24 - The Door Opens. The Ascending Descent Begins, Mar 6, 2022

Romans 13.11 – 14.4

Matthew 6.14 – 21

In the 4th century Syriac Christian ‘Book of Steps,’ we read: ‘By striving in this visible Church, one will find himself in the invisible Church of the heart and in the invisible Church on high.’ Here is the visible structure and the invisible substance of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha—the mystery of God hidden from the ages, the mystery that is Christ in you, the Hope of Glory!

Today, at the end of Vespers, we observe the rite of mutual forgiveness. With this visible rite, an invisible door is opened in our souls. We step onto an invisible path into an invisible world, the Church on High in which is found the ‘balm of Gilead’ that heals the human heart. The Path is Christ Himself, the very same Christ who is in you (Col 1.27), the crucified Christ who has destroyed death by His death, whose Body is the Church both visible and invisible, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail, whose Life is the uncreated Light the darkness cannot extinguish, whose blood cleanses the soul, whose Spirit heals the heart and restores Adam to his original beauty, the very Christ whose Body and Blood we eat and drink from the Chalice!

By this invisible Path (as we read on Thursday last from St Luke), we will turn to follow the myrrhbearing women back to the Garden of Eden, to the top of ‘the mountain’ (Mt 28.16) and into the Heavenly Church on High. That Path, as it says in Luke, turns ‘downward’ or ‘inward,’ for it descends into the stillness of the LORD’s Tomb, which is the true and mystical Sabbath Rest of God that Moses wrote about. The Sabbath Rest of God, the dread mystery of His being placed as a corpse in the Tomb, this is the mystery of God hidden from the ages. It is hidden in the closet of the heart, what St Macarius calls the ’tomb of the heart.’ (Hom 11.11) It is the Path by which we return to Eden and enter the invisible Church on High.

Going back to the ‘Book of Steps,’ it was for this purpose—that we might enter into the invisible heavenly Church on high—'that Our LORD and His preachers of old established this visible Church, its Altar and Baptism, which can be seen by the body’s eyes. For, by starting from this visible Church, and provided our bodies become temples and our hearts altars, we may be found in the visible Church’s heavenly counterpart [cf. Ex 25.9&40, Heb 8.5] that cannot be seen by eyes of flesh…We will be found migrating to the Heavenly Church and entering in while we are still in this visible Church.’ Precisely this is the goal of Great Lent.

  Now, you may have noticed over these last seven weeks as the Church has brought us through Her lectionary to Great Lent, that we did not visit the death and resurrection of Lazarus. We were taken straight to the Cross and burial of the Savior. In this, the Church shows us how Christ first loved us and gave Himself for us while we were yet sinners, yet thankless and graceless men.

If Great Lent is about denying ourselves and taking up our Cross to follow the LORD, it’s because the LORD first denied Himself, and took up His Cross. If Great Lent is the struggle to lose our life for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, it’s because He first lost His life for our sake. And, if the LORD promises us that we will find our life if we lose it for His sake, it’s because He, our Life, will be found in the tomb of our death if we have striven to lose our life for His sake. So, if we hope to be found in the Garden of His Resurrection—the Garden of Eden—on Pascha Night, and enter into the invisible Church on high even while we are still in the visible Church of the body of this life, it is clear that we must first enter the invisible Church of our heart; or, as St Macarius (4th Cent.) says, the tomb of our heart where, as St Paul says, we are dead in our sins and trespasses.

 So, having shown us how Christ first loved us by ascending the Judgment Seat of His Cross and taking the chastisement for our iniquity upon Himself so that by His stripes our wounds might be healed, the Church directs us now to turn downward, with the myrrhbearing women, to begin making our way with them to the tomb of our heart as to the tomb of Lazarus. This is the substance of Great Lent; and in the tomb of our heart, we come to the entrance of the LORD’s Tomb that opens onto the Garden of His Resurrection and enters the Heavenly Church on High!

It says in Luke, which we read Thursday last, that the women saw the LORD’s Tomb and how His Body was placed in it. They then ‘turned to go downward’ (upostrepho), to prepare spices and ointments and they rested on the Sabbath, according to the commandment. Note that their rest was occupied with work, the work of going downward and of preparing spices and ointments. Following the holy fathers, we read this theologically to mean that they were engaged in what St Gregory Palamas calls the ‘true activity,’ the activity of the prayer of the heart, which is accomplished in the invisible work of descending with the mind into the heart—as into the tomb of Lazarus, there to stand before God ‘resting’ in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest.

