|26 Second Sunday of Great Lent: St Gregory Palamas - March 4, 2007|
Hebrews 1:10 – 2:3
Hebrews 7:26 – 8:2 (Saint)
Mark 2:1 – 12
John 10:9 – 16 (Saint)
Following upon last Sunday, when the Church celebrated the “triumph of Orthodoxy”, the restoration of icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, I would like this morning to show how the very structure of Great Lent in and of itself is an icon that reveals to the attentive soul profound teachings that are to be discovered in the Incarnation of God the Word.
You will remember that in the two weeks before Great Lent begins, the lectionary takes us through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus and, on the Thursday before Great Lent begins, it brings us with the women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to see the tomb and how Jesus was buried. Then the women returned home, we read, and prepared spices and fragrant oils. This is the last time we read from the Gospel on a week day until Holy Thursday, six weeks later. At the Matins service of Holy Friday, served on the evening of Holy Thursday, we read the “12 Passion Gospels” which take us again through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, when again we will find ourselves with the women looking on his tomb and seeing how he is buried.
In this structure of the Lenten lectionary, the six weeks of Great Lent are experienced liturgically as that period of time during which the women returned home on Holy Friday, after seeing the tomb and how Jesus was buried, to prepare spices and fragrant oils, and then rested on the following day, the Sabbath. In other words, these six weeks of the Lenten fast, according to the lectionary, are the period of Holy Friday as it passes over into Holy Saturday. This is to say that during these six weeks of the Lenten Fast, we are now, liturgically, in the one day of Great and Holy Friday. Obviously, since this “liturgical day” is six weeks in duration, it is not the Friday of the ordinary calendar. It is the Great and Holy Friday, the Sixth Day of Creation according to the biblical calendar of Genesis 1. The biblical calendar is measured not by the movements of sun and moon but by the Spirit of God that “moves over the face of the waters,” the waters of creation. On this day of the biblical calendar, God completes his creation of the world by creating Man in his image and according to his likeness.
The lectionary of the Church, then, is like a gate that opens onto the biblical days of creation to reveal the mystical movement of God’s Holy Spirit as the transcendent foundation on which ordinary time moves. Taking up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting given us by the Church, we lay hold of that gate in a spiritual way and, hidden from the eyes of the world, we pass over in our soul from ordinary time into biblical time, and we join the company of the women who, having seen the Christ’s tomb and how he was buried, are returning home to prepare spices and fragrant oils on this liturgical day of Holy Friday.
I believe we can look to the iconographic structure of Great Lent to see for ourselves how Christ’s body is buried and how the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent are the way in which we return home with the women over these six weeks of Great Lent to prepare spices and fragrant oils with them. There is first the fact that the one who lies in the tomb with the body is God the Word by whom all things were made. This means that this is not an ordinary death of an ordinary man; it is the death of God the Word, and so it has cosmic, spiritual meaning. That meaning is revealed by the fact that the incarnate Word of God dies on Friday, the biblical Friday, the Great and Holy Friday of Creation on which he completed his work of creation by creating Man in his image and according to his likeness. This tells us that the manner of Christ’s death, the how of his burial, is a sacred veil that veils a cosmic mystery happening in his tomb: by his death and burial, he is somehow renewing all of creation and recreating Man in his image and according to his likeness.
There is a second element in the iconographic structure of Great Lent that points to the how of Christ’s burial and the meaning of Great Lent’s ascetic work. During the week we are reading each day from the Old Testament. But, at the Matins for the Sundays of Great Lent, which we have been serving at the Vigils on Saturday evening, we are assigned to read Gospels that recount Christ’s holy resurrection and the appearances of the risen Christ to his followers. Can you see how the six weeks of The Church’s Lenten disciplines are punctuated on the Saturdays and Sundays of Great Lent (days, which liturgically, are days of resurrection) by the light of Christ’s holy resurrection? The structure of the Lenten lectionary reveals a light shining in the darkness of our ascetic labors; it is the light of Christ’s resurrection, the light of recreation and renewal.
I have suggested that the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent correspond to the women returning home to prepare spices and fragrant oils. Let’s consider this more closely.
