Tuesday, January 17, 2012

St Anthony of Egypt, Abbot/Tuesday of 2nd Week (II)

1 Samuel 16:1-13 / Mark 2:23-28

We are told by St Athanasius that St Anthony's life was marked by quite severe fasting, so much so that he regretting the weakness of ever needing food to pass his lips. If we knew nothing other than this, we might well assume that Anthony's body was gaunt and broken, leathered by his days in the Egyptian desert. As Athanasius presents his hero Anthony as a model of Christian life, we might well also be led to believe that the life of the Gospel, however noble and life-giving in the world to come, must necessarily be opposed to all human flourishing here and now.

Yet, in Athanasius' Life of Anthony, we find these expectations overturned. Where we imagined an emaciated ascetic, Athanasius assures us that Anthony, not so much despite of but rather because of his ascetical life consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ, looked like a man in his prime, healthy and fit, even more so than those who are immersed in the things of this world.

We see a similar double reversal of expectation in Samuel's search for the man chosen by God to be anointed king over Israel. He first believes God's choice to the Eliab because of his "lofty stature." That is, Samuel expected God's choice for king to look clearly and evidently kingly, a man of unmistakable physical presence. God, however, reminded Samuel that he judges not appearances, but the heart. So, we might expect that Samuel would think that God's elect must look decidedly un-kingly, that he must have no outward signs like those expected of a king. Yet, when David, God's chosen, arrives on the scene, it turns out that the man with a heart beloved of God is also marked outwardly in a clear and desirable way. He was, the Scriptures tell us, ruddy, a youth handsome to behold, and making a splendid appearance.

The Scriptures remind us today that while we do not, apart from God, know what produces real and lasting human happiness, all the same a life with God, a life lived truly and authentically, does produce real flourishing and real joy. By being set right with God, we are also, against our expectations, set right with the world as God intended it, and so our joy and flourishing in the Gospel ought to be visible to the whole world, even if the world cannot understand the origin and source of that life in us.

Is this the joy we have come to know in Jesus Christ? Are we ready this day to recommit ourselves all the more, as St Anthony did, to the radical life of the Gospel and so, even against our expectations, to make a splendid appearance before the world?

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