Orthodox America

  First Love

     In addressing the Church of Ephesus by way of revelation to St. John the Theologian, the Lord begins by commending it for its good works: "I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne and hast patience, and for My name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless," He adds, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. If it does not repent, He warns, it will be left desolate, its "candlestick" removed. (Apoc. 2:1-7)

    This moving passage from the Apocalypse has both a specific historical application and a general spiritual one for us today.

     Indeed, because the Ephesian Church was deaf to the Lord's exhortation and did not repent, did not return to its "first love" the city of Ephesus descended into fearful historical nothingness ďa heap of ruin s and a small Moslem village," as the late Archbishop Averky observed in his commentary on this verse. [1] "The great candlestick of earliest Christianity was completely extinguished ."

    It's interesting to note that St. John used in this passage the Greek word agape--brotherly love--for "love," rather than philotheos--love of God. Thus, the "first love" the Ephesians were accused of having lost was love for one another: 

A new commandment I give to you that you love one another; even as I have loved you     (John 13:34)

 At the dawn of Christianity the struggle to maintain brotherly love was a mighty one. We know the fate Ephesus endured for losing this, its "first love." Two thousand years later we live in the time spoken of by the Saviour, the time of the "beginning of sufferings" (Matt. 24:8) when, "because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will go cold."

     True, we live in a time when the word "love" is everywhere. But rarely is it expressed as the pure and simple agape our Saviour commands us to live. Rather, we see a false love, disguising self-indulgence and compromise, ambition and greed,

    We may feel that we love this or that person, but if we carefully examine our hearts we shall find that our love is directed primarily towards our friends, i.e., those who have similar feelings towards us. This is not the self-sacrificing, impartial love of our neighbor which is the mark of a true Christian. "For," says the Lord, "If ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?" (Matt. 5:46)

    It is not easy to cultivate genuine Christian love, to love one's neighbor as oneself. But it is not impossible. "Do not consider virtues excessively difficult or unattainable," counsels Abba Dorotheos, "but make at least a little effort and have confidence in God. Show Him your enthusiasm and zeal and you will see the help He brings towards your success.' The same Holy Father writes:

    "Suppose there are two ladders, one going upwards to heaven and the other leading down to hell. You are standing on the earth between the two ladders. You would not reason it all out and say, 'How can I fly from the earth and be once and for all on the top of the ladder?' This is impossible and God does not ask it of us, but He does ask that we meanwhile keep from going downwards and do not harm our neighbor nor offend him, nor calumniate him, nor rail at him or demean him. And so at last we begin to do a little good and are of help to him in speech, and bear with him, and if he needs something give it him freely, so we go up one rung at a time until finally, with God's help, we reach the top of the ladder. For through this repeated coming to your neighbor's rescue, you come to long for what is advantageous for him as well as advantageous for yourself and what is profitable to him as well as profitable to yourself. This is 'to love your neighbor as yourself.'"

    Sadly, in the world today few people show the determination or even the will to ascend the ladder of virtues. And those who do strive must be careful, for it is possible to concentrate on the means of ascent--fasting, almsgiving, prayer, renunciation of the world--and still contribute to the general neglect of the greatest commandment, which is love. This neglect has caused an arctic climate to spread. And, alas, its chill is even felt sometimes within the Church herself. We are called to a love which "suffereth long and is kind." Our love, however, is quick to cool, inasmuch as we are quick to judge another's faults, quick to take offense. Unless we kindle a steadfast 'agape' love in our hearts, we are destined to share the fate of Ephesus: our light, our "candlestick" will be extinguished; we will be brought to darkness and ruin. This applies to the Churches as well as individuals--for though a Church be mighty against error and earnest in its preservation of Holy Tradition, if it have not love, then it has become as "sounding brass" and is destined to go down in the dust with Ephesus.

    Thus, S t. John of Kronstadt cried out in his spiritual diary: "We stand before the altar of love, before the very presence of Love Incarnate Himself; and we have no love for each other: Is it not strange? And worse, we do not even worry about it, do not care about it. Love will not come of itself--we must strive for it with earnest efforts."

    We must indelibly engrave in our minds and hearts the Lord's instruction to Ephesus: "Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works..." As the great spiritual, father of Kronstadt also said:

    "'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' These words must guide our heart upon meeting with any one, at any time, whether he comes to us, or we go to him; whether we have to do some work for him, or to give him anything, or simply to converse with him, Bear in your heart the words love him as thyself, and carry on a perpetual war with yourself for the observance of these living words of our Lord: Force yourself to love!" 

Fr. Alexey Young Editor

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