|31 - Palm Sunday, April 1, 2018|
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On Pascha Night, we will hear these words of St John’s Gospel sounding from the ambon: “And, the WORD – who was in the Beginning with the Father, who is Himself God, in whom all things were made – became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). But, if God becomes flesh, it means the flesh becomes God’s; it is deified, united to God as His own.
Now, why did God create the world and then become flesh? What mystery do the creation and the Incarnation of God embody and “show forth”? The earth is full of the steadfast love of God (Ps 32:5 LXX). For God so loved the world, He sent His only-begotten Son. Creation is the epiphany of divine love; divine love is the principle of creation. The full “flowering” of divine love is the Incarnation, God’s conception and birth of the Holy Virgin; and the full “flowering” of the Incarnation is the dread events of Great and Holy Week, when God who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:4). To engage the services of the Church this coming week is to engage the love of God that is the principle of our being.
This means that to love God and to become one with Him is what’s natural to us. It is in these terms that we understand what life and death are. What the world thinks is death, we see, in the vision of God and man proclaimed by the Church, is but the final blossom of our turning away from God in our “secret heart”. To be saved, then, to be restored to the love of God that is natural to us is what the Church – the Body of Christ – is all about.
Through the pre-Lenten lectionary, we came into Great Lent under the vision of Christ dying on the Cross for us and His Body placed in the Tomb in the dread mystery of His Sabbath Rest; i.e., we came into Great Lent under the vision of the real meaning of our life: God in His love for us becoming one with us in our death. In this vision, we were called to take up our cross in the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting, in deeds of self-denial, forgiving as God forgives us, and asking forgiveness of others to break into pieces the arrogance of our ego.
Great Lent reaches its goal in the raising of Lazarus from the tomb. The death of Lazarus and his burial in the tomb sets before us the purpose of our Lenten discipline: the breaking of our heart, the putting to death of all that is earthly in us, viz., our ego, in the contrition of true repentance, the sacrifice that is acceptable to God. In the broken heart of repentance – what the ascetic disciplines of Lent are all about – we die to our ego; we enter the tomb of our heart and we attain to the humility that is natural to us; and, the raising of Lazarus is the mystery of Christ creating in us a clean heart, of putting in us a new and right spirit, of restoring our heart to her natural state of love for God.
Let me call on St Ignatius Brianchaninov and the Hieromonk Damascene to articulate the meaning of the death and raising of Lazarus as the goal of Great Lent: “’The effects of true prayer are twofold: illumination of the mind, and contrition of hear [in the heart’s awareness of God’s presence]. When contrition seizes the heart through the action of the wordless WORD within it, then man’s spirit begins to experience, in some small measure, the life of the WORD Himself.’ The overarching characteristic of the WORD is a depth of humility which is impossible to express in human language. The Way [Christ], like water, [in the divine depth of His humility] always seeks the lowest place. So, too, our spirit, when renewed by the WORD in repentance, has an all-consuming yearning to under everything. Before, in our unregenerate state, we were always striving to get above everything, through pride, judgment and power. Now, the opposite occurs. We are inexpressibly sorry for everything, for now we realize that all along we had been striving to get above not only our fellow man but God Himself. We weep, realizing the full depth of our fall [our spiritual death]. Now, we seek to get under God again, but we find that we cannot – and that is the beauty of it, for the WORD Himself is the Supreme Humility, which always lies beneath all. Still, our spirit yearns for this lowering, this ultimate abasement, and in the intensity of this yearning, we at last realize what it truly means to love our Maker.” (Christ the Eternal Tao, pp. 381-2).
This is the theological meaning of Lazarus’ death and burial; and, here is what his being raised from the dead represents: “When man’s spirit reaches the supreme point of abasement, God at last sees fit to make His dwelling place there.” The Bridegroom comes, and “leads the soul into the sanctuary of His hidden mysteries” – the mysteries of Great and Holy Week – “and initiates the soul with wisdom. Then, you will have attained a spiritual union with the Father through the Logos [who through His death attained union with us] and will have been perfected in the Spirit.” (ibid., pp. 384-5)
The goal of the Lenten discipline, then, is the healing of our soul, even her resurrection from her spiritual death, and her union with Christ in which she is created anew, restored to her natural state of love for God. The ointments and spices she prepared in the stillness of her heart (cf. Lk 23:55) are transfigured, following indications in the liturgical texts, into palm branches. Liturgical texts tell us these palm and willow branches we hold in our hands this morning represent the prayers of the heart (LTS, 286) and the virtues that grow from prayer, specifically meekness and humility (LTS 294), but let’s say above all they embody the thanksgiving and love we feel in our heart for the Savior – who calls us by our true, deep name, as He did Lazarus, as He will do with Mary Magdalene, as He does with each of us at the Chalice. But, at Matins this mornings, we heard that the Palm branches represent the Resurrection of Christ. This, I think, gives us to understand that it is as we deny ourselves, and take our cross, the cross of prayer and fasting to put to death what is earthly in us, viz., our ego, and to lose our life for the sake of Christ – or to pursue humility – that we begin to experience the Resurrection of Christ within us even here and now. In this joy, our lips give voice to the inexpressible love for the Savior born in our heart: “Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the LORD!” I.e., who comes to us on the Cross out of His great love for us! Holding and waving the palm branches enables our bodies as well to give concrete expression to what we feel in our heart for Our LORD Jesus Christ.
Restored to the love that is natural to us, we come with thanksgiving and love to the services of Holy Week. We may even say that we are granted to feel in some measure the love of the Theotokos for her Son and our God, such that we want to come to the services to be with her, that with her, we may look on in wordless amazement at the mystery of our salvation, at what it’s all about. We come into Holy Week to follow Christ to His Tomb as to the Gate of Paradise, and into the Garden of His Holy Resurrection, the mystery of His Heavenly Kingdom. In this, we are doing more than remember or fulfill some religious obligation; we participate actively in the mystery of creation, we behold who we really are and what we are all about.
And so, we have come out of Lent as though raised from the tomb of Lazarus and into Holy Week. Have we come as lovers of the God who loves us and gives Himself for us, or as spectators? Perhaps, we have not carried out the true activity of Lent as we were able. Perhaps, in taking up the fast, we discovered almost at once how fierce is our ego when it is denied and actively, through the fast, put to death, and perhaps we yielded the field to it. Yet, the vision of God shines in the darkness and cannot be extinguished. Its Light pierces our soul and stirs us in our deep heart. Our soul recognizes the Light at once; for, He is the Image in whom she was made.
The LORD is at hand, says St Paul. Holy Week is here! The doors are open, it seems in a way they are not open any other time of year. The Bridegroom comes at Midnight, but Midnight is not yet. We are at the 11th, maybe the 10th hour. There is no good reason why we should be found heedless, no good reason for us to be overcome by sleep even now, even if our Lenten effort was altogether delivered over to our ego. The LORD is at hand! The time is ripe! The doors are open! The struggle that is so hard is made easy. We need only come to the services, for the LORD is at hand! And through the services, we can still enter the tomb of our heart and be raised up in the love of God and led into the sanctuary of His hidden mysteries, to taste and see how good the LORD is, who then becomes the motivation of our life, for in Him we discover our true identity and the meaning of our life. Amen!