|02 Sunday After the Elevation - September 17, 2006|
2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4
Galatians 2:16-20 (Sunday After)
Mark 8:34-9:1 (Sunday After)
In the Orthodox Church, September 1 marks the New Year when we begin again the full liturgical cycle that will carry us through the Twelve Major Feasts and Holy Pascha, beginning with the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8 and ending with the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15. In the way the liturgical year is put together with the twelve feasts all orbiting around Pascha like the twelve signs of the Zodiac orbiting around the sun, the Church reveals the movement of time as an icon of the mysteries of Christ. Time is like the current of the sea pushing us to the shore of our death. The question is this: when we finally reach the shore of our death, will we be found dead or alive, outside of Christ or united to Christ?
If you have been baptized, you have been pulled from the sea and brought into the ark of the Church. You now may ride the current of the sea, the passing of time, in the ark of the Church. Outside the ark, the movement of time is experienced as a passing from life to death. Inside the ark of the Church, the movement of time is experienced as the passing from death to life in the mystery of Christ’s Cross. On the decks of the ark of the Church – in the iconic structure of her liturgical rites, in the symbols of her dogmas, in her ascetic disciplines – we are taught how to prepare for that moment when we reach the far shore of our death, so that our body may be revealed as the wood of the Cross on which we are crucified with Christ to the world and its passions, and our tomb as the bridal chamber of the Lord in which we find ourselves with the holy Theotokos rising again like ears of wheat into the life of the Spirit from the ground of our death.
Christ at the beginning of his ministry announces how one enters the ark of the Church that is riding the sea of life to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is through repentance. But the Church’s liturgical cycle reveals that the mystery of repentance is imbedded in the very fabric of time; and in the Church, we learn how to lay hold of the movement of time as the mystery of repentance. Repentance means literally to turn toward the Good. And so it is the beginning of resurrection; for in repentance, one turns away from, one dies to, the life of the world that makes us sick and crippled and that finally ends in death or in the setting of the sun, and one turns toward the death of Christ that brings us through death and through the setting of the sun into the life of God and into the rising of the sun. In the illumination of our baptism, we see the transition from the end of the old year to the beginning of the New Year as the movement of repentance, a Passover from death to life in God. In the same way do we experience the transition from evening to morning, the end of one day to the beginning of the new day, and even in the transition of moment to moment as we breathe out and in. Seeing time in the light of our baptism as an icon of repentance, the movement from death to life in God, we are given to understand that repentance is a process that embraces both mind and body. The effects of repentance are not only spiritual but also physical. It is not just the soul but the entire creation that is renewed in the Spirit of God through the mystery of repentance. In the ark of the Church, we enter into the mystery of repentance, and in the sacramental character of the Church’s worship we experience, we “taste and see” through repentance the renewal of creation in the mystery of Christ’s Cross and his holy Resurrection.
Repentance embraces the whole being, both material and immaterial, both the body and the soul. It is the inner essence of the movement of time and so it is the inner essence of our life in space-time as we move from the cradle to the grave. We are constantly changing, constantly moving out of the old and into the new. On the decks of the Church, we can discover this inner essence of time as repentance, and transform the movement of our life into the movement of repentance. Even as we grow old and decrepit as we move every evening into a new day, if we become mindful of the movement of our life through time as the movement of our souls and bodies into the mystery of repentance, we can experience the aging of our bodies as the seed falling from the blossom of our youth into the ground to be united to Christ in the likeness of his death that we may be raised up with Christ in the likeness of his Resurrection.
Let me share with you what I have come to understand regarding the way we transform the movement of our life into the movement of repentance and the taking up of our Cross to follow Christ.
From the holy Scriptures, we are taught that we are not spirits trapped in a body but we are body and soul, and that as body and soul, we were pronounced by God to be “good”. It is because we are soul and body that the movement of repentance embraces both our soul and our body and that the salvation of our souls was accomplished for us by God in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Accordingly, there are two centers in us. There is the bodily center that is located in the belly. It is represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that grew in the midst of the Garden. And there is the spiritual center that is located in the heart; it is represented by the Tree of Life that grew alongside the Tree of Knowledge in the midst of the Garden. But of these two centers, the Tree of Life, or the heart, is chief; for we are told in Proverbs that it is from the heart that the springs of life flow. From this we understand that the bodily center of the belly was made to be centered in the heart, not the heart in the belly; and so the belly and all its desires are made to serve the heart, to be governed, ruled by the heart so that through the heart, even the body would be kept moist and would be nourished by the waters of life, which stand for the Holy Spirit.
