A sermon delivered on the Sunday of all saints, based on the Epistle reading from Hebrews 11:33-12:2.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
In Orthodox Christianity we have something called asceticism. From the word ascetic. It is a physical and spiritual discipline and usually is believed to be related only to monks and very strict and serious people. And it is somewhat true, asceticism includes abstinence, which the monks and seriously strict people definitely practice.
But asceticism, in all its aspects, is not limited to monks, it’s not a monastic discipline. It’s a Christian discipline. We all do it, sometimes without even knowing it.
Asceticism is a Greek word, which literally means “polishing” or “refining.” The Greeks, in their pagan days, used this word to designate athletic exercises. Originally, asceticism meant physical training, a workout. The Greeks believed that through these exercises they developed the dormant powers, which our bodies have. Their goal was to train the body to its full natural beauty.
But the point of these ascetical exercises was not to simply look good and have a nice summer body. The ancient Greeks trained for competition, public games, which sometimes were life-or-death kind of games. The dormant powers they strived to develop were meant to help them win and remain alive.
Ascetic discipline made its way into Christianity, one the pagan Greeks converted to Christ. It remained very much a physical exercise, but now with a spiritual aspect. We may not focus too much on bodybuilding and looking good in our asceticism (even though there is nothing wrong with working out, as long as fitness and diet don’t become our little gods), and as Christians we know that our life is both physical and spiritual. Therefore, our ascetical exercises include both physical and spiritual aspects.
For example, we fast and pray, both of which are physical activities, as well as spiritual. We abstain from certain foods and activities and we stand, kneel down, and prostrate ourselves in prayer. And we also examine our conscious daily and repent, and these are spiritual ascetic exercises, which require us to be honest with ourselves and be aware of what is right and what is wrong, according to Christ and His teaching.
Much like the pagan Greeks, we strive in our asceticism to develop and unlock, if you will, the dormant power of our bodies. These powers are not something mystical, locked away from us by some greater being. We were created by God and in the image of God. Meaning, He bestowed some of His divine powers on us, but we have lost them by turning away from our Creator through sin. Therefore, we have lost our God-given powers on our own. And we need to exercise and train to regain these powers, to regain full, natural, God-inspired beauty of our bodies, both physical and spiritual.
And just like the pagan Greeks, the point of our ascetical exercises is not to simply look good on Pascha. We also participate in life-or-death competitions and public games. Our competition is for the Kingdom of God. We compete, not against each other, but against all the evil this world has to offer us, in order to inherit what we are meant to have – the eternal rest with our Lord.
Saint Paul calls this competition of our life “the race” and “the fight,” as he exhorts us today to “run the race with endurance and perseverance to the fight set before us, looking to Jesus.” Run the race to fight the evil temptations that will inevitable cause us to stumble. We exercise ascetically in order to win this race of life and inherit the Kingdom of God.
Just like any racer or competitor, our eyes are set on our goal and our guide and our hope – the Lord Jesus Christ. All the physical and spiritual bodybuilding becomes a waste of time if it is not for the glory and honor of Christ.
In this race of our life we look to Jesus because He has already run this race for us. He has prepared the path for us to go through. Jesus Christ exercised the same asceticism in His earthly life that we do. We don’t have to reinvent the race, but simply follow in His footsteps of humility, love, and conviction.
Our race is a life-or-death competition. With Jesus we are assured life.
Run the race with endurance and perseverance.
To our great Lord and Savior, Who guides us to the finish line and the salvation of our souls, we give glory, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.