22 - Publican and Pharisee, January 24, 2010

II Timothy 3:10-15

Luke 18:10-14

Today, we open the Lenten Triodion. With the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee, our holy Mother, the Church, helps us to prepare for Great Lent by telling us we cannot be satisfied with ourselves. Whether we are the publican or the Pharisee, we are not as we were made to be. We were made from the earth in the Image and Likeness of God. We were made to live in the Spirit of God. We were made to be partakers of God in body and soul. We were made to have dominion over the earth, starting with our body, which was made from the earth. We were commanded to subdue the earth in the love of God, starting with our body, and to offer it to God to make it holy.

But we do not partake of God. We partake in the corruption of death. We do not rule over the earth. The earth rules over us. In our bodies, we are slaves to food and lust, subject to disease, deformities and maladies of all kinds. In our souls, we are slaves to anger, envy and pride.  

This is not how we were made to be. We exist in a manner that is against our nature. We were not made to be partakers of death but of God; we were not made to be subject to disease, sickness and death. We were made to be subjects of God. We were made to receive His Holy Spirit into our body and soul and to become like God: good, holy, lords of heaven and earth. And so, when we become satisfied with ourselves, we become satisfied with our unnatural condition as though this were natural. We become satisfied with our ignorance both of God and of our true natural destiny. We learn to accept death as a natural part of the cycle of life and not as the bitter separation from God and the perversion of our natural destiny that it is.

And so, the Church teaches us not to be satisfied with ourselves. We do not exist as we were made to exist. We do not exist according to our nature but against it. We exist in a deep and profound spiritual schizophrenia. We are sick in body and soul; we are sick unto death; and this is not natural to us.

The Church proclaims the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ to us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ reveals our origin in God; it reveals our nature’s natural capacity to receive God and to become a partaker of God both in our soul and in our body. She proclaims this Gospel that reveals the divine dignity and nobility of our nature. In its glorious light, we see how sick we are because we do not live in God; we live in the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We are bounded on all sides by the corruption of death.

If only the Church by her Gospel can open our eyes enough to see how darkened we are, how sick we are in soul and body, that there is a higher life to which we are called, that there is a wholeness of soul and body to which we can attain if only we want to, then perhaps we will learn not to be satisfied with ourselves and become receptive to the divine therapy of the Church.

Great Lent is the Church’s therapy to heal us in body and soul. Through the ascetic disciplines of the Church, we subject ourselves in body and in soul to the Great Physician, Our Savior Jesus Christ. We fast from food with our stomachs; we fast with all of our senses from impure and provocative images. In all of this, a dying takes place in us not “in abstracto” but “in concreto.” Our bodies are broken down by the fast from food. Our inward being is broken down by the fast with the eyes and the ears. We are emptying ourselves and uncovering the boredom, the vague uneasiness and profound loneliness of our inner being of which we were altogether unconscious before. We may be surprised to discover the extent to which we have become numb to the ache of our inner boredom and sense of unease. We become aware of how much we live our life trying to run away from ourselves. We begin to see why we crave frivolous entertainment, provocative distractions and diversions of all kinds. It’s an unconscious impulse to ease that emptiness in our soul and to mollify the ache of our inner boredom and unease. Through the fast and with the help of the Church, which she gives to us in her Lenten services and offices of prayer and worship and in her constant encouragement and exhortation, we can find the strength to take up the agony of our inner emptiness and boredom like a bed, like the cross, and to walk on the better and changeless path that ascends to God as Christ commands us. Through the ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting, we are not lying on the bed of our spiritual sickness anymore. We are taking it up as the cross and lo, we find that we do have the strength to become masters of ourselves, no longer tossed to and fro by the impulses and cravings of our soul and body, but rulers of ourselves, with the freedom to choose to follow our impulses and passions no more but to follow Christ instead to Jerusalem, to Golgotha and to His tomb.

I am describing the inner process that is set in motion by the fast of Great Lent. In body and soul, we can feel ourselves beginning to break down, to crumble, to fall apart. What’s breaking down are those outer layers of spiritual pride that cover us like layers of thick crusty skin. Our bodies are being physically humbled; and through the humbling of our body we are able then to touch our soul, to gain mastery over it. See how the fast works its way from our outward to our inward parts. But the work of the fast is not yet finished. Having broken through the wall of our body’s pride to reach the inner, subtle chambers of the soul, we must now work to break down the walls of our soul’s pride. We work to regain mastery over the desires of our soul and our psychic movements to lay hold of their psychic energy and to permit them no longer to express themselves in the passions of lust, anger, envy, greed and pride. We subdue them in obedience to God’s command to “subdue the earth”. We tame them by subjecting them not to our will but to the will of God through prayer, fasting and alms-giving. In this way, we begin to break down the wall of our soul’s pride, so that we can then make our way now into the inner citadel of our ego, to the core of our Pharisaical self-righteousness, where we are forever pandering to ourselves and pampering ourselves and patting ourselves on the back in the deluded conviction that God is well-pleased with us.

Now, perhaps, the real work begins: the work of crucifying our self-love so that we can fulfill our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ in a death like His.

What I want you to understand is that to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, is more than just believing that Jesus is the Son of God. It is the work of uniting ourselves to Christ in a death like His so that He can refashion us, re-create us, re-shape us. It is the work of following the commandment of God given to Adam and Eve, the commandment to return to the dust of the ground, to die in Christ, to die to our ego, to die to our self-love, to die to ourselves in our union with Christ. To be a Christian, that is to say, isn’t just a mental thing. It’s a physical thing as well. The true Faith of the Church is ascetic work of our whole being, body and soul. Don’t think you will come to the Resurrection of Christ just by believing. The Gospel isn’t just about God saving us – considering us righteous while He leaves us “just as we are”. The Gospel is about God healing us in soul and body. It’s about God refashioning us from the ground up body and soul. It’s about God reshaping us, re-creating us inside and outside, body and soul. You must be born again – of water and the Spirit. The old man in us with all its lusts and all its pride, its smug self-satisfaction must be destroyed; because its Pharisaical self-righteousness that fancies itself always God’s good friend, but which in fact hates God, is incurable and it must be destroyed. We must lose our soul for the sake of Christ. We must take up our cross and be crucified and buried with Christ in the likeness of His death.

If you desire to become whole in body and soul, to become a partaker of God and a sharer in His eternity, then you need to come to the Church again and again and again, and learn the Way of the Church. That inner emptiness in your soul, that dark boredom, is the tomb of Pascha. Take up your cross. Take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as your bed, and walk in the Way of Christ to Golgotha and to the tomb of Pascha. Unite yourself to Christ in a death like His and receive the God of all into the tomb of your heart, and enter into the joy of His Holy Resurrection. Amen.