“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise as in a foreign land…for he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10)
When we hear the priestly prayer at the conclusion of a funeral or requiem inviting the beloved to the “bosom of Abraham,” we understand that as his children we too have passed through a lifetime where we had no permanent residence. Like our great spiritual father, we too have left behind a foreign land, even if we had been born in it. Regardless of how lovely, comfortable, and in materialistic terms, even expensive our home had been, nevertheless, it was just a tent in the sense that we pass on from there. We may have been taken to hospital and funeral home from the same house in which we were born; yet if we spent about fifty years on earth, the familiar in our childhood became foreign in time. There’s truth in the saying:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. (J.P. Hartley, The Go Between, 1053)
A half century ago, Bibles were read and prayers were said in schools. Sexual education was not taught because few felt the need to do so. Movies were not given letter grades because none were produced that required monitoring for sexuality, lewdness or violence. Today, if the three angels passed by the tent of Abraham and Sarah, where might they say they were going to punish the cities offensive to the Lord for their promiscuity, vulgarity and sinfulness? Sodom and Gomorrah are everywhere.
It’s too easy to sanctify the past and vilify the present. In the name of truth and honesty, let’s not do so. Consider the advances made in the same fifty years: Racial and sexual equality, tolerance for differences of religion and ethnicity, advances in technology, medical breakthroughs that have enhanced and advanced human life, knowledge of the universe and the expansion of all forms of intelligence – none of that should be ignored, especially by people of faith. Good and bad are mixed together in these times.
Indeed, the theme of the chapter in Hebrews and the entire epistle is faith. Abraham, the father of faith, is our spiritual leader. The tendency to celebrate and bond with the society we are born in until our twenties or thirties, then begin to question its mores and eventually to criticize and deplore what we find not in conformity with our youthful standards is not exactly to be the people of faith that the Lord expects us to be. We are neither to take on the lifestyles of our contemporaries without question, nor are we to stand apart and criticize from the periphery, but rather to represent and embody Jesus Christ in each situation. That’s what identifies us as Orthodox Christians, people of faith par excellance.
We are in the world but not of it. We celebrate and share in all that is good, kind, peace-filled, charitable and worthwhile; and we point out, deplore, reject and separate ourselves from what is vulgar, debasing, demeaning, defiling and evil, regardless of the source or the appeal. It’s so easy to be lost in a world gone astray and even to justify the fact that it has no direction. The life we live, we live for Christ. The faith we proclaim we know to be true, holy and eternal. The hope we cherish is a clear vision of a place which has no address but is located wherever the Holy Trinity resides, which is not a location at all but beyond this world limited by space and time. We are truly strangers on earth passing through two stages: our nine months before birth, and then through whatever the years that the Lord has planned for our stay here until like Father Abraham we are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)