In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s story of Jesus healing the crippled woman, beloved in the Lord, is read as part of our proximate preparation for Christmas. Indeed, what God’s Son did for this crippled woman he came to earth to do for all mankind, to raise us up, to straighten out our twisted lives. Christmas carols mention this theme from time to time. Thus:
Above its sad and lonely plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds,
The blessed angels sing.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
This crippled woman’s posture, besides being a source of suffering, a humiliation for her, is also a metaphor for the fallen condition of the human race. We’re sort of bent over. We’re not straight. There’s something profoundly and radically crooked about us. Each of us needs—indeed, the whole world needs—the hand of Christ to straighten us up.
This morning, let us reflect together on various ways in which human beings—certainly no one here—may need to be straightened out. First, let us mention the spiritual deformity: hatred. This is arguably the spiritual problem most obvious in the contemporary world. Men hate one another. If this were not the case, we could disband all our armies.
Let us bear in mind that Jesus is born into a situation of deep hatred, animosity, civil strife. During the century, half century to either side, of Jesus’ birth, there were at least 100 armed uprisings against the Romans in Galilee. Political murders were common in the region in which Jesus was raised. The Sicarii were named after the Latin word for “dagger.” You wore these Eastern or Middle Eastern robes, it’s easy to put a dagger in there someplace, easy to conceal a weapon. That’s the situation into which Jesus was born. That’s the situation in which the angels proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”
How long has hatred been around? St. John mentions an early example. St. John writes:
In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest. Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain, who was the wicked one and murdered his brother.
[Child crying.] I think I’m frightening somebody.
Even the smallest amount of hatred is dangerous to the one who harbors it in his heart. We ourselves may not be hateful enough to murder somebody else, but however small the hatred is, it’s murdering us. There’s a lethal poison in our souls. The accumulated hatreds of the world are evident in the affairs of nations. The universal accumulation of weapons is but a symptom of the hatred men have for one another.
But this morning, let’s not look outwards for signs of hatred too obvious to miss. Let us examine, rather, our own hearts. I say “examine” because hatred has a way of disguising itself. It usually pretends to be something else. Often, for instance, it poses as righteous indignation. Hatred, however, has symptoms. Hatred makes rash judgments. Hatred remembers past injuries. If anyone here is remembering past injuries, be very careful. Be very careful. Don’t let anyone have that kind of influence in your soul. Very important.
When we imagine that Christians such as ourselves are not in danger of hatred… perhaps so. St. John, however, feared that there might have been hatred among the Asian Christians to whom he wrote his epistle. John tells them:
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
This was a real problem to the early Christians, who were pressed by the government. Somebody comes in, takes your wife or your child, [takes] them out and [kills] them—there’s where the Gospel meets the human situation. [There were] descriptions of the murdering of children that were given by Tacitus and Suetonius of the persecution in the mid 60s in the city of Rome where babies were tossed into the air and caught on spears. Somebody does that to your child, and you are forbidden to hate him, even a little bit. You’re forbidden to hate him. It was hatred that disqualified Joab. It was hatred that put the soul of Jonah in peril. It was hatred that brought Saul to ruin. It was hatred that inspired the murders of Saul and Caiaphas.
As we prepare our hearts for Christmas, we people, let us seriously deal with any bit of hatred that may lurk in our hearts. Let us beseech the Physician to pull it out and cauterize the wound. Let no heart be burdened with hatred as we approach the Christmas manger.
I started out with the worst deformity. We’ll work down. A second human deformity is materialism. The true foundation for materialism was laid centuries ago in the philosophy of nominalism. I meant to say something about the teaching of the nominalists. Since I spent practically all of my teaching time—a couple of decades of teaching—I was dealing with students who were nominalists, I’m a little bit familiar with the phenomenon.
According to the nominalists, universal concepts are not, in a strict sense, real. They are mere products of thought. It’s taught everywhere, by the way. Everywhere it’s taught: “Truth is what you think it is. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Morality is a matter of social custom and expectation.” In other words: “We make it up. We determine truth. We determine beauty—because there’s no universal reality outside the mind.” It’s very common, very common. I’ve met it here at All Saints. Usually try to correct it, though.
Among the evils produced by nominalism, one of the worst is modern materialism. Nothing so turned Western man’s mind, his thoughts, back to the things of the earth than the persuasion of his being unable to grasp anything higher. The denial of man’s ability to perceive the transcendent and the transcendentals, intellectual realities above himself—truth, goodness, beauty—guaranteed that the Western mind would thenceforth would turn completely toward the only reality that remained: physical reality, the world of matter. Matter comes to represent the sum total of all that can be known, and also the only means by which it can be known. Nothing, it is now concluded, is knowable except matter.
