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Confusions, holidays, and greed

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Among the many confusions of living abroad, none strikes me so often as keeping track of holidays. You don’t realize how accustomed you are to the rhythm of a particular national calendar, until it is changed, and you find yourself celebrating Mother’s Day on the wrong Sunday or waking up and not realizing it’s a ‘Bank Holiday’ until you go to pick up your dry cleaning and the shop is closed.

A similar confusion frequently occurs to me with regard to the church calendar. I sing regularly in a Cambridge chapel choir, which has its own calendar of celebrations. I’m a member of a local parish. And, in my own observation of the Daily Office, I use a mixture of resources from The Episcopal Church and the Church of England. Occasionally, then, I come across an odd conjunction of readings or I observe certain saints’ days several times throughout the year.

One of these is St Matthias’ Day, whose lessons have now been drilled into my mind, since yesterday marked the third time I celebrated it in 2014, this time with a confirmation service in the evening. Due to my now profound familiarity with this saint and with the evening’s confirmation service in mind, my encounter with yesterday’s Office readings was particularly rich.

With the conjunction of various calendars and resources (and my own misplacement of a reading), I came across the fall of the high priesthood of Eli’s family (due to greed), the anointing of David as King instead of Saul (due to the inward state of David’s heart), the communal fervor of the early Church (‘they had all things in common’), Christ’s statement that it is what ‘comes out’ of the heart that defiles, the description of the old and new life in Ephesians 4:17-32, and a sermon of John Chrysostom on the choosing of St Matthias, not to mention a number of Psalms that reinforced and elaborated the themes in each of these passages.

It was a rich Scriptural banquet, full of dishes for the theological glutton. I felt quite indulgent, slowly drinking in each passage and hearing their harmonies resounding, their cumulative force filling and drenching my mind. But, what united all the readings for me was the Ephesians passage appointed for another day, which I accidentally added in:

I speak and bear witness to this in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their minds, being darkened in understanding and alienated from the life of God…

Being wholly without feeling, they have handed themselves over in licentiousness to the practice of every uncleanness in greed. But you did not learn Christ in this way… You were taught  that, with regard to your former way of life,  you should take off the old human  that is decaying because of its deceitful lusts, and you should be renewed in the spirit of your mind and be clothed in the new human that is being created like God in the righteousness and holiness of truth. —Eph 4:17-24 (slightly excerpted)

Due to the conjunction of St Matthias Day and a confirmation service, I could not help but notice the way that this passage offers the potential for constant renewal of our initial Christian commitment (‘you did not learn Christ in this way’), but in opposition to a way of life that is rooted in darkness, futility of mind, and alienation from divine life through ‘greed’. Indeed, greed was a theme in many a passage. But what is this greed that we are to avoid? What is it that drove Eli and his sons from their place as priests, that disqualified Saul from his kingship? What did the early Christian community lack, that they could be so enthusiastic for the common life? What was the greed of Judas?

Such greed is the fundamental confusion that marks the life of so many of us, the wish to have what we do not need, our craving for acknowledgment and supremacy, our insatiable desire to grasp at what is not ours and to dispossess others of what belongs to them. This is the greed that cursed Eli and Judas. This is the greed of ‘the old human that is decaying because of its deceitful lusts’, the greed of Adam to put himself up in the place of God, rather than to reflect God’s image as he had been created to do, in holiness of life.

Luckily for us, though, there is another way, ‘a new and living way’ opened up and marked out for us by the early Christians, by St Matthias, and supremely by Jesus Christ himself, when he became flesh and dwelt among us. It is a way marked by self-emptying, by love of neighbor, by not thinking more of oneself than is needful, by not desiring what is had by our neighbor, by being content in all things. And this way of holiness is open to us every day. Like those who come forward for confirmation, even if we have already been committed to Christ, even if we have already ‘learned Christ’, we should not hesitate, once more, to renew that commitment and ‘to take off the old human’, to step out of darkness and into the light of the Sun of righteousness, dawning in our hearts. It is never too late to check our lapses.

For today is the day of salvation. ‘Today, if you hear his voice’—whether in these words or others—‘harden not your hearts’. Do not become again what you once were; do not fall once more into futility. But become again what you were always meant to be. ‘Be clothed in the new human that is being created like God in the righteousness and holiness of truth’. ‘Be renewed in the spirit of your mind’, in the divine life implanted in you at your baptism. ‘Stir up the gift that is in you’ by the laying on of hands, and walk in newness of life, both today and evermore.

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