O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see
not; which have ears, and hear not; fear ye not me? Will ye not
Tremble at my presence?
(Jeremiah v. 20-22)
There is a truth about life nowadays that seems to escape most people. This is a truth about themselves. They lack all self-respect. Of course, this is because we have abandoned Christian morality. Proud and arrogant man rejects the call of the highest moral ideal as the law of his life. Proud and arrogant man no longer measures the worth of his life by it. This is because we do not fear God. Self-respect comes to men and women who know themselves, their limitations, and the contours and boundaries of human existence. Self-respect is a gift bestowed on those whose meekness knows that they must lose their lives to find them. Contemporary man fears earthly death. Today, Christ will perform a miracle that brings a young man back from earthly death so that we might awaken from spiritual death. We cannot be roused from the slumber of spiritual death for Christ to enliven and ennoble the finer elements of our self-respecting characters until we face our mortality.
Of course, the problem of mortality is as old as creation. Both the ancient Jews and Greeks were consumed with the good of the soul and its frustration from sin and death. By the time Christ came down from Heaven, the world was in a strangle knot of tension, confusion, and exasperation. Both the Jew and the Greek had enough self-respect to know human nature’s limitations in order to discover God and then struggle to overcome sin and death with His Wisdom. Mortality gnawed at man’s soul as he longed for union with his Maker. For the self-respecting Jews, there was hope in the prophesied promise of deliverance through Messiah. For the self-respecting Greeks, there was divine Wisdom and hope of imagined union with it after death.
Socrates taught that the unexamined life is not worth living. (Apol. 38a) Socrates understood his own mortality and had enough self-respect to search for the truth of it throughout his life. He understood that his soul indwelled a body and often acted against it without knowledge. Our souls in bodies are mostly ignorant of the truth that should move them to find happiness through knowledge. Only then can the soul move above the body to discover the reason for, the cause of, and the Good of human existence. Socrates knew that man’s perfection does not consist in the pursuit of the body’s changing, fickle, uncertain, and unreliable passions. Rather, Socrates believed that man’s perfection consists in the soul’s use of the body for communion with the Good or God. Socrates had enough self-respect to pursue the Good beyond himself, knowing that he knew nothing and, thus, intent upon finding what he did not have. Long before he began his teaching career, knowing the limitations of his own mortality, with self-respect, he began to sacrifice himself for moral ideals above and beyond his selfish and sinful nature. His bravery in the Peloponnesian War from 431-434 B.C., when he fought to defend Athens’ integrity, was a testimony to how the common good moved him. That Socrates believed in deeper transcendent truth can also be seen in his pursuit of the domestic good of his marriage. Xanthippi, Socrates’ wife, was famous in Athens for her disagreeable and nagging ways. In Xenephon’s Symposium, Antisthenes asks Socrates how he can endure his wife. Socrates says having a wife is like choosing a horse. Choose one who is high-mettled, fiery, hard to tame. Once you have tamed her, you have conquered nature. (Xen. Symp. ii. 10) Whatever struggles mortality brings, be they political or domestic, for Socrates, self-respecting man was made to tame his mortality and conquer his lesser passions for the sake of discovering the Moral Ideal, which promises to ennoble and purify his soul. The Good that man is made to know is the cause of all life, the source of all goods – the reasons for which things were made and the source of his true happiness and joy.
Socrates’ philosophical method, like Jeremiah’s prophetic call, was on the way back to God. What both exhort us to pursue is the kind of thinking that tames mortality and sacrifices the lesser goods and gods of this earthly life for the discovery of God’s Goodness. With self-respect, this thinking begins in inquisitive wonder rather than in making. Socrates began his quest by saying I know that I know nothing. (Apol. 21d) Jeremiah realized his impotence before the all-living God. Do you not fear me? Do you not tremble before me? I placed the sand as the bound for the sea, a perpetual barrier which it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail, though they roar, they cannot pass over it. (Jer. v. 22) Both men had enough self-respect for the fear of the Lord and awesome wonder before God’s Thinking Goodness which they did not yet possess but desired. The self-respecting man does not yet know God’s Goodness, the Moral Ideal, for which he was made. Creation is made, moved, and defined not by us but by God’s Thinking Goodness, on which every creature depends for being and wellbeing. The whole of the universe is God’s thinking of it, and we are made to discover it! We neither create nor perpetuate our own thinking. We use our souls without any thought of where our thinking comes from or to whom it is made to be returned. God patiently awaits our discovery of His Goodness.
