PROPER OF THE SEASON
III Sunday of Matthew
All the New Martyrs of Greece, All Saints of Britain
(Rom 5: 1-10, Matt 6: 22-23)
Today we remember those who bore witness for Christ in the years of the Turkish occupation. We should think of Greece as meaning not only the territory we now define as Greece, but also the land we call Turkey. The martyrs include the last emperor who died fighting at the gates of Constantinople; the entire nobility and the administrators killed on May 29th 1453, and all the Christians, peasants, and merchants, and leaders in whatever rank, who for the next centuries faced the choice: Christ or the system, my God or my survival? Many faced this question in Russia in the Revolution, and on 5th we commemorate Saint Elizabeth, the Grand Duchess who was murdered in 1918 with her faithful companion the nun Barbara. Elizabeth was the long-suffering consort of the arrogant Grand Duke Sergei, who was assassinated in 1905. After that Elizabeth changed her life completely, becoming a nun. She developed a monastery, which produced other centres in the provinces of Russia. Hospitals and nursing homes sent her their worst cases, and she nursed them herself. Elizabeth lived her faith in actions, which made changes in the world around her. In 1918, she with others was pushed alive down a mineshaft, and grenades were thrown in after them. Before she was pushed down the mineshaft, Elizabeth sang Fos ilaron. As she knelt waiting for her murder, she prayed ‘Thou, dear God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Ryabov, one of her murderers, who threw the grenades down, records his horror to hear the victims singing from the bottom of the mineshaft ‘Lord, save thy people.’ When the bodies were recovered, it was clear that Saint Elizabeth had bandaged wounds and fractures with strips of clothing. That is faith, active, brave, loving. Christ first, not my survival.
And the saints of Britain – what do we know of them? For Orthodox people, Britain does not seem a very likely place for saints. But until the 11th century, the point when the Orthodox were finally divided by religious differences from the Latin Christians of the West, British saints were in a sense our saints. The Christians in Britain and Ireland had contact with the Churches of the East and followed a way of prayer and spiritual life which is like Orthodoxy. Saints like Columba, Patrick, Ninian, David, Cuthbert. Others whose names are now merely place names, like the saints of Cornwall. Yet in every case, these saints could sing that ancient hymn of the Church, Fos ilaron, with one joy, one purpose, one faith. ‘O gladsome light of the holy glory… meet it is at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and giver of life: therefore all the world doth glorify Thee.’
Today’s epistle makes that faith clear. Paul sets out the qualities in the life of a believer. Paul is writing to Romans who had been baptized as adults. They had changed their lives, accepted the gospel, and so were living with conscious conflict between good and evil. Before them was the vision of God’s glory. Around them the temptations of the pagan world. Paul says that ‘by faith and through Jesus … we have entered this state of grace in which we can boast about looking forward to God’s glory.’ But Paul says that that is not all we can ‘boast about’. There are also our sufferings. ‘These… bring patience, as we know, and patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope, and this hope is not deceptive because the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us.’ Paul says that when Christ died for us, we were helpless. ‘It is not easy to die even for a good man… but what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.’ This is true even for saints, and true for us who are struggling to resemble them. Paul goes on: ‘When we were reconciled to God by the death of his son, we were still enemies; now that we have been reconciled, surely we may count on being saved by the life of his Son?’ Paul’s language makes this refer to the baptism which his readers would have experienced as adults, feeling their way forward into the light of true knowledge of themselves and their Saviour. Christ or the system, my God or my survival? Paul faced that question and chose Christ. So did all the martyrs.
The gospel is simply 2 verses. Simplicity is indeed the idea. ‘The lamp of the body is the eye. It follows that if your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be all darkness. If then, the light inside you is darkness, what darkness that will be!’ Jesus is saying that the eye gives inner light, or insight, or wisdom, to the whole body. The difference between sight and blindness is the ability of the eye to receive light and to communicate that to the brain for the image to be understood, and to become a subject for thought. The same process, whether it takes a millisecond or a minute. ‘If the eye is sound’, says Jesus; and the word for sound, aplous, can mean single, or simple, or generous. In the earlier verses of this chapter (1-21), Jesus has said that a disciple should be generous in his gifts to God; and in the Lord’s Prayer (vv 9-13) he has reduced the question of our relations to God to very simple terms: faith, good deeds, repentance and forgiveness of others. The single-mindedness, which Jesus has been teaching in this chapter, is contrasted with the double-mindedness, or double-heartedness, of hypocrites. The word for diseased, poneros, carries the suggestion of deceitfulness or craftiness: evil in the sense of the Lord’s Prayer.
So, Jesus teaches, if your spiritual eye is focused on the source of light, God your heavenly Father, you will see inside your heart with clarity; but if you have double vision, impaired spiritual vision, if you are a hypocrite, you will be doing the impossible – trying to serve contradictory purposes, God and money, as Jesus goes on to explain in v. 24. God, not the system; Christ, not my survival.
We may sometimes think that if we could live in an entirely Orthodox situation, Greece, Cyprus, some other homeland of the faith, our own spiritual life would be fuller, more holy. That is a fantasy. The truth is that in any country there are problems for faith and temptations to virtue. Always the same question: Christ or the system, my God or my survival? There is always a need to struggle; there is always a need to pray alla risai imas apo tou ponirou. The New Martyrs of Greece, and of Russia, and all the saints of Britain had the same struggle. That struggle, simply, is to see the light, to be involved fully with light, and to reflect that light to the world. And when we make that effort, even if we fail and have to begin the struggle again, then we permit others to see the glory. For, in the words of S. Irenaeus, ‘the glory of God is a living person, and the life of a person is the vision of God.’ (S. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. IV, xx, 6)
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther. July 6th 2003.
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