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Monday, September 03, 2018

No Entry for Narcissus

A Sermon preached by Fr Emmanuel Kahn at St Aidan's Orthodox Church, Manchester on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  

The Gospel referenced is Matthew 22:2-14.


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.

The Gospel reading for today from the 21st chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew is about a marriage feast, to which many people are invited, but few choose to attend. St Gregory the Great points out that this "marriage feast represents the Church of the present time" [that is, in the first century] …. The Father made a marriage feast for His Son," preached St Gregory [Forty Gospel Homilies 38.1, 3-4], "by joining the Church to [His Son] through the mystery of His Incarnation." St Gregory cites Psalm 18 (19), verse 5, in which King David declares that God is "like a bridegroom coming forth from the bridal chamber." St Gregory explains that Christ, and I quote, "truly came forth like a bridegroom from his bridal chamber [and], as God incarnate, left the … womb of the Virgin to unite the Church to Himself."

That is a powerful interpretation of this Gospel from St Gregory the Great. The sixth century saint stresses that through the Incarnation, through Christ becoming a human person from the womb of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, Christ united the Church to Himself. So it is that we, as Orthodox Christians, have been united to Christ through the Church. However, there is a problem, both for the Jews of the first century and for us. The last line of this Gospel states the problem clearly: "Many are called, but few are chosen." So today I'd like to consider the question: How can each and every one of us, however old or young we are, be among the chosen ones-be among those to whom God brings eternal life?

Note that in this Gospel the king provides wedding garments, beautiful clothes, for everyone that's invited. But one person, who does actually turn up, chooses not to wear the wedding garment that has been provided by the king. What happens? The king sees him and throws him out of the wedding feast. In other words, this person was not permitted to enter eternal life, because he was not prepared for the happiness and glory of being forever with the Lord. St Augustine poses the question [in Sermon 90.6]: "What is [this] wedding garment, then?" His answer is easy to understand; and I quote: the wedding garment is the "charity [the love of God and of other people] which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith [in God]. This is the wedding garment," concluded St Augustine. So, if we wish to be chosen, we each need to wear the wedding garment of living a life of charity. How can we do this?

In answering this question of how to wear wedding garments, I found helpful a recent programme on BBC Radio 4 about reading. It was suggested that when we read, we seek both empathy and critical awareness. Empathy is the ability to identify with the feelings and thoughts of others, and to appreciate experiences and emotions outside of ourselves. I find when I prepare these sermons and read the Church Fathers I have considerable empathy with their thoughts and feelings. However, they lived in different centuries and in different cultures than we do today. Therefore, we also need a critical awareness of how to bring the insights and understanding of the Church Fathers into our own lives. As we read, whatever we read, we can follow the paths and stories that the authors have set out before us with empathy, with awareness of these stories and characters. At the same time, we can ask ourselves: Is this person, is this story, that I am reading of value for me?

Seeking empathy and critical awareness applies not only to reading, but to how we see ourselves and other people. It is good that we should love ourselves, even as we see our faults and seek to tackle particular and often private problems in our lives. However, it is important that our love does not become narcissism, excessive love for oneself, in which a person is insecure and vulnerable but acts superior to others to compensate for their own inadequacies. In Greek mythology the young man Narcissus who pined away in love with his own image in a pool of water was turned into the flower that bears his name. Anyone can be a narcissist, young or old, male or female. However, there are in fact two types of narcissist, extrovert and introvert.

The extrovert type we all recognise, arrogant, self-obsessed, manipulative, often ruthless. The introvert type is no less self-regarding but hides his true feelings from others. He cannot connect or relate, except to further his own goals.  Hidden or "introvert narcissists" are often unaware of and unconcerned about others.  They are the types who abuse social media by recruiting flatterers and presenting themselves as the focus of attention. These are they that tick "like" on the posts of their followers on Facebook to encourage others to like them in return. Unfortunately, such narcissists are often unaware of their inability to relate to and serve others. They can be quite charming, but underneath they are egotists.  Lacking empathy and critical awareness, they are naked of that wedding garment without which they will not enter to feast with the King.

To avoid these and many other deformations in the soul we need to develop critical awareness of our own soul state, whether purification is happening or contamination, just like the dust that can accumulate in our homes.  As we move through life, this dust of sin and sinful attitudes gathers within us, just as it gathers over time in the carpets in our homes. There are two ways to deal with that dust, we can deny its presence and sweep it under the carpet, or we can take a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush and clean it up. We can choose to face a challenge in our lives or to treat problems with the dust of denial, pretending the problem is not there, even when we know it is there. Introvert narcissists live a life of denial in which they pretend to themselves and others that there is no dust hidden within their personalities. Yet, with deep repentance and faithful prayer, change is always possible for all of us.

The same seeking of empathy and critical awareness that we apply to reading and ourselves also applies to how we relate to other people and to the Lord. We love other people; and we love the Lord. Yet we are also critically aware of the faults of other people and our own faults. We seek to relate to the Lord in prayer and in action, wearing the wedding garments that the King, the Lord, has given each of us.

