20 Sunday of Zaccheus - January 21, 2007

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

As every seasoned Orthodox Christian knows, when we come to the Sunday of Zaccheus, Great Lent is only four weeks away. Already, the aura of the Church is taking on the hint of the sweet fragrance that announces the coming of that blessed season, and the hearts of the faithful quicken in holy anticipation.

Great Lent is a rigorous season of ascetic disciplines: of fasting, of added prayers, readings from Moses and the prophets, from the lives of the saints and from the writings of the holy fathers. It is a season given us by the Church when she stoops down in a very intentional way to help us consciously turn away from the lusts and desires of the world, to cultivate a broken and contrite heart that we may recover the primordial, original desire of our nature to draw near in mind, in body and in soul to the God who gives himself up for the life of the world, outside the city, at the place of the skull on Golgotha. But when I look ahead to the fields of Great Lent, what dominates the landscape is not the discomfort of the ascetic disciplines but a soft glow emanating from somewhere beyond the horizon that embraces the soul with an ineffably profound sweetness, a sober sweetness, a spiritual sweetness that is absolutely profound and authentic because it stems from the root of repentance in submission to the command of Christ the Lord.

Like Zaccheus, we can climb the tree because of our shortness of stature to catch a glimpse of the Christ who comes to us. For us, of course, the tree would be the cross that we took up back on Sept 14 in company with the newly born blessed Virgin Theotokos. Our shortness of stature is the result of our transgressions by which we have all fallen short of the glory of God. This means that we climb the tree as did Zaccheus by submitting in obedience to the command of Christ, in particular his command to Zaccheus: “come down;” that is: “repent.” Come down and enter with the Lord into your house, your soul. Stand in his presence as did St Paul, as the first of all sinners, and in the light of the Lord’s Holy Spirit, look for the beam in your own eye, confess to him your own sins.

However, we enjoy certain advantages that Zaccheus did not. From his vantage point in the sycamore tree, Zaccheus looked up the road to see Jesus as a holy man, a miracle worker, about whom great things were being said. If he could have looked down the road, he would have seen Jesus on the Cross. Looking up the road from our vantage point in the branches of the Cross, we see God the Word incarnate coming to us on that better and changeless path that extends from the depths of the Jordan and ascends to the heights of heaven. Looking down the road, we see the crucified Christ in the light of the risen Christ. Zaccheus was ignorant of who Jesus really is and out of his ignorance he looked upon his coming as a curiosity. Illumined by our baptism, enlightened by our Chrismation, we have also the full benefit of the dogmatic icons of the seven ecumenical councils and the “logical icons” written in the dogmatic teaching of the holy fathers that proclaim the biblical mysteries of Christ and the Church. We ought not to be ignorant of who this Christ is in whose very name we have been clothed. We should see him coming to us from up the road not in curiosity but in fear and wonder, in a holy dread, a sacred joy, a trembling anticipation, in the sweet sadness of a broken and contrite heart that weeps in the joy of divine mercy and forgiveness. For we know that this is no miracle-worker; this is the God and creator of all who is coming to us, and he is not coming just to tell us a few things or perform a few wonders that would astound us. He is coming to gather up those who would receive him in order to lead them back into the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven.

I think it would be most edifying for us this morning, as we begin to make preparations for the blessed season of Great Lent, to take full advantage of these advantages that we enjoy over Zaccheus and to look down the road, all the way to the risen Christ, in order to see in the light of the risen Christ the meaning of his coming from up the road to us this morning peering out from the branches of the tree, the branches of the Cross, with Zaccheus.

The risen Christ is not a disembodied spirit. He is risen in body, in the same body that was crucified. What does he say to St Thomas when he comes in his holy resurrection to him and to the other disciples in the Upper Room? “Reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving but believing.”[1] The risen Christ is not a disembodied spirit. He is risen in body, in the same body that was crucified; but it is different. It can be seen, felt and handled.[2] It has substance but it can pass through doors that are shut and locked. The risen Christ walks on the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples and talks with them, obviously not as a ghost for the disciples talked to him thinking him an ordinary man. But there is something about the risen Christ that is different. For they do not recognize him until he breaks bread with them; and then they look back and realize that while he was talking to them from the Scriptures, their hearts were burning – perhaps the same burning of longing that the faithful feel stirring in their hearts when they look up to see the coming of Great Lent. Neither did Mary recognize him in the garden, thinking him to be the humble gardener, until he spoke to her. And then it was all she could do to keep from touching him in her holy joy and love for the Heavenly Bridegroom.

