Submitting to God
Imagine being the most powerful person in the world. Now, imagine being the most powerful AND the wealthiest person in the world. Power and wealth – something people dream of, and yet, two of the most dangerous temptations for anyone who wants to live a life in Jesus Christ. Jesus tells his followers to “deny themselves;” to understand that all that they have isn’t their own, but is a gift from God, and He will hold us accountable with how we use this gift to bless others. Do we use what He gave us to help others, to serve others, to build up others, or do we allow our ego to control our desires and focus everything inwards, towards self?
Power and wealth are two danger temptations, and not too many people can handle them in a way that will save their souls.
Today, we remember and celebrate one of the greatest Roman emperors who became the first emperor to understand that all his power and wealth were not his own. St. Constantine was the 54th Roman emperor, and yet he became the first to NOT see himself as some divine god, but to submit himself to the sovereignty of another greater than himself – Jesus Christ. As we heard last night in one of the hymns for Vespers:
“Constantine, you were the first Emperor to submit the Roman Empire willingly to Christ, knowing Him as God, the Universal Sovereign, the world's Benefactor, the One who is above all power and all authority. From that time forth, Jesus, the Savior of our souls, became the guiding force of your reign.”
Imagine, St Constantine received formal education and served in the court of Diocletian, the emperor responsible for the worst persecution of Christians in Roman history. Yet, Constantine didn’t follow in the ways of Diocletian. Instead, he chose a different path. As the 54th Roman emperor, he was preceded by many eccentric, blood thirsty, even crazy emperors, men who allowed their power and wealth to go to their heads, making some of them believe that they were truly divine. They thought they could do whatever they desired. They ruthlessly killed their perceived adversaries, and even murdered their own family members. Think of Nero, Caligula, Domitian, Diocletian to name a few. Some were blood thirsty, others were paranoid, most fell into the extreme egocentric temptation that they were gods themselves!
Then comes Constantine. He surely was not a perfect man. He has some dark stories in his own history, including murder and violence. Yet as he journeyed through life, he stayed open to a new path. And this path led him to became the first emperor to stop the persecution of Christians. Surely, he was influenced by his Christian mother, Helen. He eventually came to not only understand but even to embrace the Christian faith himself. And as he journeyed in this faith, he came to understand that he was not a god, he was not divine like so many other roman emperors saw themselves, but that he himself, and in fact the entire Roman Empire, were called to live under the rule the one true God. Even though Constantine would become one of the longest standing and greatest Roman emperors, he learned that there was one King who stood above him, and despite the vastness and wealth of the Roman Empire, there was a kingdom even greater than his. St. Constantine learned that Jesus Christ is the ultimate ruler of the universe, and the greatest citizenship was not Roman citizenship, but an eternal, heavenly citizenship and kingdom that awaits us.
Reflecting on the life of St. Constantine and his journey of transformation, which led to his baptism on his deathbed, made me think of the words of St Ignatius Brianchaninov, “The right use of earthly life consists in preparing oneself for eternal life. Let us accomplish our brief earthly pilgrimage, making it our one business to please God, borrowing from the world only what is essential.”
The Gospel story we heard today also seems appropriate as we honor Sts. Constantine and Helen. We hear the story of Jesus healing a man born blind, a story of how Jesus gives sight to a man who could not see his entire life. Before he performed this miracle, Jesus proclaimed, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” These words seem to foreshadow the blindness of Constantine in his rule as emperor until he came to know Jesus Christ, and to see how Jesus healed him of his blindness. Constantine didn’t allow his position as emperor, his wealth, or his power to keep him blind. Instead, he gradually embraced the light of Jesus Christ, and on his death bed was baptized into union with God.
May each of us learn that to not be deceived by the temptations of life that try to blind us from the truth of God. Money, power, and other such temptations can easily distort reality and our perception of self. May we learn, as St. Constantine, to submit all under Christ, and to allow His reign to rule in our lives.
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