I close with a beautiful interpretation of this Gospel reading, again from St Gregory the Great. He preached, and I quote: "Since you have already come into the house of the marriage feast, our Holy Church, as a result of God's generosity, be careful, my friends. Lest when the King [who is the Lord] enters He [will] find fault with some aspect of your heart's clothing…. The king came in to look at the guests and saw there a person not clothed in a wedding garment. What do we think is meant by the wedding garment, dearly beloved? For if we say it is baptism or faith [everyone] has entered this marriage feast [with] them. [Those who are] outside [are outside] because [they have] not yet come to believe. What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love? [Those people who] enter the marriage feast … without wearing a wedding garment … [are indeed] present in the Holy Church. [They] may have faith, but [they] do not have love. We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment," continues St Gregory, "because this [love] is what our Creator Himself possessed when He came to the marriage feast to join the Church to Himself. Only God's love brought it about that His Only Begotten Son united the hearts of His chosen to Himself. John says that 'God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son for us" [John 3.16], concludes St Gregory.

So it is. The Lord believes in us; and He chooses us before we then choose to believe in Him. Once we believe in the Lord and have faith and are baptised and become members of His Holy Church, then we learn to wear the wedding garment of love-love of others and love of God. However, if we permit the dust of denial of any problems in the Church or in our relationships with others to dominate our lives, we do not wear any wedding garments whatsoever. We are then in trouble, because we all face challenges in our lives and in the Church. Let us all wear together the wedding garments of love and face any challenges that come to us in our lives or in the Church. Then we can live with joy with King David as we sing out Psalm 32(33), verse 21: "Our heart shall rejoice in Him because we have trusted in His Holy Name."

So be it, as we ascribe as is justly due, all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Father Emmanuel Kahn

God does not Explain Things; Things Explain God

Humans have always tried to understand the world around them, if only to survive, and to value their place in it in order to enjoy life as beings conscious of death. In this context the theology of primitive animist faiths can be seen as a certain science; an early attempt to explain how things are by virtue of their familiar or indwelling spirits. By explaining natural processes both predictable and unpredictable within such a rational framework the world became safer, even tameable within certain limits. Eventually the sense emerged through observation of higher organising principles at work in the world, maybe even a “Highest Principle” and so a Supreme Spirit or High God was “born” out of an existing and enduring spirit pantheon.

Monotheist religions took these developments to their logical conclusion, ONLY the High God could serve the purpose of integrating a created Cosmos as a whole, the lesser spirits being demoted into avatars, angels and other created subordinate servants or manifestations. At this stage, however, it is still the One-God-Who-Is-One who explains how things are. If the wind blows, it is his breath. If the ground trembles and swallows you up, it is his anger. If the stars shine it is because he has provided guides both navigational and astrological for his children. At some point of mature reflection, however, most if not all monotheisms wake up to the fact that there are ways of understanding how the world works that do not involve the all too easy and, frankly, rather demeaning (to God) idea that he has to be invoked to explain the unexplained. If God only exists as a stop gap explanation for our ignorance about the world then he is no God at all. For God to be God He must be the God-of-the-Whole or no-God-at-all.

So, difficult though it may be for all of us in varying degrees to accept, God does not explain anything at all. We do not believe in God to satisfy our ignorance about the world; in short to give us a nice and comforting alternative to science with its seemingly Godless explanations and “theories.” If we are thinking like that we do not truly believe in God nor do we receive the world as it truly is. We need to start the other way round. God does not explain things, things explain God. Many fathers make this approach to the Cosmos and its Creator explicit but perhaps none more so than the great St. Maximos the Confessor. In Ambigua 33 he says:-

“The Word becomes thickened […] concealing Himself mysteriously for our sakes within the logoi of creatures and thus He reveals Himself accordingly through the visible things as through some written signatures as a whole in His fullness from the whole of nature and undiminished in each part, in the varieties of natures as one who has no variation and is always the same, in composites, as One who is simple, without parts, in things which have their beginning in time, as the One without beginning, as the Invisible in the visible, the ungraspable in tangible things.”

The key idea here is the “logoi of creatures” ... what I am referring to in the shorthand of this article as “things.” These “logoi” function for St. Maximos as written signatures of God-in-creation; the disclosure of God in the being and beauty of things. So, as we discover more about the being and beauty of things through science, poetry and mystical contemplation and in so doing we discover or “explain” God. St. Maximos is clear, however, that it is Christ the Word of God, the Logos of God who is concealed and then revealed within the logoi of creatures, the self same Christ who is the Logos Incarnate. To use the theological terminology of St. Gregory Palamas, we might say that the energies of God in creation are disclosed Incarnate in the Word.

Orthodox Christians with this faith do not suppose that science or the arts are alternative truth perceptions to theology. The more we discover and know about the world the stronger and deeper in Christ revealed in the very sinews and flesh of our humanity and in the very physicality of Creation itself; its terrible and majestic glory ... signatures of God, vehicles of God indeed.

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