Socrates and Jeremiah believed that God is calling us forth to find Him. He intends that we come to our senses and gain enough self-respect to acknowledge humbly that we know nothing. That we have souls should be evident in the very fact that we are thinking. That our souls persist beyond death can be seen in this morning’s Gospel. The young son of a widowed mother was dead in body. His decomposing corpse was carried from the walls of Nain to its burial outside the city’s gates. His soul lives on. Christ addresses the living soul that no longer inhabits the body. Christ intends that his body should be brought back to life in order to house his soul for its extended spiritual journey. Jesus wants us to see that mortality has no meaning or definition without God or the soul. If man were merely a soul or a body, Christ would not have bothered to reconcile the two. But Christ shows us today that He intends to give life to the whole person, the embodied soul, forever.
I know that I know nothing. Christ addresses the dead man’s soul, the Widow of Nain’s soul, and our souls. This is a portent of what every soul will do on Judgment Day when, with self-respect, it gives an account of the life it has lived, soul in body, or spirited mortality. The real evidence for God’s power and promise is found in the dead boy’s soul, who knows Christ and obeys His call.
This is the kind of soul that Jesus finds in the Widow of Nain. That the widow woman bereft of her only son is more than merely a body or a soul is clear. The loss of her son’s mortality pierces through her body to her soul. Her soul is so present to her that her body translates the cessation of her son’s life into anguish and sadness. The pain and heartache of her only son’s death consume her soul. She is not running away from mortality, but she has enough self-respect to honor the dead and mourn her loss. She is precisely where Jesus wants to find all of us. What Socrates felt as his brothers in combat fell by his side in the Peloponnesian War and what Jeremiah felt as Jewish Brethren died at the hands of the Babylonians, the Widow of Nain expressed. Because of her self-respect and spiritual sensitivity for human mortality, she is ripe for Christ’s visitation. She has no words or pleas for Jesus. She weeps silently because words cannot conquer the cruelty of mortality when she can do nothing. She is Rachel, weeping for her children who are no more…. (Jer. xxxi. 15) She is Jesus’ own Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who will mourn at His Cross. She is Mother Church, who weeps for her wayward children until they are found by Christ. Her mourning is sincere because she respectfullyknows herself. She will fulfill the beatitude. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (St. Matthew v. 4)
The Widow of Nain’s soul is open to the Lord’s command Weep not. (Ibid, 13) She obeys, for she knows her mortality with self-respect and knows her Lord. Her soul is wholly open to the Lord’s Word. Jesus came and touched the bier: and they that bare the dead man stood still. (Ibid, 14) Her soul is alive with much people who accompanied her and her son. She was self-respecting enough to face mortality without shame. God’s compassion in Christ will bring life out of death and hope out of despair. And he that was dead sat up and began to speak. (Ibid, 15) We do not know what he said. That he spake is sufficient evidence that his soul inhabits a body quickened by Christ once again. All are filled with awesome wonder. New life in the dead man now brings his mother and the crowd out of mortality’s end into self-respecting new spiritual life.
Self-respect calls us to know ourselves, and the limitations of human mortality.
Self-respect implies the free exercise of our spiritual faculties in the sphere of the supernatural and a living communion with Him, Who is supremely the Holy Spirit. We may have to acknowledge that our powers in all these elements of the self are small, but we shall be saved from self-contempt if we recognize that, however weak they may be, we have the capacity of infinite development so long as we are loyal to the highest we perceive. (The Church Year in the Sunday Times, p. 188)
With the Apostle Paul, we must come
to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge. (Eph. iii. 16-19)
With self-respect for our mortality, we must pray that our embodied souls will find new life in Jesus Christ. With the Widow of Nain, we must mourn until we find it. Only Socrates’ learned ignorance, I know that I know nothing, and Jeremiah’s fear of the Lord can make us ripe for the visitation of God’s love in Jesus Christ with encouragement for that self-respect which, founded on reverence towards God, knows that our highest dignity is to serve Him with all our powers. (idem, p. 189)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: