St Maximus the Confessor
Today we commemorate one of the bright lights of the Orthodox Church… St Maximus the Confessor. St Maximus’ contribution to the continuity and the preservation of the integrity of the Orthodox faith cannot be overstated. His courage and willingness to stand for the Orthodox faith is something that we should understand and must serve as a source of inspiration for us in our own troubled times.
St Maximus was born at the end of the sixth century in Constantinople of noble parents and received an excellent education. He was an incredibly accomplished young man and served as an imperial counselor under the Emperor Heraclius. Yet his heart yearned for God and he left his lofty secular position and became a monk – putting his mind, heart, soul, and strength into the service of his Lord Jesus Christ.
At this time a heresy was taking hold which taught that our Lord Jesus Christ had but one will, His Divine Will, which overshadowed and annihilated any human will which might have resided in His being. This heresy was called Monothelitism… which basically means ‘one will’. Those that were teaching that Christ had but one will, His Divine Will, were gaining ground and were prevailing in the culture and in the Church. Debates were taking place in the public forum and the scales at this time were tipping in favor of the Monothelites.
Perhaps this all sounds far too obscure… perhaps this sounds unimportant and seems like theological hair-splitting. But let’s take a moment and think about the implications of the teachings of the Monothelites.
If our Lord Jesus Christ had but one will, His Divine Will… and was not also subject to His human will, then what implications does this have for His life, His sufferings, the temptations placed before Him, His prayer and sweating of blood in the Garden of Gethsemene?
If He had but one Divine Will, then were all these sufferings, these temptations, simply a show?
The defense of the Orthodox teaching that Christ incorporated both His Divine Will and His human will, that within His Being there existed both the Divine and the Human to their full extent, is essential in order that we not rob our Lord of His Divine Mission as the Savior of mankind!
Our Lord Jesus Christ took upon Himself our humanity… in this He shared all of our sufferings, our temptations, He subjected Himself to cold, loneliness, pain, sorrow, suffering, and death. He struggled and resisted the evil one’s temptations in the wilderness, He truly suffered and struggled in the Garden of Gethesemene when He pleaded that God would let this cup of suffering pass from Him. These were not illusions, these were not jests… Christ struggled mightily in His human will to overcome all temptations, to battle with the human will of self-preservation and instead to follow the will of His Father.
The fact that Christ went through this and was victorious is precisely what gives us hope. Christ has gone through all of human suffering and He has redeemed it! And if we unite ourselves to Christ, we then may participate in His victory and in His resurrection. This, dear brothers and sisters, is the very essence of our Christian faith! If we deprive Christ of the fulness of His humanity, we deprive ourselves of any hope of salvation.
Now, back to St Maximus…
St Maximus understood the importance of recognizing Christ’s incorporation of both the Divine Will and the human will in order to facilitate our salvation. And he stood strong against the greatest odds in order to defend the Orthodox teaching on this matter.
St Maximus spoke eloquently – explaining how integral the Orthodox teaching of Christ’s two wills was to the fulness of the Christian plan of salvation. And yet, the tides of heresy were strong at this time… the majority of the bishops of the Church had fallen under the spell of the teaching of the Monothelites and St Maximus was mercilessly persecuted for opposing them. He was accused by his opponents as being alone in his beliefs. To this, St Maximus replied:
‘When all the people in Babylon were worshipping the golden idol, the Three Holy Youths did not condemn anyone to perdition. They did not concern themselves with what others were doing, but took care only for themselves, so as not to fall away from true piety. In precisely the same way, Daniel also, when cast into the den, did not condemn any of those who, in fulfilling the law of Darius, did not want to pray to God; but he bore in mind his duty, and desired rather to die than to sin and be tormented by his conscience for transgressing God's Law. God forbid that I, too, should condemn anyone, or say that I alone am being saved. However, I would sooner agree to die than, having apostatized in any way from the right faith, endure the torments of my conscience.’
St Maximus was told that the whole Christian world recognized the Monothelite Patriarch of Constantinople as legitimate, that all the Eastern Patriarchs were in communion with him. Thus, he is the only one remaining in the whole world who does not recognize the Patriarch.
The Saint answered: ‘If even the whole universe should begin to commune with the Patriarch, I will not commune with him. For I know from the writings of the holy Apostle Paul that the Holy Spirit will give over to anathema even the angels, if they should begin to preach any other gospel, introducing anything new.’
Venerable Maximus remained unshaken in his Orthodox convictions. After much coercion and intimidation, they finally cut off his right hand and cut out his tongue, so that he could not proclaim or defend the truth either by word or by pen. Then he was exiled to confinement in a remote region of the Caucasus. There, our venerable father Maximus died on the 13th of August 662.
But the story does not end there… St Maximus was finally exonerated by the Sixth Ecumenical Council which recognized the errors of the Monothelites and upheld the teaching of St Maximus the Confessor as being wholly Orthodox and in keeping with the teaching of Christ and the Apostles. The steadfastness of St Maximus, even unto death, shines forth in the history of the Church and we are indebted to him for his fidelity to the faith of our fathers.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ… the example of St Maximus is important for us as Orthodox Christians of the 21st century. We live in a world which certainly presents challenges to our Orthodox faith. The opinions of populate culture, the worldview being promulgated by our schools and through the media… these points of view present challenges for us and for the preservation of our faith.
We must remain steadfast and we must retain our peace – resting assured in the truth of our Orthodox faith no matter what the odds may be, no matter whether we are surrounded by hostility and ridicule, no matter whether we feel isolated and alone. Adherence and obedience to God and His commandments will indeed set you at odds in a world which falls farther and farther away from God. You will feel alone, you will feel misunderstood, you may suffer persecution.
Take courage… Hold fast to your faith and do not condemn anyone. Let the words of our holy father Maximus the Confessor guard you and guide you in all truth. Draw strength from his conviction as he says: ‘When all the people in Babylon were worshipping the golden idol, the Three Holy Youths did not condemn anyone to perdition. They did not concern themselves with what others were doing, but took care only for themselves, so as not to fall away from true piety. In precisely the same way, Daniel also, when cast into the den, did not condemn any of those who, in fulfilling the law of Darius, did not want to pray to God; but he bore in mind his duty, and desired rather to die than to sin and be tormented by his conscience for transgressing God's Law. God forbid that I, too, should condemn anyone, or say that I alone am being saved. However, I would sooner agree to die than, having apostatized in any way from the right faith, endure the torments of my conscience.’
Through the prayers of our holy father Maximus the Confessor, may God embolden us to have such courage and such conviction to hold close to our hearts as the dearest treasure of all, our holy Orthodox faith. May we defend her with humility, knowing our unworthiness to receive such a rich inheritance, and yet holding our faith with great fidelity and honor as the most precious pearl which shines forth for us and for all mankind – illumining the way to the Kingdom of Heaven!