24 - Forgiveness and Adam's Expulsion from Paradise, Feb 26, 2012

Luke 24:1-12 (Matins Gospel)

Romans 13:11-14:4

Matthew 6:14-21

Today is the Sunday of forgiveness; and, we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In the joining of these two lessons, the Church seems to be teaching us that Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise finally because they would not forgive each other, and that the way back to Paradise begins by forgiving each other as God forgives us. But here, do we not, we encounter the old Adam in us. For, there are those we cannot forgive. Our hearts still are hard like the old Adam and Eve.

Today, I believe, the Church gives to us her first lesson as she prepares us to step onto the path of Great Lent. That path will take us to the tomb of Christ that is in the garden (Jn 19:41) as to the gates that open onto the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The lesson is this: forgiveness is how we step onto the path, the Way that is Christ, that takes us back to the Garden; but, we cannot begin to forgive others as Christ commands us until we see and confess that we have sinned. This is to say that we cannot make our way back to the Garden until we lose our life, our earthly life, for Christ’s sake, i.e., for the love of Christ.

On Thursday last, as we drew near the gates of Great Lent, did you notice that we read from the Gospel for the last time? The next day, Friday, we read from the prophets. From now on, we will be reading from the Old Testament, except on Saturdays and Sundays. These are the days of Resurrection when the path of Great Lent ascends mystically (in a hidden, spiritual way) from the valley of our life in the world up the Holy Mountain of Transfiguration. In the midst of our ascetic labor of putting our death to death in Christ, as we make our way through the wilderness of this life to the Jordan, to the moment of our physical death, and into the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Heaven, we gather round our Lord to eat and drink the crucified and risen body and blood of Him who is the Living Bread that comes down from Heaven, as the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness, and we celebrate Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

On Thursday last, we read St Luke’s Gospel of Christ’s crucifixion and His burial. And so, we enter this Exodus of Great Lent with the vision before our eyes of Christ on the Cross, trampling down death, our death, by His death out of His great love for us. His last words on the Cross echo in our ears: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Christ forgiving us from the Cross even as we crucify Him daily by our sins, our casual indifference, our self-will and selfish ways, our disobedience and our self-righteous sense of entitlement, this is the mystery of God’s inexpressible love for us. Great Lent is the entrance into that mystery.

Thursday’s Gospel reading closed with the myrrh-bearing women. They followed Christ, it says, all the way to His burial in the tomb, and they saw how the Savior was laid in the tomb. They were seeing the inexpressible love of God for us. It was demonstrated publicly when He voluntarily ascended the Cross for our sake. This vision of divine love the Church sets before us as we pass through the gates of Great Lent. For the sake of God’s love for us, we take up the cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines, and out of our love for Christ we endure the discomfort of the fast.

The women prepared spices and ointments, it says. These were meant for His crucified body laid in the tomb there in the garden. Beloved faithful, this, I believe, speaks to the ineffably tender and awesome mystery of Holy Eucharist and its unity with the inner work of the fast. For, when you receive the precious and all-holy body and blood of Our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, in Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of the crucified God are being buried in the tomb of your body and wrapped in the shroud of your heart and soul and mind. In Holy Eucharist, Christ gives Himself to us and unites Himself to us in the likeness of our death. This is in response to Holy Baptism when we united ourselves to Him in the likeness of His death. It is in this love of Christ for us, that we receive in Holy Eucharist physically and spiritually in our bodies and souls, that we take up the fast. The fast is the cross that Christ commands us to take up in order to follow Him. Through the outer work of the fast, we bring our bodies – our eyes, our ears, our mouths – under subjection to the will of God, to live no more for the lusts of the flesh that passes away. Through the outer work of the fast, we do the inner work of the fast: unceasing prayer by which we plant in our souls and our minds the constant remembrance of God.

