|22 - The New Exodus of Great Lent|
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Today’s Feast is the 40th day of Christmas. It is the end of the Winter Pascha. And, in its theological meaning, it opens directly onto this Sunday of Zaccheus when we see the Spires of Great Lent now coming into view above the horizon.
And, there is theology in the LORD coming today into the Temple of Jerusalem, the House of the LORD, and into the house of Zaccheus, which becomes the House of the LORD—as though the two are one and the same house. Pay attention now to the daily lectionary. Watch how it will lead us back to Jerusalem where we are today; and that’s where we’ll be, again, when Great Lent begins. Except, we won’t be in the Temple or in anyone’s house; we’ll have been led outside Jerusalem to the LORD’s Tomb with the myrrhbearing women; and the Tomb will become His House.
We keep coming to the Temple of Jerusalem, but it’s not our destination. Our destination is where Great Lent begins and where the LORD’s going ‘up to Jerusalem’ ends: at His Tomb in the Garden beyond the Temple. Consider also: Great Lent ends at the tomb of Lazarus, now empty. On Palm Sunday, we come, again, into the Temple of Jerusalem (Mt 21.12); and, again, we leave it. Holy Week begins not in the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, but on the Mount of Olives (Mt 24.3) just east outside of (Old) Jerusalem. And, Holy Week ends not on Mt Zion but on the mount, Golgotha, in the Tomb of the risen LORD, now empty, in the Garden; again, outside and beyond the Temple of Jerusalem!
Why does the LORD come to the Temple, His “House,” but finds His ‘rest’ not there but in His Tomb on Golgotha? With the Psalmist, let’s “solve our riddle to the music of the lyre” (Ps 48.5 LXX); that is, by the meaning somewhat hidden perhaps in today’s Feast.
Today, Simeon comes into the Temple as did Isaiah centuries ago. Isaiah saw the LORD sitting on a throne, and the House of the LORD, the Temple, filled with His Glory. (Isa 6.1ff.) Simeon sees the Holy Virgin and her Child. She is the House of the LORD filled with the Glory of the LORD, because she bore the LORD God in her virginal womb by the Holy Spirit (Lk 1.35) as Isaiah foretold (Isa 7.14); and Simeon is the one who translated the almah of Isa 7.14 for the Greek Septuagint as virgin rather than young woman, as he was directed to by an angel. The seraph took a burning coal from the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s tongue (6.6-7). The Holy Virgin carries the LORD in her arms and places Him in Simeon’s arms, and Simeon says, “Now I may depart in peace.” Here is where the “gates of heaven open,” the Gates of Great Lent! Let’s explain.
Centuries earlier (6th c. B.C.), a priest named Ezekiel, living by the river Chobar in the Babylonian exile, saw the heavens opened; and, like John the Baptist at the Jordan, he saw visions of God. He beheld a Theophany (Eze 1.1-2). He saw a sweeping wind coming from the north (the direction of Eden!), and a great cloud on it, ringed by brightness and gleaming fire with the likeness of a man (vv. 4-5). St Macarius of Egypt (4th c.), illumined by the Holy Spirit, understood that Ezekiel was seeing an image of Christ. (Hom 1)
This same luminous cloud came to Ezekiel and brought him in spirit from Babylon to Jerusalem and into the inner court of the Temple (Eze 8.3&16). There, Ezekiel saw the Glory of the LORD depart from the Temple (10.3&18), away from the City to stand on the “mountain which was in front of the City.” (11.23) The “mountain in front of the City” would be, geographically, the Mount of Olives, where Holy Week begins, or Golgotha, where Holy Week ends!
Again, the LORD comes to Ezekiel and speaks to him of a new Exodus that He will accomplish with His people: “I will bring Israel out from the nations where they are scattered” and to my Holy Mountain, the High Mountain (20.34-40). The Spirit (Hand) of the LORD comes to Ezekiel again and brings him in a divine vision into the Land of Israel and sets him on a very High Mountain, on which he sees a City and its Temple. (40.2ff.) What, where is this High, Holy Mountain of the LORD; what is this City and Temple in the Land of Israel?
