No Prophet is Accepted in His Own Country
by Michael Sidhom
Recently, I’ve indulged myself in a pleasure all too familiar to all of us: re-watching a movie. Yet travelling through that familiar tale, the highs and the lows are not as deep as they were that first time. And as the protagonist’s betrayal approaches, I can wonder and hope if it might this time somehow be different… But always, I find only disappointment. The film is still the same. Static. Lifeless.
The human person, however, is a far greater mystery.
“Both the inward thought and the heart of man are deep,” writes the Psalmist (Psalm 64:6). Man is no static movie, but an undefinable and indefatigable mystery. Human personhood, like all mysteries of the Church, only get worse when we try to define and limit it. But instead, we experience it. The word ‘person’ derives from the Latin persona, meaning a ‘mask’ and so it is inextricably tied up with relationship. We know, of course, that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Following Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, we ought to cast aside the sceptical modern axiom, “I think therefore I am,” and replace it with an ancient faithful one: “I love therefore I am.” For man is intimately related to his fellows. But he is also intimately related to God.
“God is a mystery beyond all understanding,” writes St Gregory of Nyssa. Man, in God’s image, is made to be a partaker of that mystery. But what is it that man is partaking of? What is it that man is an image of? It is the God Who is Trinity. It is a God who is both one, just as man is uniquely one, but also three, in communion as man ought to be. And love is the duct tape that binds them together, the music that encourages the perichoreticdance, the blurring of the three-ness into oneness.
This perfect God is also the perfect Man. And this perfect Man dwelt among us and came to His own but His own did not receive Him. It was the God-man, the final prophet, who was not accepted in His own country. The Jews muttered amongst themselves, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22), which is to say, do we not know this Man? Is He not simply just like us? “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’” (Luke 4:23), which again is to say, you call yourself a doctor but yet you still get sick. You are no different to us. You are just as wretched as we are. Thinking they knew the Man, they put a mask, a persona, on Him, and couldn’t see through it. They said, we have seen this film and won’t see anything new here. And so Jesus “went His way” (Luke 4:30).
What was their crime? Was it not limiting this great mystery, this unfathomable depth and unpredictable capacity, of human personhood? And what is their punishment? They fail then to experience, to enter into, the fullness of the life of Christ. Most tragically of all, it is a crime we commit every day. For insofar as we claim to understand anyone, or think we have ‘figured them out’, we shackle them with their own reputation. We strangle them with our estimation of them. We quench the fires of their mysterious personhood when we say, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” They become that static movie to us with no hope, no power, but instead knowledge of a betrayal.
But yet ancient wisdom once again offers an escape. St Isaac the Syrian writes:
When you meet your neighbour, force yourself to pay them more honour than may be their due. Warm your heart fervently with a holy love for them. Attribute to their person all sorts of virtues, even if they may not apply to them. And when they are absent, speak good and noble things of them. Address them in respectful terms. In this sort of way, not only will you impel them to desire these virtues (since they will be ashamed of their undeserved reputation with which you credit them) and sow in them the seed of good deeds, but you will also find that, by habituating yourself in this way, you will establish in yourself gentle and humble manners, and you will be freed from many tiresome struggles. This should be your attitude towards all people.”
The depth of man opens into eternity and reaches towards God. St Isaac encourages us to look into that depth and find communion, and find God. In this way we need not tire ourselves so much with political philosophy and how best to structure society. But let us tire ourselves instead with the work of God, with loving each and every man as the perfect man has loved us. In this way, when we are weary and heavy-laden at the end of our days, we may come to Him and He will give us rest.