21 - INTO THE NARTHEX OF GREAT LENT, February 13, 2022

2 Timothy 3.10-15

Luke 18.10-14

What is prayer? What is its essence? How can we learn to pray? What does the spirit of the Christian experience as he prays in humility of heart? So writes the Russian bishop, Nikon of Volodsk, at the turn of the 20th century. Prayer, says the 19th century Russian saint, Theophan the Recluse, is ‘turning the mind and thoughts towards God. Prayer is the test of everything, the source of everything, the driving force and director of everything.’ (Art of Prayer, pp. 50-51)

The yearly rhythm of the Church’s sacramental and liturgical worship is the prayer that engages all degrees of prayer: it engages the body through all the senses; it engages the mind in its divine theology given expression in the Church’s prayers and hymns; it engages the soul in the compunction, the joy and thanksgiving it gives birth to. And in all of this, it directs and drives the whole man—body, mind and soul—into the sanctuary of his deep heart where he ‘comes face to face with God.’ (ibid. p. 20)

This morning, we open the Lenten Triodion. Today, the Church brings us into the narthex of Great Lent, the visible entry, the incarnation in space and time, of the soul’s procession into the invisible, dread Sanctuary of the LORD’s Tomb.

Over the course of the last three weeks, through the Sunday Gospels of the Blind Man and the Canaanite Woman, our Mother, the Church has been teaching us how to pray the prayer of the heart: ‘LORD Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ so that, with Zaccheus, we may receive the LORD Jesus into our ‘house’ so that there, in our house, standing in His presence, we may begin training our mind to follow the Church’s liturgical Path of Great Lent that will direct us into our heart. The mystery of our heart is made visible in the form of the tomb of Lazarus. This is our initial Lenten destination when we take up our cross and begin the six-week Fast—the visible form of our inner Exodus into the tomb of our heart—three weeks from now. Our aim over the course of the six-week Fast is to prepare our soul with the help of the Holy Virgin Theotokos and Her Son to hear the LORD calling out to us as He cries to Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday: ‘Come forth!’ For the desire of those who love the LORD Christ is to be raised from the tomb of their heart (Eze 37.12-14) and to follow Him into the dread mystery of Great and Holy Week, to His Cross and into His fearsome Tomb…and out, into the Garden of His Holy Resurrection.

Now, the principal fruit of prayer, drawing from Kallistos Ware’s introduction to Igumen Chariton’s The Art of Prayer, is not warmth and sweetness (this, says Ware, is a pernicious form of ‘illusion’ or prelest), but fear of God and contrition. (p. 27) The Gospels of the Blind Man and of the Canaanite woman set before us examples of fear and contrition. Fear and contrition rise in our heart when we see that we cannot see God. For, spiritual blindness is a consequence of our idolatry, together with deafness, paralysis, and the deadening of the heart. We see our blindness when we become conscious of our idolatry, and we see how deep it is in us. Now we begin to feel profoundly our loneliness, and that we, because we are but dust and ashes, are altogether powerless to save ourselves from eternal death. We see and feel that the real death is not physical but spiritual; it is our having forsaken the eternal God so that we are without Him.

But, to see our spiritual blindness is itself the sign of God’s grace illumining us; and in that grace, we do not despair, if our face is turned to the Light; for in turning to the Light, it overshadows us immediately with its rays of hope. In that light, we come to our senses. We see Jesus! In that hope, we set out to change our ways, as did Zaccheus, and begin to make our way back to the Father’s House like the Prodigal.

In the Gospel of Zaccheus, the Church shows us how to go about doing that. First, we set out to remove ourselves from the crowds, from all that hides Jesus from us; and then, we climb a sycamore tree. We change our routine both outwardly and inwardly in order to put ourselves in position to see Jesus. We begin coming to Church; we begin observing the LORD’s commandments; we begin reading Holy Scripture; we begin to pray, to call out to the LORD as did blind Bartimaeus and the Canaanite woman. If our routine already included coming to Church, reading Scripture, saying prayers, observing the LORD’s commandments, we change how we do all this. We begin to do it mindfully, with contrition, seeking now to go beyond the outward forms of the Church’s prayer and into their substance, driven by the hope of seeing Jesus. And here is where the mercy of God is first manifest to us: precisely in the changing of our ways, as manifested by the hope that is born in us, we are receiving Jesus into our house; for already we are submitting ourselves to His direction and guidance and no more to our own.

