01 Church New Year - Sept 2, 2007

2 Corinthians 1:21 – 2:4

Matthew 22:1-14

Our family vacation included a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park. One of the highlight of our stay in Yellowstone was a 3 mile hike into the back country to a small lake. As we drew near the lake, the trail passed by the remains of what looked like a bison calf, judging from the size of the jaw bone and spine, which were all that remained of that poor calf. They had been eaten clean by who knows what: wolves? A cougar? One of the bears frequenting the area according to a warning sign we had passed back at the beginning of the hike, and which had made us not a little nervous about proceeding on our hike?

I looked on what was left of that bison calf’s skeleton and there suddenly opened up to me a religious insight with unsettling clarity. This used to be a calf walking around that no longer exists. Its body is now almost completely gone. You can’t even point to a carcass to say, “Here is the bison calf that used to graze in this glen,” because not even the carcass remains.

The same applies to us, of course. When we die, people will point to our corpse and say, “there was so-and-so.” But then the corpse will dissolve back into the elements and be no more. There will be nothing left to which one could point and say, here is what remains of so-and-so.

So where, what is that force, we call it the self or the soul, that once made the corpse to be a living body, thinking, moving and feeling? Or is each of us but an aggregate of our body parts that disappears when our body is gone?

 These questions take one to the threshold of the authentic religious quest. Crossing that threshold, one becomes serious about death and what it says about human nature and destiny and the meaning of this life on earth. It is appropriate that we begin this new Church year setting these questions before us.

According to Genesis, we are not eternal souls, sparkles of divine light broken off from the Eternal and fallen into a material body in which we are imprisoned until we escape from the body in death. We are body. When God creates Adam, he doesn’t make a body and then infuse it with a soul that he takes from somewhere outside the body. He infuses it with his breath, his Holy Spirit, which is different from the soul. Moreover, when God breathes into Adam’s nostrils, it does not say that Adam became a living body but that he became a living soul. This implies that the body which God fashions from the clay is already animated by a soul. The body of clay, in other words, is an ensouled body; and the soul is an embodied soul. Soul and body are not two separate entities but different aspects of the one complex whole made from the clay that is body and soul. The soul makes the body move and think and feel; but its life is not spiritual life; it is earthly life. Its movement, wisdom, and feeling are not spiritual but earthly. As earthly, the ensouled body comes from out of the dust and, on its own, it will return to the dust. It comes into being from out of nothing and on its own it will return to nothing. And so, in the biblical understanding, the soul, even though it moves and thinks and feels, is not truly living until it receives the living Spirit of God and becomes a “partaker of the divine nature.”[1] Man, in other words, according to the biblical teaching of Orthodox Christianity, is created from nothing by God as body and soul for the purpose of living, body and soul, in God. Man is not made to die; his soul is not made to exist apart from the body and the body is not made to dissolve back into the dust. Man is made, body and soul, to live in God.

This may help to explain why we feel unsettled when we look upon a corpse, and why we experience a certain inexplicable disorientation, a deeply felt befuddlement when we reflect on how these dead remains used to be alive. If we were but souls entrapped in a body, it seems to me that death would not feel intuitively to us like a violation of our natural integrity.

Orthodox Christianity teaches us to regard death not as a natural event but as a tragedy that is against our nature. Where the Spirit of God is, there is no death; there is life. For Orthodox Christianity, the fact of our death is inescapable evidence that something has gone tragically wrong. Death is the judgment of God against us. It is therefore the inescapable evidence that we all have sinned; we have each gone our own way; we have all fallen short of the glory of God; none of us is righteous; no, not one. As the Lord said in our assigned reading a few weeks ago: “Where the carcass is, there the eagles gather.” Where there is death, there is transgression of God’s command, and where there is transgression, there is judgment.

For Orthodox Christianity, then, death is absolutely tragic. Not only the body, but the soul, too, dies because it is separated from the body and now exists in a bodiless condition that is contrary to its nature. Indeed, it loses its body altogether, for the body dissolves back into the dust of the ground, and the soul exists in the dark loneliness of a ghostly, bodiless night.

It is therefore in the terror of an indescribable holy joy that the authentic religious quest would greet the Church New Year with its glad tidings of the imminent birth of the Theotokos. For, the birth of the Theotokos means the dawning of the light of Christmas when the incarnate Word of God is born of the Holy Virgin.[2] For, with the birth of the Theotokos there appears on earth she who is to become the Mother of God the Word, she who will give to the Author of Life on whom the Spirit of God rests the substance of our ensouled body that he may become one with us so that “by partaking of that which is worse, even our flesh, he might make us, body and soul, partakers in the divine nature. For he will become himself a mortal man, subject to death, even as he remains God.”[3] “Sharing wholly in our poverty, Christ our God [will make] our clay godlike through his union and participation in it.”[4]

No human flesh, not even the Mother of God, is able to comprehend the wonder of the Incarnation, God made flesh. “I have given birth in time to the timeless Son,” the Theotokos will say in her amazement on Christmas Day; “yet I do not understand how I have conceived him.”[5]

The incarnation of God the Word means that our corruptible bodies have been united to the Incorruptible One, so that our souls, which by nature exist in a body, may now find their proper and natural rest in a body that is no longer subject to death: the body of God the Word that has conquered death by his death on the Cross.

