|22- Adam's Expulsion from Paradise, Feb 22, 2015|
Romans 13:11 – 14:4
Last Sunday, we watched the goats expelled from the LORD’s presence as the Gates of Heaven were closed against them. With the myrrh-bearing women this last Thursday, we watched Joseph of Arimathea taking the LORD’s body down from the Cross and laying it in the tomb. (Lk 23:52) Then, we watched the stone rolled over the door of the tomb (Mar 15:46) shutting us out, separated from the LORD.
This morning the Doors of the Sanctuary will be shut before us. At the Vespers of Forgiveness, all of us, including the priest, stand outside those gates as did Adam when the Gates of Eden were shut behind him. Not one of us will be found in the sanctuary.
How could it be any clearer that we are the goats in the parable of the Last Judgment? “We have each one of us gone our own way.” (Isa 53:6) “There is no one who is righteous, no not one.” (Psa 14:2) “LORD, if Thou shouldst mark iniquities, who could stand?” (Psa 130:3)
Go ahead! Make your case! “LORD, I am a nice person! LORD, I’m moral! I don’t hurt anyone! LORD, I give to charity!” The doors are still closed; and, you are bleating like a goat.
So, how is it that the Church sings out at Christmas: “Bethlehem has opened Eden!” (e.g., FM 278) “The flaming sword gives way before all who approach!” (FM 207)
It seems clear that by showing us the Gates of Eden closed against us, the Church is “herding” us “sheep who have gone astray” onto this path of “approach”. She has led us to the Doors shut tight against us so that we begin to understand that, like Israel, as we will read in Isaiah this week, we have rejected the LORD in our heart. We have become a harlot by giving our love to the gods of the world. Our soul is covered with sores and bleeding wounds. The Jerusalem of our heart, once a faithful city, has become desolate, a pagan temple. Aliens – the passions – dwell there, not God; and, there arises from our soul the foul stench of our offerings to the alien spirits of lust, greed, anger, conceit. (Isa 1:1-23)
It must be that the “better and changeless path” of “approach” that ascends to the opened gates of Eden begins here at the point of this realization before the doors shut against us. For, the Church, after handing us over to the myrrh-bearing women on Thursday, read to us from Zechariah on Friday: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, I will save my people; and, I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and they shall be my people and I will be their God.’” (8:7-17).
“Returning” with the myrrh-bearing women to prepare spices and ointments, and resting with them on the Sabbath according to the commandment must be the path by which the LORD will bring us six weeks hence to Jerusalem at Great and Holy Week when we will “return” and “approach” the LORD’s Tomb again on Great and Holy Saturday, to discover that the stone has been rolled away and the LORD’s Tomb is now open. What is this better and changeless path of approach the Church is directing us onto?
The myrrh-bearing women returned, it says to prepare spices and ointments. I.e., they were active. But, it says they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment. They became still (hesychazo); this is a technical word for the “prayer of the heart”. The activity of preparing spices and ointments, then, must be what St Gregory Palamas calls the true activity that leads to inner stillness of the heart (St Greg.Pal. Hom 53); or, to what St Isaac of Nineveh calls, “Our Sabbath, the day of the grave, where our nature truly keeps the Sabbath.” (Hom 29) St Isaac means the heart, as St Macarius of Egypt says, “Our heart is a tomb.” (Hom 11.11) St Isaac continues, “We must daily uproot thorns from the earth of our nature so long as it exists.” This is the true activity of the heart, what St Paul calls putting to death what is earthly in us. (Col 3:5) This true activity brings us to our Sabbath rest, i.e., to inner stillness in the Sabbath of our heart.
That we stand before shut doors this morning is telling us, I think, that we must “return” inward to root out every trace of egotism, vanity and conceit, to put to death the Pharisee and the elder son in us. Any goodness of our own that we might claim, all towers of babel, all the bigger barns we have built (Lk 12:18) must be “destroyed” with the temple of the LORD’s Body so that with the LORD Jesus who voluntarily died for us we may return to the dust of the ground in absolute humility.
But, beloved faithful, why would we even want to do this work of the Fast? Look and listen very, very closely! Where is this Lenten work of preparing spices and ointments taking us? To the tomb of Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday. Where do we go from there? Into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday where the LORD cleanses the temple – our hearts – of the thieves, the alien spirits! And then, from there, we go into Great and Holy Week, and to the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) at the Matins of Great and Holy Saturday: “The LORD set me down in the midst of the valley; it was full of bones, and they were very dry.” They were very dead. (I think immediately of the Valley of Jehoshaphat where the Last Judgment takes place in the vision of Joel (3:12), which we read this last Wednesday. We seem to be leaving the Last Judgment just as we leave the LORD’s tomb with the myrrh-bearing women at the beginning of Lent, only to return to the Tomb and to the Last Judgment at the end of Lent.)
Continuing with Ezekiel, “Then the LORD said to me, ‘Prophesy and say to [these dry bones]: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” (Eze 37:12) Do you hear the prophecy of Zechariah again that we read just this last Friday? “I will save my people and I will bring them to dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.” (Zech 8:17)
Today, we begin Great Lent standing before the doors of the sanctuary as Adam before the Gates of Eden that have been shut, leaving us outside the Kingdom of Heaven like the goats of last Sunday. But, whose icon is on this side of the iconostasis with us? The priest is a “living” icon of Christ incarnate. What does it mean, then, when we see him standing on this side of the closed doors with us? Christ voluntarily “bore the sins of many,” says Isaiah – that means He bore the sins of all – “and made intercession for strangers.” (Isa 53:12) Christ is with us, the goats, interceding for us! He deigns to eat us with us the sinners, the tax collectors, the harlots, those who are dead in their sins and trespasses, that we may eat His Body and His Blood for the remission of our sins unto life eternal!
The worldly heart cannot receive such divine and ineffable compassion without bursting like an old wine-skin filled with new wine. But once she has caught even a glimpse of this divine Lover, how quickly she comes to herself and longs to “return” to the LORD, the only compassionate One! She longs to follow Him to Jerusalem; she implores Him to cleanse the temple of her heart and to dwell in her so that she can “be destroyed” with Him and be raised up again with Him in three days, her heart created anew, enlarged and made strong in His Holy Resurrection that she can drink the New Wine of His ineffable love for mankind. And then, she identifies with the goats with all her heart, because that’s where her Christ is!
To seek mutual forgiveness in this Lenten vision is to acknowledge that we are goats. It is to renounce spiritual conceit. It is the first act of denying ourselves and taking up our Cross which “opens the entrance to Paradise” (Akathist to the Cross) that we may gain Christ who has identified with us goats in His great love for us. Indeed, I wonder if it’s the first movement toward feeding the goats, clothing them, visiting them when they are sick and in prison not because of our righteousness – for we have done nothing good on the earth – but because we see them as our “brothers and sisters”, and that when we minister to them, we are then in our beloved Christ who is in our midst dwelling in us goats! Amen!