Interaction and Solitude
The Gospel for today from the 14th chapter of St Matthew is about the feeding of the 5,000. To understand this Gospel, it is good to consider first the verse before this Gospel that tells what happened when Jesus Christ heard from His disciples about the death of His close friend, St John the Baptist. That verse reads “Now, hearing this [that is, the death of St John the Baptist], Jesus withdrew … in a boat to a lonely place apart.” That response to the death of a close friend is something that any of us might do when a close friend dies—to feel that we wish to be alone, to be “apart” from others. As we shall see, once Jesus has mourned He can then return to guide His disciples to feed the 5,000.
Jesus and John were first close to each other some thirty years ago. When Holy Mary was pregnant with Jesus Christ in Her womb, and Elizabeth was pregnant with John in her womb, Holy Mary had visited Elizabeth; and the baby John “had leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” [Luke 1.41]. In a very real sense, John and Jesus had first met each other when they were both still in the wombs of their mothers. Then, when they had grown up, John prepared the Israelites for the ministry of Jesus Christ. As St Luke tells us in chapter 3 of his Gospel, John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.’ Then John baptised Jesus Christ in the Jordan River in Palestine [Matthew 3.13-15].
This friendship between Jesus Christ and St John the Baptist was one of the deepest and most important friendships in the history of the world. Jesus knew that with the death of His close friend His own work would now change. The fourth century bishop, St Hilary of Poitiers, preached that with the death of St John, “the time of the law is over and buried with John. [When] His disciples announce to the Lord [what has happened], they leave the law and come to the Gospels,” concluded St Hilary [Sermon on Matthews 14.8].
Certainly, Jesus Christ was mourning the death of His close friend St John the Baptist. Jesus was also considering what this death meant for His own life and ministry. Whenever anyone close to us dies, we too will mourn and ask ourselves that same question: what does the death of my close friend mean for me and my life in the future? St John Chrysostom preached about this Biblical verse that it was the will of Jesus Christ “to live His life in a … rhythm of interaction and solitude,” That same rhythm is present in our own lives—being with people and being alone, reaching out to others and being alone, seeking to be guided by the Lord both in our relationships to others and in being alone.
Seeking to understand how we as Orthodox Christians should approach death, the third century Bishop of Carthage, St Cyprian, stressed the importance of seeking the will of God in both life and death. He preached: “We ask that the will of God may be done both in heaven and in earth, each of which [states are important for] our safety and salvation. For since we possess the body from the earth and the spirit from heaven, we ourselves are [part of] earth and heaven; and in both—that is, both in body and in spirit,” concluded St Cyprian, “we pray that God’s will may be done” [The Lord’s Prayer 4.16].
Just as St Cyprian sought to find the will of God in both life and death, the book of Romans, chapter 14, verses 7 to 9, sees life and death as a unified search for the presence of the Lord; and I quote: “None of us lives for ourselves, and none of us dies for ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this purpose Christ both died and came to life again, in order that He might become Lord both of the dead and the living.” St Theodore of Mopsuestia, a fourth century Antiochian theologian and Biblical scholar, summarised these verses from the book of Romans in a single, concise sentence. He reflected: “If we live, it is Christ’s life that we live; if we die, we die with Him, under His custody” [Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church. NTA 15:164]. I find the idea that the Lord has “custody” over death very helpful. This means we are all under His protective care, His guardianship, His will. He alone knows when and how we will die; and we have to learn to trust him in dying, just as we trust Him in life.
In a very real sense then, we prepare for death every day that we continue to live with Christ on earth. Therefore, rather than fear death, we can like Christ Himself, when He faced the death of His close friend, St John the Baptist, be “apart” and alone for a while. Then, after that time of solitude, Jesus Christ returned to His mission of showing His disciples how to feed the 5,000. We too, when we face challenges in life or in dying, can be apart for a time before we continue with whatever tasks God assigns to us in His love for us.
Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, One in essence and undivided. Amen.
Father Emmanuel Kahn