|14 - THE SUBSTANCE OF ORTHODOXY, Dec 4, 2022|
The LORD cleansing the ten lepers in our Gospel this morning sets before us what it is to be baptized into the Orthodox Faith. It is not exchanging one set of ideas for another, or adopting one set of religious practices over another. It is to be cleansed of the passions that eat away at our soul like leprosy eats away the skin. It is to become a new creation, a child of God born of the Spirit; it is to be transfigured, transformed, to be restored to our ‘original beauty’ in the image and likeness of God.
Descend with your mind in the quietude of prayer into the inner closet of your soul. Lay aside all self-justification. Strive to look at yourself as you really are – but do not let yourself give in to despair. In the presence of the compassionate Judge, the LORD Jesus Christ who comes to us as a little Child and judges us in the mercy of His Cross, let the eyes of your mind delineate the passions that seem to have become the substance of your soul as leprosy becomes the substance of a leper’s skin. What passions do you see that have become the ‘skin’ of your spirit? Sloth, indifference to the Spirit, lust for the flesh, malice, anger, hatred, envy, despair, to name but a few?
When I descend into my soul and I see how the passions, for example, of carnality and anger and malice and hatred have become the skin of my soul, I can despair, for I see that I can no more cleanse myself of the leprosy of these passions than a corpse can raise itself to life.
Now it gets serious. One is no longer satisfied with outward religiosity. One desires to get beneath the ideas; they cannot cleanse the leprosy of my passions. They cannot make me a new creation or put in me a new and right spirit.
Hear the Gospel, the Good News, of Christmas, Theophany, and Pascha! God is with us! Indeed, He has become a sharer with us in our flesh and blood. He entered a certain village, it says. Might we understand this theologically to mean that He entered the spiritual leper colony in which all we lepers live?
Let’s number ourselves with the ten lepers who met Him even as they stood afar off, crying out: ‘Jesus, LORD, have mercy on us!’ For, when I descend with my mind into the closet of my soul, and cry out: ‘LORD, Jesus, have mercy on me!’ I can feel myself in my soul coming to meet Jesus; but it is my spiritual leprosy that feels near to me. The LORD Jesus feels very far from me; or rather, I feel far from Him because I am so unclean, so leprous and sinful.
But let us not wallow in self-pity or despair. Let’s receive His command to the ten lepers this morning as His command to us lepers, and resolve to act on it: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priest,’ He says. I believe the soul can feel what the LORD’s command means. I myself find my soul wanting immediately to go to the priest in the sacrament of confession to cry out to the priest who makes the LORD’s spiritual presence visibly and physically concrete to me: ‘LORD, Jesus, have mercy on me! See my leprosy. See how the passions have become the substance of my soul. See how I am a spiritual corpse absolutely unable to raise myself to life, a spiritual leper absolutely unable to cleanse myself of this leprosy!’ I long to identify and articulate every passion that has become the skin of my soul, that has eaten away at my soul making me all shriveled and dark and ugly. But, alas! The leprosy of the passions is too deep, too subtle. I cannot make them all out, even though I can feel them eating away at me. I cannot name them or articulate them. My heart is desperately corrupt beyond all things (Jer 17.9); its corruption is too deep for me to penetrate. All I can say, in desperation, is: ‘LORD, have mercy on me!’
‘Go, show yourselves to the priest.’ I think there may be a theological irony here, intentional. For, the priest in the temple was but a ‘copy’ of the Heavenly Pattern, the Great High Priest who is Jesus Himself. If I go to show myself to the priest in the Church, I am going to the man who makes visible by his ordination to the sacramental priesthood the invisible mystery of the LORD Jesus Christ, the eternal Great High Priest.
There is a power in the Orthodox Church’s sacramental mysteries of the priesthood, confession, baptism, chrismation, holy Eucharist, the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the power to cleanse us from all our spiritual leprosy. This power is not from us. We cannot generate it or manufacture it. We can only receive it, for it comes to us from above. It comes to us from the Tomb of the LORD’s Resurrection.
And let us understand – because this is absolutely serious business – that I come into this power of Christ’s Holy Spirit through prayer in the way of the Church. That is, by descending with my mind into my heart, laying aside every excuse, every self-justification, every accusation, in order to stand before the merciful Judge in my soul all leprous and sinful.
Dear faithful, sooner or later, the ascetical effort to come into the presence of the LORD not in my head but with my mind in my heart must awaken my soul’s heartfelt cry, ‘LORD, have mercy on me! I am all leprous and sinful. I am darkened, I am weak, my heart is a spiritual corpse.’ Contrition, brokenness of heart – a contrition and brokenness, however, that do not engender despair but hope – these are the marks that I am ‘going to show myself to the priest’ as the LORD commands in reality and not in appearance.
‘And as they went,’ it says, ‘they were cleansed.’ It’s as they were in obedience that they were cleansed. It’s as they were on the way of showing themselves to the priest that they were cleansed. I take this to mean that to be cleansed of our spiritual leprosy, we need to be living in this obedience to the LORD’s command. We can’t walk in the way of the LORD for a bit and then go back to walking in the way of the world. We need to live in the Spirit of the LORD and not in the spirit of the world in order to be cleansed of our spiritual leprosy. This means living our lives in prayer, even in unceasing prayer, as St Paul commands, in a manner, of course, that is in accordance with our particular circumstances. It means busying ourselves inwardly with removing the beam in our own eye and to stop focusing on the speck in our brother’s eye; i.e., it means being keenly conscious of my own spiritual leprosy and standing before the LORD as the first of all sinners.
This implies that ‘going to show myself to the priest’ is a life-long journey, a life-long process of losing my life for the sake of Christ from now to the day I ‘die’ physically. And the witness of the saints, the assurance of the Church, is that even as we are doing this, even as the cleansing of our leprosy is still in process, not yet completed, the joy of Christ begins to settle over us like the pillar of fire and the luminous cloud that settled over the Israelites on their Exodus to the ‘Promised Land.’ This, says St Paul, is the pledge of our future inheritance, the testimony from Christ Himself that we are being cleansed of all unrighteousness as we confess our sins, as we go to show ourselves to the priest.
But it was the Samaritan who was saved in his thanksgiving, the one who was kin to the ‘Good Samaritan’ as we are ‘kin’ to God having been created in His image and likeness. Look at this morning’s Gospel and see how the LORD is actively present in His healing of the lepers throughout. This tells me that He is actively present with us even now, that He is working in us even now to heal us of our spiritual leprosy. If we train our eyes to see how He is working in us even now, we activate that holy thanksgiving in our soul that is an innate quality of our kinship to Christ. It dispels despair, for it draws us to Christ and reveals the healing ray of divine hope that He sowed in our nature when He became flesh and began to dwell among us in our own flesh and blood. To Him are due all glory and honor. Amen!