The women, St Luke tells us, rested on the Sabbath. The word here is “hesychia”. It means silence, stillness. It speaks to the inner work of prayer, to attain stillness of soul and mind in a body that has been made still by the outer work of the fast, so that we can descend into the stillness of the tomb of our heart and begin to make out the sins and transgressions we have committed in word, thought and deed, consciously and unconsciously, knowingly and unknowingly, that have made us spiritually dead, separated from God, expelled from the Garden of Paradise. Here, we come to the central work of Great Lent, the heart of the fast. It is the work of seeing and confessing our sins and transgressions to Him who prayed to the Father from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Do you see? It is through sincere confession that we make our way to the tomb of Christ on Holy Thursday, not as to liturgical theater but as to the spiritual mystery of Christ who is within us, united to us body and soul in the mystery of His Incarnation. On Great and Holy Thursday, we will pick up our reading from the Gospels at the point where we left off on this Thursday last. In this way, the Church shows us that our Lenten work of confessing our sins is embraced by the prayer of Jesus on the Cross for us: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Through sincere practice of the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent in the spirit of repentance, the hardness of our heart softens. And, through sincere confession of our sins, we receive the forgiveness of our sins. Now, we are united to Christ not just in our body through the sacramental mysteries of the Church, but in our soul through the love for Christ and His Holy Mother that is born in our heart.

His crucified body and blood that we receive in Holy Eucharist are the seed of divine love, the seed of His Holy Resurrection that is sown in our souls and bodies. In the love of Holy Eucharist, we are united with Christ in the likeness of His Holy Resurrection. The tomb of our heart is united and becomes one with the tomb of the Lord’s Pascha, and it is transfigured into the bridal chamber, the font of our Resurrection in Christ. From the tomb of Christ as from the virginal womb of the Church, we are born from above of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus, the crucified God, from the dead. We are raised up from out of the darkness of our death into the light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection as children of God. In the joy of our regeneration in Christ’s Holy Pascha, having become members of Christ’s crucified and risen body, we are able to forgive all things and to call brother even those who hate us. For, through the sincere confession of our sins, we united ourselves to Christ. All of our death has been put to death in His death. All of our anger, our hatred, our envy, our lust, our gluttony, our greed, our conceit, all of those weeds and thorns that grow from the root of death die and wither when death, their root, is destroyed in our heart and soul by our union with the crucified and risen Christ. Our souls come alive in love for Christ. The light of the risen Christ radiates from the bridal chamber of our heart, making even the body to glow, filling all things with the joy of the fellowship of Christ’s Holy Mother, His Holy Apostles and all the saints in the communion of the life-creating Holy Trinity.

This is the great mystery hidden in God before the foundation of the world that the Church’s holy Gospel this morning, on the eve of Great Lent, proclaims. It is the joy of our salvation in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is the joy of the Christian Faith that sustains us in our ascetic labor. It is the joy for the sake of which we take up the cross of Great Lent and endure the discomfort of the fast with joy and eager anticipation.

In this joy, we see the great secret of the Cross. There is no defeat in the Cross, only victory; for by the Cross, the devil, sin and death have been conquered. We have been delivered from death and the fear of death. From the beginning of His agony in Gethsemane, to His trial before Pilate and Herod, His mocking and scourging by the soldiers, and His crucifixion on the Cross – all of this was Christ’s victory march. The Cross was His weapon of victory, By it, He harrowed hell, He broke the iron bars and the bronze gates and flooded the world above and below with the uncreated Grace of His own glory and light. He illumined the darkness with the uncreated light of His mercy and compassion and loving goodness. That cross, dearly beloved, is the very cross we take up in the fast of Great Lent. From His throne of glory, the crucified and risen Christ floods the soul of every Christian who in the fear of God, with faith and love, takes up his cross to follow Him, so that we who through the confession of our sins unite ourselves with Him in the likeness of His death may be united with Him in His Resurrection.  Glory to Jesus Christ! Most Holy Theotokos, save us!