Homily for Pentecost III (Matthew III), 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

‘The lamp of the body is the eye’: I don’t know about you, but my reaction to that it one of puzzlement—in what sense? In what way does the eye illuminate the body? Does light in some way enter the eye and light up the body? I can’t think how. So I was greatly relieved to discover that St John Chrysostom, in his Homily 20 on Matthew, says directly that in this passage Christ speaks to us by analogy, ‘for what the intellect, mind, νοῦς, is to the soul, the eye is to the body’: Christ is really talking about the relationship of the intellect to the soul (in good Platonic fashion, the intellect is the eye of the soul). The body/soul (or soul and body) is how we exist in the world—the usual muddle of feelings and emotions, reactions to what is going on in the world/our world, plans to navigate our way in this world. Through the intellect comes the light of reason (or understanding or wisdom), and that light only shines truly, if the eye or intellect is ‘single’ (ἁπλοῦς), but all too often our eye/intellect is distracted, glancing this way and that, not focused on anything properly; through such a distracted eye/intellect/attention, no light can enter, and what is going on in the soul—all those thoughts, feelings, plans, reactions—remains in darkness, ill-perceived, affecting us in ways that we barely understand, so that the way we behave, the thoughts we have, even what we think we see come out of this jumble, which is what the soul amounts to, and often even surprises us. If the eye is ‘single’, then soul and body are full of light; if our eye is πονηρός—usually translated ‘wicked’, but I think in this context it means that the eye is not simply attentive, but is looking around at what is going on in the world, with an eye to its own advantage—if we look at the world like that, then ‘the whole body/soul is in darkness’. And, as the Lord goes on to comment, if the light in us is darkness, how great is that darkness: it is not just a matter of turning off the light, it is searching within ourselves with a kind of beam of darkness, drawing attention to what is even darker still.

The contrast between light and darkness is one that runs through the Scriptures—right from the beginning. Genesis begins:

In the beginning God made heaven and earth; the earth was invisible and without form, and there was darkness over the abyss, and the Spirit of God was borne over the water. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. (Gen. 1: 1–3)

Darkness is generally seen in negative terms, as here opposed to the light, and as in the Lord’s teaching we have just heard. Sometimes it is more complex. A little later in Genesis, there is an account of an elaborate sacrifice Abram (as he was still known) made: a heifer, a goat, and a ram are cut in half and their carcasses laid out together with a pigeon and a turtle-dove. And then we read: ‘As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold a great dark fear fell upon him’, and in that dark sleep God reveals to Abram his future—a complex future of both a long life and a long heritage, but life for his offspring as aliens, even slaves, and the eventual gift of a homeland. All this is sealed by a flaming torch that passes between the pieces of the animals offered in sacrifice. This, it seems to me, speaks of darkness in a more creative vein: a darkness in which one is close to God and begins to understand matters beyond what created light can discern. A darkness, if you like, in which we can no longer figure things out, but are nonetheless held in God’s embrace.

Before the Gospel we heard a passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, which begins:

Justified, therefore, by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have access to this grace in which we stand and boast in our hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we also boast in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation works patience, and patience testing, and testing hope. And this hope is not ashamed, for the love of God is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us. (Rom. 5: 1–5)

Paul is talking to the Roman Christians about tribulation, θλῖψις, which is almost a technical word with the early Christians for the affliction, trouble, harassment, that might well lead to persecution and martyrdom. But we are to boast, to glory in, such tribulation—not just put up with it, still worse resent it—because such affliction creates in us patience, and the enduring that goes with patience is a form of testing, and such testing leads to hope: hope in our closeness to, and final union with, Christ. Without the affliction, we would have little opportunity to develop patience, testing, leading to hope—a hope that is more than just a wistful expectation, but something that already opens us towards Christ: a hope that will not be put to shame, for we shall know the love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This sequence—from affliction to knowing the love of God, based on this passage in Romans—is found again in the first few chapters of St Maximos the Confessor’s First Century on Love. Our struggle with the dark confusion within ourselves is a kind of affliction (Maximos uses Paul’s word, θλῖψις, though its context has changed from persecution to the struggle with ourselves as we seek to follow Christ); our enduring such affliction deepens our hope in God, which produces in the soul a kind of serenity, freedom from the dark confusion within, and that serenity makes it possible for us to love, and to experience the love of God (Char. I. 1–3). The love of God will shine in our souls like a light, and the light that fills us—the light of the Holy Spirit—will be a source of light for others. But it doesn’t just happen: we need to allow ourselves to be transformed by the affliction that will come along with our attempts to follow Christ, to allow our hearts to be enlarged to become receptacles, as it were, of a light that will fill us to overflowing. Amen.