Wednesday, December 5, 2012

St Sabbas the Sanctified

Galatians 5:22-6:2 / Matthew 11:27-30

And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

On the face of it, Paul's claim to the Galatians that those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires seems to be ill put. Surely, we think, Paul meant to say that those who are in Christ's should or ought to crucify the flesh. After all, the whole history of Christian asceticism seems to be founded on the very notion that a true commitment to Christ requires a death to self and the desires and distractions of the flesh and the world. It is only to the extent that our souls do not find themselves moved by our otherwise vehement desires that, in this vale of tears, we can find real and true joys in the spiritual gifts we receive from the Holy Spirit. Is this not, after all, what inspired such heroically ascetical holy men like St Sabbas to abandon his life in the world at a tender age and commit, not simply to a common life, but the eremetical one, living out a life of holiness in a cave, with only himself, his Lord and God, and what remained within him of his worldly self to overcome, to keep him company? Is this not the deep truth that stirs us to want, each according to our own gifts, to follow Sabbas' path?

Yet, I do not think we can attribute to Paul a failure of mood and tense in his letter to the Galatians. Paul said, and meant, and we too should say and mean, that in Christ we have crucified the flesh. Why? Because our being brought to Christ is not, at root, a moral project. It is not the result of our ethical programs of self-perfection and constant improvement. To be sure, the reality of the life in Christ does have moral implications: If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. All the same, what Paul wants to remind the Galatians is that the goodness they experience in Jesus Christ, the new moral status and moral powers they have acquired through their baptism, are first, foremost, and always gifts. The new life we enjoy is Christ is the fruit of the Spirit, which is to say the full flourishing of the generous love and life-giving Spirit who has come, in grace and freedom, to dwell within us. Of course, like all gifts, the gift of grace can be ignored or undervalued. All the same, the reality we have come to know in Christ is a reality already given to us, and the victory over our passions and wicked desires has already been won for us by Christ on the Cross. By being joined to him in the Spirit, that victory becomes ours.

This is why Paul's message to the Galatians is such good news. The days of preparation for Christmas kept both in the Christian East (St Phillip's Fast) and West (Advent) are all too often broken in intention and in practice. We can, especially in the face either of a secularized world or, in what amounts to the same, a commodified and commercialized one, too easily abandon, even in these first days, our early and exuberant commitment that this year, we would make our Christmas preparation as spiritually fruitful as possible. We would manifest far more love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control than in years past. Yet, too easily and far too soon, our plans reveal how difficult this can be.

Nonetheless, as Paul reminds us, these are gifts, not accomplishments, fruits of the Spirit, not of our ethical programs. Our path into a deeper life in the Gospel is found, finally, not in heroic acts of asceticism, however much these may flow from a life of grace, but from an ever deeper commitment in love to our Lord and God Jesus Christ and friendship with the Holy Spirit. It is in knowing and loving God, and in knowing and loving him, both knowing and desiring to live according to his promptings, that we will find ourselves once again made whole as we celebrate the glorious coming in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Eternal Father.

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