2Timothy 3:10-15; Luke 18:10-14
Today we open a book called the Triodion. The name means “Three Odes” and refers to the form of liturgical poetry used by the Church during Great Lent. Of course, we haven’t started Great Lent yet, but the Church, in her wisdom, knows that we can’t simply take up the great fast of Lent without some kind of preparation. Therefore, the Triodion includes those weeks that precede Great Lent, with hymns and readings designed to get us mentally, physically and spiritually ready.
The Church opens the Triodion with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Today, I would like to play with this metaphor in order to help illustrate how the Church is trying to prepare us. In place of the Pharisee are George Lucas and James Cameron. Taking the role of the Publican, I’d like to take a look at the saint we celebrate today, St. Xenia of Rome.
As a big science fiction fan, I grew up watching the Star Wars movies. George Lucas probably exerted more influence on my childhood than any other man save my own father, who was brave enough to take me to see the original in the theatres when I was six. As an Orthodox Christian, however, I must take issue with the way George Lucas depicts religion. In place of God, the Star Wars universe has the Force. It is, as its name suggests, a force — an energy produced by all living things. When the characters of the Star Wars movies participate in the Force, miraculous things happen — people levitate things, block laser bolts and do Jedi mind tricks. Thus we know the faithful by the amazing things that they do.
This image is what passes for an acceptable religion in Hollywood. Indeed, James Cameron’s most recent blockbuster Avatar has something quite similar. The alien heroes of the story — the Ni’va — worship an energy or life force found in nature called Eywa. As in the Star Wars movies, the faithful are discerned by their actions. The Ni’va have these ponytail-like appendages that allow them to literally plug into nature as one might plug in their keyboard to a computer.
The problem with this understanding of religion is that it is exactly the way the Pharisee understands religion. Note how the Pharisee prays:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ — Luke 18:11-12
His focus is not on God, but himself and how he externally demonstrates his piety. He is saying to himself, everybody can see how pious I am because I pray, I fast and I tithe unlike all those other people who are not as holy as I am. He plugs in only when he needs to feel good about himself or when he needs to advance his status. He ultimately deceives himself that he is a religious and pious man. In reality, he is a selfish hypocrite.
Religion, as depicted by George Lucas and James Cameron, is not capable of being anything other than this — a means to show off how pious we are in order to advance our own status and make ourselves feel better about ourselves. Understanding God-as-energy reduces God to an object — a thing to be used. When we need it, we can turn it on like a computer, plug in, get what we need and then turn it off. In other words, there is no need to fundamentally change who we are. We turn on God, look all pious, feel good about ourselves and then go back to being selfish again.
In today’s Epistle reading, St. Paul warns us against this kind of piety and view of religion:
Indeed, all who want to live a pious life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. — 2 Timothy 3:12-13
In today’s world, the religion that many of the environmentalists would like to make out of their movement and would like all of us to follow looks exactly like the religion of Star Wars, Avatar and the Pharisee. They want us to revere “Gaia” — the earth. Again, they make God into an object — a thing. When we need to look good, feel good about ourselves and advance our status, we can plug into Gaia as we do a computer. We demonstrate how pious we are by reducing our carbon footprint, recycling, using solar energy, eating less meat, etc. Not bad things to do, but in the hands of the environmentalist religion they are simply used to feel good about ourselves, look pious and advance our own egos and our own status. Once that is done, we unplug and go back to our selfish lives. If we live this way we are deceiving ourselves. It leads to a life of hypocrisy.
This was on no greater display than with the Climate Change Conference recently held in Copenhagen. Leaders from around the world, trying to advance their own status and the status of their nations, trying to look good and look pious descended upon Copenhagen flying in private jets and driving in limos. They looked horrible, because in doing so they created what they call a gigantic carbon footprint. This, by their own argument, far outweighed any good they might have accomplished at Copenhagen. They were too busy trying to look pious and trying to advance themselves to notice the hypocrisy of their own actions. They deceived themselves.
In contrast, today we celebrate St. Xenia of Rome. She was born into an aristocratic family and was rich. Her parents arranged a marriage that would advance her status and maintain her wealth. Unlike the religions depicted in Star Wars and Avatar and approved by Hollywood and those in the environmentalist movement that want to make environmentalism into a religion, St. Xenia did not understand God as an object to be used only when she thought she needed it. Rather, she understood God as a person — as someone to encounter, to come into contact with and to be in conversation with. She understood that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, took on her humanity so that He might suffer and go to the Cross and raise her up on the Third Day and ascend into heaven with her humanity in tact to sit at the right hand of the Father in glory. She understood that an encounter with the Living God demands a response. This response cannot just be, “Look at me, at how pious I am,” but, rather, a fundamental change throughout our entire life. We must orient ourselves toward God in everything that we do.
So, she looked at her parents and said, “I am sorry, I am not going to marry this man.” She ran away and became a nun. She changed her name. She was born Eusebia, but preferred to call herself Xenia. In Greek this means stranger or foreigner. She declared to the world, “I am not in this for me!” Instead, she hid her identity and served. She was ordained a Deaconess and “deacon” means servant. She spent her life oriented and focused on seeing and finding Christ in others — serving the needs of others instead of her own. She imitated Christ, who came as a slave to serve us and to go to the Cross for us.
The Publican, or tax collector — the sinner in today’s parable — understands the kind of God St. Xenia understands. He comes to God and says, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” — I understand that my life needs to change. St. Xenia understood this. Today, we are called to understand this. At the end of the journey that is Great Lent is Pascha — Christ crucified, buried and risen from the dead. We will encounter the Living God in the person of Jesus Christ. This encounter demands that we change the way we live — we cannot live for ourselves, we cannot live selfishly. Rather, we must diminish so that Christ can increase in our lives and in the people around us who we are called to serve.
Thus, the Church gives us this tale of caution as we enter into Great Lent. We are reminded that the fast isn’t about looking good or looking pious or even being this great Orthodox Christian. The Great Fast is about suffering so that we might see our own sins, see how necessary it is that Christ be in our life, and see how necessary it is that we change our lives. We are to understand that the whole purpose of Great Lent is to claw and fight our way to Golgotha and Christ — the center of our lives — on the Cross so that we might experience the Resurrection.
In this endeavor, we have two examples today to look towards and to inspire us in the days ahead. We have the simple tax collector — the sinner — who says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!” This is a simple, easy prayer that we can say at any hour of the day. We also have St. Xenia, the stranger who dedicated her life to helping others. May we have the strength in the coming days to look at God and say, “I am a sinner. Lord have mercy.” May we have the strength to keep Him as the center of our life and our goal. May this year’s Pascha be filled with glory and resurrection. Amen.