There is a helpful word of reminder given by Saint Maximus the Confessor, one of the Fathers of the Church, who was in the Breviary yesterday. I want to rework the order of what he wrote, if only for the purpose of applying it to the times in which we live. But for the sake of respect, here is the original quote:
This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church. For while the Word was hidden under the bushel, that is, under the letter of the law, it deprived all men of eternal light. For then it could not give spiritual contemplation to men striving to strip themselves of a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. But the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men. For the letter, when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind (from an inquiry addressed to Thalassius by Saint Maximus the Confessor, abbot (Quaest. 63: PG 90, 667-670)).
Let’s look at this teaching in three sections.
1. The Problem of the Flesh – St. Maximus explains well the deadening effects of the flesh in coming to grasp the beauty and sublimity of God’s Word, of His vision for our lives. He therefore speaks of those living in the flesh as indulging a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own.
We who live in the increasingly decadent and self-indulgent West need to be sober about these words, first of all for our very selves. All day long we are bombarded with temptations to sensuality, self-indulgence, and almost complete preoccupation with the flesh.
We must stay on our guard against the indulgence of the flesh that is so easily available today, lest we soon discover that our intellect is clouded and we find the clear light of God’s vision too strong or “harsh.” In excessive self-indulgence, any call to self-denial seems arduous, even repugnant. In excessive sensuality, any appeal to spiritual matters seems strange, foreign, even threatening.
This is what the Church is largely facing today in trying to preach to an increasingly decadent, excessively sensual world. While these proclivities can be ascribed to the fallen human condition, the tendency to indulge the flesh has never been greater. Almost endless and often instant self-gratifications and diversions are available to us. There are a wealth of comforts today that kings and queens of old never dreamed of.
Along with the onset of this extreme sensuality has come the darkening of the intellect such that some of us, who by God’s grace alone have been spared some of the worst trends of modern culture, often ask with dismay, “How can people get this confused?”
St. Maximus supplies the general answer: [They have indulged] a sensuality that is illusory, capable only of deceit, and able to perceive only decadent bodies like their own. In other words, the flesh cannot perceive the things of the spirit. He adds, For the letter [of the Law], when it is not spiritually understood, bears a carnal sense only, which restricts its expression and does not allow the real force of what is written to reach the hearer’s mind.
And thus the plainest and most beautiful utterances of God’s moral and spiritual vision have little effect on many moderns, who see God’s glorious call to human freedom from slavery to passions as intrusive, limiting, intolerant, and even hateful. No matter how deep the darkness of indulgent flesh gets, it seems that the proposed answer is always to further indulge the flesh. And herein is manifested the darkening of the intellect and human spirit brought about by the indulgence of the flesh. Paradoxically, indulging the physical senses leads us to have senseless minds.
2. The Passion of the Lord – In the face of this cancerous situation, what does the Lord want? St. Maximus says here, This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church.
And therefore God continues to speak forth His Word. He continues to let the light of His truth shine forth. He has a passion to call His wayward children home. Too easily we act like the foolish prodigal son, who wandered off. Yet his father never stopped looking for him. And when the foolish prodigal son took one step back, his father took two steps toward him and started running.
For just as once the Eternal Father uttered the Word of His Son, and through this one Word all creation came forth, thus this Logos (Word) imbued all creation with the logike (logic) or impression of His will and glory.
Sadly, in our fallen condition, many indulging the fallen flesh no longer love or appreciate the logike, the Logos, or the Father who utters the Logos.
Yet still the Father speaks the Word, the Logos. He has an endless passion to summon all His fallen children back to the glory of His Word. And His Word, Jesus, has a passion too. The Word must still go forth.
3. The Purpose of the Church – But how can the Word go forth? St. Maximus tells us how: This Word is most unwilling to be kept under a bushel; it wills to be set in a high place, upon the sublime beauty of the Church … the Word wills to be set upon a lampstand, the Church, where rational worship is offered in the Spirit, that it may enlighten all men.
As the Church, our role is to be the lampstand on which God sets His Word in order to enlighten all. And, as Maximus says, through our “rational worship” (a spiritual worship rooted in truth) we are to enlighten all.
Our mission is not to reflect worldly “lights,” but to set forth the LIGHT of the world, Jesus. We are to speak His Word, not parrot the passing words or “lights” of this world.
The Church must continue to set out the lamp of God’s Word, Jesus. And while light may bring different things to light, the Light itself never changes. And though translated into a thousand different languages, the Word Himself does not change or mutate.
Note, too, Maximus’ reference to liturgy, wherein we are formed by God unto “rational worship.” The sacred liturgy both forms and conforms us to the truth of God and the truth about ourselves. We become the Word we hear proclaimed, and the Word made Flesh, whom we receive. The Church must ever undertake her sacred liturgy with joy, reverence, and profound attentiveness. An old saying goes, “Save the Liturgy, save the World.”
Yes, the Church is but the lampstand on which God sets His Light. It is God’s Light and it must shine. We can do no other. She is the pulpit from which He proclaims His Word.
St. Paul adds, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2).
Yes, we can do no other. The world has lately indulged the blindness of the flesh, but the Father has not stopped uttering His Word and setting forth the light of His truth. On account of this we can do no other. We are His instrument; we are His lampstand.