21 - Zaccheus Sunday, Jan 29, 2012

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday and Pascha, on Lazarus Saturday when we remember the raising of Lazarus from the dead, we hear the Lord say to the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (Jn 11:25) And so, when Zaccheus receives Jesus into his house, he receives the resurrection and the life of God into his house. So also, when we receive Jesus Christ into the house of our soul and body, we receive the resurrection and the life of God into our soul and body. When Christ abides in us, our dying is transfigured to become no longer our death but the death of our death, and the death of the old man that is in us. It becomes our resurrection into the uncreated, divine life of the New Man, Christ Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life to all who believe in Him; that is, to all who receive Him into the house of their soul and body.

This Good News, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not religious myth or symbolism; it is not a religious philosophical theory that distinguishes the Christian Faith from other philosophical or religious theories. It is the mystery of God that was hidden from before the ages and that was revealed in Jesus Christ, and which the holy apostles and the saints throughout the ages have seen with their eyes, heard with their ears, handled with their hands. It is Gospel, it is proclamation of the “really real.” It does not call us to intellectual reflection. It calls us to repentance. It calls us to “come down” from the sycamore tree in order to receive Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, into the house of our soul and body, so that even though we die, we might live; or rather, so that as we die with Christ abiding in the house of our soul and body, we may rise up to His own divine life in the joy of His Holy Resurrection.

Coming to the Sunday of Zaccheus, we know that Great Lent is but four weeks away. This Gospel story of Zaccheus is for us, then, a Lenten Gospel. It is part of the Church’s “pre-Lenten program” to get us in the mind of Great Lent, so that like Zaccheus, we can begin making preparations to receive Christ into the house of our soul and body, Christ the Resurrection and the Life, so that our living and dying in this world can become life for us even when we die.

Zaccheus was rich, and it says that he was short, he was small – he was micro, it says in the Greek. It’s as though St Luke is saying that Zaccheus could not see Jesus because he was small, and he was small because he was rich. That is to say, he could not see Jesus because the house of his soul was small; and it was small, it was not “enlarged” as St Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, because what “abided” in it wasn’t Christ but love for money.

What abides in the house of your soul and body? What worldly loves constrict your heart, making it “small”? What do you live for? In your empty moments, when no one is looking, what do you receive into the house of your soul and body? What images, what fantasies, what dreams, do you receive into your mind to entertain you, to comfort you when you are lonely or bored? Who is governing what you do, what your mind dwells on, what your soul lives for in your life in this world? The old man that is lazy, indulgent, self-righteous, egotistical, lustful, greedy, envious and spiritually dead? Or, Christ the New Man, the Resurrection and the Life?

Zaccheus was a rich man. His house was filled with money and his heart was constricted by his love for money. He was small, very small; he was micro. Why did he want to see Jesus? Did the proclamation that Jesus was passing that way awaken his soul even a little bit from the mesmerizing stupor that had fallen upon it from his love for money, so that it felt, perhaps for the first time in a long time the emptiness and the darkness with which greed and lust and vanity had filled it? Did his spirit feel the Holy Spirit of the Christ and remember its ardent longing for the Image of God in whom it was made?

Whatever the reason, Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus, and so he climbed a sycamore tree. St Luke says he “ascended” the sycamore tree, just as we say that the Lord “ascended” the cross. This makes the sycamore tree look like a symbol of the cross that the Lord calls those who would follow Him to take up. And one notes that Zaccheus could not see Jesus until he ascended the sycamore tree, until, let’s say, he took up his cross. In Great Lent, the Church sets the sycamore tree before those of us who want to climb it, who want to take up our cross and see Jesus; it is the Church’s ascetic disciplines of fasting, praying, confession of our sins, and practicing charity toward others in the spirit of repentance and love for Christ.

Jesus calls out to Zaccheus to “make haste and come down.” In this pre-Lenten season we are now entering, one hears the Savior commanding Zaccheus to humble himself, to die to his ego, to deny himself for Christ’s sake, and to unite himself to Christ in the likeness of Christ’s death. For, when Christ died on the cross, He “came down” and was buried with His body in the tomb, while with His soul He went down into hell and broke the iron bars and the gates of bronze (Ps 107:16). We can say that to come down from the tree in order to receive Christ into our soul and body means, practically, that we stop letting the old man jerk us around, leading us to receive into the house of our soul and body the desires of the flesh, of lust and greed that constrict our heart and make us small, and instead to receive Christ into our soul and body, to be led by His commandments that enlarge our hearts, making us able to receive Jesus into the house of our soul and body.

Zaccheus was a thief, for he had gotten his riches by extortion and fraud. “Today”, he joins the “wise thief” when he comes down from the sycamore tree in joy at the “Good News” that the Resurrection and the Life is coming to abide in his house “today”. It is the Good News of Great Lent given to us this morning: make ready, come down in haste, for the Resurrection and the Life means to come and abide in your house today.

Here in the sacred environment of the Church, we can see the radiant light of Christ’s Holy Pascha shining in this Lenten Gospel of Zaccheus. That same light shines in the sacred darkness, the reverent stillness of Great Lent. It is the light of Paschal joy that begins to glow like an ember when the soul “comes down” from her egotistical conceit and “lays aside every excuse”, when she sees through tears of sincere and contrite confession that she is a “whitewashed” tomb, as Christ calls it. In spite of all the cosmetic tricks we apply to make ourselves attractive and sophisticated in the ways of the world, our soul is a spiritual corpse. We are “small”, we are not “enlarged”, because our heart is constricted by our love for the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life.

The light of Paschal joy shines in the penitential atmosphere of Great Lent. It shines because Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, is with us. It shines in the joy that comes from the sincere confession of our sins. It may be hard to see how the sorrow that comes from seeing and confessing our sins is the beginning of the heavenly joy that we witness in Zaccheus in this morning’s Gospel. The worldly mind cannot understand this because this is a mystery of repentance, and one cannot understand it until one does it. It brings joy to the soul because it opens the doors of one’s house to Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. When we make haste to come down to humility, Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, comes to abide in the house of our soul and body. He illumines our darkness and He fills ours emptiness with the heavenly joy of His Holy Resurrection.

This is the essence of Great Lent. It is what we are about to do together as members of the body of Christ. By doing it together, we encourage one another, we help one another, to come down with the help of the Church’s ascetic disciplines so that we may each one of us receive Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, into the house of our souls and bodies in the joy of His Great and Holy Pascha. Amen.