalism and sincere idealism, we see that for men like Jefferson and Tolstoy—and all those who reject Jesus as their Savior, and admire Him only as a man—the teaching of Christ is a dead letter. Jefferson was a philanderer and blasphemer; Tolstoy was a proud, stubborn, and irascible man. What our fallen selves need is a Savior, who can conquer the passions within us and give us the power to do good according to Christ’s commandment. Before we can achieve victory, we must learn our own insufficiency from experience, and cry out like St. Paul, O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24).
Only God Himself could save us, and give our nature the power to fulfill the commandment of love, which contains in itself the strength of eternal life. This is why the Father of the First Ecumenical Council fought so hard for the teaching of Christ’s divinity; for they knew by their own experience that the whole mystery of our salvation and deification depends on it.
The second point we ought to remember is that truth—all truth, no just dogmatic truth—is brought about, revealed, made manifest and clear, only through the communion of many persons in love. This should be obvious to us, who confess and worship the on God in three Persons. But for centuries in our Western thought and culture, we have replaced the communion of persons in love as the basis for all truth with the insight of the charismatic individual. It has taken different forms over the centuries—the Pope, the mystic, the thinker, the inventor, the genius, the artist, the brooding romantic. We have come to valorize the unique perspective of one against the comprehensive view of the whole—so much so that it has been taken as the most basic and indubitable truth: “I think, therefore I am.” But a Christian says rather, “I love, therefore I am.”
We have a great deal of spiritual work to do, in order to undo centuries of this misconception that taints all of our thoughts and feelings. We have to learn never to trust our own thoughts. Even—and perhaps especially—when they seem so obvious and eminently plausible to us that things could not possible be other than the way we see them. It happens that our brother does something that irritates or offends us. Or maybe he ignores us when we feel he should take an interest in us. Maybe he fails to do something that we think any decent person would do to us, or for us. The more vain and proud we are, the more we expect of others in order for them to qualify for our good graces and our love. If those things are lacking, if our unspoken demands are not forthcoming, then we withhold our love. It’s even worse—in our wretched brokenness, we find ourselves actually incapable of feeling love for those we think have slighted or offended us, or who disappoint us, or annoy and anger us. When this wound festers, we may find ourselves incapable of loving anyone or anything at all—even ourselves.
Where do we find it in ourselves not to recoil or to withdraw when we meet with something unpleasant from a brother, from a friend, from a spouse or a loved one? How can we keep the communion of love from being breached? How can we sustain the movement of love out from ourselves and towards God and our neighbor? We have to pray for patience, humility, and meekness. Of course, we can’t learn any of those virtues without suffering many offences, both great and small, from our brothers, our fathers, superiors, co-workers, friends and enemies. But we also have to be proactive, we have to make conscious efforts to do good to those around us, even when they hurt us intentionally or unintentionally, willfully or unwittingly. Does someone insult you? Say a kind word to them. Does someone ignore you? Be the first to greet them. Does someone flout you or disobey you? Submit to them. In all things, as St. Paul says, overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
We should also know that sometimes, our limited, partial perspective is flat-out wrong, and that our brother’s actions would appear different and unobjectionable to us if we only saw things from their perspective, or if we only knew something that they know and we don’t. If we retreat into the limited sphere of our own thinking in such cases, we do ourselves and each other a great disservice. This is how resentments build, until gradually, over time, we go through the monastery or through life on pins and needles, anxiously awaiting the next inevitable provocation. And when it inevitably comes, it only confirms our suspicions and hardens our perspective, so that our anger and frustration, painful and unbearable as it is, seems totally legitimate and justified by circumstances.
This is why Christ commands us to rebuke our brother if he offends us. He doesn’t tell us to angrily scold him, to chide him and tell him off, to make a scene in front of others. What does He say? If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother (Matthew 18:15). We shouldn’t turn away from our brother in disdain, licking our wounds or reveling in self-righteous anger or wallowing in self-pity. No—turn to your brother, and tell him plainly what’s wrong, in a spirit of sympathy and fraternal love. And you’ll see that maybe your brother’s trespass was in fact not trespass at all; that maybe what seemed to you to be the only possible explanation or interpretation for their behavior towards you was completely wrong. If we humble ourselves enough to engage in just a small bit of civil communication, all sorts of miscommunications and misunderstandings can be dispelled and resolved. To be disillusioned often means to see past the false veneer of goodness into the ugly truth of a person or situation. But if we are looking at things spiritually, we’ll find that we have a great number of illusions about ourselves and those around us that keep us from seeing the good in them and loving them. It is from these that we must be disillusioned.
And what then? What if we always tried communicating clearly, directly, and sympathetically with one another? What if we always made excuses for each other? What if we got to know each other so well that it was easy to forgive one another’s weaknesses and foibles? What if we always tried to pay attention to each other’s needs? What if our disposition towards each other was always open, alert, attentive, responsive, warm, caring? What if the love of Christ genuinely characterized every single one of our relationships, even with those who hate us? Then we would feel the grace of God so palpably in ourselves and others that we would never want it to end. Then everyone who met us or who visited our community would know for certain that we are truly the disciples of Jesus, and that God dwells in and among us. The Lord’s prayer in today’s Gospel would be fulfilled in us—that they may all be one (John 17:21). May it be so among us, brethren. Amen.