|30 - Second Sunday of Great Lent, March 31, 2013|
Hebrews 1:10 – 2:3
We are on the second Sunday of our Lenten repentance and Sabbath “rest”. I’m referring to St Luke’s Gospel that we read on the Thursday before the beginning of Great Lent (Lk 23:56). St Luke says that the women “returned [home] to prepare spices and ointments; and they rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment.” In this, St Luke could be showing us that the work of repentance, of returning home,is the work of entering into the closet of our heart in secret, in stillness or in the Sabbath rest of Christ’s death, to make the offering of our souls and bodies to the Savior fragrant by anointing them with the spices and ointments of fasting and prayer. We take up these ascetic disciplines as our cross. They are the inner work of hesychia, of attaining rest, an inner stillness of soul that opens onto an acute inner alertness to all the movements that agitate our mind and seek to seduce our soul away from the tomb of our heart; for the goal of our Lenten fast is to imitate the wise virgins, and to return with the myrrh-bearing women on Pascha morning to the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha as to the tomb of our heart, and to discover in the joy of His Holy Resurrection that He has made our soul buried in the tomb of our heart to be radiant with life, and the tomb of our heart He has transformed into a bridal chamber where we are granted to become one with Him in fulfillment of our original creation and as a heavenly flower that blooms from the ascetic work of our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ.
Our Scripture reading this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, I think, sets before us the glory that is “veiled” beneath this Lenten work of “returning home” to prepare spices and ointments through prayer and fasting. Our Gospel reading from St Mark, I think, is showing us how we go about entering our heart as into the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha to discover the healing and life-giving joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
St Paul takes us to the 102nd Psalm to set before us the glory of this Lenten work: "Thou, O Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands; they will perish, but Thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a cloak (a mantle, a wrap around, a veil) Thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years will never end." Reading this Scripture this morning, on this the second Sunday of Great Lent as we are on the Lenten path to the tomb of the Lord’s Holy Pascha, the Psalm, it seems, is “opened” like the heavens at the Lord’s baptism to disclose a heavenly vision like the dove descending on Jesus, bearing witness to Him as the Son of God, which St John the Baptist saw. “Like a cloak, or a veil, Thou wilt roll up the heavens and the earth, and they will be changed, but Thy years will never end.” In the Paschal light of the Lenten Fast, this Psalm opens up to reveal a prophecy of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
It is recorded in the Gospel of St John that when St John the Evangelist and St Peter entered the tomb on Pascha morning, they saw the linen shroud and the napkin that had covered the face of the crucified Savior, and the burial clothes in which He had been clothed, rolled up and set aside in their own place (Jn 20:7). The Psalm reveals that this was not a “small detail”, not some kind of literary flourish. It is, in fact, a loud shout that in the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha, the heavens and the earth, grown old like a garment because of the world’s bondage to death, were rolled up like a veil, and they were changed to become the radiant Robe of Christ’s Holy Resurrection!
So also at the Divine Liturgy, I think, the Church proclaims the fulfillment of this Psalm in that liturgical gesture when the priest processes the holy gifts to the altar and removes the veils that covered them. He folds them up, he “rolls them up”, and sets them aside in their own place. It is a seemingly small liturgical gesture that becomes a loud proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by His death, and giving life to those in the tombs! In His saving Pascha, the Lord has rolled heaven and earth up like a veil and changed them from the garment, the “wrap-around”, of His burial clothes into the fragrant Robe of Light that now clothes His risen body; and, as the glorious body of the Risen Lord, their years will never end.
St Paul says that it is not the angels but man, this lowly creature of flesh and blood subject to death and decay,who has been destined from before the ages to receive in the love of God this inheritance of a heavenly garment whose years will never end, a body and a soul that serve as a holy temple radiant with the Glory of Christ. Christ in His Holy Resurrection has destroyed the power of death so that not even death can keep those who love Him from receiving the divine glory of such an inheritance, if they want it! The call to “claim our inheritance” in Christ is to everyone. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Nothing keeps those from entering it who want to enter it, to discover – not a corpse, not death – but the angelic presence proclaiming that Christ is not here! He is risen as He said. He has trampled down death by His death and He has given life to those in the tombs!
In the healing of the paralytic that we read about in St Mark’s Gospel this morning, we have an icon that shows us how to enter into the tomb of our heart and to claim our inheritance in the Resurrection of Christ. It is through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting. St Mark tells us: “Seeing his faith, the Lord said to him, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven you! Arise! Take up your bed and go to your house.’” What was this saving faith shown by the paralytic? I see the qualities of persistence, resolve and determination. Through the resolute persistence of faith, we take up the Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting as our Cross that chips away at the hardness of our heart, of removing the roof of the house where Jesus is. In the words of St Macarius, the work of this Lenten Cross of prayer and fasting is the work of “dragging our mind at all times to the Lord (praying without ceasing – hesychia), whether it will or no, denying ourselves and seeking the Lord only and at all times” (Homily IV, p. 23) until finally we break through and our mind is “let down” into our heart, into the presence of Christ, and we find the forgiveness of our sins and the healing of our soul in Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
I hear the Church exhorting us in this morning’s Scripture lessons to be faithful like the paralytic, to be persistent in our Lenten work of praying and fasting in the Sabbath rest, the hesychia, the inner stillness of the myrrh-bearing women. We are making our way to Pascha night when the dirty, stinking garments of the death that clothes our souls and bodies will be taken off and rolled up and set aside, and we will put on Christ in the radiant garments of the transfigured heaven and earth that He now wears in His Holy Resurrection.
Let’s not be surprised if, having taken up the fast in the hope of getting into our heart, we find that we have encountered resistance, or even a kind of paralysis of our soul, a sluggishness that would discourage the persistence of faith if we gave in to it. We’ve simply come face to face with our paralysis; we’ve come upon the stone that seals us off from our heart where the Lord is. Let’s be like the paralytic. Let’s call on our friends, the saints, and in the persistence and determination of faith, use the prayer and fasting of the Lenten ascetic discipline as the hammer and chisel by which we remove the hardness from our heart so that, through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, we may be let down into the house of our soul, the tomb of our heart as into the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha to receive our inheritance in the forgiveness of our sins and in the glorious change of our garments from the burial clothes of the old Adam to the Robe of Light of the Lord Jesus’ Holy Resurrection. Amen.