|24 - Publican and Pharisee, Feb 13, 2011|
II Timothy 3:10-15
If you persevere in the faith to the end, you will be buried from the Church; and the faithful will sing to your soul as your body lies in the nave of the Church: “Blessed is the way in which thou shalt walk today, O soul, for a place of rest is prepared for thee.” What way do you think this is? Where and when does it begin? How do you walk it?
It is the better and changeless path that was revealed in the waters of the Jordan at the baptism of Our Lord. You were placed on that path in your baptism, when you chose to unite yourself to Christ. It is the path that winds through the liturgical life of the Church, spiraling around Great Lent and Pascha, taking the faithful each year deeper into hell with Christ as their love for Christ grows and their desire to unite themselves to Him in fulfillment of their baptismal oath grows stronger.
Yes, I said that this blessed way of the soul takes the faithful deeper into hell. Hell is the place of the dead. When I say that the better and changeless path of the Church takes the faithful each year deeper into hell, I mean that this better and changeless path takes them deeper into their soul, bringing them ever closer to their heart, which is the inner mystery represented by the outer mystery of Christ’s paschal tomb. To unite oneself to Christ and to follow Him to the Cross on Golgotha means to follow Him into hell, into the darkness of your soul and into the tomb of your heart in order to receive the crucified God in your heart and so participate in His victory over death and receive His Holy Spirit by whose power our death is destroyed by Christ’s death and the life of His Holy Resurrection is given to those in the tombs. This is the better and changeless path of the Church, the “blessed way” of the soul that the faithful begins to walk as soon as he repents, turns away from the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life in order to follow Christ out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.
When man sinned and was expelled from the Garden, the Word of God said to him, “From the dust you were taken; to the dust you shall return.” The blessed way of the soul that is uncovered in the baptismal font as the better and changeless path that ascends to God is the mystical, hidden Way that is “Christ in our midst.” It begins in the dust of the ground and it ascends to God; but, it ascends to God by descending into hell, into the tomb of our heart. We therefore don’t see the “blessed way” of the soul revealed in the baptismal waters of Christ’s Holy Church until we are resolved to unite ourselves to Christ and in repentance, we have turned our eyes away from the glitter and glamour of the world and onto Christ. That is to say, we don’t see the better and changeless path of the Church until we have united ourselves to Christ and in repentance, have turned our eyes to face the bitter reality of our death to see the vanity that lies beneath the sexual life of the world that circles back to the dust in a never-ending uroboric circle, the emptiness of earthly power, and the nothingness inside fleshly beauty, youth and strength.
In this vision of the vanity of all things, the faithful Christian turns away from the world, from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, and seeks to unite himself to Christ in the beauty of His Holy Resurrection. This turning away from the lusts and pride of the world is the mystical essence of repentance. It shows repentance to be the hidden inner work of putting to death pride and lust in order to return to the dust of the ground in Christ, in the likeness of His death. Only as we take up that hidden inner work of dying to lust and pride do we begin to make our descent into the waters of our soul and come upon the better and changeless path of the Church, the “blessed way” of the soul that ascends to God.
The “blessed way” of the soul is made visible in the path we walk to pass through the waters of our baptism and to the Chalice at the foot of the ambon. The “blessed way” is the hidden path you walked this morning when you left the world behind in order to come into the Church in the hope of uniting yourself to Christ in Holy Eucharist. That is to say, in the path you walk to approach the Chalice, you are walking the “blessed way” that your soul shall walk in the hour of your death.
Think back, then, to how the Church placed you onto her better and changeless path. What way did you have to walk in order to draw near the baptismal font and the Holy Chalice in the fear of God, with faith and love?
First, you were instructed to lay aside the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and in the penitential humility of the Publican, you were led to confess your sins in the sacrament of confession. If your confession was sincere, your repentance began. Your union with Christ in the likeness of His death began.
This morning is the beginning of the Lenten Triodion. You see how the Church, by setting before us the Gospel story of the Publican and the Pharisee, is directing us inward to that juncture in our soul where we come upon two paths. The one path is the way of the Pharisee. It is a broad path that leads away from the dust of the ground and upward, up into the ethereal heights of the wisdom of human opinion, the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. The Lord tells us that this path leads to destruction. Those who take it are many. They are blinded by their ambition, their lust of the flesh and the pride of life; and they do not see, or choose not to see that the ethereal heights of human wisdom to which this path ascends are empty, hollow halls of nothingness. Nothing supports them but the vanity of human, intellectual conceit or the vapid sentimentality of wishful thinking and fantasy. The wispy filaments of human theories and ideas that swirl about in the empty space are shrouded by darkness. This path does not so much return as it plunges to the dust of the ground in a bitter fall. The other path is the way of the penitential Publican. It is the hard way that leads away from the dust of the ground going downward, into hell, in the likeness of Christ’s death on the Cross. Those who take it are few, for it is unassuming and humble. It is the path of denying oneself for the express purpose of uniting oneself to the death of the crucified God; and yet it is the path, the Savior tells us, that leads to life, the life of His Holy Resurrection, the very life of God that lies beyond the dust of the ground on the other side, like the Promised Land that lay on the other side of the Jordan. It is the path that destroys death by death. Dying in the likeness of Christ’s death puts death to death; for, it destroys the death born of the self-righteous ego by putting the self-righteous ego to death. It destroys pride by humility. It puts to death the scorn of those who are at ease and the contempt of the proud by laying aside every excuse in the confession of one’s sins before the almighty God.
Great Lent is the baptismal waters of the Church extended into the dimension of time. And so, on this morning when we come to the beginning of the Lenten Triodion and hear again the Gospel story of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church is directing us back to where we stood before our baptism: at the sacrament of confession where the hard way of Christ’s cross that leads to life begins. The Church is calling us to turn away from our busy preoccupation with the excessively diverting distractions of the world and to make ourselves mindful of the masks of our worldly persona, the masks of the Pharisee that we wear without thinking, simply out of habit, and in sober mindfulness to stand before God in the penitential humility of the Publican; and in that humility, to lay aside every excuse, to lay aside the masks, and to repent.
In this mind of repentance, the faithful pass through the weeks of Great Lent as they passed through the waters of their baptism, following the better and changeless path of the Church, the “blessed way” of the soul to Pascha as to the Chalice at the foot of the ambon, to the reception of the crucified and risen Christ into the tomb of their heart transfigured by the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent into a bridal chamber longing to receive into their soul and body the life-creating seed of Christ’s Holy Spirit and to be born again from above as children of God in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Amen.