St. John Chrysostom:Homilies on The Gospel of Matthew
As the world moves forward in time, the “crowd of worldly anxieties and the swarm of desires,” ever increasing, are like a smoke that “dims the eye of the soul,” says St. John Chrysostom in Homily 2 sec. 9 on the Gospel of Matthew. He argues that we ought to concern our thoughts with God more than with the mundane matters of this life, “For indeed, both eyes and mouth and hearing He [i.e., God] set in us to this intent, that all our members may serve Him, that we may speak His words, and do His deeds, that we may offer up sacrifices of thanksgiving, and by these may thoroughly purify our consciences.” He is quick to point out that if someone were to try to weigh our words as if in a scale, that words of our worldly talk would far outweigh words of our spiritual talk. He states, “For, tell me, who of you that stand here, if he were required, could repeat one Psalm, or any other portion of the divine Scriptures? There is not one.” Nevertheless, he observes, we are capable of singing the lyrics by heart of secular songs.
Chyrsostom anticipates the objection of a male, who contends that because he is not a monk, but rather a husband and father, “with the care of a household,” he has little or no time to pray. Chrysostom argues, “For they that dwell in the world, and each day receive wounds, these have most need of medicines [i.e., prayer].” He calls such an objection “words of diabolical invention.” Nevertheless, says Chrysostom, such a male would not avowedly touch the Bible before washing his hands, and yet this same husband and father does not find the “things that are laid up within it…to be highly necessary.” It is because of this that “all things are turned upside down,” (Homily 2 sec. 10).
Better to be “outcasts at home than kings in Babylon,” says St. John Chyrsostom (Homily 4 sec. 18). For me as a Palestinian Christian this carries special significance. I attempted before coming to America again in 2019 to stay in Bethlehem (in the West Bank) permanently (or for as long as the Israelis would allow) by applying to teach at Bethlehem University. The pay would have been dismal, with barely any money to travel outside the country, effectively dooming me to rarely, if ever, seeing my family in America. I was willing to make the sacrifice, which I would have, if the weight of oppression did not militate and the Franciscans had helped me. The creeping modernity coupled with the restricted freedom of movement and spritual decriptude of the Catholic Church made it unthinkable for me to live any meaningful life in Bethlehem, aside from the obvious blessing of being near all the holy places. The question became, apart from being near all the holy places, how would I spend my time apart from praying? It became obvious to me that I would not be able to live the simple humble life my ancestors lived, since now even the ancient stone-paved roads of Bethlehem were crowded with cars, with the city at a philosophic impasse and identity crisis: “little town of Bethlehem,” if it wished it remain as it was, would never have the infrastructure to become a modern bustling city, and yet it was being forced to, by the world’s economy and advancement of technology (everyone in Bethlehem owns a smartphone). I would be condemned to a life of boredom and loneliness, with no spiritual support.
Fast forward to Winter 2020, I was in communication with the chair of the humanities department at Bethlehem University, since the plan was that I would apply for a visa from outside Israel, and thus had come to America. My three month tourist visa forced me to leave, in any case, unless I wished to risk staying illegally in the country, being discovered, deported, and then offically banned from ever returning to Israel (even though my great-grandparents’ homes in the 1960’s were where Manger Square is today). I would have been exiled and the ancestral exile of my family that began in the 40’s would have become official. Nevertheless, I have lived with guilt because I never took this risk.
Fast forward to Spring 2023. I have not returned to Bethlehem in 3 years, coming on 4 years. Many of my friends have moved on with their professional careers, except me. I have become an outcast even in figurative Babylon, with the question begging, was it ever worth my great-grandparents emigrating from Bethlehem (“home”) to America (“Babylon”), looking back 80 years since their final departure from Bethlehem? Sure, my great-grandfather achieved tremendous wealth and became “the business tycoon” of Haiti in the 1950’s. He became a “king in Babylon.” Perhaps I am judging my great-grandparents too harshly, because they merely followed the script that was set out before those of their generation, like so many from the Old World who emigrated to America seeking “a better life.” At the end of the day, my contemporaries, my friends in Bethlehem, struggling to find their place in society (in “the little town of Bethlehem”) are no worse off than those of us in the New World, because they–though they may not all see it this way–are grounded on sacred ground.
May my friends in Bethlehem always choose to be “outcasts at home,” like Mesach, Shadrach, and Abednego, who though wealthy in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, mourned their own exile from Israel to Babylon, and the suffering of their kin back home and in Babylon, and would have chosen poverty in Israel (Daniel 3). May we, too, always choose to be society’s outcasts because of our fidelity to God and the Common Good, than to be wealthy and glorious in the eyes of the world but estranged from God (and neighbor). May all humanity choose obeisance to God and defy the technocratic New World Order and One World Religion, than to worship the Antichrist and submit to his digital system of social credit in order to fill our bellies and become known and loved. This Lent, may we follow the advice of St. John Chysostom and spend time reading his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.