The Mountain is Mt Zion (Jerusalem) in its spiritual meaning, which, we know from other passages in Ezekiel, is Eden. The Temple Ezekiel sees in this City on the Mountain is filled with the Glory of the LORD. (44.4) A brook issues from its gate eastward into Galilee, all the way into the Dead Sea. (47.1-12) It heals and makes to live all it touches. According to Jesus ben Sirach, this brook is Wisdom (Eccl. 24.23-30); it is the LORD Jesus Christ who is the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). The City and the Temple and the Mountain of Ezekiel’s vision, the Church knows to be an image of Wisdom’s Virgin Mother, the Theotokos.
What did Ezekiel see in his visions if not the mystery of God hidden from the ages (Col 1.26), hidden until the heavens were opened at the LORD’s baptism and His death on the Cross? Jesus’ Body that He received from His Virgin Mother is the True Temple (Jn 2.19-21) of Heaven; for, in it, the fullness of God dwelt bodily (Col 2.9). “The LORD,” says the Psalmist, “is the portion of my inheritance.” (Ps 15.5 LXX) So, the Inheritance, the Land of Israel where Ezekiel was brought in divine vision, in its theological reality, is the “mystery of God hidden from the ages,” the mystery of “Christ in you, the Hope of Glory!” The Holy Virgin is the High and Holy Mountain; and, the Church as the Body of Christ is the Temple on Ezekiel’s Mountain (cf. Jn 2.19-21). It reaches from its Cornerstone, the crucified and risen Body of the LORD Jesus Christ, in the lowest depths to the heights of Heaven (Mt 27.51) That is, the Temple on the High Mountain in the Land of Israel that is the destination of this New Exodus the LORD reveals to Ezekiel is the LORD Jesus Christ in the Glory of His Resurrection and Ascension and Sitting at the Right Hand of God the Father.
This Exodus begins at Christmas, when the LORD, the Mighty River of Ezekiel’s vision, comes forth from the womb of His Virgin Mother, the eastward Gate of Ezekiel’s Temple (Eze 47.1f.). It goes into Galilee and flows into the Dead Sea, into the LORD’s Tomb. And, into the LORD’s Tomb beyond the Temple of Jerusalem, where this New Exodus begins its ascent into the opened heavens, up to the City on the High Mountain, this is where the Church is leading us on the Journey, the Exodus, of Great Lent! And so, in Simeon’s prayer, “LORD, now may I depart in peace according to Thy WORD,” I hear him proclaiming to all who have ears to hear that the New Exodus of the LORD up to the “Jerusalem on High” has begun! Great Lent is leading us to the new House, the new Temple of the LORD. Its Gates are in His Tomb that opens out onto the Garden of Eden.
Note, then, that we begin Great Lent with the myrrhbearing women in front of the LORD’s Tomb, and, at the end of Holy Week, we have come into the LORD’s Tomb. Note how we get there.
We get there by way of Lazarus’ tomb. That’s where Great Lent ends. Lazarus’ tomb is the tomb of our own heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses. The ascetic disciplines of Lent now come into view as the way by which we receive the LORD into our house as did Zaccheus, or into our arms as did Simeon. Now, we may depart in peace; we can set out on the New Exodus foretold by Ezekiel. In the sacraments of the Church, we receive into the house of our soul and body the same LORD who led Israel on her Exodus to the “Land of Israel” as a pillar of fire by night and a radiant cloud by day. This is the theological meaning of the candles we bless on this Feast.
Through prayer and fasting, the Savior’s Cross becomes incarnate in us, its power becomes active in us, and we are able to put to death what’s earthly in us. Now we’ve become Lazarus, dying to ourselves and descending into the tomb of our heart. That’s where we hear the LORD calling to us with a great voice (Jn 11 & Mt 27.50): “Come forth!” Or, as it is given in Ezekiel on Holy Friday: “I will lead you out from your graves, I will bring you into the Land of Israel,” into the mystery of the LORD’s Holy Resurrection!
Great Lent, then, goes much deeper than trying to be nicer or satisfying a religious obligation. It is a hidden Exodus with the LORD into our soul in order to become a new creation, to be transfigured within as a child of God, living in the joy and power of the LORD’s Holy Pascha. May it be so. Amen!