|Homily 22nd Sunday after Pentecost Synaxis of the Angels|
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In today’s Gospel we are given an interesting image: the Apostles of the Seventy have been sent out to preach and to heal in the Lord’s name. They return jubilant that, as they put it, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” The Lord supports them saying, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven…”
Blessed Theophylact points out, that there are two things to be learned from these lines. First, that the Apostles are humble in that they are wise enough to know that the demons are subject to them not by their own power but by the name of Christ; second, the Lord lets them know just what power Satan actually has. He has fallen from heaven. He is powerless in all reality. Although he had been given great power by the people of earth in the form of worship (the Church Fathers often point out that the so-called gods of the pagans was actually Satan in disguise along with his demon companions), since the advent of Christ on earth that power is broken. This is evident in the line quoted: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” This line also shows that Christ is God as well in that He was present and saw the original fall of Lucifer from his station as an angel. It is of a certainty that the Apostles of the Seventy would be able, then to crush the demons.
Our Lord continues, though and says, “Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Blessed Theophylact makes the interesting point that this phrase is referring still to the demons. In fact he says that they refer to the ranks of the “demons which crawl below.” There are demons whose attack is open and easy to see…and these are called serpents. Then there are the demons whose attacks are invisible and crafty: these are the scorpions because they strike from hiding places, unseen:
For example, the demons of fornication and murder are serpents which incite a man to sin openly and obviously. But the demon which induces a man on the pretext of health to frequent the bath houses and to be massaged with oils, and other such foolishness which leads to fornication, such a demon would be called a scorpion. (I’ll add here that Blessed Theophylact was writing from a time during the Byzantine Roman Empire. We don’t have bath houses the same way they do, but the equivalent would be the salons and spas and gyms that people go to to be pampered and to preen. Of course there is nothing wrong with being well-groomed and healthy…it’s when these things become obsessions….or when good looks become all-important that the problem arises.)
In other words, he is speaking about those tendencies which give birth to other tendencies. It is the hidden inclination and temptation that is more difficult to resist and which, because it is harder to even recognize, leads one down the path to ruin…sometimes before the person can realize the danger. Looked at another way, the serpent is like a hurricane which blows the house down, while the scorpion is the dry rot which eats away at the home and makes it crumble when the winds come. So it is with the secret sins which eat away at our conscience and sap our strength to resist the open temptations.
Thankfully, the Lord has given his servants, the Apostles the ability to root out and destroy these demons and their tricks. They should not, though, exult in this, that these spirits are subject to them….because they are not the beneficiary of this power….they are not the ones healed by this power, others are (and they would be the ones to rightly give thanks and rejoice). The Apostles are to rejoice themselves because their names are written in heaven, in the Book of Life…. “not in ink,” as Blessed Theophylact writes, “but in the memory of God and in grace.” He points out that the angel who had been above but fell is now below us, while we have been raised up and written above. We will find our dwelling with the Lord in heaven. This is indeed something for all of us to rejoice over.
When we combine the thoughts of this Gospel with the reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find that we have been given a good warning, then to persevere in the faith. If we look just one verse ahead of where today’s reading and then continue on with the reading this becomes clear:
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest we drift away. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
In the Gospel we are told to rejoice that we have been written in the heavenly book, and great signs are shown of the power of God in saving men by the demons being subject to the commands of the Apostles. Here we are told we must give more heed to what we have been taught and shown so that we do not fall away from the great salvation we have been given. We are given the image of the Lord as the captain of our salvation made perfect through his sufferings being made a little lower than the angels, that is, incarnating as a man, and thus bringing many sons to glory.
It may be helpful and clarify things a bit to look at the next few verses following our reading today in the chapter of Hebrews: “For both He who sanctifies,” writes St. Paul, “and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren..” The sanctifier, the Lord, and the sanctified, us, because of the incarnation and communion become one. We are called the brethren of the Lord here (and elsewhere we are called co-heirs with Him). All of us, then, become the many sons (and daughters) brought to glory through Christ. And finally St. Paul writes:
14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.