This distortion of the heart most assuredly turns man’s gaze downwards. He no longer has that inner posture that makes his mind stand up straight. For better or for worse, my father was a naval officer. Certain things, therefore, are deeply, deeply offensive to me. I say that to my shame. Every time I see somebody standing with all his weight on one foot—mmm, I can’t tell you what that does to me. Cannot tell you what that does to me. Somebody slouched—I cannot tell you what that does to me. I’m afraid that I’m disposed by my upbringing to see it as a symptom of something inside, with somebody standing on one foot inside, somebody slouched inside: the inner posture of the mind.
But you see, if that is the case—if someone is slouched inside, if someone is standing on one foot inside, if he’s not standing up straight in the full dignity of a child of God inside, he becomes like the beasts. Indeed, he is finally convinced—he has convinced himself—that he is descended from the beasts. That’s a real problem, because it’s commonly believed. We’re descended from the beasts. Our matter standing upright has to do with getting the apes’ backs finally straightened up.
The third human deformity is self-absorption. I decided to illustrate this by doing some checking out online. What did I find? A particular symptom of this deformity is the popular magazine called Self. I’d never seen this magazine, but I’d heard about it. I checked into the web page of this magazine, to make certain its contents were really as bad as I suspected. They superseded my worst expectations. I clicked on the icon for “7-day Detox,” and this answered all my doubts. I learned about “smoothies and meals featuring detoxifying super-foods, snacks included; easy recipes with foods proven to rev your metabolism.” I learned how to “effectively torch calories with fun cardio sessions.” I was invited to “sweat with our celebrity trainer, Michelle Lovitt.” I decided not to click on that one, fearing the worst.
Now this will sound like I’m against exercise and good diet! What I’m against is self. If someone’s taking care of his body, her body, because it’s a temple of the Holy Spirit, then it’s a well-ordered thing, but there was not a word about that at least in the website I went to. Everything offered by Self magazine, as far as I could determine, is designed to make a person look good and feel good about herself. I decided not to click on the other sites; the 7-day detox was more than I could bear.
This is a kind of self-absorption the world takes seriously. The fact that you yourselves are smiling about this suggests that you don’t take it seriously. Oh, stay in good physical shape—as though I’m giving you a good example—stay in good physical shape, but because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and you have a stewardship over it, but it has nothing to do with you. It has to do with giving glory to God. I don’t think that’s a real problem for here. I suspect the real problem for us is the tendency to take this worldly self-absorption into the Church and spiritualize it. And that I have seen a lot of.
After more than 20 years giving spiritual direction and hearing confessions from the Orthodox Church, I truly believe that self-absorption is a major problem of the spiritual life for many Christians. New Christians take exactly the same approach for their souls that worldly people take for their physical health; exactly the same thing, [but] they just turn it on the soul. They imagine the Church as some sort of “7-day detox” for the spiritual life. They spend their time in prayer, completely absorbed in themselves and their feelings. They constantly monitor their supposed progress in the spiritual life, as though there were some kind of interior calorie counter. They’re forever analyzing their spiritual state. They go and read books that were never written for them, books that were written for not just any monks but monks that had reached a higher level of monasticism. They will read these books, and somehow or other bring this all down, and, oh, it’s a mess. When they are distracted in prayer, when they don’t feel fervor in prayer, when they experience spiritual dryness, when they fail in the cultivation of this or that virtue, they become just as depressed as I suspect Michelle Lovitt must feel when somebody sneaks an extra calorie into her diet sheet.
That is to say, some Christians bring self-absorption into the Church and think it’s a virtue! But you see, beloved, the whole business of transformation in Christ is forgetfulness of self, less concern with self, fewer thoughts about oneself, a diminished interest in oneself. Let us be convinced that any time spent in thinking about ourselves is time taken away from gazing at Christ. Among the things Christ came to accomplish in the human soul, forgetfulness of self ranks very high. In fact, that’s the one thing you can see right away in Jesus is there’s absolutely no preoccupation with self. I’ll be arguing that in something I hope to publish next year.
What we don’t see in Jesus is any gazing at himself at all. He looks at other people; he looks to the Father. Preoccupation with self leads often to depression. You know, this morning I will not pursue the discussion of depression, because it will constitute a fourth point in the sermon, and my contract calls for only three points. But from the debilitating sins of hatred, materialism, and self-absorption, may the merciful Lord deliver us as we prepare to celebrate his birth and his straightening us out.