Today Orthodox Christians celebrate the Sanctity of Human Life. As our own Fr. John Breck has made ever-memorable by his book title: The Sacred Gift of Life.
The Sanctity of Life extends from cradle to grave, and includes every millisecond in-between the two. Our beliefs, then, relate to conception, contraception, abortion…wellness and health, sickness and disease, “a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful” (as we pray), capital punishment, euthanasia, suicide, and death in general.
God alone has granted us life. He is the Author and Sustainer of it. It is He who breathes life into our existence (Genesis 1, 2). It is our task to be good stewards of it.
Let us be clear: we are not called to be determiners of who lives or dies. Rather, once alive, we are called to be good stewards of our own lives as well as defenders of the lives of those who begin, live, and die around us.
The Church believes that life begins at conception. This is not an optional concept for us. It is fundamental.
- We celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25 (Annunciation)
- Mary, the the Theotokos—the mother of God— by Joachim and Anna on December 9
- St. John the Baptist, The Forerunner, by Zechariah and Elizabeth on Sept. 23.
By these feasts, by celebrating these events on these days, we show our belief about when life begins. There is no Christian option otherwise.
The One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ, shows us the sanctity of all life by the way He spends His time with people, by his association with the ‘outcasts’, (Ones whom some today would call “worthless people” who have no ‘significant’ or measurable, or ‘meaningful’ life, and who ‘might should’ be put to death.)
Jesus had direct contact with lepers—many lepers—in one episode, 10 at once. And yet he had compassion on them, the outcasts of society. And even healed them—even the ungrateful ones!
Then there is the blind man in today’s lesson. There was even the blind man who was believed by many to be blind because of his or his family’s sins. (He wasn’t.) Jesus took pity on him, too.
And then there is the woman with the flow of blood. The unclean one. And the demoniacs in the graveyard.
Their lives were also sacred. Created by God. And tended to by Jesus personally.
With regard to ‘end of life’ issues, as we might call them today, there is the instance of the woman caught in adultery, who, together with the guilty man, should have been stoned to death according to the law. But Jesus showed mercy and spared her. Jesus is the Author of Life and the Sustainer of it.
Neither was Paul put to death, who as Saul was the leading killer of Christians before his conversion. Rather, as the ‘chief of sinners’ as we heard today, he repented and became the first great theologian, authoring the majority of the New Testament writings.
In all of these Gospel examples, we find that the Sanctity of human life is not an ‘optional view’ or an ‘opinion’ of the Church, but rather is the very essence of Jesus Christ. The sanctity of life is the undeniable God-revealed truth.
It must also be said that issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment are neither political issues nor women’s or human rights concerns. Rather they are serious moral considerations. Any Orthodox Christian who teaches, believes, or counsels others towards abortion, capital punishment or euthanasia teaches or believes that murder is a human option and denies that God alone is the Author and Governor of Life. As such, he or she is out of communion with Jesus Christ in the Church and must repent and change his/her mind.
NONE of this is simply ‘believe this or else’. We must always remember that as Christians we voluntarily take up the teachings of the Church because they are God-revealed. No one among us can create life ex-nihilo, and none of us can take life willy-nilly.
The teachings of the Church in this regard can be seen clearly among the ranks of the clergy. No one may be ordained to the ranks of the clergy who has ever taken a life. Likewise, any member of the clergy who takes a life—even by accident—forfeits his ministry. This is part of what we mean when we say “blameless” as when we pray for a “Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ”.
Lest we, who have had not direct link to any form of murder about which I have already spoken, believe that we are free from today’s teaching—let us also remember the finer points of the Gospel:
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
Who among us stands uncondemned?
We must likewise remember that, according to the Scriptures, our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. So, we take part in the desecration of human life—our own and those around us!—when we
- Live an overly sedentary life.
- We do not exercise.
- We eat horribly or excessively.
- Are addicted to much wine or liquor or to smoking or drugs
These, too, require repentance and amendment of life! We must care for the life God has given!
All of life is sacred, and we are stewards of life!
We do and will fall short a thousand times in our lives, and we must deal with and accept the consequences of our actions. But the Author of Life, Jesus Christ, “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). And, “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
This mercy has extended throughout time to murderers and sinners alike—remember among them:
- Cain who killed his brother and was spared by God
- Moses—who killed the Egyptian when he was young—and still was called to lead God’s people.
- King David—who not only had Uriah killed, but committed adultery with his wife.
- And many, many more—including St. Paul, whom I have already mentioned.
Hear what the Lord says through the Prophet Ezekiel (18:32), “…I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”
And let the words of today’s Epistle from St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy be our own:
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; 16 but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.