25 - Expulsion of Adam, February 14, 2010

Romans 13:11 – 14:4

Matthew 6:14-21

At the Vespers service today when we pass over into Great Lent, the Royal Doors will be closed and we will be shut out of the sanctuary. In the closing of the Royal Doors, the Church reveals to us the spiritual fact that we are separated from God because of our sin. We do not live in the Garden with God; we live in the world apart from God.

It will be as though the sentence of the Lord against the goats at the Last Judgment that we heard last Sunday is directed at us: “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels,”[1] and we are those who find themselves shut out of Heaven, we who thought we were so cozy with God.

A spiritual drama takes place in the shutting of the doors that reminds me of the climactic scene in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Like Scrooge’s ghost of Christmas future, the closed doors of the sanctuary compel us to confront what we don’t want to admit: that we are not cozy with God. We are cozy with the world. We live for the values of the world and not those of the Kingdom of Heaven; that we do not pursue Christ but accommodation with the world, that our will is not to do the will of God but our own will.

You may remember how Scrooge was forced to acknowledge by the Spirit of Christmas-To-Come that the miserable man whose corpse he had seen lying on the bed, un-mourned and unloved was himself. He fell to his knees in agony begging the Spirit for mercy. The Spirit was unmoved, just like the Royal Doors of the Church that will remain firmly closed at the Vespers service, no matter how much we may dislike it or protest. But you’ll remember that the Spirit’s unrelenting indifference to Scrooge’s cry served only to drive Scrooge deeper into himself until in his agony, he finally broke through into his heart, and he cried out, “Why show me this, O Spirit, if I am past all hope!” Only then did the Spirit’s finger waver. Scrooge seized the opening, and now I quote directly from Dickens: “’Good Spirit,’ he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it. ‘Your nature intercedes for me and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!’ The kind hand (for the first time in the story, we learn that this hard, indifferent Spirit has a kind hand) – the kind hand trembled. In his agony, Scrooge caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but Scrooge was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him. Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, Scrooge saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.” Scrooge woke up as though from a terrible nightmare to find himself in his own bed. He rose from his bed as though he was rising from the dead, a new creature, refashioned once more into a human being, alive with joy and thanksgiving and love for those he before had hated.

Last Sunday was the nightmare not of the Spirit of Christmas-To-Come but of the Judgment-To-Come. If we stand before the Royal Doors that have been shut against us at the Vespers service today as though they are the doors of the Kingdom that have been closed against us on the Last Day, shutting us out of the joy of Paradise forever, we may feel, as did Scrooge when he fell down before the wordless, unrelenting Spirit, the beginning of a holy contrition, a sacred terror that turns us trembling away from the world and into our heart. The Church gives us the words to give voice to our cry. They are the words of Adam when he was expelled from Paradise: “Woe is me! I have been justly deprived of divine blessings. Lord, have mercy and take pity on me!”[2]

In the Scripture readings of this last week, we have watched the nightmare of last Sunday’s parable of the Last Judgment changing into the divine irony that has been woven inextricably by the hand of God into the warp and woof of the world’s very existence. It is a divine irony that reveals hope to be the hidden principle of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. Hiding in the words of God against Adam and Eve: “From the dust you came, to the dust shall you return” is the means by which God Himself will restore us to our original destiny and make us again able to become partakers of God and sharers in His eternity.

On Thursday last, our Scripture readings brought us with the myrrh-bearing women to stand before the tomb of the crucified Savior. Understand: this is the tomb of the Judge Himself who will judge us at the Last Judgment.

Do you see the divine irony? Do you see the hope? Precisely the shutting of the doors by which we are cut off from God and shut out of Paradise has been made by the Judge Himself to be the means by which we can pass over into Paradise and united to God.

The shut doors of Heaven direct us out of Egypt and out of our self-love in all the many forms it takes, through the Red Sea of our baptism when we are united to Christ in a death like His, and onto the better and changeless path that leads into the wilderness with the Savior, the Judge Himself. United to Christ in our baptism, we take up our cross and deny ourselves through the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting, living our life in this world according to the commandments of Christ in order to ascend the heights of humility in the spirit of repentance and to be united to Christ the Judge in a resurrection like His. United to Christ, we die and return to the dust and He refashions us once again into human beings made in the image and likeness of God. United to Christ in a death like His, we pass over into Paradise as partakers of God and sharers of His eternity in a resurrection like His.

I believe this is the context in which to understand the teaching of the Savior in this morning’s Gospel. To forgive means to let go the sins of those who have sinned against us. To forgive is to practice a judgment of mercy, a judgment like God’s, a judgment that puts to death the old man with the stony heart and raises it up as the new man with a fleshy heart alive with joy and thanksgiving in the love of God. To forgive like God forgives, that is to say, is the key that opens the doors to the Kingdom so that we can follow Christ into His Heavenly Kingdom.

What this tells me, however, is that to forgive as God forgives us is not a human but a divine art. We don’t know this art, and we can’t execute it by our own lights or strength. We have to die to ourselves and to the old man in us to attain to it, and this we can do only as we unite ourselves to the New Man, Christ the Judge, in a death like His. In our union with Christ in a death like His, we experience the ineffable goodness of Christ the merciful Judge. By His death He has united Himself to us in our death and so transfigured our death into the death of the old man in us whose sins shut us out of Heaven. This experience of the Judge’s mercy is the spiritual foundation of the Christian Faith on which the lover of Christ is able to forgive as God forgives.

The beginning, therefore, of our attaining to the forgiveness of God in which we can forgive others their trespasses as God has forgiven us, and so the beginning of our resurrection in Christ, is given today in the closing of the Royal Doors at the Vespers of Forgiveness, which mark the beginning of Great Lent. Observing the sanctuary closed before us, like the myrrh-bearing women observing how the body of Jesus was laid, we go home to prepare aromatics and spices. We go home to take up our cross of fasting and prayer and the practice of love and mercy. We take up our cross to be united to Christ the Judge in a death like His in the hope that we will be raised up in a resurrection like His, alive in the joy and thanksgiving of divine forgiveness. Amen.

[1] Mt 25:41

[2] Lenten Triodion 178