25 - Preparing for Great Lent, Feb 18, 2018

Romans 13:11 – 14:4

Matthew 6:14-21

We read in St Luke this Wednesday last that when Joseph of Arimathea took the LORD’s Body down from the Tree and placed it in the Tomb, it was the day of Preparation (Lk 23:54). This week, the Church has been preaching a beautiful sermon to us, preparing us for Great Lent.

On Thursday, we concluded our pre-Lenten daily Gospel lectionary that took us over the last two weeks from the LORD’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem to His betrayal, His trial, and to His death and burial, and we read how the women who had followed Him from Galilee saw the Tomb and how His Body was placed in it. Observe, then, that Great Lent moves from week to week within the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest in the Tomb. Its spiritual setting, then, what is always before us, is the LORD’s Tomb, the font of our regeneration and resurrection.

The worldly mind goes on to understand St Luke saying that the women returned home and rested [hesychasan] on the Sabbath (Lk 23:55). But, in the Paschal setting of the Church, we read that the women turned inward and descended with their mind into the stillness of their heart (hesychasan) – what St Gregory Palamas calls the true activity of the Church and of the human soul – and in prayer, they entered as ascetic strugglers into the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest, the “Blessed Sabbath” of the LORD’s death and burial in the New Tomb. “The ascetic struggler,” says St Isaac of Nineveh, “receives the mysteries of the Sabbath in a likeness” (Hom 29).

Again, in the Church, we read St Isaac differently than does the worldly mind. St Anthony the Great (3rd cent.) says: “Through likeness, we attain union with God” (Philokalia, Cavarnos, p. 96). The ascetic struggler, then, receives the mysteries of the Sabbath in a likeness, in his heart at that point in which the image of God in which he is created, in its likeness to God, opens onto God in the capacity, as St Didymus the Blind says, to receive God and become one with Him, as the LORD Himself says; and, as St Peter says, to become a partaker of the divine nature (II Pt 1:4). The likeness is that point where, as the LORD again says, He and His Father would dwell and abide in us in His Holy Spirit and become one with us.

Observe, then, what is the “true activity” of Great Lent in the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest: it is to follow the Theotokos, the “founder” – according to St Gregory Palamas –of the Church’s “prayer of the heart”, and, in the words of the LORD (Mt 6:6): to enter through this prayer into our chamber, our heart [tameion], close the “door” [our eyes, our ears, all our senses] and pray to our Father in secret [pray to Him in our inward being, our heart – Ps 50:6 LXX], and the Father who sees in secret [who looks on the heart], will reward us [He will forgive all our sins, heal all our diseases, redeem our life from corruption, crown us with steadfast love and mercy, and fill our every desire with good things so that our youth is renewed like the eagle (Ps 101 LXX) in His Holy Resurrection.

This, however, as we well know, is a struggle, for we are fallen away from God and we are weak and darkened. And, “The beginning of the intellect’s darkening,” says St Isaac, “is seen, first of all, in slothfulness with regards to the Church services and to prayer” (Hom 2). Do you understand? The services of the Church are not mere religious “services”. The Church is the Body of Christ. Her sacramental worship delineates the shape of His Body; the services make visible and concrete their substance, which is the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest in the Tomb; and so, they are the Font of His Resurrection that is in the world but not of it. That we will gladly sit for two hours at some worldly entertainment but can hardly bear even thirty minutes in the Church, in the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest, is this not evidence that we are darkened, that it is the law of sin and not the love of God that is embodied in us?

So, we are “ascetic strugglers”, for to follow the LORD is to put to death what is earthly in us, our love for the world which refers, says St Isaac, to our passions, to our self-love, embodied in gluttony, lust, greed, anger, pride. Echoing the LORD’s command, St Isaac calls out to us who would be “ascetic strugglers”: “Be diligent to enter into your inner chamber (tameion) and you will see the Chamber of Heaven; for these are one and the same. With one entry, you will behold them both. The Ladder of the Kingdom is within you [this Ladder is the mystery of the Savior’s Cross and of His Holy Mother, the Theotokos; it is, therefore, the ineffably exquisite mystery of the Mother’s love for her Son and of the Son for His Mother]. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend [from Theophany, in the depths of the Jordan you will come upon the better and changeless path that ascends to God; from the Syriac Christian Tradition, you will come upon the Robe of Glory the Savior placed there at the bottom of the baptismal font for you to put on, that you might become one with Him in the likeness of His death and Resurrection].”

Do you begin to see? Over the next six weeks, through the Fast, we are working to deny ourselves and, by taking up the cross of the Fast, to lose our life for His sake in the likeness of His death, that we may be united to Him in the likeness of His Resurrection.

The Church this last week sang out: “The holy season of abstinence shines upon us all with the light of repentance, driving away the darkness of sin!” (Lenten Triodion Supplement, p. 44) Again, on Thursday last, we read that when Joseph of Arimathea placed the LORD’s Body in the Tomb, “the Sabbath epiphosken – began to grow light!” (Lk 23:54)

If the spiritual substance of Great Lent is the mystery of the LORD’s Tomb, it is the mystery of the Light of Christ beginning to shine in the darkness (Jn 1:4) of our heart, the very instant we “turn inward” to enter our inner “chamber”; shining, I would say, from the “Heavenly Kingdom” where we are deep, beyond all things (Jer 17:5/9 LXX) and illumining that “point” in us deep in our heart where we are in the image and likeness of God.

“See how the beauty of repentance forms the soul anew at the approach of Lent!” the Church sang out at Friday Matins (LTS, 44). We read in the prophet, Joel, last week: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” Brothers and sisters: if we come to the services of the Church and we say our prayers at home, but experience no renewal of our soul, it’s probably because we are entering the Fast and living our daily life in our “garments” and not in our “hearts”. We are not entering into the inner chamber of our soul because do not desire the renewing of our soul.

“It is impossible,” says St Anthony, for us to become good and wise (in the likeness of God) suddenly. We become such through painstaking practice, through our mode of life, time (patience), askesis according to the strength we possess” (Cavarnos, p. 58). St Isaac says: For more than five thousand years, the LORD left Adam to sweat for his bread. But, from the time of that night when the LORD sweated, He changed the sweat that brought forth thorns and thistles into a sweat of prayer and the husbandry (gardening) of righteousness (eternal life). And so, He commanded us to exchange [our] sweat for [His] sweat. If we cease to sweat in the labor of prayer, we shall reap the thorns of the passions, ending in death. But, if we do not “rest” from the “sweat” of prayer, (in the tomb of our heart), we will reap union with Christ in the joy and likeness of His Resurrection (Hom 29).

“When we choose to observe the Fast, we always profit from it. For, the devils dare not attack us when we fast, and the guardian angels that protect our life stand at our side with greater eagerness when we are cleansed by fasting.” “The arena of God-given abstinence lies open before us. Let us gladly enter there, for we are in need of mercy. In His compassion, God thirsts for our salvation and He longs to grant forgiveness to those who seek Him with sincerity and serve Him with love” (LTS pp. 13 & 18).

Dear faithful, in the fear of God, with faith and love, let us draw near the Doors of Great Lent and enter beneath the wings of God’s saving love for us into the arena of repentance where the light of Christ illumines all! Amen!