|31 - Palm Sunday, Apr 13, 2014|
“We have completed the 40 days that bring profit to our soul.” What the profit to our soul is, is dramatically set before us in the resurrection of Lazarus. That is to say, the profit to our soul from the 40 days of the Great Fast is a resurrection like the resurrection of Lazarus. I dare say that this is not a religious theory; this can be borne out by one’s own experience.
Think about it. It is not coincidence that the 40 days of the Great Fast ends with the resurrection of Lazarus as its capstone. What lesson do we take from that? It tells me that the ascetic disciplines comprehended by the Great Fast of the Church are not punitive. They are therapeutic. They heal. They “bring profit to our soul” in the form of a resurrection in our soul that is in the likeness of Christ’s resurrection.
It is clear to me that the 40 days fast is a renewal of our baptism. By taking up the Fast as the Cross that Christ gives us if we would follow Him, we put to death what is earthly in us - anger, malice, slander, (Col 3:5) the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life (I Jn 2:16). And so we come to the sixth week of the Fast having denied ourselves, i.e., having buried ourselves, as it says in the baptismal prayer, after the pattern of Christ’s death in the hope that, in like manner, the LORD would grant that we would become partakers of His Holy Resurrection. (Prayer for the Blessing of the Water)
Are you perhaps remembering now that this last week, the sixth and final week of the 40 days, we were reading the story of Joseph, when he showed himself to his brothers? It was like a resurrection “after the pattern” of Christ’s Resurrection.
That is to say, this last week of the 40 days was taken up with stories from Holy Scripture of death and resurrection that were “after the pattern” of Christ’s death and Resurrection: that of Joseph on the one hand, and of Lazarus on the other. From this, we understand what the “profit” is that the 40 days brings to our soul: healing, even a resurrection “after the pattern” of Christ’s Resurrection. This is why we take up the ascetic disciplines of the fast in the Church: not to hurt ourselves or punish ourselves because we’re “bad”, but to be healed of all the wounds sin has inflicted on our soul, and to hear from the tomb of our heart the Word calling out to us: “Come forth!” a command that raises us up to become members of the Church, the ekklesia, “She who is called out” from darkness to light, from corruption to incorruption, from death to life.
The Fast is practiced properly when its inspiration is a denying of ourselves out of love for Christ, or at least, out of a desire to love Christ; for, there is a fast whose inspiration is not self-denial but self-affirmation. That is the fast of the self-righteous Pharisee who believes that, because of it, he is superior to others and that God is well-pleased with him.
The Fast of the Church brings profit to our soul because through it, we put to death what is earthly in us. Through the Fast of the Church, we fast not just from meat and dairy. That is only the foundation of the Fast, which in its totality is as deep and as broad as our soul. We fast from the passions, let’s use lust as an example. Supported and even strengthened by the fast from meat and dairy (according to our strength and circumstances!), we fast with our eyes and ears. As we do not feed our stomachs except the food we need, so we do not feed our eyes lustful images or our ears with lustful words, such as one might hear in much popular music. As our stomach’s appetite begins to abate because our stomachs are shrinking, so our mind’s appetite for carnal images begins to abate because it is not being fed lustful images through the eyes and ears. Now, we should notice that our mind is much more alert. We are much more aware of the thoughts that are presenting themselves to our mind from outside and, because we are more alert, we are better able to discern those thoughts, and to deny them admittance into our mind.
Through prayer, our mind is fed through the ears. In the worship of the Church, our mind is fed through the ears with the heavenly beauty of the music at the same time that our mind is fed with the words that accompany the music, which enter the mind and immediately begin feeding them with “icons” of the Gospel that nourishes the mind with all that is noble, all that is pure, all that is truly beautiful.
Through prayerful study of Holy Scripture, and through prayer before the icons, our mind is fed through the eyes with the wordless beauty of the icon, and the beautiful words of Holy Scripture, which enter our minds and immediately begin feeding them with icons of the Gospel.
It takes resolve and discipline to keep oneself trained on these ascetic disciplines of the Church; but, the wonder of it is this: the images of the Church’s sights and sounds, which feed the mind through the eyes and the ears, are real. They come from the mystery of the Incarnation and the LORD’s Pascha; their content is the mystery of the Incarnation and the LORD’s Pascha; they refer back to the mystery of the Incarnation and the LORD’s Pascha. They are therefore filled with power, the death-destroying and life-creating power of Christ’s Holy Cross. And, when these are the images that we are feeding our mind while we are denying ourselves through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting – then our minds are being fed the Living Bread and the Living Cup that comes down from Heaven. And, as our mind feeds on these images of the Gospel, which become only more nourishing, only sweeter the more one feeds on them, the lustful images that before seemed to have power over our minds lose their attraction and their power. We find ourselves delivered of them, even as we know the only way we will remain free of them is by keeping to the ascetic discipline of the Fast.
In this, we have experienced in our soul a death and resurrection “after the pattern” of Christ’s death and resurrection. The same power that is active in the Cross becomes active in us; for indeed, through the ascetic disciplines of the Fast, the Cross of Christ is becoming incarnate in our bodies.
While I was thinking on these lines yesterday, it struck me that the LORD healed all those who came to Him. That is to say, He did not heal those who did not come to Him. Taking up the ascetic disciplines of the Fast, brothers and sisters, is how we bring ourselves to Christ so that He can heal us. That, then, is why we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Fast: to bring ourselves to Christ so that He can heal us. That is why the Fast brings profit to our soul: because through it, we come to Christ not just in some romantic sentimentality, but in a real, concrete way that encompasses our whole being: our body, our mind and our soul.
In the example we have presented this morning, through the Fast, we put to death the earthly member of lust that was in us. Something, however, rose up in its place: a virtue, the virtue of inner chastity. I wonder if we could say that the virtues that rise up in place of what was earthly in us are the “spices and myrhh” we were called to go and prepare with the myrrh-bearing women through the 40 days Fast. More than that, the palms we hold in our hands this morning represent the virtues we are called to offer Christ, according to the liturgical texts; and, they are called “emblems of victory.” The Cross is the “weapon of victory” by which what is earthly in us is transfigured into virtues, or into spices and myrrh. I’m inclined to believe that the “palms and branches of trees,” as it says in the liturgical texts – i.e., branches of the Cross – are what the Cross of the Fast has been transfigured into.
Having, then, been buried by means of the 40 days Fast, and having experienced a kind of resurrection in our soul to the degree that we have practiced the Fast or denied ourselves and taken up our Cross, we take up the Cross of the Fast which now has been transfigured into a palm of victory to “behold the Holy Week of Our LORD’s Holy Pascha.” From our own experience of a resurrection in our soul like that of Lazarus, the universal Resurrection of Christ is confirmed. We know in our own hearts that it is the deepest reality of the soul, because we have tasted it in the profit brought to our souls by the 40 days of Great Lent. In the fear of God, with faith and love, we enter the Holy Week of the LORD’s Passion, that we might glorify His mighty acts and His ineffable dispensation by which He delivers us and saves us in His great mercy and in the tender love of His Holy Mother. Amen!