You’ll remember that God told Adam and Eve in the Garden that they could eat from every tree of the garden, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they could not eat. That means they could eat from the Tree of Life. As we said, the Tree of Life represents the heart. The heart, as the spiritual center, is the personal center of the body and the soul. The belly is not. In the mystery of the holy Theotokos, the heart is shown to be like the gate of a house that swings open onto a road that extends far, far beyond the house that would take it to the ends of the world. The road onto which the gate of the heart swings open would be the better and changeless path that ascends to God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on the other hand, representing the bodily center located in the belly, if it is not centered in the heart, is cut off from the gate of the heart that opens onto God and so it is wholly contained within itself and leads nowhere. It is illumined, if you can call it that, only by the pleasures of the upper and lower regions of the belly. I say, “If you can call it that,” because these pleasures are not light but darkness, for the tree of knowledge is the tree of good and evil, of pleasure and pain. The good of the tree of knowledge is inseparably joined to evil; its pleasure is inextricably joined to pain. The light of its pleasures is immersed in pain, the pain of sickness, of loneliness, of fear and anxiety. Its so-called light therefore is the shadow of death.
We learn from this feast of the Elevation of the Cross that the Tree of Life was the Cross, and that its fruit was Christ our God. Adam and Eve could eat from the Tree of Life because the fruit of the Tree of Life, the Light and Life, the Joy and Goodness of the Heavenly Spirit of God, is what they were made to eat and drink. God did not want them eating from the tree of knowledge because he did not want them falling away into their bellies and becoming trapped in the dark coils of the serpent. He wanted them to live in Him and in the Light and Life of his holy Spirit, not in themselves and in the darkness and death of the serpent; and so he gave them the Tree of Life and its fruit – he gave them Christ on the Cross – to eat so that by eating and drinking Him who is divided but not disunited, who is eaten yet never consumed, he might sanctify their souls and bodies; i.e., that he might bring them into their heart and through its gates and into himself, making them holy by making them partakers of his own divine nature.
In the Church, we learn that to partake of God himself, to live in him, to rejoice and be glad in him, is why we exist. In the Church, we learn that our life in the world is filled with darkness and pain because we have chosen to live in our bellies and not in our heart. And, in the Church, we learn that God so loved us that he sent his only Son into the world, to be born of the holy Virgin in order to become flesh and dwell among us, so that he might plant the Tree of Life, his Cross, again in the midst of the garden of our soul, so that he might be lifted up on it, to hang from it like a cluster of grapes, and so draw all of us out of our bellies and into our hearts and unto himself, that we might eat and drink him who is the fruit of the Tree of Life, who is divided but not disunited, who is ever eaten yet never consumed but sanctifying all those who partake of him, making them holy by drawing them out of themselves to become partakers of his own divine nature through the grace and goodness of his unspeakable love.
Repentance is the work of fasting with our bodies, with our minds and all our senses, from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in order to turn our mind and soul toward the Tree of Life, the Cross of Christ our God. We turn away from the life of the world and set the eyes of our heart on Christ, we take up our Cross and die with the Theotokos in the Lord, when we work to set our mind on heavenly things, when we work to give our love not to the desires of the belly but to the yearning of the heart, when we work not to indulge in the soul-destroying passions of the belly, envy, anger, jealousy, lust, gluttony, vanity, pride and despair but to the desire of the heart to submit wholly to the light of Christ’s Gospel commandments. This work of repentance is made possible for us in the Church through the ascetic disciplines she gives us to practice: prayer, fasting, self-examination, study of Scripture, folding our daily life into the rhythm of the Church’s liturgical cycle so that we begin to be shaped by the life of the Church and not the values of the world, partaking faithfully and mindfully of the sacraments of the Church’s worship, honoring one another, forgiving one another, loving one another, helping one another, offering ourselves and our whole life together with the holy Theotokos and all the saints unto Christ our God on behalf of all and for all.
We stand at the beginning of the Church year as at the beginning of our repentance. And on this feast of the Elevation of the Cross, the Church in her goodness brings St Helen to help us transform this transition from the old to the New Year as well as every transition in our life as we move from our birth to our death into the beginning of our repentance, the renewing of our baptismal vows to unite ourselves to Christ and to heed his command to lift up his Cross from the hidden places of our soul. St Helen, well-pleasing to God, pray to God for us that he would grant us his grace to take up the disciplines of his holy Church that we may follow him through this liturgical year into the tenderness of Christmas, the light of his baptism in the Jordan, the joy of Pascha, the wonder of his holy Ascension, the glory of Pentecost, and that in every moment and hour and day of our life, we may be found with him on the better and changeless path that ascends to God and to his Heavenly Kingdom.