St Paul here continues to condemn this notion of false asceticism. By false asceticism, he refers to those things which intrinsically feed the fleshly passions; the craving for attention, self-righteousness and pride. These are those ascetic principles which are not prescribed by His Holy Church. It’s this whole idea that if the primary goals of the ascetic life are obedience and humility, then following an ascetic rule which you yourself have devised is of no profit. “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” he proclaims, “these things have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.” Consider the one who deigns to give up social media during Great Lent. What purpose does this serve? It diverts their attention away from those things which they should never have been party to to begin with, true. Otherwise, it turns to the self-righteousness of doing more than they have been instructed (although quickly returning) and then quickly dissolves into the pride of taking this digital “monastic vow of silence,” only to return once Lent is passed. Further, since it was self-imposed, it leads to this autonomous self-reliance and declaration rather than obedience. Or consider the one who determines to never again eat pork or shellfish, or any other “unclean” substance. Again, this ultimately leads to this false sense of superiority, this “holier than thou” mindset, which far from being spiritually profitable, leads to feelings of pride and arrogance. The Lord Himself declared that it is not that which goes into the stomach which defiles a man, but that which comes out of his mouth (Matthew 15:11), and that because “that which comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and these things defile a man” (Matthew 15:18).
There are certain ascetic practices which the Lord commands, but these practices must be done in obedience to the Lord, and thus His Church, the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), or else they serve the opposite function. For example, during the whole of Great Lent, we abstain from meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oil and wine; and yet during the week which follows Pascha (Bright week), we are expressly forbidden to fast; lest in maintaining the fast we might become self-righteous. Likewise, during our daily prayers and during the Church services of Lent, we often offer prostrations, a sign of submission to our Lord. And yet, on Sundays and at various points throughout the year, prostrations are forbidden, again, lest we become filled with spiritual pride and self-righteousness. At the point that we allow those vices to enter into our hearts, then all of our ascetic labors have become in vain. Humility is the admission that we are not in control; obedience is acting in accordance with the commands of God through His Holy Church. The moment we seek control over these practices ourselves, we are no longer obeying God, but our own passions and desires.
St Paul ends this passage powerfully. Using Holy Baptism as his backdrop, he begins to counter those heretical practices that they have encountered. Unlike what the gnostics have exploited, he states that the goal is not to solve all of the mysteries of the universe. Our goal is to not even set our minds on earthly matters at all. We will all die, nothing can prevent this. We will shed this mortal shell and enter into the heavens. If history has taught us anything at all, it is that all mortal men shall die, all emperors shall pass away, all nations shall ultimately crumble. Thus, our concerns should not be on these temporary fleeting things, but rather we should “seek those things which are not above; not the things of this earth.” We have received His exalted resurrection in Baptism, and must continue seeking the glorious age to come. We must never fear earthly perils or death, but rather live according to His resurrection. We must seek our true life in Christ, regardless of what this world may breed.
My brethern, the world is crazy. Anxiety runs rampant all throughout the land. In the West, today is election day. And many are anxious about what we will face, regardless of who may win. But, we must not focus on this anxiety, on what will happen here based on which emperor takes command. Instead, let us each focus on the glories of the things above, “not on the things of the earth.” There is solace in knowing that no matter who is president, there is only one King, and regardless of what happens here, we must never fear, never waver in our faith. Paul, imprisoned and enchained on account of his faith, wrote the words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Let us look to him as an example of our faith. We can never surrender our faith, our hope, our love, and our devotion to Christ, regardless of how dark the days seem to become; and we can never let the circumstances of the world come between us and the truth of our Savior, to Whom is due all glory, honor, and worship.
Christ is in our midst.