|26 - THE SUPREME THEOPHANY OF GREAT LENT, March 14, 2021|
On Thursday, we read from St Luke: “When the centurion saw what had come to be, He glorified God, saying, ‘In truth, this was the Righteous Man [of the Psalms].’ And all the people, coming to be gathered [as one] at this sight, when they beheld the things coming to be, turned downward [upostrepho], smiting their breasts…and the women saw these things. And they beheld the Tomb and how His Body was placed.” (Lk 23.47-55)
Great Lent begins today in the light of this supreme Theophany of the LORD’s Holy Pascha. Is it but ordinary grammar, or does St Luke mean by this verb, to become or come to be—which he sets before us after the LORD cries out with a great voice (v. 46)—to evoke the creation? “For the LORD spoke, and [the world] came to be; He commanded, and [heaven and earth] were created.” [Psa 33:6-9] I believe St Luke means something extraordinary beneath the ordinary syntax of this verb, ‘to become’. The supreme Theophany of the LORD’s Cross, death and burial, in which Great Lent begins and transpires over six weeks, is the revelation of the ‘waters’—the abyss, the deep—that creation is rooted in. The supreme Theophany of the LORD’s Cross, death and burial is the revelation of God finishing the creation He had begun to do when He rested on the First Sabbath (Gen 2.4 LXX)—which we now see was but Moses prefiguring prophetically this Sabbath Rest of the LORD God in the Tomb of our death. We are witnessing the eternal, divine, uncreated center from out of which creation, space-time, came to be. We are seeing, beholding, in the icon drawn in our minds by the words of the Gospel’s witness, the unfathomable, incomprehensible mystery of creation that was kept secret through the ages and is now revealed in the supreme Theophany of the LORD God ‘high and lifted up’ on the Cross (Isa 6.1; Rm 16.25-26, Col. 1.26-27, Rev 13.8), and His Body brought down and laid in the Tomb.
St Luke, in last Thursday’s Gospel, uses this same verb again when he writes: “Darkness came to be on the whole earth [from the sixth to the ninth hour]” [Lk 23.44]—N.B., not just part of the earth: the whole earth, and at the brightest part of the day, from 12 Noon to 3 pm!
What is this? That means that the whole world was in darkness—how could that be?—and that it was in this darkness that the centurion, the people, the women saw and beheld all these things coming to be: His crucifixion, His breathing out of the Spirit and His death, the splitting of the temple curtain, His burial in the new tomb, the Light of the Sabbath pouring forth out of the tomb, how His Body was laid. What is this darkness at the brightest part of the day in which they, indeed everyone not just then and there but in the whole of space-time, saw all these things coming to be?
“In the beginning,” it says, “God created the heaven and the earth…and darkness was over the deep [abyss, bottomless depth], and the Spirit of God was moving over the water; and God spoke, ‘Let there be light!’ and light came to be.” (Gen 1.1-3) “And darkness came to be on the whole earth…it was the Day of Preparation, and the Sabbath already was beginning to grow light.” (Lk 23.44-54) Do you see? Moses’ account of creation, revealed to Him in the dread Theophany on Mt Sinai, is the prophetic image of the supreme Theophany of the LORD’s Holy Pascha! The root of creation is the LORD’s Cross and Burial; the shape of creation, how it is configured, how it moves, is given in the dynamic shape and configuration of the LORD’s Holy Pascha!
Consider the Nicene Creed that we receive from the Church as the faith we believe—that is, this is the Church’s faith given to us. We don’t make up our faith. We receive the Faith of the Church. Can you see that the Creed is the outline of the biblical Theophany that Moses saw on Mt Sinai, Elijah on Mt Horeb, St John the Baptist at the Jordan, the centurion on Golgotha? In confessing the Creed, we receive the vision of the Theophany of Holy Scripture; we are given to see and to behold with the prophets, the apostles, the Virgin Mary and all the saints the mystery of Christ God in whom, through whom and for whom creation came to be.