And now this morning, we enter with the Church into the narthex of Great Lent. We have been led by the LORD, as was Israel, out of Egypt and to the Red Sea. As Israel encamped at the banks of the Red Sea to prepare for the LORD to act and take her through the sea as though on dry ground, while annihilating her pursuer, Pharaoh, so we begin to prepare ourselves for the great journey of the Fast. Here in the Church, the inner Exodus of Great Lent is getting ready to begin. It will lead us in the prayer of the Church into the Red Sea, into the death, the Sabbath Rest of God, into the dread mystery of His Tomb, and out into the Garden of His Holy Resurrection early in the morning on Pascha Night!

This morning, we stand on the western shore of the Red Sea; we have been led to stand again before the baptismal font, for the tears of contrition that flow in the prayer of the Publican’s heart are a ‘second baptism.’

And, if we have the mind of the Publican, we will begin to weep tears of contrition. For, when Great Lent begins, we will hear the WORD of the LORD directed at us through His prophet, Isaiah, as it was directed at Israel, chastening us and pleading with us because we have sinned. We have not kept the LORD’s commandments. We are covered from our head to our feet with sores and wounds because, like Israel of old, we have gone back to our idols. We have not remembered the mighty acts of God by which He has delivered us from the hands of our enemies and bestowed on us so many earthly blessings, so we have become careless, heedless, negligent, ungrateful, demanding, and selfish.

So, in these weeks up to now, the Church has been working to bring us to our senses, so that we will turn to Her and follow Her like so many prodigal sons back to our Father’s House. If we have followed Her, then we will find ourselves this morning, spiritually, on the Path that leads into the Father’s House, into the LORD’s Tomb, into the dread mystery of His Sabbath Rest. The evidence that we are receiving Jesus into our house, and that we are coming to our senses, and that we are stepping over the threshold to come into the narthex of Great Lent and onto the Path of Great Lent that will guide us all the way into the LORD’s Tomb is when our soul begins to cry out from her ‘deep heart’ in the contrition of the Publican: ‘LORD have mercy on me, a sinner!’

But, this is a prayer of great hope; for the contrition it expresses arouses immediately the merciful compassion of the LORD’s Holy Mother, and She invisibly comes to us to wrap Her loving arms around us, as we are given to know in the gracious mystery of Christ’s Holy Church, in the dread and beautiful mystery of His Body; for it is Christ Himself, in His Body the Church, Who teaches us to pray in the compunction of the Publican: ‘O Mistress, Thou impassable Gate leading to God, O portal of the Divine Light, open unto me the gates of repentance, I pray, cleansing me of the impurity of my sins with the showers of Thy mercy, O Thou who art full of the Grace of God! Awaken me to repentance, light Thou my lamp, which has gone out through slothfulness. O LORD Jesus Christ, Light never-waning, turn me and guide my steps to the Light of Thy commandments.’ (Thurs Compline, Tone 8, p. 131)

The doors open onto the Nave of Great Lent, the Great and Holy Fast, three Sundays from now. Is it our desire to see Jesus? To receive Him into our house? Then let us make the Publican’s prayer, ‘LORD, have mercy on me!’ the prayer that drives us and directs our life. Let us make the Publican’s prayer incarnate by changing our way of life both inwardly, in the cleansing of our thoughts and in the setting aright of our minds, and outwardly, in the fear of the LORD’s blessed commandments that guided and guarded by them, we may conduct ourselves in a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing to Him, and so attain in this life by His Grace knowledge of the Truth, Jesus Christ Himself, and in the world to come, life everlasting, Jesus Christ Himself. Amen!