|27 - Second Sunday of Lent, March 16, 2014|
Hebrews 1:10-2-3 (Sunday)
Hebrews 7:26-8:2 (Saint)
Mark 2:1-12 (Sunday)
John 10:9-16 (Saint)
The work of repentance that we are doing in Great Lent has Christ’s Holy Pascha as its goal. We take up the Lenten fast and we remember the joy of Pascha Night. In the joy of Pascha that is set before us, we endure the discomfort of the Fast in a very small imitation of Our LORD, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross, despising its shame. (Heb 12:2)
Our effort is to keep the Fast of Great Lent according to our strength and according to our circumstances. Keeping the fast, we make our stomach the servant of our mind. The hunger our stomach feels from the fast becomes a call to prayer; and so, it helps us to strive for unceasing prayer. Through the openings of our eyes and ears, we feed our minds with the ennobling images of Scripture and the inspirational lives of the saints, and our souls are re-shaped in the image of Christ.
Let’s say that the prayer and the fasting form the horizontal beam of Christ’s Holy Cross. By submitting to them, we place ourselves in the embrace of Christ’s outstretched arms, and allow Him to draw us into the house of our heart where He is to be found, teaching His Word.
Through prayer and fasting, we retreat from the noise of the world around us that has rejected God and chosen to go its own way and is now rushing pall-mall over the cliff to its destruction. Through prayer and fasting, we voluntarily unite ourselves to Christ on His Cross not just in theory but in a concrete, physical way, and His Hands, which established the earth and made the heavens, begin to uncover the roof over our heart, like the stone that was rolled away from His tomb, to open our heart and we descend into our heart and into the presence of Christ.
Prayer and fasting, I think, is the outer face of the soul’s inner movement of uniting herself to Christ in the likeness of His death. As she is drawn out of the world through prayer and fasting, she is drawn into her “closet”, where the horizontal beam of Christ’s Cross joins the vertical beam. From there, she is called to descend with Christ into hell, her own hell. From our Gospel reading this morning, but also from the testimony of the holy fathers and mothers of Christ’s Holy Church, not to mention the experience of countless devoted faithful, this descent into hell is accomplished, I believe, in the sincere confession of our sins.
In the tomb of the LORD’s Holy Pascha, Sts Peter and John found the Redeemer’s burial clothes neatly folded and lying to one side. In this morning’s epistle, we hear of the heavens and earth growing old like a garment and perishing, of the LORD rolling them up like a mantle, a wrap-around, and changing them like a cloak. I think we could say that this is an “icon” of what we are doing in the sincere confession of our sins. With the help of the Church’s ascetic disciplines, our soul, paralyzed like a corpse, is let down into the “house” where Jesus is, i.e., into the tomb of our heart, into our own hell, where we find ourselves in the presence of Christ who died for us, and who descended into hell from the Cross and now fills hell with the splendor of His Godhead. There, we lay aside every excuse; and, in the confession of our sins, we take off the dirty garments of the old man that reek with the stench of death and we lay them, neatly folded to the side.
In the full rite of confession, the priest says to the penitent: “My child, Christ stands here invisibly before us.” Standing at the confessional, we are like the paralytic in the presence of the LORD in this morning’s Gospel. In order for our confession to be sincere, and not just pro forma, we will have had to do some work to dig out an opening in our heart so that we lie on our bed before the LORD like the paralytic: open and transparent.
In the full rite of confession, the confessor goes on to say to the penitent: “Do not be ashamed and do not conceal anything from me, but tell me all which thou hast done, and so shall you have pardon from our LORD Jesus Christ. But, if you conceal anything from me, you shall have the greater sin. Take heed, therefore, lest, having come to the physician, you depart unhealed.” The rite of confession calls us, I think we can say, to the “faith” of the paralytic, which the LORD in this morning’s Gospel saw. In the paralytic, faith shows itself as the courage to lay aside every excuse, every rationalization, every justification, and to present ourselves to the LORD just as we are.
Beloved faithful, without the work of prayer and fasting, our heart remains sealed like the tomb sealed by the stone, and so the LORD and the healing of our souls that He would give in the forgiveness of our sins remain inaccessible to us. Apart from the sincere confession of our sins, our soul remains paralyzed on her bed, lying dead in her sins and trespasses like a corpse in the tomb of our heart. It is through the sincere confession of our sins, that we descend, as it were, the vertical beam of the Cross of Christ to make our way into hell and to the dust of the ground, where our salvation begins; for, in that descent we are uniting ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death.
The paralytic in this morning’s Gospel hears the saving words of the Savior: “My son, your sins are forgiven thee.” In the rite of confession, we hear the words of the priest: “May our LORD Jesus Christ, through the grace and bounties of His love towards mankind, forgive you, my child, all your sins.” By these words of the sacrament, Satan is crushed beneath our feet, for in the confession of our sins we have united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death by which He has destroyed him who held us in the power of death, the devil. (Heb 2:15)
I think that the sincere confession of our sins is the work of repentance by which we keep the commandment given to Adam and Eve just before they were expelled from the Garden as their way back into the Garden. It is here, in the confession of our sins, the denying of ourselves that we return to the dust of the ground in Christ and find, in the tomb of our heart, the beginning of our ascent up the vertical beam of Christ’s Cross into His Holy Resurrection, as we are clothed in the Robe of Light, the very Glory of Christ.
In the joy of Pascha that the Fast of Great Lent sets before us, brothers and sisters, may the LORD grant us strength and courage to take up our Cross: to work the garden of our soul by keeping the ascetic disciplines of the Church, that we may come to Pascha not as to some theatrical event but as into our mystical participation in the Holy Resurrection of Christ. Amen.