Hebrews 9.11-14

Mark 10.32-45

They were on the Path going up to Jerusalem. Jesus was going before them and those who were following Him were afraid and astonished, or amazed, or terrified. The word translated in English as ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ is formed from a Greek word that is identical to a word for burial or tomb. And Jerusalem, more specifically, the Temple of Jerusalem, where Jesus is going, biblically, is the center, the heart, of the world.

The biblical imagery, in its spiritual meaning, sets before us the same journey we will take this next week, the last week of Great Lent, to Bethany and to the tomb of Lazarus. We are not making a detour from Jerusalem, the heart of the world, by going to Lazarus’ tomb. Drawing from St Macarius the Great [4th Cent.]: ‘Death keeps fast hold of the souls of Adam, and the thoughts of the soul lie imprisoned in the darkness. When you hear of tombs, do not think only of visible ones. Your own heart is a tomb. When the prince of wickedness and his angels burrow there, and make paths and thoroughfares there, on which the powers of Satan walk into your mind and thoughts, are you not a hell, a tomb, a sepulcher, a dead man towards God?’ (Hom. 11.11)

These ‘keys’ open to us the spiritual meaning of this morning’s Gospel. Going up to Jerusalem, where He will be crucified and buried, the LORD Jesus—again following St Macarius—is entering into the depth of hell and into the deep gulf of the heart (Hom 11.12).

But, remember that we came into Great Lent having beheld the Theophany of God high and lifted up on the Cross, and having studied closely His Tomb and how His Body was placed in it. And then, with the myrrhbearers, we turned downward to descend into the ‘prayer of the heart’ (hesychusan, Lk 23.56), in the stillness of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest in obedience to the commandment.

What we see this morning with the LORD turning His Face to go up to Jerusalem, is that the LORD is going before us into the ‘deep gulf of our heart’. If we are turning downward to descend with our mind into the tomb of our heart, we doing so not apart from but in the presence of Christ who is with us as we make our way downward through prayer and fasting to where our thoughts are imprisoned by darkness and our souls are held fast by the bonds of death.

Guided on this interior descent by the prayers of the Church in all her Lenten services, we discover that we are not reading the Gospels as a story about something that happened centuries ago for the purpose of exciting pious feelings in us. We begin to see in the witness of the Gospel the unseen dynamics we experience inside of us, in the ‘hidden man of the heart’ (1 Pt 3.4), perhaps especially now as we are drawing near to the end of Great Lent and to the tomb of Lazarus. We find ourselves looking into this liturgical movement of the Church as in a mirror, reflecting what’s going on inside our souls.

So, in going up to Jerusalem and to the ‘heart’ of the world, we are at the same time descending to the tomb of Lazarus, to the tomb of our heart, where we are imprisoned and held fast by the darkness of death. Our ultimate destination, of course, is not the tomb of Lazarus; it is the Tomb of the LORD on Golgotha, beyond Jerusalem. Our goal is the LORD’s Resurrection; for we want to be delivered from the darkness of death that holds us fast through the fear of death.

In this liturgical juxtaposition of the tomb of Lazarus as the final destination of our Lenten journey, and the Tomb of the LORD as the destination of Great and Holy Week that the raising of Lazarus immediately opens onto, it seems that the Church is revealing to us that the ‘gate’ that opens onto the Tomb of the LORD—which is the Gate that opens onto the eternal life in the greater and more perfect Tabernacle of the LORD’s Body (Jn 2.19&21) not made with hands, i.e., not of this creation—is our own heart.

