24 Sunday of Zaccheus - February 10,2008

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

The Sunday of Forgiveness, the beginning of Great Lent is four weeks away. Christ in his Holy Spirit, through the Orthodox Church which is his very body, the fullness of him who is all in all, begins now to prepare his faithful for that blessed season of “sweet sadness”, that season of ascetic effort in the Church’s school of repentance to make us ready for the coming of the Bridegroom at Midnight on Holy Pascha when the old passes over into the new, and those who have died in Christ pass over into the eternal life of Christ’s Holy Spirit in the mystery of his holy resurrection.

The purpose for which man was created, writes St Peter the apostle, is that we might become partakers of the divine nature.[1] Therefore, the purpose of the Christ’s Incarnation, writes St Simeon, was to share in what is ours that we might share in what is his, to make us sons of God, raising us up by grace to what he is by nature, giving us a new birth in the Holy Spirit and leading us directly into the Kingdom of Heaven.[2] 

The good news of the Church’s proclamation from the beginning has been that we are called to receive God into our soul and body that we might become one with God in the uncreated light that radiates from his very essence like sunbeams radiating from the sun. According to this theological vision, the hope that gives meaning to our life is much more than that God will forgive us and allow us into his Kingdom, sinners though we are. It is that God wants to come into our house and abide in us, as the Lord says to Zaccheus. The house represents our heart; and he wants to abide in us as he abides in the Father and the Father in him. He wants to become one with us, as the Bridegroom becomes one with his bride.

The goal of our Lenten effort, then, is much, much more than simply being “considered” righteous in the eyes of God through believing in Christ. It is to prepare ourselves to “Come and receive the light from the unwaning Light” on Pascha night. This is the light of Christ’s Holy Spirit who proceeds from the uncreated Father, the light that is the very divine life of God. This uncreated light is the fire of the Holy Spirit with which Christ baptizes the faithful,[3] and that has been poured out on all flesh in the mystery of his death and resurrection.[4] Through the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent, we are preparing to be immersed in the consuming fire of God’s Holy Spirit, to see what foundation we’ve laid in our life, if it is a foundation that can withstand the heat of that all-consuming fire of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Judgment.[5] The holy fathers tell us that this fire of God’s Holy Spirit is the fire of divine love that is so intense it burns even with love for the enemy. The ascetic disciplines of Great Lent are meant to help us lay a foundation of love for God for the purpose of receiving God himself into the house of our heart, and to become so united with him in love that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.

Consider how this theological vision affects our understanding of the Lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting and the practice of charity. The goal of Lent’s ascetic effort isn’t for God to give us a passing grade, pat us on the head and say: you’re forgiven. I’ll let you in. The goal is to receive the fire of God’s light into the house of our heart, that he may abide in us. Are we strong enough in our soul and body to receive God? Think of the disciples Peter, James and John when they beheld the terrible glory of his uncreated radiance and splendor on Mt Tabor. They could not endure it; yet we are called not just to behold his terrible glory, but to receive its fiery radiance into our soul and body, to become partakers of the divine nature. Do you see now what the ascetic discipline of Great Lent is all about? It’s spiritual training to get us in the necessary spiritual condition to receive the fiery light of the Holy Spirit from the unwaning light of Christ in the terrible splendor of his holy resurrection. I say the splendor of Christ’s resurrection is terrible because of how it made the guards guarding his tomb as dead men. Even the myrrh-bearing women, who loved the Lord and were his faithful, devoted disciples, when they came to the tomb and saw the angel seated where the Lord’s body had been laid, announcing to them the news of the Lord’s holy resurrection, fled the tomb in terror. They saw only an angel, and they only heard the announcement; but it was enough to cause them to flee in terror. If they did not become as dead men like the guards, it was because they had drawn near the tomb in the fear of God, with faith and love.

Beloved faithful, the hope given us by the Church is not simply to behold the risen Christ, not simply to hear the announcement of his resurrection, but to receive the living fire of his Holy Spirit, to become partakers in holy Eucharist of his crucified and risen body and partakers of the divine nature, that he may come into the house of our heart and abide in us and make us one with him as he is one with the Father. Are you ready to be baptized in the consuming fire of God, to have your life tested, to see if its foundation is Christ or the world? Great Lent is about establishing our life on the foundation of Christ, so that if we pass the test, we will be ready to receive the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight of Pascha into the house of our heart.

Great Lent is like a runner training for the big race. He trains all the muscles the race will call into play. He watches his diet so that fats and oil aren’t weighing him down. He runs countless miles to get his body in condition to endure the rigors of the race. He looks at himself on film to study his form. He knows that the race will test his strength and his endurance to the utmost; and so he trains with a certain fear, a certain sense of urgency, that for all his training, he still may not be ready. His goal is to get ready for what the race will demand of his mind and body, and so he’s not satisfied simply to put in so many minutes of training each day; because the race won’t be won simply because he put in so many minutes of training. It will be won only if his body has indeed been trained to endure the rigors of the race.

Perhaps you can see my point. A certain level of spiritual strength and endurance is needed for us to receive the Spirit of this God that is an all-consuming fire. It won’t be a question of our having said so many prayers each day, or having fasted so much or having done so many deeds of charity: the question will be, have you trained your soul and body enough that you can endure the consuming fire of God’s Holy Spirit coming into the house of your heart when he sees you at Midnight on Pascha night, as he saw Zaccheus in this morning’s Gospel, and calls out to you as he called to Zaccheus, “Come down, for today I must stay at your house?” We undertake the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent not in the hope of receiving a passing grade, but in the hope of receiving God himself into the house of our heart. We take up the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent as our cross to train our body and soul for that moment when Christ comes at Midnight and calls out to us: “Come ye and receive the light from the unwaning light!” Come down from that tree for today I must stay in your house!

The tree that Zaccheus climbed is taken by the Church as the ladder of the virtues that we must climb to see Christ because we are short in stature; we have fallen short of the glory of God. The tree is therefore the cross that Christ calls us to take up in order to follow him. From this we see that when Christ calls us to take up our cross to follow him, he is calling us to train ourselves in the virtues of his Holy Spirit, to make ourselves ready to receive Him at the hour of Midnight on that night of nights when Christ shines forth in his holy resurrection more brightly than the sun. Jesus sees Zaccheus in the boughs of the tree, near the top of the tree, in the heights of the tree. This represents the “heights of humility,” the chief of all the virtues. The heights of humility are attained as we fast from food to discover our dependence on God; when we remove from our eyes and ears the sensual stimuli of the world, to discover our inner emptiness that can be filled only in the divine love of God. In the stillness of soul and body created by the fast, we are able to descend into our souls in self-examination and to confess our sins and transgressions, like the athlete studying the films in order to discover flaws in his form that prevent him from performing at his peak capacity.

The Church is our gym; she is our trainer. In her school of repentance, Great Lent, she herself teaches us how to prepare for that terrible and most blessed moment of Midnight when the Bridegroom comes. Her instructions are given in the services of Great Lent, especially the services of Vespers and Matins. We will begin to serve Vigil on Saturday nights so that we can come to work out in the gym of the Church and receive the fullness of her instruction. As your own spiritual stamina permits you, come to as many of the Church’s services as you can, and listen, listen. Pay attention, pay attention. And then go and do as the Church instructs you. And may God grant to all of us that on Pascha night, we may hear the Bridegroom say to us: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Amen 

[1] II Peter 1:4

[2] St Simeon the New Theologian, Practical and Theological Texts, Philokalia IV, §108, p. 48.

[3] Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16

[4] Joel 2:28, Acs 2:17

[5] I Cor 3:11ff., Heb 12:29