|27 - Veneration of the Cross, April 3, 2016|
Hebrews 4:14 – 5:6
Mark 8:34 – 9:1
At Vespers from the first week of Great Lent we hear: “Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven, O Christ as I keep the joyful day of the Fast.” Note that the 47 days from Forgiveness Sunday to Pascha night are given as but one day. The 40 calendar days of Great Lent plus the seven calendar days of Holy Week are a veil of calendar time that reveals even as it hides the mystery of biblical time underneath in a movement measured not by sun and moon by the movement of God. Out of His love for mankind, He “moves Himself” to come out of Himself in ekstasis (cf. St Maximos, 5th Cent. Var. Txts, §84, Philokalia II, p. 280). He empties Himself” and becomes flesh that He might be obedient to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, to destroy the devil who had the power of death (Jn 1:14, Phil 2:7-8, Heb 2:14). This one day of the Fast is the Sabbath Day, the last day of the week by the calendar but the Last Day of creation by biblical time. We begin and end the Fast with the myrrhbearing women at the LORD’s Tomb, one biblical Day, the Sabbath.
Seeing this, have you noticed that the prophecies of Isaiah assigned for our Lenten weekday reading are all in reference to “That Day”, the “Day of the LORD”? Every year, the sacred season of the Fast leads us beneath calendar time into the biblical “Day of the LORD”, the Last Day of the Sabbath, which – as we read coming into Great Lent – is beginning to grow light, to dawn (epifosken) at the LORD’s Tomb (Lk 23:54). In this Lenten chamber, this from Thursday’s reading was particularly striking to me “In that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and He who rises to rule (archein) the Gentiles. The Gentiles will hope on Him, and His rest will be worshipful or glorious” (tim-e, Isa 11:10).
These liturgical indications alone are sufficient to show us that there is a deeper mystery in the myrrhbearing women “returning” in order to rest (hesychasan) on the Sabbath according to the commandment. They are repenting, directing their mind inward into the Sabbath, the tomb of their heart (St Isaac of Nineveh, Hom 29; St Macarius, Hom 11.11) in order to pray (hesychasan). This is the inner closet (tameion – cf. Isa 26:20, Mat 6:6; St Isaac, Hom 2) the LORD directs us to enter secretly. This is where we behold the inner mystery of the LORD’s Tomb and how His Body was laid. This is where we rest in the inner work of preparing spices and ointments, which would be the inner work of putting to death what is earthly in us so as to unite ourselves to Christ in a death like His and so fulfill our baptismal oath.
This turning inward into the tomb of the heart to rest, to pray according to the commandment is the mystery prefigured in Noah and the ark. On Thursday last, we read: “Noah and all in which is the breath of life entered the ark as God had commanded Noah, and the LORD God shut him in the ark. And the flood was on the earth forty days” (Gn 7:16-17). At the Matins for Thursday last, there was this: “Thou didst cast me into the depths of the sea of my heart, O LORD, and I beheld Thy wonders.” (Irmos for Ode VI, Mar 31, for St Innocent.) Thou didst shut me in the ark of my heart, O LORD, and I beheld Thy wonders. “They saw the LORD’s Tomb and how His Body was laid” (Lk 23:54).
I wish us to understand where we find the mystery of Christ. It is not “out there”; it is ‘in here”, in the depths of the heart. Our heart is the tomb, the ark, even the Sabbath that we enter in order to rest, i.e., to stay in the inner, secret work of prayer of preparing spices and ointments, working to put to death what is earthly in us. And, I wish us to understand how we enter the depths, the tomb of the heart. It is by resting in the Sabbath Day, the Ark of the Church for forty (or 47!) days and by listening to all that we hear and see in the Church; for, we cannot find the narrow door that opens onto our heart by our own wisdom, nor can we who are dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1) raise ourselves by our own strength. We are led into the tomb of our heart by the Bridegroom in His Holy Church, which is His Body. Not, “I went,” but, “Thou didst cast me into the depths of the sea of my heart, O LORD.” Noah did not shut himself into the ark; the LORD God shut him in. The LORD shuts us in the depths of our heart as we choose to stay in the Fast as in the Ark of the Church. There, we behold the wonders of the LORD as we submit to His rule and listen to all the words and images of His Holy Church – the Holy Scriptures, the icons, the prayers and hymns, the doctrines, the liturgical and sacramental worship of His Holy Church.
The hope of the Gentiles that Isaiah speaks of is on the Light that is beginning to grow from the LORD’s rest in the Tomb on the Sabbath, the Day of the LORD; for that Light that is dawning is the Glory of the One who is laid in the Tomb. His Rest in the New Tomb is glorious because He is the Light and Life of the world. That Glory is the Light of creation. On the Cross, the LORD “finished” us by offering up His Spirit on the Cross. In the Tomb, He works salvation in the midst of the earth; our heart is washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb that was slain (Rev 13:8). In the Light of His Glory dawning on the Sabbath, the Day of the LORD’s Rest, He is creating in us a clean heart and putting in us a new and right Spirit – His Holy Spirit, the Glory of God the Father that He had with the Father from the beginning. This Light is dawning in the hearts of those who receive Him, those who sit in the regions and shadow of death; i.e. on those who return and enter the tomb of their heart to rest in the work of the Fast, putting to death what is earthly in them by the power of the LORD’s Cross. They are those who live by denying themselves and losing their life for Christ’s sake, and, lo! the life of Jesus begins to be made manifest in their mortal flesh (II Cor 4:11). The Sabbath Light begins to dawn.
Can we say more precisely what this hope is that we have in the LORD’s Rest? The LORD Himself tells us at the Mystical Supper on the evening of His trial and crucifixion: it is that we might become perfectly one with Him in the Glory (the Holy Spirit) of His Father, and that the love with which the Father loves the Son may be in us even as He, the Son, is in us (cf. Jn 17:7-26). I believe this, becoming perfectly one with the Father in Christ through His Holy Spirit, is the “wonder” revealed to the eyes of the soul when we submit to the rule of the LORD and follow Him into the depths of the sea of our heart as into the Ark of the Church.
The Tree of Life, says St Anthony the Great, is Christ. The Tree of Life, say the Church’s liturgical texts, is the Cross; or rather, the Cross becomes the Tree of Life when it is united to Christ. The heart is a tomb, says St Macarius the Great, because we are dead in our sins and trespasses; but, when we receive Christ into the tomb of our heart, our heart becomes a bridal chamber, the beginning of our becoming perfectly one with Christ in the Glory and the Love of the Father.
Is it not because of the darkness of our ignorance, caused by our cleaving to the lusts and pleasures of the flesh, that we experience the Fast as a kind of punishment, a temporary giving up of the things we love? Why, then, does the Church teach us to pray: “Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven, O Christ as I keep the joyful day of the Fast.” We see that the LORD’s has come out of Himself and has become perfectly one with us, destroying our death by His death (Heb 2:14) so that we, if we want to, can become perfectly one with Him. What we are giving up with the discomfort of the Fast is the pain of death and our love for it, so that we can enter into the Glory of Our LORD Jesus Christ and live in the love of God that abides forever.
The Fast makes us gardeners of our souls. With the Fast, we receive into our souls the Seed of Christ to grow the flower of our salvation, the Resurrection (cf. Lenten Triodion, p. 230 & Lenten Triodion Supplement, p. 155 Ninth Ode, Matins). The flower begins to grow, the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection begins to dawn in us in the joy of a heart being cleansed, a spirit being set aright, a body being made holy, our soul being made well. The Light of Christ’s countenance is being marked upon us. Amen!