Who Love's Ya Baby?
One of the sins mentioned in Scripture is vanity. The term implies fruitless or empty pursuits, things accomplished in vain. Scripture also uses this same word positively, for the bonding that provides for man’s salvation. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul uses the Greek verb to make vain or empty (ke-NO) to describe how Christ “emptied” himself, taking the form of a servant (2:7). In this most profound kenotic event of the Incarnation, Christ bonds and identifies completely with fallen humanity, offering man the prospect of being bonded with the Divine. As Saint Gregory the Theologian writes: “God became man that man may become God” (by grace not by nature; union without confusion).
The fullness of Christ’s life on earth was wrought, as with all relationships, with ups and downs. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios' commentary on the Gospel of Mark is entitled “Authority and Passion.” This gospel is a seesaw revealing at one moment Christ’s authority (his divinity) and in another his passion (humanity), the latter of which manifests itself in the profound grief he experiences because his disciples and the people just do not grasp who he is: “Philip, I have been with you all this time and still you do not know me?” (John 14:9)
The motivation for this ultimate kenotic experience of the Son of God become the son of man is rooted in that most quoted biblical verse that seemingly appears at every televised sporting event - John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that he who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This great gift of God’s love is evident in that he has done all this for those undeserving of it: “But God demonstrated his own love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)
Who amongst us loves so unconditionally as to empty himself, exposing himself to danger or even death for someone unworthy of it? We would consider this vain and a waste. Family and friends would try to save their loved ones from such apparent lunacy as those close to Jesus did regarding his missionary work: “But when his own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21)
This is what Christ did and commanded his followers to imitate. When reviled, Saint Paul blessed; when persecuted, he endured; when slandered, he prayed for his enemies, being made the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things. (1 Cor. 4:12-13) He persisted in the face of serious corporeal punishment (2 Cor. 11:24-25) and became weary even of life (2 Cor. 1:8).
But we do not overcome adversity with love because we need too much to be loved. When we are not, we react diversely but predictably given our respective disposition. The strong exact an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The weak recoil in fear. If bullied for a short time, how many young people today succumb to suicide. Sheltered ‘babes’ need safe spaces at institutions of higher learning, unable to deal with diversity in thought and opinion. We retreat, as Simon and Garfunkel sing, “Hiding in my room, safe within my womb; I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock. I am an island.”
Instead of being kenotic, that is, emptying ourselves and identifying ourselves with a broken world, as Christ did, we turn in upon ourselves to save ourselves. From what? We identify more with those who suffer similarly but not with those who overcome this suffering, mimic Christ and conquer as he did: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)
A contemporary example of this is Saint Teresa of Kolkata, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta (canonized on September 4, 2016). In analyzing her life, we learn of her prayer to God to experience the isolation and pain Jesus suffered on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mat. 27:46) Mother Teresa’s prayer was answered. Like a parent abandoning an unwanted baby, God dropped her off amidst the forsaken poor of Calcutta and drove off, leaving her seemingly all alone. She wrote, “Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives.”
In her emptiness, the answer was not to become a rock, an island, but to serve the “unloved, unwanted, uncared for,” as Jesus commanded: “Come blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty, and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you took me in, naked and you covered me, sick and you visited me, in jail and you came to me. (Mt. 25:34-36)
Interestingly, we learn that the life of monastics is similar. They give up all to get closer to God and write of the deep despondency they experience because the God they leave the world for is apparently nowhere to be found much of the time. Anthony the Great, the anchorite and father of Egyptian monasticism struggled for twenty years with demons in the desert. When Jesus finally appeared to him, he asked, “Where were you?” Jesus replied, I was here. I was watching your struggle.” After this, Jesus blessed Anthony as a discerner of spirits and spiritual counselor to a multitude who came to him in the desert throughout his lifetime.
For those of us in the world, the answer is not in feeling God’s presence all the time or being loved and respected by all, but in doing his commandments and accomplishing that for which we have been called. As the television character Detective Kojak (played by the late Telly Savalas) use to say as he looked upon someone lying dead in the middle of the night on some big city street, “Who loves ‘ya baby?”
The author of Ecclesiastes, for whom life was apparently futile, like chasing the wind, concludes the book with this wise observation: “Hear the end of the matter, the sum: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is for every man. For God will bring all work into judgment, and everything overlooked, whether it be good or evil.” (12:13-14)