One of the first things that I noticed during my first few years of living in Michigan, is that the type of pollen and allergens in the air must be different than in my native Ohio. My first year here, during the Spring and Fall Months, I would inevitably have several days where my body would be weakened by allergies, to the point where it was hard to function. Several people “in the know”, who had dealt with the same issues, prescribed for me a daily dose of allergy medication, so that my body would be able to combat the pollen all year round.
This is what we do when our bodies’ natural defenses fail us isn’t it? When we get sick, we first try something natural like Chicken Soup, and if that doesn’t work, we go to the doctor to get some medication to combat the illness that has taken over us.
The Church, in Her Wisdom, works the same way for us. Beginning this past week, she has prescribed for our bodies a 14 day dose of medication to strengthen our souls, and just as importantly, to strengthen our bodies, as we prepare for the Funeral Service for our Mother, the Blessed Theotokos.
The prescription of fasting is one of those medicines that has been proven throughout the centuries to work…with 100% success rate! But like so many other medications, it is sometimes difficult to swallow. Even though we know it will make us better, our minds still try to play tricks on us by asking, “Why does the Dormition have to be smack dab in the middle of the summer? I’m a good person. I come to Liturgy. I give to the poor. Is fasting really all that necessary?”
The answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes!” Fasting is absolutely necessary to our health as Christians. Without taking the prescription, how can we be fully prepared for not only the trials, but for the celebrations ahead?
I think something that often goes overlooked in Christian circles is the emphasis that is placed on the health of the body. This is especially true in our country where we have an overabundance of food at our disposal, which makes overeating an easy temptation to fall into. Despite the temptations, keeping our bodies healthy, unaltered, and prepared is an essential teaching of Christianity because this temple that each and every one of us is given at birth holds within it God Himself—through the Holy Mysteries and Sacraments of the Church.
Maintaining the health and beauty of our bodies is no different than maintaining the health and beauty of our Church Temple. After every service Katherine comes and does a fantastic job restoring the temple to its original beauty. When a window breaks or a bulb needs replacing in the Church, we address it as quickly as we can. When there is a major feast day that is on the horizon, the Church is carefully prepared with the changing of the covers and with flowers.
The same care and love needs to be shown to the temple of our bodies as well. When we get dirty, we shower. When something breaks down in our bodies, we get it fixed. When there is a major feast day, we prepare through prayer and fasting. We do all of these things as Orthodox Christians, because we know that we are each given one temple, one body for the Glory of God, and this body is one that we will have not only in this life, but in the life to come!
It is interesting that today we celebrate the feast day and the story of the 7 sleepers of Ephesus, because what happened to them centuries ago is extremely relevant to the understanding of the importance of the Body. In the 3rd century, under emperor Decius, there was a terrible persecution that awaited anyone who even mentioned the name of Jesus in public. In the city of Ephesus, there were seven young soldiers who grew up and served in the military together, but who were secretly baptized Christians. Refusing to turn from their Christian Faith, they were turned in by some informants and before the emperor, they confessed their faith in Christ. The soldiers were stripped of rank, but because of their service to the Empire, they were not sentenced to death. Instead they were given a warning not to pursue their Christian faith any longer. The young men then went into hiding in a cave outside of the city where they continued to live out their Christian way of life, preparing for what was sure to be martyrdom once the emperor found out.
The youngest of them, St. Iamblicus, would often dress as a beggar and go out into the city to buy bread for them. On one of his trips, he heard that the emperor had returned from a military campaign and was looking for them. Being the obedient soldiers that they were, the youths went and presented themselves before Decius and told him where they had been hiding. The emperor was of course not pleased and sentenced them to death by ordering that they be sealed alive in the cave. As the sentence was being carried out, it so happened that one of the workers that was sealing them in was a secret Christian who didn’t want this martyrdom to go unnoticed by future generations. At the last moment, he threw into the cave a sealed container containing two metal plaques which had the names of the seven men, and the story of how they bravely faced their deaths for being Christians.
Throughout the next two centuries, the seven youths remained in the cave without any food or water. During this time, Emperor Decius had died off, his persecutions ended, and Christianity began to flourish! For those that know your Church history, in the early part of the 400s there was a debate going on in the Christian world about the important role that the body would have at the Second Coming of Christ. There were those who questioned the Church’s teaching which says that all of those who have fallen asleep before us will rise again, not just in soul, but also in body. These heretics would argue: “How can a body rise after being buried in the ground for 1,000 years? Only dust would remain!”
While this debate was going on, the farmer who owned the land near where the seven soldiers were buried, noticed the cave that they were in and thought that it would make an idea place for his cattle. So he sent workers to unblock the entrance, only to find the seven young men sleeping on the stone floor! When they awoke, they didn’t realize how much time had passed, and as was their normal routine, they thanked the farmer for opening the cave, then sent St. Iamblicus to go and buy bread for them in the city.
Imagine the Saint’s surprise when he walked into the center of town to see Churches and gates with beautiful golden crosses on top of them! There were people in the street openly proclaiming the name of Christ! Church services were being held out in the open! St. Iamblicus could hardly believe what he was seeing!
When the Saint went to pay for the bread, he used old coins with the image of emperor Decius. He was detained and taken to the city administrator, who was the Bishop of Ephesus. After a line of questioning, the Bishop could hardly believe the story he was hearing. He was astonished but, like all of us would be, skeptical. He followed St. Iamblicus back to the cave where the others were still hiding. It was there that they found, in a dark corner, an old rusted and sealed container containing the two plaques that had been used to identify the men and their martyrdom over two centuries before.
The entire Christian world rejoiced at the incredible miracle! Not only was it a tremendous source of encouragement for the faith, but it also demonstrated to everyone involved in the debate on the body, how with God, even in matters concerning the body, all things are possible!
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the body plays a tremendously important role for us as Christians. It requires special care, preparation, and attention. Just like our Church temples. Part of that preparation is learning to control it so that it can remain worthy of receiving the Mysteries of God within it!
Let us make an effort, not only during this fasting period for Dormition, but for all fasting periods in our life, to preserve and strengthen the temple of our bodies that our Lord has given us—not only for this present life, but for the ages to come!
As a bit of historical reference, this incredible story is verified for us in several ways. This type of miracle could not be contained, so it spread throughout the entire region, even finding its way into Islamic writings. In the early 1900s, during an excavation from that region, a Church built over the cave was discovered where hundreds of graves and writings from the 400s were found. They were from people who wanted to be buried in the same place as these Seven Youths slept for all of those years!