|31 DRAWING NEAR THE TOMB, Apr 2, 2023|
We have come to the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent. We are deep into the Great Fast. Is our Gospel this morning simply rehearsing the LORD going up to Jerusalem with His disciples, or is there a lesson we should be taking from the disciples, James and John, asking the LORD to do what they wish Him to do for them – to wit, to grant them positions of power and honor – in response to the LORD telling them that He would be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes, who would condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the nations, and kill Him, and on the third day He would rise again? And the other disciples are upset with James and John, it would seem, because they didn’t get to the LORD before James and John did.
Let’s consider: liturgically, we are drawing near the gates of death – our own death, imaged in the death of Lazarus this coming Saturday, and then, the following week, to the LORD’s death on Great and Holy Friday. With this, let us also call to mind the spiritual character of the Fast and the other Lenten ascetical disciplines we’ve been doing the last five weeks: these ascetical disciplines of Great Lent are ‘the flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross for all the world.’ (LT 230) That is, they are an extension of the Savior’s Cross, and it is by ‘prayer and fasting,’ the flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross, accompanied by obedience to the Savior’s commandments, that we are able to cast Satan out of our souls and bodies – as our Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent told us.
Let us also remember the purpose of taking up the Fast and its ascetical disciplines. It is to make our repentance real and actual, and not just something we talk about. And the substance of our repentance is ‘to put to death what is earthly in us.’ What’s earthly in us is our idolatry, our covetousness, or our love for power and honor, the corruption of sin that is in the world, in our souls and in our bodies, through the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.
If we have been keeping the Fast with a contrite heart in prayer and self-examination and confession of our sins, well, the prayers of the Lenten Triodion give us to understand that the power of the LORD’s Cross is becoming active in us. And so we should be finding ourselves about now in this fifth week of the Fast, coming now into the sixth week – we should be finding ourselves drawing very near in our inner man to the ‘tomb’ of our heart and to the root of our spiritual death. That root, following the spiritual teaching of the holy fathers of the Church, is found in our self-will where we choose to love the world, and to follow our own way, where we choose to deny God rather than ourselves, where we go after power and honor to save our lives, rather than to lose our lives for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, i.e., rather than to share in the self-denial and extreme humility of Christ.
In drawing near to the ‘tomb’ of our heart, then, we are drawing very near to where our choosing to live for ourselves and not for God is rooted, where it begins.
I wonder if this explains why so many of us, about this time of the Fast, find ourselves unexpectedly more irritable, short-tempered, impatient, and maybe increasingly disgusted with the Fast and its ascetical disciplines. It’s not just because we’re a bit hungry. It may also be because, in our spirit, we have dared to draw near to the root of our idolatry, our self-love, our self-will, our disobedience, and the old man in us is being exposed by the spiritual force of Christ that is active in the Fast.
From what I have learned from the spiritual instructions of the holy fathers of the Church, the dark spirits will seize on this as an opportunity to whisper thoughts in our heads, that all of this is pointless, that it’s made-up, or that we aren’t cut out for such an effort, so why not slack off a bit if not give it up altogether?
But the Church also is talking to us! “The most beautiful of seasons is at hand,” we hear at Monday Matins of the Fifth Week, “the much praised day of abstinence has dawned” (think Lk 23.54). “Let us make haste, brethren, to be cleansed, that we may appear in purity before our Maker and share in His beauty, at the prayers of Her who bore Him, the only pure Mother of God!” (LTS 236) “With God’s help we have rounded the turning post of the Fast. Let us run the remainder of the course with all our strength, and win a victor’s crown.” (LTS 238) For, we are sharing in the Savior’s divine suffering (LTS 237), which implies that, in the suffering of the Fast – such as it is! – we are beginning even now to become partakers of the divine nature!
“I bear within me the passions of many years, that darken my unhappy soul, but with contrite heart I fall down before Thine unconquerable power (I do this concretely, not in imagination, by doing the Fast). Thy holy Fast feeds our hearts, ripening within us thoughts acceptable to God, and causing the deep abyss of our passions to dry up; and with the rain of compunction it cleanses those who in faith offer praise to the Almighty.” (LTS 237) And so let us advance upon the path of the Fast to the Passion of Christ! (ibid) For the grace of the Fast has filled a divine cup with the wine of compunction, and it calls together all the faithful, come and partake with gladness, laying aside the drunkenness of the passions, that you may be counted worthy of the joy to come.” For the judgment is at hand! Give heed, O my soul. Be attentive to your conscience, for if we have judged ourselves in this present life, we shall not lack witnesses to plead on our behalf at the Judgment in the Age to come! (LTS 239)
So many exhortations like this we find in the Church’s prayers. For everything is at stake!
Be attentive to your conscience, we heard. The power of the Savior’s Cross that is active in the Fast, and that is becoming incarnate in us as we take up the Fast, illumines our inner man and brings to light all that is earthly in us, all that darkens us, all that makes us slaves to death and corruption – as we see happening in this morning’s Gospel. The Savior’s word to His disciples about His impending betrayal and suffering called out the lust for power that was in their souls. And because they ‘confessed’ it, let’s say, they put themselves in position to be taught by the LORD the more excellent way: it is in the humility of the Cross that the power of God is supremely manifested. For by that extreme humility, death is destroyed, those in the tombs are raised to life, restored to their original beauty.
We partake of the divine nature by sharing in the LORD’s suffering and in His extreme humility through the Fast and its ascetical disciplines. And, we are granted to become partakers of the divine nature in the joy of Pascha, the joy of the Savior’s Resurrection. If you have kept the Fast, be resolved to complete the course of the Fast with the help of the LORD, through mindful prayer in the contrite longing to be cleansed and to become more like Christ. If you have not kept the Fast, begin to keep it now. It is, let’s say, about 10 pm. Ours is an invisible journey and an invisible destination. It is the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us, in the tomb of our heart made a bridal chamber because in it the LORD has descended to consummate His union with us so that we can become flesh of His risen flesh, bone of His risen bones, spirit of His Holy, eternal Spirit. Amen!