|03 - Leavetaking of the Elevation, Sept 21, 2008|
Galatians 2:16 – 20
Mark 8:34 – 9:1
This time of year, we see flowers beginning to fade and die. Their seed falls to the ground and is buried beneath the earth. We are seeing here the power of God’s Word. God’s command to Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had transgressed his command: “You were taken from the dust; to the dust you shall return” has become the substantive principle of worldly life.
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of good and evil, all of creation with them became good and evil. The present life of creation is grown from the seed of that tree. Every good is mingled with evil, every pleasure is mingled with pain, and life is mixed with death. We came from the dust and we were made living souls by the Spirit of God. We were made to be rooted in the Spirit of God; but when we ate from the tree of good and evil, our life became rooted in the dust. We see this clearly in the cycle of the flower. In the Spring it rises from the ground. In the late Autumn it dies, having dropped its seed to the ground to sprout up again in the Spring.
The works of the Law to which St Paul refers in this morning’s epistle reading refer specifically, I believe, to circumcision and to the temple sacrifices prescribed in the Old Testament. By observing these rites ordained by God, Israel expressed her love and devotion to God. But these works of the Law pertain to this body of dust and to this circle of life grown from the tree of good and evil. St Paul teaches that these works of the Law were meant to guide Israel in the ways of God in order to prepare her for the coming of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, in the mystery of his Incarnation, would perfect the image of God in which we were made by raising us up from the dust and rooting us in the Spirit to make us like God. The works of the Law, circumcision and temple sacrifice, since they were themselves elements of this life rooted in the dust, had no power in themselves to raise human life from the dust, nor was that their purpose. Their purpose was only to govern and regulate the life of Israel, to keep her in the remembrance of God to prepare her for the great mystery of God’s incarnation: his becoming flesh to dwell among us.
When God the Son was incarnate, the Sun of Righteousness descended beneath the horizon of Heaven and entered into this life rooted in the dust. When Christ died on the Cross and descended beneath the earth, all the seeds lying dead in the dust of the ground were touched by the life-giving warmth of his uncreated Light.
It is a principle of nature that when the ground is touched by the warmth of the sun and moistened by the rain, the seed lying in the ground comes to life and sends out roots that draw nourishment from the soil. A sprout shoots forth from the seed and bursts through the ground skyward, seeking the light of the sun. The tender young shoot is soft and pliable, and yet an energy there is that drives it that makes it so powerful that it is mightier than a rock. You have seen how a blade of grass can break through concrete so strong is its desire for the sun.
In the ground of man’s soul lies the seed of his true self. It is the image of God in which he was made. The image of God that we most truly are is an inferno of desire for the Eternal God that, so that even though it comes from nothing, it can break through the cement of untold suffering and hardship in its ardent yearning for Christ God, the Sun of Righteousness. Beneath the surface of our shallow life where we occupy ourselves with all kinds of frivolous vanities and meaningless pursuits lies this image of God that burns with desire for Christ. For Christ is himself the Image of God in whom we were made. Christ alone is our true life and the perfection of our life. We become truly human only as we become partakers in Christ of the divine nature. But the image of God lies buried in our forgetfulness of God. Having forgotten God, we have become ignorant of God and altogether indifferent to the Heavenly Spirit. We have become enamored with the wisdom of our own opinions; we love the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life as though they were God. It is this numb indifference to God that makes us dead even before we die and return to the dust.
The grace of God is this warm uncreated light radiating from the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, of whom the works of the Law were but the shadow that announced his coming. This grace is not circumcision and temple sacrifice; it is the very uncreated Light of that divine Life of the Spirit that was breathed into Adam at his first creation. When the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, died on the Cross and entered into hell, and the warmth of his uncreated light touched the image of God buried deep in the soul of man, this was God’s grace awakening us and stirring our desire for God. According to the Gospel witness, the grace of God that touched the souls in hell stirred them so mightily that on the night of Christ’s crucifixion, the earth quaked from the dead rising up from their tombs like tender young shoots bursting through the ground in search of the sun, appearing to many. So also, when the grace of God touches us, we want to rise up as from a deep sleep, and like shoots bursting from the seed in search of the sun, we want to go out looking for Christ our God.
For this spiritual quest of the soul, we need a guide that can bring us safely to the Light that is shining in the darkness of this life of good and evil and that can set us on the path that leads up out of the ground and up to the light of the Sun of Righteousness in heaven. Christ himself is that guide. By his death, he was buried in the dust of the ground and he became the sacred root, the hierarch of all those who believe in Him: all those who are buried with him in the likeness of his death in holy baptism. By his resurrection, he burst through the ground of this life that is rooted in the grave like the tender young shoot bursting through the ground, and he opened the way to heaven for all who take up their cross to follow him.
In his Holy Spirit, Christ comes to us in his holy Church, which is his very body, the fullness of him who is all in all. The cross he gives to us is our own humanity that he has rooted in himself and made his own, deifying it in his union with it. Christ gives us the cross in the form of the ascetic disciplines of his holy Church. These ascetic disciplines of the Church are the concrete means by which we repent to follow Christ. They serve to turn our minds and hearts in the direction of Christ God, the Sun of Righteousness. Like the flower turning its head in the direction of the sun to receive its warm light that makes the flower grow, so also the ascetic disciplines of the Church turn us in the direction of Christ God the Sun of Righteousness, that we may receive the warm light of his grace and grow into the likeness of God and so make our humanity complete that was made in the image and likeness of God.
We are made in the image of God. That means that we are by nature akin to God. To love God and to be like God are natural to us. In the same way that the seed contains the flower within itself, and naturally grows into the flower as it partakes of the sun’s warm light, so also the image of God that we are contains the likeness to God within itself; so that as we train our mind and our heart on Christ God the Sun of Righteousness and partake of the warm light of his grace through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, centered on the holy Eucharist, we will naturally grow into the likeness of God, or into the fullness of the stature of Christ. This growth into the likeness of God is by grace, just like the flower grows by receiving the warm light of the sun. At the same time, if there was no flower in the seed, no amount of sun would make the seed grow into a flower. If we were not made in the image of God, no amount of grace would make us grow into the likeness of God. The holy fathers of the Church teach us that our being made in the image of God means that we are by nature free in the core of our being, in the image of God in which we were made; and we are free because made in the image of God who is love, we were made in love. There is no love where there is no freedom, and there is no freedom where there is no love.
Therefore, Christ say to us as he said to the rich young man, if you wish to become perfect; if you wish to become who you truly are, an image of God, lay hold your freedom as a creature made in the image and likeness of God and taking up your cross in the ascetic disciplines of the Church, turn your face away from this life of the world rooted in the dust and turn it toward the life of God rooted in the Spirit, like the flower turning its face to the sun. Pray and fast as the Church directs, practice charity, feed your mind on images not from the world but from the Word of God, which is Christ, himself the Image of the invisible God. Feed your soul on the holy commandments of Christ, your body on the sacred mysteries (the sacraments) of Christ’s holy Church and follow Christ on that better and changeless path that ascends to God. In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near to his grace through the ascetic disciplines that he gives to us in his holy Church and receive the warm light of his grace that makes you perfect, whole, complete and, like the tender young shoot that grows into a flower in the light of the sun, that makes you to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ, into the likeness of God in the warm light of his grace. Amen.