That body of Christ, which has conquered death by his death on the Cross, is the Church – the Orthodox Church. It is through faith – that is to say, by submitting ourselves in our words, our thoughts and in our deeds, wholly to the commandments of God – that the light of Christ begins to dawn in us. In that light, we see with the eye of our heart that if, when we were immersed in the waters of the baptismal font, we died in the likeness of Christ’s death, then our baptismal death is the death of our death and the beginning of our resurrection in Christ, our birth from above as children of God in the body of Christ, his holy Church.

And when in Holy Eucharist we partake of the precious and all-holy body and blood of Christ, there is sown in the field of our present earthly body, which has sprung up from the transgression of Adam and Eve like a tare, a weed, full of thorns and thistles, the seed of Christ’s holy resurrected body, just as Christ himself was sown by the Holy Spirit of God like a seed in the womb of the Theotokos back on March 25 of the last liturgical year. And, in the same way that he is even now, in the mystery of his Holy Spirit, preparing for the moment of his ineffable, holy birth of the Virgin on Christmas Day, so he is preparing to be born of each one of us on the dread and awesome Day of his Second Coming.

As we take up the Cross of Christ in our everyday life, as we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church in the attitude of a broken and contrite heart, as we confess our sins before God, as we focus our mind and heart on the teachings of God, our hands and feet on the way of God, the Way of Life, as we cultivate a holy sorrow, a mourning over the tragedy of our death, that seed of Christ’s resurrected body, of which we partake in Holy Eucharist, begins to grow in the field of this fallen, earthly body. As we submit our soul – our thoughts, our words, our deeds – in the practice of Christ’s holy commandments to the Holy Spirit that animates the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, making it to be the living bread and the cup of life, we can experience the disintegration of our body in death as the disintegration of that body of death sprung up from the fruit of the serpent’s tree, the body of the old Adam that is animated by a spirit of enmity against God. And we can experience the separation of our soul from our body in death as the separation of our soul from the body of the old Adam and its incorporation into the crucified and risen body of the New Adam, Christ our God, that we eat and drink in the marriage feast of the Church, the sacred feast of Holy Eucharist. Taking up our Cross, practicing the commandments of Christ, we can begin to transfigure our death even now into a likeness of Christ’s death, a death that tramples down death by death and gives life to all of us who live in the tomb of this life, so that our tomb is transfigured into the font of joy and our death in the Lord into our birth as ensouled bodies born from above, alive in the ineffable and blessed life of God’s Holy Spirit.

It is this vision that gives to the Orthodox faithful a sense of holy joy as they enter upon the Church New Year. Grounding our soul in the seasons of the Church rather than in the seasons of earthly life, we feel a holy excitement, an anticipation of sacred joy as we look forward to the Feasts of the Church Year. In those feasts, we will do more than simply commemorate Christ. We will actually enter into His Holy Spirit by whose living, mystical power the events of Christ’s earthly life are experienced not so much as historical as living events that are as alive in the Spirit today as they were yesterday, and as they will be tomorrow.

And so we greet the Church New Year with joy. We look forward to another year of learning and practicing the mysteries of Christ, folding our daily life into the Spirit that animates the body of the Church in her liturgical life and festal celebrations. In the Eucharistic joy of those Feasts, we shall enter body and soul into the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, his Death and Resurrection, his Ascension into Heaven, and the outpouring of his Holy Spirit on all flesh on the blessed Feast of Pentecost. By submitting ourselves to the Way of Christ and to his holy commandments, our earthly life finds its meaning in the hope that we are being incorporated into the holy body and Mind of Christ so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us; so that as we die in the Lord, it is this body of death that dies while our soul and body that were created by God in the beginning as good, very good, begin to live in the crucified and risen body of Christ, his holy Church, the fullness of Him who is all in all. Amen.

[1] 2 Pt 1:4

[2] Quite apart from the seriousness of this claim is the fact that with this claim, the Church beats the stores by a full six weeks. They don’t start announcing Christmas and setting up their Christmas decorations until the middle of October!

[3] From Christmas Matins in Festal Menaion, 271.

[4] FM 275.

[5] FM, 267.