|15 Sunday of the Forefathers - December 17, 2006|
The great supper that is given by a certain man is the Holy Eucharist of the Church. The “certain man” is God the Father. The event which this Great Supper celebrates is given in St Paul’s letter to the Colossians that we read this morning: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Christ is the fruit that grows from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; and he appears to us in the flesh on the blessed feast of Christmas.
In the first feast of the liturgical year, the Nativity of the Theotokos (Sept 8), the Second Eve appears on earth, for the Theotokos is truly the Mother of all Living. She is the Mother of God and therefore of all those who are born of God in the life of God’s Holy Spirit. Shortly after her appearing, the Tree of Life appears. It appears on the feast of the Elevation of the Cross (Sept 14), for the Cross is the Tree of Life. There is a very close spiritual association between the Theotokos and the Cross. Both carry the Christ. The Theotokos is called the Holy Tree that brings forth fruit to God; and the Cross is called the Tree that carries Christ like a cluster of grapes full of life.
The next feast in the liturgical year is the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple (Nov 21). Now, the Hebrew word for Law or Torah comes from the root for light. The Law of Moses, given by God from Heaven, we might understand as the light of Paradise that was given to Moses on the Mount to shine in the world that had forgotten God and grown dark by its separation from God, so that by means of the Mosaic Law, God might prepare the world for the coming of God Himself to those who love him. At different times in the history of Israel, this light shone forth in a visible way from the sanctuary of the tent, in whose sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, were kept the tablets of the Law. Therefore, following St Ephrem the Syrian, we can say that the sanctuary of the OT temple, the Holy of Holies, was an icon of Paradise, the Garden of Eden. When the Theotokos enters the temple at the age of three, it’s as though we see the Second Eve turning away from the serpent’s tree to enter the Garden of Eden. The Tree of Life as the Theotokos appears in the temple as in the Garden of Eden. Fed by the hands of angels from heaven, she makes herself ready to become the beautiful dwelling place of God and to bring forth the fruit of God.
On Christmas, Christ comes forth from the Virgin in the cave as the flower blossoming from Aaron’s rod and as the fruit of divine life budding on the Tree of Life. “Bethlehem has opened Eden,” sings the Church on Christmas Day. “Come, let us see. We have found joy in secret. Come, and let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave. There the Virgin has born a babe, and made the thirst of Adam and David to cease straightway.” The Father says to his servant in this morning’s Gospel (I think we can speculate without dishonoring the Gospel that the servant here is the Archangel Gabriel, who was also sent to the Blessed Virgin to announce to her that she was chosen to be the Theotokos): “Say to those who were invited, ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’” At Complines of the Forefeast of Christ’s Nativity, we hear that “the middle wall of partition of the ancient enmity is now laid low and destroyed by thy coming in the flesh, O Christ, and the flaming sword now gives way before all who approach. And I partake in faith of the life-giving tree in Eden, becoming once again a husbandman of immortal plants.”
And so, the event this Great Supper celebrates and to which the Father invites all to come is the descent of Eden and the Tree of Life into the world and the budding of the Tree of Life in the birth of the Christ who is born of the Theotokos like the flower blossoming from Aaron’s rod, like a cluster of grapes full of life appearing in the branches of the Cross, the boughs of the Tree of Life.
The Garden of Eden has appeared on earth. The Tree of Life appears in the midst of the Garden. And Christ, the life of those who love God, appears on earth, but not everyone sees him. For all of this takes place in the sanctuary of the temple, in the cave of Bethlehem, in the tomb of Pascha. Christ God is the joy of Paradise found in secret; found, in other words, only by those who obey the command of the Father announced by Archangel Gabriel and come to the place where God has appeared in the flesh; and to come to that place one must renounce the world and its pleasures as did the Theotokos. Listen to St Paul this morning: “Put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication (sexual immorality – masturbation, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage), uncleanness, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.”
Do you see how all of these “earthly members” are in the secret place of the heart. They are the secret desires of the heart on which the mind loves to dwell secretly and if it can, to act them out with the body, with the hands and with the tongue? It is in the “secret place” of the most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos that God has appeared in the flesh. He appeared in her secret place because she is most holy, most pure, most blessed and most glorious. And so, to come to the secret place of the most pure Theotokos where God has appeared in the flesh, one must put to death in the secret places of one’s heart all sexual immorality, all uncleanness, all filthy thoughts, all impure desires, jealousy, greed, anger, wrath, malice and blasphemy against God and against one’s fellow man.