Now, just before we confess the Creed at the Divine Liturgy, the priest venerates the gifts now on the altar and prays the opening verse of Ps 117 (LXX): “I will love Thee, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my firm foundation, my refuge and my deliverer.” It so happens that this Psalm records King David’s vision that he saw in the Spirit, when the LORD delivered him from the hands of his enemy, King Saul; and it looks very much like a vision of the supreme Theophany of the Cross and the LORD’s Burial in the Tomb of His Sabbath rest. The Psalm continues: “The LORD made darkness His secret [hidden] place. His tent [i.e., the tent of His Body, the True Temple of God, Jn 1.14, Jn 2.19-21] was around Him, dark waters were in the clouds of the air. From the brilliant flashes of light that were before Him, and that could be seen from afar [translating the Greek], the clouds passed by, hail and coals of fire. The LORD thundered from Heaven [from His Cross]. The Most High gave His voice [the LORD Jesus cried out from the Cross with a great voice]. The fountains of the waters (i.e., the source where the waters originate) appeared, and the foundations of the whole world [oikoumene] were uncovered.” [Ps 117.11-15 LXX]
Do you see? The darkness that covered the whole earth on Great and Holy Friday was this ‘secret place’ of the LORD. It is the impenetrable, imponderable, uncreated ‘mystery of God’ kept secret throughout the ages until it was revealed on Golgotha (Rom 16.25). The holy fathers recognize it as the unknowable and unspeakable essence of God. It is called darkness because it is uncreated Light so brilliant that the mind cannot see into it or comprehend it. This is the darkness that settled over the whole earth on Great and Holy Friday; and can you see? It is the same darkness that was over the deep at creation [Gn 1.2]. Can you see that it is the Spirit of God moving over the whole earth just as He was brooding over the deep, the waters of creation like a mother hen over her chicks [Gn 1.3]? But, the deep [abyss or bottomless depth] itself is but another image of the Wisdom of God that is “beyond measure” [Ps 147.5], and the Wisdom of God is the LORD Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1.24), in Whom the LORD God made all things (Ps 104.24, Jn 1.2), by whom He founded the earth and established the heavens. [Pro 3:19]
This morning, we are among the ‘people who have come to be gathered as one’ at the foot of the LORD’s Cross [Lk 23.48] in this darkness, and this is what we are made able to see in this darkness as we look up at the LORD God on the Cross so that, if in fact we do see this supreme Theophany revealed on Golgotha, we, too, will go downward into our soul, smiting our breast: for, we are not just seeing the creation coming to be in the Wisdom of God, in Jesus Christ; we are seeing how the creation came to be. It came to be in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God, high and lifted up on the Cross; heaven and earth came to be in the unfathomable depths of the compassion of the LORD’s extreme humility, made manifest in His inscrutable death and burial. This compassion of extreme humility is the darkness that is the ‘secret,’ ‘hidden’ place, as the Psalmist says, from which creation came forth.
Here on Golgotha, at the Cross, as the Psalmist says, we see the fountains of the waters, the Source, that is out of which the waters of creation came forth. We see uncovered the foundation of the whole universe [Ps 117.15 LXX]: it, He, is the LORD Jesus Christ, stripped of His garment (Jn 19.24), emptying Himself, pouring Himself out utterly on the Cross.
Did you catch the words of the prophet, Joel, that we read last Wednesday, a kind of prophetic scholium, explanation, inserted into the lectionary following St Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial on Tues, and then of His crucifixion, death and burial on Thurs? "In that day [the Day of God’s Supreme Theophany on Golgotha] a fountain [cheimarroun] shall come forth from the House of the LORD and water the valley of Shittim.” Can you see that the House of the LORD is the Source of the fountain that goes forth to water the whole earth [Gen 2.10?]? Can you see that the House of the LORD is the Tent that encircles the LORD in the vision of the Psalmist (Ps 117.11)? Can you see that it is the Body of Jesus high and lifted up on the Cross and then taken down and placed in the Tomb (Jn 2.19-21)? Can you see that the Body of Jesus Christ is the Source, the Spring, out of which the waters of creation come forth, that now appears before us as we gaze on the LORD Jesus high and lifted up on the Cross in the brilliant light of the divine darkness? Can you see that this is the foundation of the world that is now uncovered and made visible?