But, I turn again to St Macarius. ‘Our soul,’ he says, ‘has been plunged and drowned in the abyss of darkness and in the deep of death and parted from God among dreadful monsters.’ (Hom. 11.12) This interior descent of the Fast, centered on the prayer of the heart, then, is not a walk ‘in some quiet corner with a wonderful garden, filled with heavenly music.’ Referring to what he read in St Macarius, St Sophrony writes to Fr Georges Florovsky: ‘In St Macarius the Great there is a statement which I find astounding, to the effect that those who have not passed through a multitude of the most terrible trials are incapable of the Kingdom.’ (St Sophrony, Cross of Loneliness, 137)

St Macarius, in the homily (Hom 5) St Sophrony refers to, explains why this is and in what these terrible trials consist:

‘Most men,’ he writes, ‘wish to attain the kingdom and would like to inherit eternal life, but they do not refuse to live to their own wills and to follow them out. They wish to inherit eternal life not denying themselves, but this is impossible….The natural will of man entices him to set his affection on something, and that affection is somewhere or other tied, and is not wholly towards God. One man has set his affection, say on property, another on gold and silver, another on the wisdom of the eloquence of the world for the sake of glory from men; another has loved power, another glory and honors among men, another wrath and anger—for yielding quickly to it is loving it—another unreasonable conversations, another jealousy. Another amuses himself and seeks pleasure all day long, another deceives himself with idle thoughts; another loves to be a teacher of the law for the glory of men; another finds pleasure in sloth and heedlessness; another is absorbed in dress and clothes; another gives himself to earthly cares; another loves sleep and jesting and low talk. Whatever passion a man does not bravely war against, is an object of his affection, and it holds him fast, and weighs him down, and prevents his mind from going up to God to please Him or from serving Him only and thereby proving fit for the kingdom and obtaining eternal life.’ (Hom 5 pp. 43, 45-56)

At the root of all the passions that are the objects of our affection and that weigh us down and prevent our mind from ‘going up to Jerusalem’ to be united to Christ in a death like His, turning now to St Maximus, is self-love. ‘Where self-love is absent,’ St Maximus says somewhere, ‘there no trace of evil can exist.’ Turning to St Ephraim, the root of evil is greed; turning to St Paul, it is love of money, turning to St James, it is friendship with the world; turning to St John, it is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life. These are all different names for the same rot that has corrupted our heart.

Precisely this is what we see in our Gospel this morning, when James and John, in greed, in effect demand that the LORD give them power to rule over others in what they expect will be His worldly kingdom. And the other disciples show their greed when they are angry with James and John, because they didn’t think of it first!

It is the battle against our self-love, our greed, our friendship with the world that we come upon when we turn in repentance to take up our Cross in the form of the Fast, to follow Christ ‘up to Jerusalem’, ‘down to the tomb of our heart.’ And it is our wish to attain the kingdom but also our wish to live to our own wills that makes this battle so intense, so terrible, so fearsome. Why would anyone take on such a battle? Out of love for the LORD Jesus Christ, if not out of a desire, even stronger than our love for comfort and pleasure, to be delivered from the ‘terrible monsters’ that hold our souls fast in the dark prison of our death, our separation from God.

I see it as no accident, then, that our Gospel this morning, on the last Sunday of Great Lent, as we are drawing near to the tomb of Lazarus and to Jerusalem at the same time, is about this request of James and John for power. The Church has led us round the bend, and rising before us in full view is that wall of enmity that separates us from God, erected on the cornerstone of our self-love, our greed; and, if we can see it and acknowledge it, we may see suddenly how much on this side of that wall, having settled in the hills opposite and outside the Garden of Eden (Gen 3.25), in tents that are of this world (cf. Heb 9.11)—viz., our body, soul and mind—we prance about as though we were gods. (Gen 3.23)

We are about to enter Great and Holy Week, not from outside, as it were, as we were when reading the pre-Lenten lectionary; but from inside the hidden man of our heart. Let us note, then, as we follow the LORD from the tomb of our heart into Jerusalem and to Golgotha that the LORD is destroying the powers of hell by His Cross. Our work in these six weeks of Great Lent has been at the very least to come into view of our self-love, our greed, so that we can confess it and acknowledge it before the LORD; and then let go our self-love and offer it to the LORD as a living, bloodless sacrifice, so that the LORD can raise us up from the tomb of our heart and destroy the last enemy, death, and demolish that wall of enmity that separates us from Him. Let this be our prayer, our hope, our focus in these next two weeks. Amen!