|30 - MEOCCA Lenten Vespers, March 29, 2009|
MEOCCA LENTEN SUNDAY VESPERS
Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
St John Climacus
March 29, 2009
Today, we commemorate St John, abbot of the Monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai in the 7th century. We call him St John Climacus or St John of the Ladder in reference to his work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is read daily during the period of Great Lent in monasteries throughout the Orthodox world. St John’s Ladder of Divine Ascent instructs us in the ascetic discipline of the Church so as to transform us, soul and body, in the love of God. But St John’s ladder of divine ascent is the Cross; for, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on Sept 14, we cry out to the Cross of Christ, “O divine ladder! By thee we go up to heaven, exalting Christ the Lord in song.” Here is another indication of the Church that gives us to understand that the cross the Savior commands us to take up is the ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting and charity.
Next Sunday we commemorate St Mary of Egypt, an example par excellence of repentance. On these the fourth and fifth Sundays of Great Lent, then, when many of us may be feeling weary if not a bit irritated by the length and rigor of the fast, the Church encourages us with the spiritual teaching of St John Climacus and next Sunday the inspiring example of St Mary of Egypt to complete the course of the fast. These fourth and fifth Sundays of Great Lent show a different character than the first three Sundays of Great Lent. I think there is an important lesson to be drawn from their different character.
The first three Sundays of Great Lent set before us the three triumphs of Orthodoxy and so they establish the triumphant context in which we take up the cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines.
The first Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates the triumphant restoration of the Icon in Christian worship. The theology of the Icon proclaims the mystery of the Incarnation. It proclaims humanity’s innate kinship to God by virtue of our having been made in the Image of God, which means that our nature was brought into being from nothing in Christ – for he is the Icon of God – and so human nature exists in a fundamental capacity for union with God. Because of humanity’s innate kinship with God, God the Word could take our humanity given him by the Blessed Virgin and become so one with us that he was not just joined to a man; he became man and shared with us in all things even to the point of death on the Cross.
The Church celebrates the second triumph of Orthodoxy on the Second Sunday of Great Lent. It is St Gregory Palamas’ theological defense in the 14th century of humanity’s natural capacity to be united to God through His uncreated energies or uncreated grace. Again at stake for St Gregory was the truth of the incarnation and the theology of love that the Incarnation proclaims. This second triumph of Orthodoxy directs our attention to Christ’s Transfiguration on Mt Tabor. St Gregory taught that the light of Christ that shone on Mt Tabor was the uncreated light of God, fully divine; for again, Christ did not join himself to a man. He personally became man and was so personally one with the body that he took from the pure Virgin that he sanctified it and deified it and made it personally his own so that it became, precisely in its materiality, spiritual – alive in the Holy Spirit of God.
The third and greatest triumph of Orthodoxy is the Cross, which we celebrate on the Third Sunday of Great Lent. The Cross is the greatest of Christ’s triumphs because by the Cross Christ destroyed the last enemy, death. On his Cross, Christ stretched out his hands to embrace the whole of space-time and to unite to himself all the lost sheep that were separated from Him by the sands of time flowing ceaselessly into the dark ocean of death. Past and future he united to the eternal Present of his life-giving Today so that in Christ, nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.
The first three Sundays of Great Lent, then, establish the ascetic work of Lent in the triumphant context of Christ’s victory on the Cross over death and hell. They show us that the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent open us onto the uncreated light of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. But most of all, they show us that the ascetic work of Lent is the work of love.
God has loved us by uniting himself to us in the mystery of his Incarnation even to the point of death on the Cross. He sanctified our human nature soul and body by making it his own and making it to live in the uncreated light of his own divinity. And in the body that he sanctified and deified, he destroyed death by his death and he arose from the dead, giving life to those in the tombs. He rolled the stone away and emptied the tomb, making it into the passage that opens onto life eternal.
But this life eternal that now lies open to us in the mystery of Christ is the life of divine love; and love is not given to those who don’t want it. Love is love only when it is freely received and freely given. And so if we are to come to the Savior, we must freely choose to renounce our love for the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, and to take up our cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church and make our way to the tomb of Christ, so that we may learn to love God as he himself has loved us. Taking up the cross of prayer, fasting and charity is work that we must do. It is our response in love to the love of God. It is the work of fulfilling the oath of our baptism to take up our cross in love for Christ so that by uniting ourselves to him in the likeness of his death we may also be united to him in the likeness of his resurrection. This ascetic work is not easy. The old Adam in us is very strong; and so we do it together, not by ourselves. We do it in the Church, in the communion of saints whom we can call upon to help us and strengthen us.
And so, having set before us on the first three Sundays of Great Lent the triumph of the Church – the triumph of Christ’s crucified and risen body – and having called out to us in the Word of the Savior, “Let him who would be my disciple deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” the Church sets before us on the fourth and fifth Sundays of Great Lent the teaching of St John of Sinai and the example of St Mary of Egypt to show us why the Savior calls us to take up our cross and how to take up our cross to follow the Savior. We take up our cross because we want to learn to love Christ as he has loved us. And we take up our cross by taking up the ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and charity in the spirit of repentance. Great Lent is not about giving something up for Lent, unless the something you’re talking about is the old Adam and the soul-destroying desires and pleasures of the flesh. And we give up the old Adam by subjecting ourselves soul and body to prayer and fasting and charity as to the life-creating Cross of Christ. Through these ascetic disciplines, we train our love to run out of the world and into the arms of the crucified and risen Christ. Through these ascetic disciplines of the Church, we are preparing ourselves in soul and in body to enter with the Savior into Holy Week, that we may unite ourselves to the likeness of his death on the Cross and so be united with him also in the likeness of his holy Resurrection.
The mystery of Christ is the mystery of love. Taking up the ascetic disciplines of the Church, taking up our cross, is how we come into the love of God. In this our fervent hope, we exhort one another to be vigilant and to complete the course of the fast in the triumph of God’s love, so that we will be prepared for the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight. It is only in the love of God that the Midnight of Pascha opens us onto the Lord’s Resurrection. It is only in the love of God that we come into the Church on Pascha night as into the mystery of Christ’s crucified and risen body. It is only in the love of God that we find in ourselves the joy of Christ’s Resurrection and the uncreated grace to forgive all things and to call brother even those who hate us. In this joy, let us help one another to keep the course of the fast in the love of God, that we might truly become partakers of the divine nature in the Lord’s Pascha, communicants of life eternal in the ineffable love of Christ Our Savior. Amen.
 Festal Menaion 153