”At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
These words appear early on in Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece The Alchemist, spoken by one of the main characters, the king of Salem, to the protagonist shepherd boy named Santiago. In this enchanting but ever so meaningful story, the young man, in search of a priceless treasure near the Pyramids in the Egyptian desert, comes to discover that the greatest wealth we can possess is never outside of us for the taking; on the contrary, it exists within our very being and is readily accessible if we begin to believe in ourselves, in our value as human beings created in the divine image, and in our abilities with which God has so richly graced us.
In our Holy Orthodox Church, another great treasure is revealed in the pericope assigned to the feast day known as the Indiction, or the Ecclesiastical New Year, on September 1st. Our Lord Jesus Christ, up until now unknown to the public except in His capacity as an itinerant rabbi, mild-mannered yet extraordinarily charismatic, enters a synagogue in His home town of Nazareth and, as a young teacher of the people, is bestowed the honor to read the Holy Scriptures before the congregation. He opens the scrolls to the passage marked in Isaiah and reads a strikingly significant passage that relates directly to Himself:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2).
Naturally, this bountiful treasure is the utter nearness of God’s presence in the lives of the people, more so now than ever before. For ages, God’s word accompanied man in his journey throughout his life, and this word is recorded in the Holy Scriptures. But now, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and this living Word is recorded in the hearts of all believers everywhere. For God, never ceasing to be perfect God and never once separating Himself from His holy dwelling place in heaven, now makes His abode with fallen man, taking on our human form and suffering the limitations of our condition within the cosmos, in order to redeem that which He assumed, to paraphrase the theology of St. John of Damascus. Hence, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, enters our lives and makes the sanctifying and redemptive power of the Godhead fully accessible to man, as much as man is allowed to bear the divine presence. This, in and of itself, is a treasure that truly knows no equal.
Nevertheless, I would submit to you that God brings to the world yet another proclamation of truth almost as important as the acknowledgement of His own presence, a statement that intimately relates to His own advent into the world as well as to Coelho’s statement, a truth that is dolefully forgotten today by people who adhere to a self-defeatist attitude. What am I talking about? Christ tells us now that God has entered into our lives in the most intimate of ways, He expects us to believe not only in Him but also in ourselves!
Gone are the days when ancient man abided by a fatalistic attitude toward life, namely one in which he exerted little or no effort whatsoever to take control of his present suffering and his unknown future. Ancient peoples believed that fate in various forms (μοῖρα, θεία δίκη, νέμεσις) was an uncontrollable agent ordered by the gods and instilled within the natural order of life to torment the unjust and the just alike. The famous Greek adage, τὸ πεπρωμένον φυγεῖν ἀδύνατον (“it is impossible to escape destiny”) was engrained deeply in the psyche of virtually every ancient culture, and man, in his corruption and sinfulness, could do nothing of his own accord to overcome or alter powers morally and physically far superior than himself. However, this mode of thinking was challenged throughout Christ’s earthly ministry, when He would always declare to each and every recipient of a miracle from God, “YOUR faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34; Luke 17:19). Whether encountering a paralytic or a blind man or an epileptic, the Lord looked beyond the physical and spiritual illness of the suffering person, the fear and intimidation in their hearts brought on by their malady, and He noted their desire to become well. He sensed their will to live and their love for a life of wholeness, a healthy love for themselves that was dormant within them. So God did the unthinkable: He believed in man! He believed in the goodness and resolve of man to help himself, even when man was afraid or did not know what it meant to believe in himself. He awakened this self-love in everyone!
As the king of Salem in O Alquimista and Christ both affirmed, to believe in oneself when God has joined His hand and heart to our own means to take full control of life and to find true meaning in it, even in our suffering. For not only do we no longer suffer alone — because God becomes our συμπαθών, or “co-sufferer” — but in God our lives take on a radically new dimension in which our existence is thrust into the blessed afterlife, and the trials and tribulations of this transient life become simply hurdles and no longer walls that stand in our way to God. In fact, difficulties become enablers for sanctification because, again, we suffer not alone but our suffering is subsumed and transformed by the One who believes more in us than we do in Him. And at the end of the day, Christ renders our suffering just a faded memory because our fellowship with Him, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, eclipses and dwarfs the pain that never completely overtook and destroyed us.
Notice in the aforementioned pericope from Luke how Jesus’ work of healing and proclaiming the gospel requires man’s positive response. The gifts of God are within man’s reach; they are bestowed freely upon each of us, so long as we accept them gratefully. And grateful acceptance requires one crucial component, namely, to believe in ourselves as much as God does, to love ourselves as much as God does, to be merciful toward our pierced souls and forgive ourselves and change our ways, to match God’s mercy and full trust toward us.
Perhaps it may sound odd to our ears to hear that the nature of God’s love is such that He “struggles” to convince man of man’s own goodness and to make him cognizant of his own inherent capability to overcome his own problems, since God and man now traverse the course of life hand in hand, as it were. Sadly though, modern man in certain regards does not differ drastically from ancient man in terms of not believing in himself. And this is so because He either does not believe in God or wrongly adheres to a fatalistic viewpoint, in which he believes God and man walk on two different planes and God essentially controls man’s destiny, sending out occasional rewards or punishments as a gauge for man to know where he stands on the moral spectrum with God. But faith in God requires us to have faith in ourselves, to see God in ourselves, His power and His glory, His beauty and His innocence, which we often do not because of the weightiness of our passions and sins that have buried Him deep within our being, out of sight, out of earshot, and almost out of mind. And by seeing God in ourselves, it is impossible not to envision at once our own magnificence, since we share the magnanimity of the divine “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26).
Christ proclaimed the advent of the Gospel to the world, beginning from that humble synagogue in Nazareth and extending throughout the entire civilized world. The Gospel is simply “God with man AND man with God”, God embracing humanity and inviting humanity to walk in fellowship with God, to see itself for what it really is — the Lord’s prize creation capable of working wonders and sharing the fullness of life and bliss with Him. God does not only want us to believe in Him; He wants us to believe in ourselves, to see not only ourselves in Him but Him in ourselves, to overcome together with Him our fears and faults and sins and to see in ourselves the same value He saw in us, the same love that overflowed out of heaven, propelling the Word of God to become incarnated into our very own reality, to graft our lives to His, to become one with Him as He became one with us.
As we progress through this ecclesiastical new year, brothers and sisters, let us remember that the Creed of our Faith, in which we profess our belief in the Holy Trinity and the divine economy, is matched in heaven by God’s own “creed”, in which He daily professes His belief in us, which is an affirmation of His own existence and goodness. May we begin believing in ourselves as much as we believe in God … I think we have much to learn from Him in that department. Happy New Year! (+)
– Fr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D.
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