|34 - Palm Sunday, Apr 28 2013|
The liturgical rites of Great and Holy Week that we have now begun are much more than “services” that commemorate Christ’s saving Passion that took place in the far distant past. In the mystery of Christ, when God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, time and eternity, flesh and Spirit, heaven and earth were united. And, the place where this union is centered is the Church, which is the very body of Christ. (Eph 1:21)
The liturgical movements of Great and Holy Week are the movements of the Church. They are therefore movements of the very body of Christ, for the Church is the body of Christ. These movements make visible and audible the mystery of the risen body of Christ in which we stand this morning. So, as we hold our palms and our pussy willows this morning, and as we process around the Church at the end of the Divine Liturgy this morning, we are not performing some kind of abstract symbolism of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem so as to evoke pious sentiments in ourselves. We are weaving together a liturgical icon that gives form and shape in space and time to the heavenly reality of the Christian Faith. The palms and pussy willows in particular that we hold in our hands are not just palms and pussy willows. They are icons of an inner, spiritual mystery.
The liturgical texts for the Sixth Week of Great Lent tell us that the palms represent our virtue (Lenten Triodion Supplement, p. 267), our self-control (Ibid., p. 305) and our acts of righteousness (Ibid., p. 301) that have been won from the Great Fast. So the palms and pussy willows are not just palms and pussy willows. They are concrete emblems of the fruits produced in us from the Fast, from the same operation of Christ’s cross that is active in us when we accept the Fast for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (for, the ascetic disciplines of the Fast are called “flowers of abstinence that grow from the wood of the Cross.”) It is the power that destroys death by the death of Christ and gives life to those in the tombs, even to us who were dead in our sins and trespasses. The palms and pussy willows that we hold in our hands this morning, then, are emblems of the Holy Spirit who is working in us, and of the fruits of Christ’s Holy Resurrection that are growing in us from our having taken up the Great Fast in the love of Christ as far as we were able. Indeed, I would say that they are the cross of the Fast that has become a jeweled cross; that is to say, they are the epiphany, they “show forth” how the Fast has made the wilderness of our soul to blossom like the rose, and the cross – an instrument of death put together from three types of dead wood (the pine, the cypress and the cedar) – has become in us a living Tree of Life, clothed in the wedding garment of Resurrection, the Resurrection of Lazarus.
And this brings us to the larger icon that we are putting together in the liturgical movements of Great and Holy Week, of which these palms and pussy willows are a central element. In the liturgical movements of the coming week, we will be completing the icon of Christ’s Holy Pascha that we began “drawing” over six weeks ago on Cheesefare Sunday. But, more than that, in these liturgical movements of Great and Holy Week – because, again, they are the movements of the very body of Christ in whom heaven and earth, time and eternity, flesh and Spirit have been united – we will be doing much more than putting together abstract symbols to evoke pious sentiments in us. We are weaving together a veil that covers the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection like the stone that covered the tomb of Christ; and, as we participate in these movements prayerfully, with attention, “lifting up our hearts”, “attending to Holy Wisdom”, we may find the veils of these liturgical movements lifting to reveal underneath the wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection as the spiritual reality that we can “taste and see” in our own souls.
On Tuesday of last week, Lazarus died. Six weeks ago, we began the Fast with the words of St Luke’s Gospel in our ears: “then the myrrh-bearing women returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and, on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” (Lk 23:56) Beloved faithful, by taking up the Great Fast, you returned home with the myrrhbearing women and rested in the stillness of hesychia, of prayer. You retreated into the closet of your heart and there, you prepared spices and ointments. Spices and ointments are meant for the dead; but these spices and ointments never anointed the body of Christ, because when the myrrhbearing women returned on the third day, they discovered that He was risen. Could it be that these spices and ointments were meant for the body of Lazarus? That is to say, for us who, through the disciplines of prayer and fasting and mercy, took up our cross and worked to put to death the old Adam in us in the likeness of Christ’s death? But what would these spices and ointments be in their mystical meaning? I want to say that they would be the virtues that we have practiced in an especially mindful, prayerful way over the last six weeks, with which we have anointed our spirits that are dead in sins and trespasses as we worked to put the death of the old man in us to death by uniting ourselves to Christ by returning to our home, retreating into the closet of our heart in hesychia, in prayer, to prepare spices and ointments: i.e., the virtues of prayer and self-control, of mercy and humility, and above all, the virtue of more love for Christ.
Yesterday, Lazarus was raised from the dead. Beneath the veil of the liturgical commemoration of Lazarus’ resurrection, one can see the mystery of our baptism, when we are raised from the dead as was Lazarus. In that resurrection, the spices and ointments have become palms of victory. The Church tells us in her liturgical texts that these palms are the virtues we have won through the work of faith over the last six weeks, the work of taking up the Fast as our cross. And now, having been raised from the death of our sins and trespasses, we greet the Christ who has raised us and given us life. In thanksgiving, and in love for Him who first loved us, we offer to Him these virtues that we have won from the cross that He gave us and from the life of the Spirit that He raised us up into at our holy baptism. We wave these palms and pussy willows as emblems of the victory that has been granted to us in the taking up of the Fast as our Cross; and, we now make our way into Great and Holy Week as into Jerusalem, waving these palms as branches of victory that grow from Christ’s Holy Cross. With the living virtues of the Spirit that have been granted to us in the taking up of our cross, we follow Christ to the Cross with spiritual eyes that see beneath the surface. Where the world sees weakness, we see the strength of God’s humility and love. Where the world sees death, we see the death of death by Christ’s death. Where the world sees the burial of a corpse, we see the sowing of a divine seed in the tomb of our heart. And where the world sees no more, and believes not, we see the stone rolled away from our heart, and we see in an unseeing way, we hear in an unhearing way, the joy and the glory of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. It is real to us, we taste it and see it, because it is a joy in our souls by which we find that we are able to call brother even those who hate us and to forgive all things. This joy of the Resurrection is the final victory to which the palms that we wave this morning in thanksgiving and worship of Christ bear witness. It is the glory of the Cross as the Tree of Life that stands – for the world as a bare tree in a garden at the top of Golgotha; but for the believer who has tasted and seen how good the Lord is in His Holy Resurrection, it is a “jeweled” Cross that stands in the middle of the Garden of Eden that has opened to all who have taken up their cross and followed Christ to become “gardeners once more of divine plants.” Amen.