|02 - Sunday Before Exaltation, Sept 13, 2015 (with audio)|
[For audio click here]
The last two major feasts of the Church year are the Transfiguration of Our LORD and the death of the Theotokos. The first two major feasts of the Church New Year are the birth of the Theotokos and the elevation of the Cross. Note how the shape of the liturgical year shows the whole mystery of Christ taking place within the life of the Theotokos. The shape of the Church’s liturgical year is an icon drawn in time of the “Lady of the Sign” taken from Isaiah. (7:14) As an icon in time, it is a mirror in time reflecting the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven moving within you (Lk 17:21) beneath the mathematical movement of astral time. It reflects the mystery of God hidden from before the ages that has been herding the days of time to the Last Day and to the mystery of “Christ in you.” (Col 1:27) It is a mystery rooted in the Theotokos and centered on the Cross.
See, then, how the shape of the liturgical year forms the Gospel image of the Theotokos standing at the foot of the LORD’s Cross as He is crucified. There, she weeps, her heart pierced with the grief of a mother’s love for her Child. Even though we are not pure as she was, still, can we not feel something of her grief when we imagine – if we haven’t actually experienced – the grief we would feel at the death of our own children and loved ones?
Christ, the Cross, the Theotokos: beloved faithful, at the center of the Christian Faith is this image of the Theotokos weeping at the Cross of Christ, her Son and our God. Contemplate this image, absorb it and begin to feel in your gut the height, the depth, the width and the breadth of the love of Christ and His Holy Mother. This is the essence of the salvation that Christ has worked “in the midst of the earth.” The Christian Faith is not a cerebral, dry, philosophical truth that we ponder and parse in our minds in some detached, mathematically precise manner. It is a heavenly, a most holy, even a divine mystery that pierces into the inmost sanctuary of the heart. It is shown in this central image of the Theotokos weeping at the Cross of her Son to be – contrary, I think, to all philosophical expectations – profoundly and viscerally human. This is the really real, the mystery of man and of God.
See also how in this central image we cannot contemplate Christ apart from His Holy Mother. Through her, He became flesh. He became her Son; she became the Mother of God. Here, a kind of philosophical theology or propositional so-called Christian theology would focus on God becoming flesh; but in the liturgical prayers of the Church, whereby we enter the sacred cave in which Christian theology is born, we are taken into the Mother’s heart. We are given to feel the tender warmth of her love for her child, and of God’s tender love for His Mother. Here, in the liturgical life of the Church, the mystery of the Incarnation is no longer an abstract proposition. The love of God takes shape in the visceral compassion of the Mother for her Son and of the Son for His Mother, a divinely human compassion that pierces all the way to the division of soul and spirit, a compassion that all of us taste in the most profound moments of our own human experience.
Neither can we contemplate in this central image of the Christian Faith Christ and His Holy Mother apart from the Cross and the tomb. Christ suffering and dying on the Cross is the final, most perfect Theophany. It manifests the perfection of God as inexpressible love for the world. What makes it so profoundly near to us is that it manifests its inner shape in the grief of the Holy Mother as she watches her Son, the God of all, taken down from the Cross and laid in the tomb. At the foot of the Cross, we stand in the heart of all things. We see in this central image of the Christian Faith the mystery of God that caught even the angels by surprise: God’s viscerally human love for His Mother as He looks down on her from the Cross and says to the beloved disciple: “Behold your Mother!” This is an image whose theological proclamation our minds cannot grasp because it is so deep, beyond all things; but precisely for that reason, we can feel it in the visceral deeps of our heart.
Did you know that there was forgiveness of sins in the OT? The Psalmist gives us vivid descriptions of the joy and deliverance experienced by the righteous from the deep experience of the forgiveness of their sins. But, while there was an experience of forgiveness in the deep heart, exciting deep love for God, there was no experience of becoming one with God in the love of the deep heart, because God was not yet conceived and born of the Virgin. He had not yet shared with us in our flesh and blood even to the point of death on the Cross, that we might become one with Him as communicants, partakers of His divine nature. (II Pet 1:4) It is this, God becoming one with us that we might become one with God in our deep heart, it is this that makes the New Testament New.
It is in this central image of the Church – the Theotokos weeping at the Cross of Christ whom she conceived and bore as her Son –, that we begin to comprehend the warmth, the vibrancy of the Christian Faith. We comprehend it not with our minds. Our minds are not big enough to hold it all in. We comprehend it in our heart that is deep beyond all things where it opens onto God; for it is the mystery of God that is within our deep heart that is being reflected back at us when we look at this central image of the Church as into a mirror.
So, when we take up the ascetic work of putting to death what is earthly in us for the sake of Christ, we step into this love that is the very essence of the Christian Faith. We receive this central image of the Church into our souls like the Theotokos received God into her womb; and we begin to become one with it and it begins to reshape us in our inner man into the image and likeness of Christ who was found in the image and likeness of man. (Phil 2:6)
Beloved faithful, the way of the Church that leads through the “days of our lives” to the Cross and to the Tomb of Our LORD, God and Savior on Pascha night at the heart of the liturgical year, and to His Holy Mother weeping there, is, I believe, the way He revealed to the sons of Israel (Ps 102: LXX), it is the way signified by the Holy of Holies, but that did not come into view until the first temple was no longer standing – i.e., until Christ ascended the Cross and the stone that was rejected became the cornerstone of the New Temple laid in the tomb, to work salvation in the midst of the earth. It is the way that is held in the bosom of the human soul, the way that winds deep beneath the movement of the sun and moon, the way that leads into the heart that is the man, that is deep beyond all things and there opens onto God.
To the degree that we are able, according to our strength and our circumstances, according to the strength of our resolve and our desire to draw near the Theotokos weeping at the Cross of her Son and our God, that we may be taken up into her joy in His Holy Resurrection, let us be resolved to take up our cross. As our Church New Year’s resolution, let’s resolve to center our life more on the life of the Church to let the rhythm of our life be taken up in the rhythm of the Church’s liturgical worship. Let’s be more attentive to the seasons of the fast. Let’s work to give alms, to forgive our enemies or at least to pray for them. May the LORD then help us to become one with this central image of the Church that we may be transfigured from within, become one with God, become a new creation, a child of God, a communicant of the divine nature in the love of God and His Holy Mother. Amen.