|30 - Annunciation Mar 25, 2018|
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We read in our epistle this morning: “Christ God delivered all those who through the fear of death were enslaved and in bondage their whole life.” Baptized Christians should not be enslaved and in bonds because of the fear of death, since in the font we died in Christ and we were delivered from death and its enslaving bonds; but, I think, we are free from the fear of death only if we are walking according to the oath of our baptism, to unite ourselves to Christ, and not according to the world, in the way of the flesh, the way of the ego and its own wisdom, the way of self-love.
A most profound mystery is set before us so very concisely in these words from Hebrews: even though God did not create death and made the world to be whole and healthy (Wisd 1:13-16) it has come about that the principle of life in this world is death. This is the mystery I want to ponder with you this morning in the context of where we are liturgically in the Church: at the Feast of the Annunciation, and at the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, almost to the goal of our Lenten journey, the raising of Lazarus this Saturday.
We perhaps think of our death as happening in the future. But, our epistle this morning speaks of living one’s whole life in the fear of death that enslaves us to bondage of some kind. This sets before us rather clearly, I think, that our death, even as an event in the future, is very much present to us here and now in these bonds, whatever they might be, that enslave us, implying that this fear of death is what shapes us and governs the moods, the dispositions and outlook of our inner man.
What are these bonds, and can we speak more precisely to how we experience and act out this fear of death here and now?
Here’s what I see in my ponderings: the fear of death may be embodied in the fear that there is no God, which would mean that beneath everything is only emptiness, so that our life has no meaning or purpose. This fear is embodied in us in our fear of boredom and loneliness, and perhaps in our fear of suffering because, if we suffer, it means we are being cheated of our one, small chance to have and enjoy what good things there are in this life. And so, let’s eat, drink and be merry as best we can, for tomorrow we die! This fear of death may be what has driven our culture’s devolution into moral relativism, and into the rage and hysteria that accompany that: how dare you deprive me of the pleasures I choose to escape from life’s underlying emptiness and meaninglessness!
These pleasures I choose to take refuge in from the boredom and meaningless that lie underneath my life are the bonds that enslave me through habits of thought and behavior, if not addictions. What makes them so enslaving is my existential fear of the absolute emptiness and loneliness that I know, intuitively, lies beneath them. This fear is what compels me to give myself to the bonds of whatever pleasure I can find in a desperate effort to escape from the emptiness I cannot get away from because it is always in me, at the core, the “beginning” of “me”, at that point where I came into being from out of the nothingness, which I experience in the darkness of my self-centered egotism as meaninglessness that lies underneath everything.
So, when I said that it has come about that the principle of life in this world is death, I mean that it has come about because we have chosen to walk in the way of self-centered egotism. But, the Feast of the Annunciation – which, together with the Feast of Holy Pascha, forms the “bookends” that hold the world in all of its dimensions of space and time, material and immaterial – proclaims the Gospel that this principle has been altogether transfigured, in the selflessness, the self-emptying of God the WORD. As it says in our epistle this morning, since the children were communicants of flesh and blood, God drew near and partook of the same.
This is the mystery of the divine “Logos” becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Among its many meanings, “Logos” means “meaning”. All things were made in Him, it says (Jn 1:2), and in Him was Life and this Life was the Light of men, and this Life shines in the darkness and the darkness could not put it out. This means that what is underneath everything is not meaninglessness but the fullness of divine meaning, not darkness but uncreated Light; not death but life, and so not boredom but joy, not absolute aloneness but the love of God that is unconquerable and incorruptible life and light.
And it says for what purpose the Logos or Meaning of God drew near to share with us in our flesh and blood and become like us in every respect, except for sin: it was for the purpose that by His own death on the Cross, He might destroy the one who had the power of death, the devil, and so deliver us who were enslaved to the bondage of our empty escapes through our fear of death from the darkness of meaninglessness, and He raised us up into the Light of the Meaning of God. In a word, He became a communicant of our flesh and blood that we might become communicants of His divine nature (II Pt 1:4).
In the Feasts of Annunciation and Holy Pascha, then, we behold the meaning in which this world was made and everything in it. God created the world for the purpose of becoming one with us that we might become one with Him. As we see in the icon of the Annunciation, the Theotokos holding a distaff with a long running red thread. This is an image drawn from antiquity, and from Isaiah (38:12), of the “thread” of life. It shows the Theotokos weaving the thread of her flesh and blood into the garment that God the WORD would put on in her womb to become her Son as the Son of Man. More than that, it proclaims the mystery of our human life being woven into God’s own Body such that God’s Body of Light and Fire is now woven into our body. That means that His eternal life is now woven into our death. When therefore, we put on Christ in the waters of death, the waters of the baptismal font, we are putting on the “Meaning” of God as our Robe of Light, as our wedding garment. We are uniting ourselves to His death, which means we are uniting ourselves to Him in His Resurrection as His brethren and His children. In the font of holy baptism, the principle of death has been altogether transfigured into the principle of eternal life. Our life and death in this world are embraced not in ultimate meaninglessness but in the mystery of God the WORD becoming flesh and becoming one with us in our death so that we could become one with Him in His Resurrection to eternal life.
This is the theological vision of Great Lent. Great Lent, in the Church’s lectionary, is bounded at the beginning by the Tomb of Our LORD and at the end by the tomb of Lazarus. The “true activity” of Lent is given in the myrrh-bearing women. Having beheld the LORD’s Tomb and how He was placed in it, we are called to descend with them in the stillness of Christ’s Sabbath rest and into the “tomb” of our own heart, following the imagery of St Macarius and St Isaac of Nineveh. Great Lent, then, is the enactment in both our outer and our inner man, of the mystery of our baptism. In the ascetic discipline of these six weeks of Lent we descend mystically to the bottom of the font until we come to the tomb of Lazarus as to the tomb of our own heart. Through the Fast, we strip ourselves of our worldly garments, as we did at our baptism; and, by denying ourselves and taking up our cross, we set out to lose our life for the sake of Christ, putting to death what is earthly in us, that at the bottom of the font, in the tomb of our heart, we may put on Christ as our Robe of Light, and so unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. As He raised Lazarus, so He raises us from the “”Font of Great Lent that we may walk not in the death of this world that ends in death, but into Great and Holy Week and into the death of Christ that ends in His Resurrection and our being united with Him as a new creation. Now it is that the death that is always present to us as the principle of our life is the death of Christ; and we are called to live in it here and now, so that our “escape”, our “refuge” is no more the empty pleasures of the world but the “emptiness” of the LORD’s Tomb, emptied of death in His Holy Resurrection and filled with the joy of Christ and the Life of God that are not of this world even as they are in this world as the true principle of all things, the true foundation of the world that will never be moved because its foundation is the Holy Pascha of Christ our God. Amen!