For to descend with the mind into the heart is work. One must gather all one’s thoughts and feelings from wherever they have been scattered, and force them downward into the stillness of the heart, there to stand with attention before the closed door of the LORD’s Tomb, and wait for the LORD to act. This invisible work is not easy, and it is not accomplished in a day; and so we are given 40 days—the number of weeks of gestation in the mother’s womb—to strive with the help of the Church’s visible means, to enter the tomb of our heart as into the tomb of Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday.

The visible means that the Church gives us for taking up this invisible work are the ascetical disciplines of prayer and fasting and the giving of alms. They are the cross the LORD commands us to take up if we would follow Him. But let’s not pass over the fact that this Lenten work of descending invisibly into the tomb of our heart begins with the visible rite of mutual forgiveness. Visibly, we stand before one another in the present moment; and in the visible moment, it may be hard if not impossible to forgive. But there is an invisible mystery in the visible rite of mutual forgiveness: the Last Day.

We stand before the closed Door of the LORD’s Tomb, of God’s Sabbath Rest. We are at the edge of space-time where it passes over into eternity. All of history falls away behind us. Our life in the flesh and the wounds the fleshly life of the world inflicted deep in our soul, is dissolved. But our eternal spirit and how it has been shaped by the choices in word, deed and thought that we made in response to those wounds, is now visible before us. Here, we see in what eternal direction the choices we made in the flesh have inclined our eternal spirit: towards the God who was crucified for our sake, or the nations that crucified Him. Here, we find that we are one with our brother and sister, for we are no more cut off from each other by the masks of vainglory and self-importance we hid behind. Those are dissolved back into the dust, leaving us all naked, standing as one in our fear and trembling before the Almighty Judge; and if, in a sorrow and compunction that goes deeper than the corruption in our heart, we reach out to our brother and sister in mutual forgiveness, our heart begins to heal in the healing mercy of the crucified God lying before us in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest!

Now, we read on Thursday last that after they placed the LORD’s Body into the Tomb, the Sabbath began to dawn—this would be the holy, mystical Sabbath, the true Sabbath Rest of God that we read about in Moses. That is, a Light rested or settled upon the Sabbath (epephosken, Lk 23.54). Surely, this Light is the darkness that was the visible form of the invisible compassion of God that darkened the sun and covered the whole earth when the Savior ascended the Cross and stretched out His arms to embrace the whole of His creation—north, south, east, and west, past, present and future—and to draw all men to Himself that all may enter into the Heavenly Church on high who would but receive His Judgment and follow Him to His Cross and Burial by way of Lazarus’ tomb, the tomb of their heart!

That Light shining from the LORD’s Body in the Sabbath Rest of His Tomb, as it shone from His Body on Mt Tabor, takes visible form in the ascetical disciplines of Great Lent, beginning with the rite of mutual forgiveness, even as we heard in this morning’s Gospel: ‘If you forgive your brother, your heavenly Father will forgive you!’ It takes invisible form in the transformation that begins to ‘dawn and settle upon the soul that was dead in her sins and trespasses.’ In the heat of that divine Light, the heart of stone, the heart that was hard and dead, begins to crumble back into the dust. In the warmth of that divine Light, a fleshy heart, a heart that is soft and living begins to sprout like a seedling from the Body of Christ buried in the tomb of our heart! Our bodies are being transfigured into temples, our hearts into an altar!

This Light fills Great Lent with divine hope that is real and healing. If we lose our life for the sake of Christ, we believe He will come and raise us from our grave as He did Lazarus. And, we look forward in faith to Our LORD leading us into Great and Holy Week up to His Cross on Golgotha and to stand in His Holy Place on Pascha Night, in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest, and roll the stone away for us to enter the Garden of His Resurrection, the Garden of Eden so that we are found migrating to the Heavenly Church on High and entering into the new Creation, even while we are still in this visible Church of the Body, here in the Old Creation that is passing away. Amen!

Most Holy Theotokos, save us! Glory to Jesus Christ!