31 - Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, April 3, 2011

Hebrews 6:13-20

Mark 9:17-31

From the moment of our baptism, we are like the Israelites who passed over through the Red Sea and into the wilderness to make their way to the River Jordan and to the Promised Land beyond. Our wilderness is this life. The way that takes us through the wilderness is the way of the Cross; it is the way of prayer and fasting in the spirit of repentance and of obedience to the commandments of Christ. The River Jordan for us is the moment of our bodily death. Our Promised Land is the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Heavenly Jerusalem.

As we pass through the days of our life, are we not, like the Israelites of old, tempted oftentimes to leave the hard way of prayer and fasting behind and to take the broad and easy way back to Egypt, to content ourselves to live out our days as comfortably as we can rather than keeping to the hard way of the Cross, and to take as our guide the pundits of the world, worshipping our own golden calf of worldly gain and ease, rather than follow the guidance of our Joshua, the Lord Jesus Christ?

So, it is a very good thing to come to the Church and to hear again and again the proclamation of Christ’s Holy Gospel. In the wilderness, the Israelites were fed manna from heaven. The manna, of course, was a type of the Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He gives Himself to the faithful as the Manna that comes down from Heaven in Holy Eucharist, to nourish them as they make their way through the wilderness of this life back to Eden. And, in the mystery of the Church’s Eucharistic manna, the faithful discover a great secret: even as they are still in the wilderness of this life, before they have reached Eden, Eden is here in our midst, here in the Church, even now in the wilderness of this life.

The great secret of the Christian Faith is hidden beneath the veil of this earthly life, behind the closed doors of the Church’s sanctuary as behind the stone of the Lord’s tomb. It is hidden, that is to say, in the mystery of death, the death specifically of God the Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ. And every year at this time, from the beginning of Great Lent to the Feast of Pentecost 15 weeks later, the Lenten discipline of the Church lifts the veil of this earthly life slowly, bit by bit, until finally it is revealed to the eyes of faith, made sober by the sight, that in this life we already “live” in hell, dead in our sins and trespasses; and the way of the Cross that we take up in the ascetic disciplines of the Lenten Fast is in fact a mystical ascent from where we now live in the darkness of hell up to the tomb of Christ’s Holy Pascha; and that the journey of Christ to Golgotha and to the tomb of His Holy Passion, which the Church is now documenting for us in her Sunday Gospels as we travel through the weeks of Great Lent, is Christ descending to where we “live” in hell, dead in our sins and trespasses, in order to find us and to lead us upward on His Cross, back up to His tomb and through its doors now opened by the rolling away of the stone and into the Garden of Gethsemane as into the Garden of Eden in the glory of His Holy Resurrection.

In the mysteries of the Church, that is to say, the faithful journey through the desert of this earthly life with their hearts nailed to Christ’s Holy Cross and buried in the sacred tomb of Christ’s Holy Pascha. To the faithful, the Lenten Fast, as the flower of abstinence that grows from the wood of the Cross, opens onto the inner hell of the human heart that has been filled with the uncreated light of Christ in His Holy Pascha. By nailing themselves to the Fast as to the Cross of Christ, the faithful taste and see, even now in the wilderness of this earthly life, the glory of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. The trials of this life become the testing of our faith, more precious than silver and gold; and Egypt loses its attraction. Its glittering lights are darkness compared to the Robe of Light the faithful put on through the ascetic disciplines of the Fast; they are misery compared to the joy of partaking of the divine nature in the Eucharistic mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha.

The joy of Christ’s Resurrection is the great secret that only the faithful know. Only the faithful can know this secret, for it is a joy that is experienced only by freely renouncing the glittering lights of Egypt in order to unite oneself to Christ in the likeness of His death by taking up the ascetic disciplines of the Fast in the spirit of repentance and of obedience to His holy commandments.

And, it is impossible for the worldly mind to understand – or, perhaps even to regard as sane – the faithful disciple of Christ who experiences joy in the suffering of the self-denial of the Fast. The joy of the Fast is not madness. It is the joy of Christ’s Cross that has destroyed death by Christ’s death and given life to those in the tombs. It is the joy of sobriety and self-knowledge born from the cleansing and purification and illumination of soul and body that are accomplished through the Fast in the spirit of repentance. It is the joy that comes from taking off even now in this life the garments of death and corruption worn by the world that stink with the smell of rottenness and decay, and putting on the crucified and risen Christ, wearing Him as a Robe of Light and a sweet-smelling Garment of Immortality in the glory of His Holy Resurrection.

“Thou hast given to the faithful the saving weapon of Thy Cross,”[1] the Church cries out to the Savior. When you were baptized, you were given a cross to wear; and you were taught how to make the sign of the cross with your hands and with your body. This Cross that was given to you in your baptism is your divine weapon that saves you precisely because Christ is nailed to it; His Holy Resurrection is nailed to it. It is the ladder that ascends to Heaven; it is the door of Paradise, the gate that opens onto Eden in the East,[2] the East of Christ’s Holy Resurrection. So it is that as we take up our cross in the ascetic disciplines of the Lenten Fast, we are climbing the ladder that God has given to the faithful as their saving weapon out of hell and ascending to heaven as we make our way through the wilderness of this life. With each rung that we climb, with each passing day that we are faithful in the Faith, we are ascending higher up the holy Mountain and drawing closer to the Garden of Eden in the East.

By freely taking up our cross and uniting ourselves to Christ on it, we die in Christ to ourselves, to our pride, to our vanity, to our ego and our vainglory, our lust for the flesh; and we are laid in the tomb of our heart as the body of Christ was laid in the tomb. And there, united to the crucified Christ in the darkness of the tomb hell is slain; its iron bars and bolts are shattered, the devil and all his hosts and all his pride are put to flight, and the tomb of our heart is transfigured into a bridal chamber, and we follow Christ the Holy Bridegroom who comes at Midnight out of the tomb into the glory and light of His Holy Resurrection in Eden beyond, having been born of the Spirit from above as children of light raised up to life eternal, Christ Himself our life, our light and our joy.

In the radiant joy and beauty of this vision of the Church set forth in the proclamation of her Holy Gospel, brothers and sisters, let us be resolved to follow Christ out of Egypt and to keep the Fast in the wilderness. Let us exercise what faith we have, and let us call on Christ to help us in our lack of faith. If we have turned away to Egypt, or if we have been all this time in Egypt, let us turn around, repent, and from this day, from this hour, from this moment, come join the faithful making their way through the wilderness of this life. Lay hold the precious and life-creating Cross of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ that the Church has given to you as your saving weapon and in the company of the faithful with all the saints follow Christ to His saving Pascha; for it is to Life Immortal and to Light that knows no shadow of darkness, to divine Joy unspeakable that we ascend on the saving weapon of the Fast. And even here and now in the wilderness of this life, Christ in His Holy Resurrection is in our midst here in the Church. Take up the cross of the Fast and begin clothing yourself even now with Christ as He clothed Himself with us in the mystery of His conception and birth of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary; and with the Cross of the Fast as your saving weapon firmly in hand, begin to be transfigured by your union with Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection into a child of light, born from above, granted to become a partaker of the divine nature, a communicant of life eternal. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to God forever!

[1] Supplement to Lenten Triodion, p. 186

[2] Gn 2:8