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The Way of Life and the Way of Death

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.”

We know, from Holy Scripture, that in the early days of the Church, our Faith, later to be called “Christianity”, was originally referred to as “the Way.” Its adherents, Christ’s disciples, were followers “of the Way.” Indeed, in the Didache, one of the oldest Christian documents not to have been canonized as Holy Scripture, being written towards the end of the first century, the opening line is, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways.”

Now, when Jesus was approaching the city of Nain, as we heard in today’s Gospel Reading, a large crowd of His disciples was there with Him, as they followed Him about, wherever He went. They must have presented quite a procession- you know how we Orthodox love processions. And as they were approaching the city gates, they came upon another procession, a funeral procession, as the people of town were on their way to bury the only son of a widow. So what we have here is the encounter between two processions, between two ways, the Way of Life, and the way of death.

The first is the procession that leads to the empty tomb, to life eternal. The second procession leads to the grave, darkness, and despair. The first is that of Christ God, Who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” The second is that of the world, this Fallen World that would reject Christ, and crucify Him, the world that rejects Him still, to this day, because its ruler, the prince of this world, is Satan.

Two ways- the Way of Life, and the way of death. Two processions, two paths- the straight and narrow, leading to the Kingdom of God, and the broad and easy, leading to destruction. And to be honest, of these two paths, the former, the straight and narrow, when viewed from a distance, does not appear particularly inviting: bearing one’s cross, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, self-control, self-denial, and, as St. Paul told us in today’s Epistle Reading, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. That doesn’t really sound like fun, does it?

However, for those who choose this way nonetheless, we find that it also includes those other things mentioned by the Apostle: living in the presence of God Almighty, as sons and daughters of a loving Father; purity, knowledge, longsuffering, kindness, the Holy Spirit, sincere love, the word of truth, and the power of God.

Ultimately, then, these are the two choices, laid out before each and every one of us: the Way of Life, or the way of death. And choosing between them is something that we all must do- no one will escape the necessity of having to make this choice. And yet, in reality, brothers and sisters, this choice pervades every moment of our lives. We are constantly called upon to make it, again and again. With every thought, every word, every action that we take, we do one of these two things- either we draw nearer unto God, or we fall further away.

What is unfortunate is that, all too often, we fail to realize that we are called upon to make this choice, over and over again. We fail to ask ourselves, “which procession am I marching in? Which way am I taking?” Because, certainly, there is a great difference between the two ways, as stated in the Didache. I’m sure that we all would like to think that we’re in the procession led by Christ: the Way of Life, of Light, of Grace and Truth. But, do your actions, does your life, bear this out? Or, do they really show that your choice, over and over again, is the way of this world? The broad and easy path? And that any thought of God, of His presence, is far from your mind throughout the vast majority of the day.

I, the first among sinners, am constantly forgetting that I am always in the presence of God Almighty Himself, Who, out of His great love and forbearance, doesn’t punish me as I deserve, when I make the wrong choice, again and again, choosing the way of the world, over His Way. You see, the danger that we face, brothers and sisters, is that, by the very fact that we live and breathe and work and play in this modern, Fallen society, we have become tainted by it, coming to expect the comfort, and ease of the broad and easy path, which leads, ultimately, to destruction.

All too often, our very immersion in this Fallen world has rendered it difficult, not impossible, mind you, but difficult, to discern between the two choices constantly before us, and we end up confusing them. We fail to realize that sometimes even those events that may appear horribly tragic, like the stories we hear of parents killing their own children, or personal, such as the sudden severe illness, or death, of a loved one, even these things have been permitted by God to occur, so that we might learn to detach ourselves from this world and cling only to Him.

But, just because He does allow such tragedies to occur, brothers and sisters, does not mean that He doesn’t understand our anguish, our heartache. God surely grieves over these atrocities. Ours is a loving God Who feels our pain, Who has experienced it Himself, as a Man, and Who would have compassion on us, just as He had compassion on the widow in today’s Reading. So, knowing our weakness, God has provided us with a constant and clear beacon that would light our way, making clear the correct choice, the correct procession, the Way of Life. This beacon, this light upon a hill, not hidden under a basket, is His Holy Church.

We cannot trust ourselves- our own intellects or instincts, because we are all weak, we are all fallen, tainted by sin. Just because something “feels” right surely doesn’t make it right. But that which was established by God Himself, Jesus Christ, when He walked this earth- His Church, in her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, is here to lead us along the path of salvation.

It is here, in the context of the Church, in God’s very real presence, that we are reminded that every encounter with another human being, both here, and out there, in the world, in our daily lives, can be an encounter with Christ; or can provide us with the opportunity to be the presence of Christ in another person’s life. It is here, in the context of the Church, that we find the strength to bear our own Cross, not with sorrow, but with joy. To give of ourselves until it hurts, and then give some more. To sacrifice all that I am, that another may be saved. To love, and be loved, with the very love of God Himself.

It is here, in the context of the Church, that we are reminded of the two ways constantly before us, and the correct choice, the Way of Life, is made clear. Not out there, in the world, where society tries to shape us in its transitory image, which is fading away, doomed to destruction, but here. It is here, in the context of the Church, that we repent when we fail to make the correct choice, and experience God’s forgiveness; developing the spiritual endurance necessary to get up, again and again, every time that we fall, and turn back toward God.

In today’s Reading, the people cried out, “God has visited His people.” Now, we know that, through the Incarnation, God is with us, always. But it is here, in the context of the Church, that His presence is most manifest, as He promised that when two or three are gathered in His Name, He is present. It is here, in the context of the Church, that we are given all of the tools necessary for salvation, for our sanctification, our theosis - the fasting, the constant, ceaseless prayer, the divine Services, the opportunity for worship, the correct teaching, the Holy Mysteries, the Precious and Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Himself.

It is only through our willing, purposeful use of these tools, offered to us by the Church, that we are able to make the correct choice. I pray, brothers and sisters, that we all do so, that we all choose the Way of Life, the procession led by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ,

To Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, together with His Father-without-beginning, and His all holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

 

Fr. Gregory Czumak
Pastor
Four Evangelists Orthodox Mission
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
Bel Air, MD


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