The Church New Year began on September 1, following an ancient practice that developed in the Byzantine era of the Church's history. (Most ancient cultures, if I am not mistaken, began their New Years in the Fall or the Spring, but never in the dead of winter). This allows each of us the opportunity to recommit, renew and restore our life in Christ by rearranging all of our priorities in such a way that the "one thing needful" is at the heart of our lives:
He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. (MATT. 10:37-39)
The Christian is the person who loves Christ above all and who will "lose" his/her life for the sake of the Gospel. Although we of course identify ourselves as Christians, it seems more honest to say that we are in the process of becoming Christians when that casual self-identification is purified in the searching - if not searing - light of the Lord's words above. With God "all things are possible," and by the grace of God we can continue to grow in our Christian vocation, in this life and in "the world to come." Therefore, we can transform this "minor" commemoration into a "major" event if we can ever put the simple but elusive goal of fulfilling the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor first and foremost, into practice. As Jesus said: "On these two commandments depend all the law and prophets." (MATT. 22:40)
However, there always exist formidable challenges to our undivided attention. There is "life" itself, and its various routines and responsibilities, many of which are exhausting over time. And within life, we know that "stuff happens." Yet lesser distractions are legion at this time of the year. Thinking more in terms of the male membership in the Church, I realize that this last weekend was the "kick off" of the college football season, and that next Sunday is the "kick off" of the pro football season. Talk about competition for the attention of our minds and hearts! Wives and girlfriends must either take up an interest in football - or at least pretend to - or face seasonal (weekend) widowhood yet again. I apologize for bringing together the Gospel and football, but this uneasy juxtaposition does have its place in the American way of life: Church on Sunday morning, hopefully without too long of a homily and anything "extra" to follow; and then football in the afternoon, hopefully a doubleheader with "overtime" to further increase the near-rapturous excitement.
St. John Chrysostom lamented over how Christians were so easily deflected from the things of God, including the Liturgy, in order to passionately pursue distractions such as entertainment or sporting events. And the further fact that children's sporting events are now scheduled on Sundays only increases this confusion. The Lord's Day is now treated as any other day by our local organizers. For unchurched families, this fills a gap. For Church-going families it poses a real challenge and hard decisions. We can easily modernize the following passage from St. John to understand the underlying teaching:
We run eagerly to dances and amusements. We listen with pleasure to the foolishness of singers. We enjoy the foul words of actors for hours without getting bored. And yet when God speaks we yawn, we scratch ourselves and feel dizzy. Most people would run rabidly to the horse track, although there's no roof there to protect the audience from rain, even when it rains heavily or when the wind is lifting everything. They don't mind the bad weather or the cold or the distance. Nothing keeps them in their homes. When they are about to go to church, however, then the soft rain becomes an obstacle to them. And if you ask them who Amos or Obadiah is, or how many prophets apostles there are, they can't even open their mouths. Yet they can tell you every detail about the horses, the singers and the actors. What kind of state is this?
As the Lord said: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (MATT. 6:21)
We desperately need new beginnings to recover our spiritual balance from time to time. Here is yet another such opportunity in the beginning of the Church New Year. Obviously, a recovery of our spiritual balance requires a hard and honest look at our faith: What, exactly, do we actually believe? How, exactly, do we put our faith into practice? At its most essential and basis level, our faith is in Jesus as the Christ: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" confessed Simon Peter (MATT. 16:16) It is not a coincidence that each of us makes this very confession of Faith as we get ready to approach the Chalice and receive the life-giving Mysteries of Christ during the Liturgy. And then, closely paraphrasing the words of the Apostle Paul, we confess that Christ came into the world "to save sinners, of whom I am first." (Cf. I TIM. 1:15) We confess that we are sinners who are in the process of being saved. Jesus is the Christ, and I am a sinner. As the Christ He is also the "Savior of the world." (JN. 4:42) It is rather breathtaking in its stark simplicity: without Christ we are forever lost; but with Christ we are found and saved. How can we possibly tuck this away into a religious compartment of life, pulling it back out from Sunday to Sunday? I would think that this deserves our undivided attention.
"Attending Church" is a rather bland way of describing one of our key "activities" as Christians based upon the confession of faith outlined above. What saves us from that blandness is the realization and experience of worshiping the living God in church, and not seeking religious uplift or, worse, religious entertainment. Assured that we encounter the living God and communion with and of Christ in the Liturgy, St. John Chrysostom can write the following to those of all ages who share this liturgical experience:
Let us depart from the Divine Liturgy like lions who are producing fire, having become fearsome even to the devil, because the holy Blood of the Lord that we commune waters our souls and gives us great strength. When we commune of it worthily, it chases the demons far away and brings the angels and the Lord of the angels near us. This Blood is the salvation of our souls; with this the soul is washed, with this it is adorned. This Blood makes our minds brighter than fire; this makes our souls brighter than gold.
If we live the Liturgy thus, we will not have to say anything to those who are absent. But seeing our benefit, they will feel their own harm and will quickly run to church to enjoy the same goods, with the grace and philanthropy of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belongs eternal glory. Amen.
If we allow it, the surrounding superficial culture can turn us into superficial human beings. If we struggle, the culture of the Church can transform us "from one degree of glory to another." (II COR. 3:18) Why is this such a difficult choice?