1 Corinthians 8.8 – 9.2

Matthew 25.31 – 46

One week before Great Lent begins, the Church this morning brings us to a critical juncture. Last Friday, through Her lectionary in St Mark, She led us to the foot of the Savior’s Cross, and we came to the end of the pre-Lenten Path. We came to the end of the historical and earthly Exodus of Israel, we came to the end of the Old Testament! We came to the beginning of the inner and mystical Exodus of the Gospel!

In our Gospel reading last Friday, we stood with the Theotokos and St John at the foot of the Savior’s Cross. We stood at the door that opens onto the Nave of Great Lent wherein we stand at the Entrance of Paradise, where we wait for the stone to be rolled away. For, at the LORD’s Cross, we stand before the Tree of Life, Christ God incarnate, who emptied Himself and came down from the top of the Mountain of Eden to clothe Himself with the tree of learning good and evil, our human nature (Phil 2.5-11). We’re at a critical juncture this morning because where we choose to stand here before the Savior’s Cross determines if we enter Great Lent to follow the Path that will take us inside the LORD’s Tomb, or remain outside in this world that is passing away in the corruption of its carnal lusts and greed.

As we read about the Savior’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial that happened to Him on the visible plane of history—we read this from Mark’s Gospel last week; we’ll read it from Luke’s Gospel this coming week—understand that we are looking at the visible veil that hides as it reveals the invisible Church of the heart. That is, it hides as it reveals what is happening, invisibly, in our soul today, here and now.

This historical veil of the Church woven by the events that happened to the Body of Christ visibly in history, is like the glass pane of a mirror. For, what the veil reveals is not behind the veil but in front of the veil, as it is in a mirror. It is the invisible, spiritual mystery of your soul that is being reflected back at you in the visible history of Christ recorded by the Evangelists. So, when we read, from St Mark this last week and from St Luke this next week, about the Savior’s trial, crucifixion, death and burial that happened on the visible plane of history, we are looking into the Gospel mirror that reflects the invisible Church of Heaven that is within you (Lk 17.21, Col 1.27), in the invisible Church of your heart.

Look, then, into this Gospel mirror reflecting back to you what’s happening invisibly in your soul. Where are you standing, invisibly, in your heart, as you look upon the visible image of Christ God, high and lifted up (Isa 6.1) on the Cross, drawn in your mind by St Mark and St Luke these two weeks before Great Lent begins?

Are you standing with the nations? From the Gospel readings these two weeks before Great Lent begins, we see the nations judging the LORD and condemning Him to death by crucifixion. On the visible plane of world history, this continues today in the form of the nations condemning the LORD to irrelevance, or to a non-factor, or to oblivion or to non-existence. And so they do also to His followers.

Are you standing with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders of Israel? These are they of the old Israel who draw near to the LORD with their lips, but in their hearts they are far from Him (Isa 29.13).

This morning, let’s stand with the Theotokos and the beloved disciple, John at the foot of the Savior’s Cross. And let’s open our souls to the Theotokos’ grief as She stands before the Cross to feel something of Her maternal heart’s agony as She looks upon Her Son stretched out dead upon the Cross, and as She laments and weeps and cries out: ‘How is it that Thou dost suffer, O my Son most sweet? What is this strange and awesome mystery? How is it that Thou who dost grant life everlasting to all dost of Thine own will die a shameful death on the Cross?’ (Octoechos, Tuesday Compline, Tone II, pp. 132&133)

For it is in the Theotokos’ maternal grief over the unjust suffering of the One to whom She gave birth without seed, that we may begin not just to see but to feel what this strange and awesome mystery of the Savior’s Cross is. It is revealed to us in this morning’s Gospel. Reflected in the visible mirror of the nations judging the LORD on the visible plane of history, we see the LORD on the Last Day judging the nations on His Judgment Seat. But what we see is that the Judgment Seat of Christ on the Last day is His Cross. And we see the LORD on the Judgment Seat of His Cross taking upon Himself the chastisement for the iniquity of us all (Isa 53). Even as the nations judge the LORD on the visible plane of history, we see the LORD judging the nations on the invisible plane of the spirit, in the invisible ‘Valley of Decision,’ as we will read this coming Wednesday (Joel 3.12-17). Invisibly: that is, He is judging the heart; or, following St Macarius (and St Paul, Eph 2.1), He is judging the nations in the ‘tomb of their heart.’

Who of us, if our eyes were opened to feel this awesome mystery, would not fall to the ground in fear and trembling? Who of us, seeing now why the Almighty Judge of all issued forth from the womb of the Holy Virgin—that He did so in order to clothe Himself in our nakedness that He might grant us the raiment of incorruption (Tone 2, p 131)—who of us would not turn to the merciful Mother of the most merciful God, standing beside us at the Judgment Seat of His Cross weeping and lamenting, and pray to Her? ‘O pure one, I have fallen under the wrath of thy Son and God. Deliver me, and in the hour when He shall hold trial, be thou my helper, O all-pure one, and deliver me from standing with the goats on the left side.’ (Tues Compline, II, 114) ‘From condemnation, O Theotokos, deliver me who have condemned myself through my transgressions, for thou gavest birth to the Judge and God of all.’ ‘Entreat the Judge, thy Son that He have pity on me and save me!’

