15 - Ten Lepers, Dec 10, 2017


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Ephesians 6:10-17

Luke 17:12-19

He was met, it says, by ten lepers. We are lepers as the prayers of the Church would teach us. Our leprosy is of the soul; yet, it is visible to us in all the maladies and infirmities we suffer, and finally in our inevitable death and corruption.

In his Commentary on Genesis, St Ephrem of Syria (d. 373) writes that it was the first pair’s greed, not the serpent that caused their Fall (§16). The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, St Ephrem teaches, is good, not evil; God created it. According to St Ephrem, the Tree of Life was beyond the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To reach the Tree of Life, then, Adam and Eve had first to get past the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; i.e., they had to deny themselves and not eat from it in obedience to the divine command.

From St Maximus the Confessor and other patristic texts, we may understand the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the biological life of the world. Because it is opposite the Tree of Life, St Maximus calls it the tree of death, not because sexuality is evil, but because, apart from God, sexual life only leads back to the earth whence we came.

Now, the spiritual leprosy of our greed manifests itself, following St Maximus, as perverted self-love, or perverted erotic desire; i.e., erotic desire turned away from its natural fulfillment. God is the originator and begetter of our erotic desire, so we learn, e.g., from St Dionysius. Our desire for beauty and joy, for intimacy and friends – all of this is the manifestation of the image of God moving in us, compelling us, by the force of the erotic desire divinely sown in us, to come out of ourselves (ek-stasis) to belong not to ourselves but to God, the source of Beauty and Goodness our soul longs for. And God, in His erotic love, comes out of Himself to create the world, filling it with His mercy and steadfast love that endure forever, desiring earnestly to draw all men to Himself that He may bestow the unsearchable riches of His Glory on all who call on Him (Rom 10:12; Eph 2:7).

Hence, the command, “Do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” is not because the world or our sexuality is evil, and not because our erotic desire is evil, but because our erotic desire finds its rest far beyond the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the consummate manifestation of the great love with which God loved us: the Sabbath Rest of the Tree of Life.

And so, when it says this morning, “He came into a certain village,” we see the Tree of Life, impelled by His own intense erotic longing (Philo II 281), coming out of Himself to where we are that, seeing Him, we may desire His Beauty (Ps 26:4) and in love for Him, follow Him into His Sabbath Rest and into the Garden of His Resurrection.

To these lepers who called out to Him, He gave the command: Go, show yourselves to the priests. They went, it says, and they were cleansed. We, too, wanting to be cleansed, went and showed ourselves to the priest and asked to be received into the Orthodox Church.

We were directed to take up the Cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines to prepare for drawing near the Font: confessing the sins of our spiritual leprosy, prayer and fasting. The hunger of the fast leads us into our soul, to the font of our erotic desire. Confessing our sins awakens us to the perverted movements of our erotic desire. Together, confession and fasting form the foundation of prayer. They make the mind (and body) alert. In that “attentiveness”, the prayers of the Church – not our own prayers infected with the deceptiveness of our own self-loving greed, our self-righteousness but the prayers of the Church! – orient the ears of our soul to the WORD of God and train us to distinguish the WORD of WISDOM from the wisdom of the serpent or of our own opinions.

Having thus been led by the Church into our soul to stand before the font of our erotic desire and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we were led to the entrance of the Church to stand before the Baptismal Font, the Tomb of Christ, the Gate of Eden. The icon of Christ, the priest, in the Name of the Icon of God, Christ Jesus, addressed the image of God in us, and asked us, he did not command us, if we would unite ourselves to Christ; i.e., it is our choice to deny ourselves and master our greed in order to come out of ourselves and drive our erotic desire beyond the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to belong not to ourselves and not to the beauty of the world that passes away but to the “never-fading and ever-living flower” born of the Virgin and to become one with Him in the mystery of His Sabbath Rest, the Beginning of our Resurrection.

And so, we were immersed in the Font and our leprosy was put to death. We were cleansed of our leprosy. Led to stand in the Church on this side of the Font, Christ’s Tomb, we passed over into Eden. The Royal Doors were opened to us and we beheld the Tree of Life coming down to us. We were called to draw near and we were granted to partake of the risen and glorified Body and Blood of God.

Then did we enjoy the fruits of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in what the early Church called the “agape” meal: we call it Coffee hour! And, when we were done, with His holy apostles, the LORD sent us back into the world.

But, dear faithful! Ten lepers were cleansed; only one was saved! Where did the other nine go after they were cleansed? Where have we gone after we were led back into Eden and granted to partake of the Tree of Life?

Sent back into the world, the LORD sends us out into “an evil day”; but He sends us as candles shining with the Light the darkness cannot overcome. In the world, we are assailed by the fiery darts of the devil and all his angels, and all his hosts and all his pride, the rulers of the darkness of this age – whom we renounced at our baptism. But, now they come at us as the serpent came at Eve, from outside of us and at the “gate” of our erotic desire. They want desperately, it seems, to make themselves incarnate in us, and so they set out to seduce us, even to rape us, that they may “copulate” with our soul and sow their word of envy and disobedience into the womb of our soul, perverting our erotic desire so that we of our own will (for they cannot force us against our will), would turn away from the Tree of Life, our True Lover, and go back to the Pharaoh.

Dear faithful! In the Church, we are cleansed of our leprosy, but we are not made into robots! We are made to become a bush burning with the uncreated Fire of God; our self-determination is purged, but it is not destroyed. It is delivered from evil, it is energized by the LORD’s own obedient will that strengthens us from within, but it is still ours to choose (cf. St John Chrysostom, Hom II on I Tim 1).

Dear faithful, sent back into the world by the LORD, have we abandoned our first love (Rev 2:4) and gone off with the nine back to Egypt, back to our old ways? If we haven’t taken it off altogether, have we allowed to hang rather loosely the “full armor of God” – the Cross of Christ given to us in the Church’s ascetic disciplines of confession, prayer and fasting, and allowed ourselves to grow inattentive against the fiery darts of the devil? They are the subtle and not so subtle lies of the serpent – noetic, religious, academic, scientific, social, emotional, psychological, fleshy – assailing our eyes and ears from every quarter, tempting us to reach out with our erotic desire only so far as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and not to deny ourselves and drive our erotic desire deep, beyond all things, into the mystery of Christ in you!

Dear faithful, we cannot stand in the darkness of this evil day if we do not with constant inner vigilance, in the fear of God, with faith and love choose to put on the whole armor of God. I.e., having been cleansed, we must return – repent – with the Samaritan leper and fall down on our face, i.e. in our heart, at the feet of the Great High Priest, Christ our God, not every now and then but always. It is through prayer and fasting in the confession of our sins that we drive our erotic desire beyond the lust of the flesh and into our heart and into the Sabbath Rest of God, the Cave and the Tomb of God, the Font of our Resurrection, in which we come to belong not to this world, the Tree of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that passes away, but to the Tree of Life who loved us and gave Himself for us that we could become – if we want to – partakers of His Light the darkness cannot overcome. Amen!