26 - Our Salvation is Nearer, Forgiveness Sunday Feb 26, 2017

Romans 13:11 – 14:4

Matthew 6:14-21

I’m struck by this that St Paul says in our epistle this morning: “Seeing the season, that it is already the hour for you to rise from sleep; for, our salvation is nearer than when we believed.” The prophets, says St Peter, even angels longed to know in the Spirit when this “season” of “our salvation” was coming (I Pt 1:10f.). The saw it as “the day” of the LORD that was coming sometime in the distant future.

But, the “time” suddenly is no longer off in the distant future; it is “at hand” with the appearance of St JnBapt, the last and greatest of the prophets: “Repent,” he calls out, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” “Even now,” he says, “the axe is laid at the root of the tree. Every tree not bearing fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “One is coming after me who is mightier than me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

When Jesus begins His earthly ministry, the Day of the LORD has become the “hour”. He says on several occasions, “My hour has not yet come.” Until we come to the Upper Room (Jn 16:32) and the Garden (Mt 26:45). Now, He says, “The hour has come.”

Consider how the Church’s pre-Lenten lectionary is structured. We enter Great Lent today, having read already first St Mark’s and then St Luke’s Gospel account of the death of Christ. This Thursday last, we saw with the myrrh-bearing women how His Body was laid in the tomb (Lk 23:55-56). The lectionary would seem to be showing to us a deeper vision of time that the world doesn’t know.

In the Great Fast, following the indications of the lectionary, we are not moving to Pascha as though Pascha is still six to seven weeks away. We are moving for these six, seven weeks of Great Lent within the mystery of Pascha, within the mystery of Christ’s death on the Cross and His being laid to Rest in the Tomb. This is the “hour” that has come; it is not coming. This is our salvation that is nearer not farther than when we believed. But, together with how the lectionary changes the way we understand “time” or the “season” (kairos) of this biblical hour when we are called to rise up from sleep, we also are led to understand in a much deeper way in what sense our salvation is “nearer”.  

The lectionary would show us that the time of Great Lent, measured by the calendar of the world is six to seven weeks; but, measured by the lectionary, it is but three days, from Great and Holy Friday to Holy Pascha Sunday. In these “days” of Great Lent, we are moving in the Gospel’s inner Exodus of the soul that transcends time even as it moves within time. Following the Fiery Pillar of the Holy Spirit in the Lenten prayers and services of the Church, we are moving as on an Exodus into the “deep”, i.e., or into the “tomb” of our heart” where we are “beyond all things” or “outside the city. We are moving away from the madness of this world that has rejected God utterly and now lives in its own judgment of ever increasing anger and meanness. With the myrrhbearing women, we are “returning”, turning around, to descend into our soul, to make our way out of the self-righteousness of worldly religiosity, away from the presumption and the angry arrogance of human wisdom that blathers on and on in its self-righteous, self-loving ignorance.  

It says that the women returned to prepare aromas and myrrh, and they “grew inwardly still” (hesychasan) on the Sabbath, according to the commandment. The Sabbath, of course, is when God rested from the works of creation He had begun to make (Gn 2:3 LXX). But, dear faithful, do you see that the “Sabbath” of God’s “rest” is His death and burial in the tomb? We read this Thursday last in St Luke that when they laid God’s Body in the tomb, the “Sabbath was beginning to dawn, to grow light” (epifosken, Lk 23:54). In this light of the Sabbath that begins to dawn when they lay God’s Body to rest in His Tomb, we now see that the Sabbath Rest of God that we read about in Genesis prefigures this very “hour” of God’s death on the Cross, when His Body would be laid to rest in the tomb.

Dear faithful, this proclaims a wisdom the world does not know: if the Sabbath Rest of God, when He rested from the works He had begun to make, prefigures His Cross, then suddenly we see that the world was created in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha; and in the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha, His Holy Sabbath Rest when He is laid to rest in the tomb, the creation is finished (Jn 19:30). His death on the Cross is the last and greatest work He did in His creation of the world. The great mystery hidden from before the ages, revealed in these last days in Christ, is the death of God, His mighty work that completes the creation. This is the salvation that is nearer than when we believed. It is nearer because, for one thing, it is now finished.

When with the myrrhbearing women, we therefore “return” and grow inwardly still on the Sabbath according to the commandment, we are entering into the creative and saving death of God, the Great and Holy Sabbath of His Rest in which He has completed the creation of the world. This is what St Gregory Palamas calls the “true activity”. It’s what the holy Virgin Theotokos occupied herself with when she was growing up in the temple. And, descending into the death of God – guided by the Church’s Lenten prayers and services – we are rising from sleep and we are drawing near to our salvation which is our being created anew in the mysterious deeps of our heart by uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death.

Our salvation, then, is nearer to us than when we believed because by His death, God has made Himself to be “perfectly one” with us (cf. Jn 17:23; Phil 2:8; Heb 2:14), sharing in our death in the personal center of our being, in the “tomb” of our heart.

St Paul says, “The night is far spent.” This, I believe, is the present time of this world. It is the dark night in which the Light of Christ now shines. “The Day is at hand!” says St Paul. This, I believe, is the Day of His Holy Resurrection, the First Day of the New Creation. It is the Day of our salvation that is now near to us when we unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death.

So, when St Paul says, “Put on the armor of light,” I believe we can take him to mean the ascetic disciplines of the Church by which we deny ourselves in order to descend into our soul to become perfectly one with Christ in the tomb of our heart. For in taking up the cross of the Fast, we submit ourselves to the mighty work of God on the Cross: His creation in us of a clean heart, His breathing into us a new and right spirit, the Holy Spirit that burns away all our dross, all our uncleanness, all our death and corruption and makes us perfectly one with Christ in the Light and Glory of His Holy Resurrection.

This is the Day of the Resurrection when, in the transforming joy of Christ, we call brother even those who hate us, when we are able to forgive all things. For, in the bridal chamber, our heart is restored to its original beauty in the love of God beyond all things. Here, having become perfectly one with Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection, we become perfectly one with all.

So, with the Fast, we are not taking up a burdensome obligation for a whimsical tyrannical LORD. The Fast is, in fact, in its inner essence, a Robe of Light, a Garment of Life. It is the death of Christ by which He re-creates the world. So, with the Fast, we are turning inward to the mystery of God within us, who in His love for us has become perfectly one with us in the personal center of our being, sharing with us in our suffering, our weakness, our death. He is absolutely near to us. In Christ, we become perfectly one with God who made us in His Image and Likeness. We come into God beyond all things. We come to ourselves, we come to our brother and sister in the joy and in the love of Christ and His Holy Mother. Amen!