I am very much struck by the fact that this is the same image Ezekiel saw when he describes the snow-melt [cheimarroun] coming from the East Gate of the Temple (the Virgin) and coursing throughout all of Galilee as it turns into a Mighty River until it pours into the Dead Sea, healing and giving life to everything it touches (Eze 47.1-12). I am struck because it means the visions of the prophets were not many but one. They were all seeing and describing the same reality, the same mystery of God! The Church sees Ezekiel’s vision as an image of Christmas; but, can you see that it is the very image of the Spirit, the Living Waters breathed out, given, sent forth by the LORD Jesus Christ, Our LORD, God and Savior, high and lifted up (Isa 6.1) on the Cross to water the whole earth from the secret, hidden place of His divine darkness, the extreme humility of His divine compassion?
This, then, is what the centurion and all the others saw: they saw the unfathomable compassion, the extreme humility of the divine, uncreated Fountainhead out of which the waters of creation came forth. Dear faithful, what now do you see when you gaze on Jesus Christ high and lifted up on the Cross, knowing now, from the witness of the prophets, that you are beholding the origin of your own existence?
Hear Him cry out from the Cross with a ‘great voice’. He sends forth His Spirit (Mt 27.50) and they are created, He renews the face of the earth (Ps 103.30 LXX).
Look on Him whom they pierced! See the blood and water pouring forth from His rib (Jn 19.34). Can you see in this the ultimate and final pouring out of His self-emptying (Phil 2.5-11) all the way to the point of His death on the Cross, all the way to the pouring out of His Spirit on the whole earth, all the way to the pouring out of His Blood and Water on the earth?
He poured Himself out as God and became man. He poured Himself out as Man, and from His Blood and Water He built His Church, the woman; and now, from His Bride He gives Himself out completely to us. If we deny ourselves and lose our life for His sake, we will meet Him in the Tomb of His self-emptying. If we decrease that He may increase, so that we become empty for His sake, we become able to receive from His fullness; and we who are but dust and ashes are given to receive His Holy Spirit and to become children of God!
In the brilliant darkness of the supreme Theophany of the LORD’s Holy Pascha, revealed to us in this deep mystery of God kept secret throughout the ages, in this Light streaming forth already from the LORD’s Tomb (Lk 23.54), we now turn downward into our soul with the myrrhbearing women; and we pass over into Great Lent as into the hidden mystery of our coming ‘to be’ in the unfathomable compassion of the LORD’s ‘extreme humility’ revealed to us in the darkness that settled over the whole earth on Great and Holy Friday as the Source and Foundation of the world, the origin of our own existence.
I have laid out as best I could the supreme Theophany in which we begin Great Lent in order to bring us to that moment when the imponderable depths of the LORD’s extreme humility, out of which creation comes to be and in which we begin to exist, is given its supreme expression. I see it expressed in the LORD’s word from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”
Do you see? The foundation of the universe, the deep in which the world is rooted, the Source from which the waters of creation come forth, is this self-emptying love of God’s extreme humility beyond measure that loves and forgives the enemy! If we are created in His image and likeness, can you see? Does it not follow? We begin to exist, we begin to come to be not when we find ourselves thinking (Descartes) but when we receive from the Church this prayer given as our passage into Great Lent: “Forgive me! As God forgives, so I forgive!” Even to say this to one another as a formality, does it not require a certain measure of self-denial? It is the beginning of losing our life for the sake of Christ and His Holy Gospel; and that is the beginning of our being created in the image and likeness of God, the beginning of our coming into existence, the beginning of our being raised to life; for it is not we who live—we are not life, we come from the ground, we return to the ground; we are dead in our sins and trespasses—but it is Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, who lives in us!
Dear faithful, when we see the LORD high and lifted up on the Cross, when we see His Tomb and behold how His Body was laid out, the earth will tremble within us, and our dead soul will begin to rise from her grave, crying out, “From out of the depths I cry unto Thee, O LORD! LORD, hear my voice! LORD, my soul faints, yeah longs for Thee, as in a dry and trackless desert! LORD Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner!’ Dear faithful, in the rite of forgiveness through which we pass over into Great Lent, we in fact are passing over into the mystery of God creating the world. As we turn downward (upostrepho, Lk 23.55) into our soul in order to turn to (epistrepho) the LORD in the prayer of the heart, this is when we can say, I am beginning to exist. Now, we are coming to be. Now, Great Lent truly begins in us! Amen!