The question for us, then, is how well do we appropriate this salvation for ourselves? Do we cling to it? Or do we still act in fear as if death were something to be terrified of? When we cling to the things of this world, the comforts of this world and the pleasures and glories and honors of this life, are we not in some sense showing our fear of death? How many times have we heard someone say, you only live once, so live it up? There was once a Nike slogan that said, “Life is short, play hard.” It is as if it’s saying that this is all we’re getting of joy. This life is all we get. However, our motto should be “life is eternal, play fearlessly.”…or “life is eternal, play nice.” Either way, we need to remember that life is eternal. Death has been destroyed. Yes, our bodies will die temporarily and we’ll miss our loved ones for a short time…but we will have an eternity of joy with them and with the Lord. Life is eternal, but do we live that way?
St. John Chrysostom wrote an interesting study on this Epistle. He wrote how before Christ man was in bondage to the fear of death. Even those who had a good life (the “life is short, play hard” crowd) could not truly enjoy their lives because they were subject to fear of death. I would add that if one reads the ancient Greek literature, often one would get the sense that the heroes were desperate to gain fame and riches now because their afterlife was one of despair and gloom. Their only hope for some sense of immortality was fame and glory…and their joy was fleeting and sad. St. John contrasts those in bondage to the fear of death to those who, even amidst great suffering in this life (and this could apply to St. John Chrysostom himself), counted their suffering as nothing because they had their names written in heaven. He likens those before Christ who were bound as slaves to death as prisoners, well-fed, but awaiting their execution. Contrasting this he shows those who are not bound by slavery to death but are alive in Christ are like those in a contest or a combat in which the prize is a kingdom. Those who are in the contest, who struggle mightily and suffer greatly, laugh at that which caused fear and hesitation in the time before Christ. This is because they are to inherit the kingdom and not death. The devil held man hostage and slave by the fear of death. Free from this fear, man is no longer a slave.
We Orthodox Christians, then, are called to live a life free from the fear of suffering and even of death. We can even embrace them because we know that they are nothing compared to the eternity that is now our inheritance with the Lord, since we are His brothers and co-heirs. Do we live this way? That is for us to examine ourselves and see. Even in St. John’s day about 1700 years ago, this was a problem. He wrote: “Beautiful things were spoken by Paul, beautiful and worthy of Heaven, and of the love of God to man. For what does he say? “And He shall deliver them who through fear of death, were all their life-time subject to bondage.” But ye do not allow these things to be believed, fighting against them by your deeds.” Indeed he said that the heathen and the pagans of his day did not listen to the words of the Christians, but looked to their actions. If a man were unable to endure afflictions with peace of mind and equanimity, then he was the same as they were and there was no need to follow Christ. In the face of our struggles do we show that we have the peace of the Lord or are we the same as those around us who have no hope? This is a tough thing to do. It is difficult to take a look at ourselves as we truly are and see if we are truly living a life that is free from fear. Perfect love casts our fear, as we are told. We are united to Christ. We are His body and He is perfect Love. What do we have, truly, to fear?
We have been given power to trample on the serpents and scorpions…the overt and covert temptations and sins that beset us. The demons are powerless before us. Let us, then, act like it! Let us not rejoice simply because we have power over the powerless, but let us rejoice over that which has given us the power in the first place, that is, that death has been conquered by Christ whose Body we are and that we have been written in the Book of heaven. Let us take to heart the words of St. John Chrysostom who could say Glory to God for all things even as he was dragged literally through the mud in a bleak and frigid place of exile far from home. He wrote:
Let us not then prove false to the gift bestowed on us. “For we,” he says, “have received not a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Let us stand then nobly, laughing death to scorn...
He fears no one, he is in terror of no one, he is higher than all, and more free than all. For he that disregards his own life, much more [does he disregard] all other things. And when the devil finds a soul such as this, he can accomplish in it none of his works.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen; glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
2009 Fr. Philip Kontos