For, even if we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the sick, even if we have given away all that we have, if we have not striven to cultivate the love of God in our hearts, St Paul says that it profits us nothing. We are but loud, clanging cymbals. (1 Cor 13.3) St John, also, standing with the Holy Theotokos at the foot of the Cross, admonished us from his first epistle that we read last Mon & Tues: ‘Little children, it is the last hour,’ he says. (1 Jn 2.18) ‘He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’ (1 Jn 3.14-16)

I said that the Church this morning has brought us to a critical juncture. For, She has brought us to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, and She reveals to us that on the visible plane of this, the Last Day of history, the Judgment Seat is the Cross. It is the Last Day, but the end is not yet. So long as it is Today, there is still time to repent. If in repentance we accept the LORD’s Judgment against us, he does not condemn us. Instead, He says to us from His Cross, as He says to the beloved disciple: ‘Behold your Mother!’ Turn in your heart to your Mother, the Holy Virgin, and pray to Her: ‘As Thou art the Mother of the Good One, lead me through the portals of repentance.’ Lead me into the Nave of Great Lent through the gates of repentance. ‘O all-pure One who gavest birth to the Way of Life, direct me now to the narrow path!’ (ibid., pp. 132&133) Direct me to the path of Great Lent, the ascetical path of prayer and fasting, the path of the inner Exodus of the Gospel.

And in our love for our Mother, the Holy Virgin, the Church has us pray to Her Son and our God on the Judgment Seat of His Cross: ‘Like the thief do I confess and cry out to Thee, the Good One: remember me, O LORD, in Thy kingdom! Reckon me with him, O Thou who didst willingly accept suffering for our sake.’ (Fri Matins, Tone 2, p. 133)

The narrow path that goes into the Nave of Great Lent is leading us first to the tomb of Lazarus as to the tomb of our heart. Beginning with the rite of mutual forgiveness next Sunday, we will set out over the next 40 days to lose our life for the sake of Christ; that is, to crucify our earthly members—anger, lust, greed, pride and the like—out of love for Christ. Our hope is to hear Him in our inner man calling out to each one of us by our name on Lazarus Saturday: ‘Come forth!’ so that, as Ezekiel foretold (Eze 37.1-12), we may be raised from our grave to follow Him as He leads us into Great and Holy Week to find Him, our Life (Col 3.4), in His Tomb. And when we come to the Church on Pascha Night, our hope is to discover that the Stone has been rolled away. Our heart of stone, our dead heart, has become a heart of flesh, a living heart; and the way out into the Garden of His Resurrection, the Path out into the deep, beyond all things (Jer 17.9), into the Land of the Living (Ps 27.13) is now open before us!

So now, let us note in closing that we will be brought to stand with the myrrhbearers before the LORD’s Tomb this Thursday, from our reading in St Luke. And note that even as the LORD is placed in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest, a heavenly Light begins to dawn even now (epephosken, Lk 23.54), even before Great Lent has begun. I think that Light is the uncreated Radiance of His divinity (Heb 1.3) already shining forth from His Body in the Tomb as it shone from His Body on Mt Tabor in anticipation of His Holy Resurrection. That Light, I think, filled with heavenly joy and hope the world cannot take away, is given audible form in this prayer of the Church from Compline last Thursday: ‘Christ God, the Tree of Life, who blossomed forth from the Holy Virgin, has called us who were slain by the tree of knowledge. The enemy made Adam captive by the fruit of the tree; but the LORD Jesus Christ made the enemy captive by the Tree of the Cross, and by His suffering, He came as the Second Adam for this purpose: to seek out the lost and bring life to the dead.’ Dear faithful, that’s you and me!

Dear faithful, it is in the joy and in the hope of this Light of Christ already dawning on us from the LORD’s Tomb, and in the Compassion of the LORD that darkened the sun and covered the whole earth when He ascended the Cross, that we get ready this week for the rite of mutual forgiveness next Sunday, when we lay our hand to the doors and open them into the Nave of Great Lent. As we heard from the Church’s prayer a moment ago, they are the ‘portals of repentance’ through which we step onto the narrow Path of Great Lent to follow it all the way into the Sanctuary of the LORD’s Tomb and into Paradise, into the invisible Church of Heaven hidden at the top of the mountain within the invisible Church of our heart, in the deep, beyond all things, where we find our true selves as partakers of the divine nature! (2 Pt 1.4) For dear faithful: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! O LORD, glory to Thee! Most Holy Theotokos, save us! Amen!