I have a story about a man named Armogastus; he was a royal count who lived in the 5th century. He was a close collaborator with King Theodoric who ruled Italy. Theodoric was a very powerful man in the Byzantine Empire second only to the emperor himself. The bad news about Theodoric, however, is that he was a heretic. He was an Arian who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus.
Theodoric was a heavy handed ruler and for the sake of unity he demanded that all of his royal officers and nobles believe the same thing, that they all become Arians. All the nobles and officers quickly obeyed the king’s command, all except for Armogastus. He refused to abandon the Catholic faith. The king tried argument and reasoning and persuasion to bring Armogastus into the Arian Church. The king liked Armogastus and didn’t want to lose him as an advisor. The king eventually grew frustrated and gave up. So he offered Armogastus a choice; he could either renounce his Catholic faith, or he could die. “Then I at once choose death,” Armogastus answered. Instead of executing him right away, however, the king decided to torture him for a time. Armogastus responded to all torture with complete resignation and prayer. He could not be broken. Theodoric would have eventually beheaded him but the Arian priests stopped him, saying that it would only cause Armogastus to be honored by the people as a martyr. Eventually Armogastus was stripped of his royal title, all his wealth, and he was banished from Italy. He spent the rest of his days in Carthage as a herder of cows. Before dying he said, “It is a glorious thing to be dishonored before men in the cause of God.”
For our first reading, this weekend, we heard from the book of Wisdom. This book was written 100 years before the coming of Christ and it forms a preparation for the fuller teachings of Jesus and his Church. And in today’s first reading we hear of the theological concept: love of predilection. Which is a fancy way of saying, God’s love comes first. Before anything happens in our lives God’s love is there first, always willing the good. As we heard, “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made…and how could a thing remain unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things because they are yours. Lord and lover of souls!” Our spiritual tradition is built upon this passage. Everything that exists has been willed into being by God and is sustained in being by God. We can think of it in this way; the universe and everything in it exists and is sustained in being by God in the very same way a song exists and is sustained in being by a singer. Our Lord continually sustains us and wills us into being. If He were to stop we would cease to exist. That is love.
Now we sometimes think that we have to earn God’s love saying to ourselves, “If I’m good God will love me.” But this is wrong. God’s love comes first. We should be thinking instead, “I’m good because God loves me.” Armogastus was spiritually courageous, he gave witness to his faith by defying a king, enduring torture, and finally exile. And he was able to do all of this because God loved him first. He was virtuous in response to the one who loved him first.
Now what about the bad, Zacchaeus was a very bad man. As chief tax collector he stole from his people, and he stole from the tax collectors beneath him. He was probably the most hated person in his community. How does God deal with a person like that or with a gangster, or a murderer, or a rapist? How does God deal with the worst of the worst? Again we go to the first reading from the Book of Wisdom, “O Lord and lover of souls…you rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!” Jesus, face of the living God, looked at Zacchaeus and said to him, “Come down, I’m staying at your house.” Jesus is not being soft on sin; he knows who Zacchaeus is and what he does. But he is also a lover of souls, both the found souls and the lost souls and he does all he can to save them. Staying at the house of Zacchaeus is a metaphor. Jesus is moving into his life, in a sense saying, “Zacchaeus, I want to be the Lord of your entire life.” Love comes first; Jesus loved him and realizing this Zacchaeus repented and salvation came into his house.
Our souls are meant for eternity, we were created for it. Heaven is our true home and we have no future whatsoever apart from the love of our Lord. So let that love inspire us to give witness to our faith like St. Armogastus. Let that love draw us to repentance like Zacchaeus. Let that love more and more take over our life remembering that no matter where we go or what we do Love is there making the first move, waiting to be received.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley