|24 - Expulsion from Paradise, Mar 13, 2016 (with audio)|
For audio, click here
The Gates of Great Lent are set to swing open. This morning, we get ready to pass over into an invisible, spiritual mystery, the mystery of our salvation (Rm 13:11) that was hidden from the ages (Col 1:26) and that is now revealed (Col 1:26). St Paul says it is nearer to us than when we first believed. What is this salvation now revealed? How is it so near?
“The night is far spent,” says St Paul. “The day is at hand” (Rm 13:11). On Thursday, the lectionary brought us to stand with the myrrhbearing women before the tomb of Our Blessed Savior where His body was laid (Lk 23:55). The Sabbath, Saturday, the last day of the week, was beginning, it says (Lk 23:54). “The night was far spent, the day” – the Last Day – “was at hand.”
The myrrhbearing women, it says, saw the tomb and how His Body was laid. “When you hear of tombs,” says St Macarius, “do not think only of visible ones; your own heart is a tomb. Are you not a hell, a tomb, a dead man towards God?” (Hom 11:11) When they saw the tomb and how His Body was laid, the myrrhbearing women saw the mystery of our salvation that is today revealed to those who receive the LORD in faith (Jn 1:12): it is “Christ in you!” Christ, the Firstborn of the dead (Col 1:18), is laid in the tomb of your heart!
We stand before the Royal Doors this morning, an icon of the myrrhbearing women standing before the tomb of Christ. We stand before a sacred mirror and we see into the mystery of our heart. We see with the myrrhbearing women why our salvation is so near. Christ, the hope of glory, is laid in the tomb of our heart!
The tomb, remember, was a new tomb where no one had ever been laid (Jn 19:41). If the LORD’s tomb opens onto the mystery of our heart, how then is it not the answer to the Psalmist’s prayer and the fulfillment of the prophets’ hope: “Create in me a clean heart, O God! Put a new and right Spirit within me!” “Thus says the LORD God: ‘A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you’” – in the tomb of your heart! (Eze 36:26)
The LORD’s tomb, remember, was in a garden in the place where He was crucified (Jn 19:41). Eden was a garden. Adam, when he accepted the sensual pleasure offered to him by Eve who had come from his side, was expelled from the Garden and the Gates were shut behind him. The LORD in His agony was pierced in His side by the spear; He opened the Gates and brought the wise thief (St Dismas) into the Garden. (St Maximos, 1st C.VarTxts §23) Standing before the Royal Doors this morning, we are standing before the Gates of Eden; and, we are given to see with the myrrhbearing women that the Gates of Eden are in the mystery of our heart that is deep beyond all things (Jer 17:5/9 LXX); i.e., it opens onto the Tomb of the Savior.
In the Church this morning, we hear the myrrhbearing women singing the Christmas hymn: “Bethlehem has opened Eden! We have found joy in secret! Come, let us take possession of the Paradise that is within the cave!” (Festal Menaion, p. 278) This morning, we understand! When St Paul says: “The time has come to wake out of our sleep. Let us walk in a seemly way,” he is speaking of the Great Fast. This is the Path that takes us through the Royal Gates of Eden and into the cave of Christ’s Holy Resurrection, the Joy found in secret, found in the mystery of our own heart. The mystery of our salvation is at hand. Christ is in you! It is time to turn our face inward to make our way to the Door – Christ in you! (Jn 10:9) – that opens onto Eden. “Be diligent,” says St Isaac of Nineveh, “to enter into the secret chamber (cf. Mt 6:6) that is within you, and you will see the secret chamber of Heaven, for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both.” (Hom 2)
Nor does the Church leave us to guess how we go about making such an entry that is not outward but inward, not physical but spiritual. St Paul says, “Cast off the works of darkness. Put on the armor of light. Put on the LORD Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh.” He is talking about the Fast, the “flower that blossoms from the wood of the Cross” (Lenten Triodion, p. 230), the flower of Christ’s Resurrection that is rooted in the Cross. The Cross is the Tree of Life, and Christ, says St Anthony the Great, is the Tree of Life. St Paul says, “Put on the LORD Jesus Christ.” We put Him on by taking up the Fast in the hope of Glory, the hope of Christ’s Resurrection that blossoms from those who through the Fast unite themselves to Christ in the likeness of His death.
St Isaac says, “The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul.” The Ladder is the Cross, the Tree of Life, Christ in you! So, when St Isaac goes on to say, “Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend,” (Hom 2) we hear him telling us toreturn with the myrrhbearing women and to prepare spices and myrrh by taking up the Cross of the Fast and to cast off the works of darkness, as St Paul says, conducting ourselves not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness or lust, strife or envy, making no provision for the flesh and not fulfilling its lusts.
“Plunge deeply within yourself,” says St Isaac. This morning, we understand that he is telling us where we are returning to, or let’s say where we are turning around to go in our repentance when we take up the Fast with the myrrhbearing women. We are descending inwardly with the mind down to the tomb of our heart. Our goal is to act out our baptismal oath: to unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death and to put to death what is earthly in us, our self-righteousness and our pride. For, it is in the mysterious deeps of our heart – not out in the world, that’s where the ignorant and the blind look – where we will find the steps by which we ascend with Christ in the likeness (i.e., in participation) of His Holy Resurrection.
The inward orientation of the Fast means that our principal work is to guard our heart – not like the guards that meant to keep the tomb closed, but like the myrrhbearing women. Returning to prepare spices and myrrh, the myrrhbearing women, it says, rested for it was the Sabbath. They rested, they became still (hsucasan), in order to descend, in the work or in the sweat of prayer (cf. Gn 3:18-19 & St Isaac, Hom 29), with their mind into the tomb of their heart – there to keep the true Sabbath (St Isaac, Hom 29). According to the commandment, it says; i.e., in the meekness of obedience, for it is in obedience that the soul comes to life in God (Ps 148:5 LXX) and learns how to become beautiful (maqete kalon poiein, Isa 1:16). I.e., it is not the Fast of itself that accomplishes this interior journey in us; it is the Fast taken up for the sake of Christ or in obedience to Christ.
The Gates of Lent swing open today, in time. But they swing open inwardly, in the Spirit, when we forgive and seek forgiveness. Is this not the beginning of our becoming like God? In our heart, we open onto God and become one with Him; in our union with Christ in the secret chamber of our heart, we open onto others. If we keep our heart closed and do not forgive, how can we believe that the Fast is for our salvation? The sole purpose of the Fast is to lead us down into the secret chamber of our heart, and to put to death what is earthly in us: our self-love. In self-love, we nurse envy, hatred, the grudge; we do not open our heart to our brother in mutual forgiveness.
See how the Church doesn’t just tell us that our salvation is at hand; as our Mother, she takes us by the hand and walks us into its mystery by taking us through the rite of mutual forgiveness. This is the moment that marks the real opening of the Lenten Gates onto that Joy found in secret, not just in time but in our souls. The rite itself, because it carries the Spirit of Christ, if we do it sincerely, begins to open the tomb of our heart and to put the LORD’s Spirit in us (cf. Eze 37:14, read at Holy Friday Matins) as the LORD will open the tomb of Lazarus. In this Spirit, Great Lent begins in us not as a six week period of fasting to be endured but as our Exodus into our own land – Eden! – in the Mighty Act of the LORD’s Holy Resurrection (cf. Eze 37:12-14). Amen!