|20 - Zaccheus, Feb 14, 2016 (with audio)|
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I Timothy 4:9-15
If last Sunday’s Gospel of the Canaanite woman was like the sounding of the talanton to announce the passing of the Winter Pascha and the approach of the Lenten Spring, then let’s say that this morning’s Gospel of Zaccheus is the ringing of the bell announcing the opening of the Lenten Triodion next Sunday with the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee.
Another year has passed. We find ourselves again drawing near to Great Lent as to the next step on the Ladder of the Cross that ascends to Heaven.
Each year, we come away from Holy Pascha as though we are rising with Christ from the waters of Holy Theophany. I liken our experience of the LORD’s Pascha to Theophany because, coming out of the joy of Pascha, we are led “immediately” back into the wilderness of the world and into a culture that seems to have been entered into by seven demons (Mat 12:45), where evil now is touted as good, darkness as light, bitter as sweet (Isa 5:20) and where abominations and perversions are defended, by law, as a right. We are not unlike ancient Israel. Israel was surrounded by neighbors seeped in idolatry. So also, the Church, the New Israel, where the Word of God reigns – at least in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church whether or not it reigns in the hearts of the worshippers – is surrounded by the idolatry of a pagan culture, whose idols are fashioned now not so much from wood and stone but from “memes” fashioned from technology that have laid firm hold of public discourse to orient the minds of those who bend their ears to those memes toward the darkness of hell.
But I do not intend here to attempt an angry lament over the spiritual darkness spreading over our land. I mean only to indicate the subtle character of the darkness that controls the culture of the wilderness we are led back into when we come out of the living waters of Christ’s Holy Pascha, so that we understand why the joy we experience on Pascha Night so quickly evaporates the next day, the next week, as soon as we go back into the world. We are going into the wilderness, as Christ was led into the wilderness from the Jordan, to do battle with the dark prince of the power of the air who is active even now in the children of disobedience and wrath, (Eph 2:2) but, who of course, has been overcome by Christ’s Holy Cross.
From our own experience of engaging the dark spirits in the wilderness of the world, we begin to understand what the Savior means when He says: ”From the days of JnBapt, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force. (Mat 11:12) Our holy fathers tell us that the “violent” are those who take up their cross in the ascetic disciplines of the Church to put to death what is earthly in them.
St Paul tells us, “We do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph 6:12) This battle is so violent because its frontlines are not “out there” in the market-place of the culture, but within the wilderness of our own soul. St Maximus writes, “The devil has deceived us by …provoking us through self-love to sensual pleasure. ... The great authors and instigators of evil are ignorance, self-love and tyranny. Each depends on the other two and is supported by them: from ignorance of God comes self-love, and from self-love comes tyranny over one’s own kind. The devil establishes these in us when we misuse our own powers, namely our intelligence, our desire and our incensive power [anger].” (1st C of Var Txts, §§ 30-31).
That is to say, what makes the spiritual battle so violent is our self-love by which we are so quick to point out the speck in everyone else’s eye and ignore the beam in our own. What we are fighting, then, is our own love for sensual pleasure that makes us easy prey for the wolf of souls; by it, he is able to keep us in the wilderness. We never make it into the tomb of our heart to put to death what is earthly in us, our self-love, because, in our self-love, we are so focused on putting to death what is earthly in everyone around us. This, perhaps, is the most common form that the tyranny of self-love takes in us.
Most likely, there are few if any of us who fare well in this fight. We go back to Egypt, down to the pig-sty, more than once over the course of the year in the wilderness. Taking the Kingdom of Heaven, putting to death what’s earthly in us is messy business. We don’t just receive Christ and waltz into the joy of His Holy Resurrection. We waltz into the darkness of hell on a very broad dance floor; but the path to heaven is very narrow and I think it true to say that all of us, because of our self-love, fall off of it time and again.
But, we hear in this morning’s Gospel that the LORD came not to judge but to save the lost. The holy fathers tell us that the greatest virtue of the saint isn’t his sinlessness but his perseverance, his stubborn refusal to say “uncle” even when he is pinned, and to get up after every fall and, confessing his sin, to keep going. If faith is the face of the heart trained on the LORD Jesus Christ, then is not perseverance an essential mark of faith? And, if we are saved by faith, are we not saved by persevering, by not letting even our failures turn our faces away from Christ? The LORD chastens us, because those whom He loves He chastens; but He does not condemn us; and if we keep the face of our heart trained on Him, and in the stubbornness of faith confess our sins, He is faithful and just to cleanse us of our sins. Even in this, we experience the power and the wonder of Christ’s Holy Resurrection: in the humility of the broken and contrite heart that follows upon the acknowledgement of our sins and our weakness, we do not despair, for by the grace of God, we gain the riches of Divine Wisdom that is better than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Coming round again to the Lenten Spring, the Church bids us in this morning’s Gospel to forget what lies behind, forget all the times we’ve fallen down and failed, and reach for those things that are before us. (Phil 3:13-14) What are those things? This morning’s Gospel shows us they are the joy of being transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rm 12:2) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Coming to the Church this morning, we climbed the sycamore tree. Christ is in our midst calling to us: “Hurry! Come down into the Lenten Fast! For, today I must come and abide in the house – the tomb – of your heart!” Press through the Gates of the Fast and make your way toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” the prize of becoming rich in the riches of God.
The Gospel of Zaccheus sets before us the joy of the Lenten Fast. It is this: we are receiving the LORD into the house of our soul by taking up the Lenten Fast. For, it is the “flower that grows from the wood of the Cross,” so that when we take it up (according to our strength and our circumstances), we receive the death of Jesus (i.e., His obedience!)into our bodies, the power of His Cross becomes active in us, and we are empowered to put to death what is earthly in us, viz., the disobedience and the idolatry of our self-love. The angel of the LORD descends and begins to roll away the stone from the tomb of our heart, and the life of Jesus begins to become manifest in our bodies: in our bodies, it is not an abstract idea we subscribe to. It is the joy of Zaccheus, a joy that is in the world yet not of the world; it is in our bodies yet not of our bodies. We taste it in the joy we feel on Pascha Night and in the transformation it brings about in us.
Is it not this Paschal joy of Zaccheus that draws us back to the Cross, the Fast of the Lenten Spring? Is it not the vision of the mercy and goodness of Our Savior, who came not to judge us but to save us, that gives us the courage and the resolve to deny ourselves and once again, to get up, however many times we have fallen, and take up the Cross of the Fast and work to put to death what is earthly in us, our self-love, that we may receive into the house of our soul the heavenly joy of the heavenly riches of Christ. Amen!