The women went home to prepare spices and fragrant oils for the purpose of anointing Jesus’ body with them. The preparation of spices and fragrant oils, then, is connected to a death; and so the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent are connected to a death. Studying the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church is an ascetic discipline by which our love of worldly wisdom can be put to death and our minds refashioned in love for the Wisdom of Christ. Prayer and the sacrament of confession are ascetic disciplines by which the soul-destroying passions can be put to death and our souls refashioned in the life-giving virtues of Christ. Fasting with our stomachs and with all of our senses is an ascetic discipline by which our love for the flesh can be put to death and our bodies refashioned in the Heavenly Spirit that we receive as our food and drink in the partaking of Christ’s body and blood in holy Eucharist. Through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we can even now die to – we can pass over from – the ordinary calendar of the world into the biblical calendar to live each day of our life in the Spirit of God as he recreates us and refashions us in his image and according to his likeness.
This teaching that we come upon in the iconographic structure of Great Lent can be discerned also in how the Sundays of Great Lent celebrate the memory of three saints: St Gregory Palamas (today), St John Climacus (on the Fourth Sunday) and St Mary of Egypt (on the Fifth Sunday). These were all monastic. The significant point to note here is the impulse of monasticism toward the desert. Therefore, to understand what the iconographic structure of Great Lent is teaching us in its celebration of these monastic saints on the Sundays of Great Lent, we must understand the meaning of the monastic impulse toward the desert.
God made the world a verdant, beautiful place, teeming with life. He placed the first man and woman in a luxuriant Garden. The desert shows the emptiness and desolation that have come upon earthly life and that stand underneath the glittering veneer of human culture’s institutions, business and entertainments because man has turned away from God. The desert is a land of desolation, the haunt of wild beasts, the dwelling place of the demon. All nature there is hostile to man, subject to Satan, God’s enemy. And so it is of profound religious meaning that God led Israel safely through the desert to the Promised Land. It shows God’s power over the Evil One. It is also of profound religious meaning that John the Baptist appeared in the desert to announce the coming of the Christ; and that Christ, after he was baptized, was led by the Spirit into the desert. There, he was with wild beasts and he was tempted by Satan; but Satan had no power over him, the wild beasts were tamed by him; and when he returned from the desert, according to Mark’s Gospel, his first miracle was to drive a demon out of a man. The Church therefore sees the monk’s retreat into the desert as an assault in the Name of Christ on the power of the Evil One. The oasis invariably created by a monastery in the midst of the desert bears witness that the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled in the coming of Christ: “For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.”
The celebration of these great monastic saints on the Sundays of Great Lent is therefore further commentary on what I think we can safely say is the “great” teaching to be found in the iconographic structure of Great Lent. It is the proclamation of Holy Pascha. The light of Christ shines in the darkness. He has trampled down death by his death and upon those in the tombs he has given life. He has renewed creation and recreated man in his image and according to his likeness. Through the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent, the faithful can go out into the desert, the desert of their soul made desolate by sin, and in the Name of Christ we can launch an assault on the Evil One. Following his baptism, Christ was led by the Spirit into the desert. Following our baptism, Christ follows his Holy Spirit into the desert of our soul. Through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, the power inherent in our baptism, the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit, begins to come forth. Through the Church’s ascetic disciplines, we can unite ourselves to Christ in a death like his, and watch as he drives out the demons and tames the wild beasts that have taken up their dwelling in the desert of our soul. United to the death of Christ in our baptism, we are united also in the Church’s ascetic disciplines to his holy resurrection by which he makes the desert of our soul to rejoice and blossom as the rose, as the prophet Isaiah foretold.
The icon of Great Lent shows us that the Church’s ascetic disciplines are grounded in the joy of Christ’s holy resurrection. There is therefore the very clear note of triumph in the penitential disciplines of Great Lent, for by them we are assaulting the power of the Evil One in the Name of Christ; we are putting to death in us the soul-destroying deeds of fleshly desires and the fleshly mind. As we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church with our body, our mind and our soul, we are being taken up into the body, the mind, and the soul of Christ’s humanity. As we separate ourselves from the love of the world and its values, Christ unites us to himself and to his Father who is in Heaven. As we die to our desire for the soul-destroying pleasures of the flesh, he makes us truly alive in his Holy Spirit whom we are granted to receive as our food and drink in the mystery of Holy Eucharist. This is the great teaching of Great Lent.
This is why the Church urges us to take up the Fast and to persevere in it, and to do so with joy. For through the Fast, we are dying in a death like Christ’s and being raised up in a resurrection like his. The desert is being made to rejoice and blossom like the rose. And so: “As we start upon the third week of the Fast, let us glorify the Holy Trinity, and joyfully pass through the time that still remains. Causing passions of the flesh to wither from our souls, let us gather divine flowers, weaving garlands for the queen of days [Pascha], that with crowns upon our heads we may sing in praise of Christ the Victor.”