This body of the risen Christ, according to the Spirit inspired wisdom of the holy fathers such as St John of Damascus (8th cent.), is the human body as it was in the Garden, when Adam was made a living being by the Spirit of God.  When we contemplate the risen Christ, we are not contemplating a ghost, a disembodied spirit. We cannot even say truly that we are contemplating something extraordinary. For we are contemplating Adam as he was created; we are contemplating ourselves as we were meant ordinarily to live. It is our present life that is extraordinary, for it is fallen. That means it has departed from a condition that was earlier and therefore original. Our present life is unnatural because it has fallen from that original condition in God; that was the condition that is natural to us. It is not the Lord’s risen body but our body here and now in this life that is not normal – for in our body we have fallen from that original condition that was alive in God. Here and now, in our present body, we are not truly living. This means that St Paul is not speaking in metaphor when he writes: “You were dead in your trespasses.”[3] He was speaking literally. Worldly eyes look on this life as life. We see ourselves walking and talking, making plans, and believe we are living. But in this life, we are in the early stages of death. Thinking we are alive now, we look on the grave with dread and fear as though that is the moment when we will be dead. But we’re as good as dead even now. Thinking we’re alive, and somewhat conscious of the brief span of our life in this world, we hold on to it “for dear life”. We are reluctant to go about making plans while we are “living” for our funeral and our tomb. We avert our eyes from the grave, thinking that there our life comes to an end, and if after the grave we continue to exist at all, it is on some other side as some kind of disembodied ghost. If we think of heaven, we think of ourselves as disembodied souls lolling in leisure and luxury in some ethereal, spiritual wonderland.

This is not what the biblical report of Christ’s resurrection teaches us. The risen Christ is not a disembodied spirit. He is risen in body, in the same body that was crucified. He comes to us from the other side of the grave; but the other side of the grave is revealed to be here not there. It is the Garden of Eden – and should we mark it as of most profound significance that the first appearance of the risen Jesus is to Mary in the Garden? It was the Garden where the crucified God was buried, a Garden made into a cemetery. It is now the Garden of resurrection, transfigured by the risen Christ into the Garden of Eden, and standing in its midst is the risen Christ God himself, the Second Adam, and Mary Magdalene as an image, a type of the Theotokos, the Second Eve: the Lord’s bride, the Church. The other side of the tomb is revealed to be the side of this earth as it was in the Garden of Eden in its original wholeness and beauty and vitality; the Lord’s risen body is our body transformed, raised from its fallenness and healed, made whole and truly alive in the Spirit of God as it was meant to be; the Lord risen in his humanity is us as we were originally created by God, living in the original integrity and goodness of our nature. In the resurrection of Christ, the other side of the grave is revealed to be not some otherworldly realm of disembodied souls but it is this world transfigured and deified, restored to its natural condition in which we were originally made to exist as breathing and thinking bodies, eating, drinking, walking and talking as embodied beings who have substance and who are truly alive in the Holy Spirit of God. It is the life of faith in God, and it gives new insight to St Paul’s definition of faith as the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.[4] Faith is life lived in the beauty of Christ’s resurrection. It is the living faith of the bible because it does not just hear the word of God but does it. It is the faith that is rightly expressed in the practice of Christ’s commandments.[5]

In the Church, the life of this fallen world is revealed to us as the place of death. But our tomb is revealed to us in our baptism as the consummation of our union with Christ in the likeness of his death; and for us, that means that, if we die in him, we are united with him in his holy resurrection; for, when we die in Christ, we die not to goodness, beauty and life. We die to sin and death. And that means that our dying in Christ is the raising up of these same earthly bodies into his risen body in his holy resurrection, made alive by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, transformed, healed, and restored to our natural condition of living and breathing, eating and drinking as embodied souls and as living bodies in God, in the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Perhaps we now begin to see why the rigors of the Lenten ascetic disciplines are infused with such a sweet, spiritual fragrance. It is the fragrance of life in the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ; the life of the world as in its first creation, when God saw all that he had made and said, “It is good” – it is beautiful, brimming with abundant joy, green and verdant, full of wonder, vigorous, pure and alive where there is neither sickness nor sorrow nor sighing but life everlasting. Into your souls was the seed of this life planted in your baptism. Your body was sealed in all of its senses, and on its hands and its feet, in the sweet smelling myrrh of the Holy Spirit in your chrismation; and you partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life that grows in the Garden in Holy Eucharist, when you receive into your mouth, into your body, your veins and your heart the living bread that comes down from heaven, the most pure, most precious body and blood of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, making your body a member of Christ’s crucified and risen body in the Garden of Eden, the Church. So when by our free will, in the humility and meekness of obedience to Christ, we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we are practicing in our mortal bodies the dying of Christ and rising up, even here and now, into the life of his resurrection on the other side of the grave, in the Garden of Eden, that we have received in the sacraments of the Church.

It is clear that Zaccheus was a sinner; but he was a man of faith, because he obeyed the Lord’s command to come down from the tree. He practiced repentance. In that living faith, when he came down from the tree and entered into his house with the Lord, he recognized who Jesus really is. He must have seen him at that moment as we can now see him here in the midst of the Church. For his joy in the presence of the Good Lord was unbounded. Without hesitation, he willingly and gladly took up his cross in the ascetic discipline of returning all that he had gained unjustly by seven times. Seven means completely. In returning by seven times to those whom he had defrauded, he was in effect selling all that he had, having found the pearl of great price. Let us take up our cross and climb down from the tree; let us enter our house, our soul with the Lord to find the beam in our own eye and begin even now to make ready our confession, so that in the joy of Zaccheus, we may take up our Cross, the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent so that through the practice of those disciplines, we can die to our sin and our fallenness, and live for the good, the goodness of Him who is risen, and who in his resurrection gives himself for us that we might be saved and that we might have life in Him.

Most holy Theotokos save us! Glory to him who is risen from the dead! Glory to Jesus Christ!

[1] Jn 19:27

[2] I Jn 1:1

[3] Col 2:13

[4] Heb 11:1

[5] St Maximus the Confessor