This is how we come to the feast of Christmas, to the cave of Bethlehem in which Christ God our Savior and Redeemer is born and appears in the flesh. We come to the secret place of his holy Church, his bride and his Mother, from whose womb God appears to us in the flesh. We must be made holy and pure, for we are coming to a holy place, to sacred ground. We are coming to the Garden of Eden that has appeared on earth in the cave of Bethlehem, in the tomb of Pascha, in the inner sanctuary of the temple, in the secret place of the human heart that has been purified by the ascetic, purifying fire of Christ’s holy Church.
I would wish you to see from this how gracious is our God who has given to us the mysteries of holy baptism and confession that we might come as he has commanded to the secret place where he has appeared in the flesh. These mysteries are of the very essence of the Church’s hierarchical structure; for they are rooted in him, the Holy One of Israel. For who of us is holy? Who of us is pure? Who of us is without sin? Who of us has not eaten from the serpent’s tree? Yet God is good and gracious and the lover of mankind. He desires not the death of the sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live. And so he has established his holy Church in his own crucified and risen body. And at the heart of his holy Church, in the secret place of his holy Church, he has planted the door of the Garden of Eden in the sacrament of confession. For what is more secret than the sacrament of confession? In the sacrament of confession, we go into our own soul. We lay aside our obsession with the speck in our brother’s eye and we stand before God in the beam of our own sins. We stand before the judgment seat of God now, before the Judgment at the End of the World from which there will be no appeal, and we confess our sins to him who has promised that he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, if we confess them. We lay hold of our impure desires and our filthy thoughts, we acknowledge our impure deeds by which we have sinned against God and against our fellow man and we lay them at the Judgment bar of God. But in the Church, we see that the Judgment bar is Christ’s holy Cross. We put to death our earthly members as God commands us through his servant St Paul by hanging them on the Cross of Christ in the sacrament of confession. This is how we come to the secret place of the most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos and to the cave of Bethlehem has opened onto Eden to reveal God the Son appearing to us in the flesh.
“Blessed is he for whom Paradise yearns. Yes, Paradise yearns for the man whose goodness makes him beautiful,” writes St Ephrem. The irony of the Gospel is that we become good only as we confess our evil and turn away from it in repentance to follow after the beautiful. Radiating from the sacred cave of Christmas and Pascha, the beauty of Christ God in his holy Mother, the blessed Theotokos, bathes with its light the soul that approaches it in this attitude of confession and repentance and clothes it with his beauty and goodness. Then, “Paradise engulfs such a one at its gateway,” St Ephrem continues. “It embraces him in its bosom, it caresses him in its very womb; for it splits open and receives him into its inmost parts. But if there is someone it abhors, it removes him and casts him out; this is the gate of testing that belongs to Him who loves mankind.
Forge here on earth the key to Paradise and take it with you; the Door that welcomes you smiles radiantly upon you; the Door, all discerning, conforms its measure to those who enter it: in its wisdom it shrinks and it grows. According to the stature and rank attained by each person, it shows by its dimensions whether they are perfect, or lacking in something.
As we go about this week fulfilling whatever last minute worldly obligations this season imposes on us, let us pray to our guardian angel, to our patron saint, and to the holy Theotokos, that they will pray to God for us to help us find the secret place of his appearing, so that in our hearts we might “Raise our minds on high and be going in spirit all this week to Bethlehem, and that with the eyes of our soul we may look upon the Virgin as she hastens to the cave to give birth to our God, the Lord of all. Let us look upon the great mystery in the cave. For Eden is opened once again, when from a pure Virgin God comes forth, perfect in his divinity as in his humanity. And, Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery. The middle wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience. For the express Image of the Father, the Imprint of his eternity, takes the form of a servant, and without undergoing change He comes forth from a Mother who knew not wedlock. For what he was, he has remained, true God: and what he was not, he has taken upon himself, becoming man through love for mankind. Unto him let us cry aloud: God born of a Virgin, have mercy upon us.”