01 - Forefeast Theotokos' Nativity, Sept 7, 2014

Galatians 6:11-16

I Corinthians 16:13-24

John 3:13-17

Matthew 21:33-42

We are at the beginning of a New Church Year (the New Year is Sept 1). This time of the year corresponds to the moment we were raised from the waters of our Holy Baptism. And, that moment corresponds to the Israelites standing on the opposite shore of the Red Sea, having passed over it, through the waters, and having been delivered from Pharaoh and his whole army. At our baptism, we were delivered from the devil and from all his hosts and from all his pride.

We became Israelites, those who have seen God. We saw God when we received the faith of the Church at our baptism and in the joy we experienced at our baptism. Our baptism marks the beginning of our Exodus. We leave the world of Egypt behind and set out through the wilderness for the Promised Land which the LORD has given to His children as their inheritance.

Let me share something with you. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says: “I gave to you what I received,” the precious Body and Blood of the LORD Jesus Christ in Holy Eucharist. (I Cor 11:23-24) To the Israelites, the LORD says through His prophet, Moses: “I have given to you the land that is before you.” (Dt 1:8). At our baptism, we make a liturgical journey from the font to the ambon, corresponding to the Israelites’ Exodus through the wilderness from the Red Sea to the Promised Land, to receive what the Church gives to us: the precious and all-holy body and blood of Our LORD Jesus Christ as the Land, the Vineyard, that God has given to His children as their inheritance.

The liturgical journey we make from the baptismal font to the Chalice is the mystery of God that the Exodus and history of Israel open onto. And, it is the hidden, inner life of the Christian, the true Israelite, he who is a Jew inwardly (Rom 2:29).

The Israelites ate the Passover lamb on the night of the beginning of their Exodus. Christ is the Passover Lamb whom the Christians, the true Israelites, eat on Holy Pascha Night. As they journeyed through the wilderness, the Israelites were given manna daily, sweet-tasting bread that came from heaven. Christ is the Living Bread from Heaven given in His Holy Church to the “true Israelite” – in some places, daily – in Holy Eucharist. The Passover Lamb, and the daily manna sustained the Israelites on their Exodus all the way into the Promised Land. In the mystery of Christ’s Holy Church, Christ Himself is our food and drink that sustains us on our Exodus from the Red Sea of the baptismal font to the Promised Land that is Christ Himself in His Heavenly Kingdom.

Do you begin to see that the moment of our salvation in the baptismal font is the beginning, not the end of our Exodus to the Promised Land of Our LORD’s Heavenly Kingdom? Having passed over the Red Sea as if it were dry land, the Israelites were only at the beginning of their Exodus. To get to the Promised Land, they had to pass through the wilderness that was before them.

Having been baptized, brothers and sisters, we are at the beginning, not the end, of our salvation. The wilderness of our daily life in this world stretches before us. But, to pass through the space and time of the wilderness of our daily life in order to get to the Promised Land of Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom, the path we must take is inward and unseen. It is spiritual. Our destination is not a place on earth. It is our deep heart. While at our baptism, our Exodus began at a certain moment in space-time, when we were raised from the waters of the font, the shore on the other side was the hidden, inner shore of our soul.

The Israelites were led on their Exodus by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. These were the embodiments, as it were, of Christ’s Holy Spirit. By this same Holy Spirit, the most blessed Joachim and Anna conceived and gave birth to the Most Blessed and Most Holy Virgin Mary. At the age of three, she is led by her parents in the Holy Spirit to the temple where she is given to the LORD; and in the Holy Spirit, she enters the temple with joy. There, she “meditated on the LORD’s precepts; she delighted herself in His statutes. She hid His Word in her heart. She sought the LORD with her whole heart, and she did not wander at all from the way of His commandments.” (Ps 119:10-16) As St Gregory Palamas says, in the temple, she learned the hidden way of the soul that is the true Exodus of the true Israelite. And lo! The Holy Spirit came upon her. Like the burning bush on Mt Sinai, she became all fire as there was conceived in her womb from on high the Word of God. The Theotokos, aflame with the Holy Spirit, became the cloud that leads the true Israelites by day, the pillar of fire that leads them by night. She became the temple of God filled with His Glory, the Glory of the Holy Spirit. She became the Ark of the New Covenant, not the Law written on tablets of stone, but the Law of God made flesh. She became more spacious than the heaven, for in her womb she held the Word of God, our LORD Jesus Christ, who is Himself the Way that leads out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Those who walk in the Way of the LORD – i.e., the true Israelites who are making their way through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land – walk in the mystery of the Theotokos, for she is the Mother who holds in her womb the Way of God from its beginning to its end.

Dearly beloved, there are two lessons I would have you learn from these reflections this morning. First, having been “saved” in the Font of our Holy Baptism, we stand at the beginning, not the end of the true Exodus that begins in Christ crucified and ends in Christ glorified. There is a path we must walk to get to the Land that is Christ risen from the dead and glorified in the Kingdom of Heaven. That path leads into our soul as into the wilderness. In the liturgical year of the Church, that path will take us all the way to the tomb of Lazarus as to the tomb of our heart. There, in the tomb of our heart once we have died to ourselves, we hear the LORD calling out to us: “Come forth!” to follow Him into His tomb in the Garden, that opens in His Holy Resurrection onto the Garden of Eden.

All of this means that this Exodus is a fight. To get to the Promised Land, the Israelites had to fight many enemies. Even when they took possession of the Promised Land, there were enemies they had to conquer. To get to the tomb of our heart, we have to fight the old man in us that wants to go back to the comforts of Egypt. We have to fight to follow the Way of God and not the way of the passions that are in us, our self-will, our vanity, our greed, to show that we want to belong to God and not to the devil. But, how are we to fight these invisible forces of darkness that are so powerful?

The Israelites defeated their enemies when they were obedient to the Word of God. We defeat our enemies and make our way to the tomb of our heart as we obey our LORD Jesus Christ, the Word of God, who says to us: “He who would be my disciple, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” We defeat our enemies by taking up the ascetic disciplines given us by the Church. These are the cross the LORD commands us to take up, by which we overcome the devil and all his hosts and all his pride.

The second lesson I would have you take with you today is this: if our Exodus and our fight take place in the mystery of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, then we embark on this Exodus and we take up the fight against the old man in us from beginning to end in the inexpressibly tender love of the Theotokos for her Son, and of the Son’s inexpressibly tender love for His Holy Mother. And this inexpressibly tender love that surrounds us is the food and drink that sustains us in Holy Eucharist.

Dearly beloved, with our whole heart let us take up our cross and in the love of the Theotokos, make our way to the Promised Land, to Jesus Christ Himself, the Inheritance of eternal life in the joy of the love of God that abides forever given to those who love Him. Amen.