35 - Fifth Sunday of Pascha, May 2, 2010

Acts 11:19-26, 29-30

John 4:5-42

At the Midfeast of Pentecost this last Wednesday, the Church through the prayers and hymns of that Feast, directed our eyes forward to Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ descended to earth and united heaven to earth. By His glorious Ascension, He unites earth to heaven, having destroyed death by His death in His Holy Resurrection and bestowed life on those in the tombs.

St Maximos the Confessor (d. 662) describes how Christ’s Ascension took place. It’s not that His body rose up into the stratosphere somewhere, so that He is now sitting on the moon or some star as on a throne looking down at us. His body is now risen from the dead and is of an altogether different character from our bodies, still on this side of the grave. It does not exist according to the laws of nature on this side of the grave, which is fallen nature; it exists according to the Holy Spirit and so it behaves in a manner altogether unknown to us. As St Maximos describes the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, His resurrected body appeared to rise heavenward but it was more that it gradually disappeared as Christ in His resurrected body was diffused with the uncreated light of His divinity and expanded, if you will, to fill the earth in a spiritual manner so that in His Spirit, we now understand that He is “everywhere present, filling all things.”

In His resurrected and transfigured humanity, then, Christ now exists in a manner that is consistent with His divine character as the Wisdom of God in whom the Spirit of God rests. And, this is how St Dionysios speaks of the Wisdom and Spirit of God, or of Christ and the Holy Spirit: “The beautiful is identical with the good [in essence], for all things seek the beautiful and good at every opportunity, and there is no being which does not participate in them. The beautiful and the good extend to all that is, being what is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved.”[1] 

This brings us to this morning’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman; Photine was her name in the remembrance of the Church, which means “Enlightened One” and which, I think, tells us that her soul became diffused with the uncreated light of Christ and that she became united to Him in love, as we are called to unite ourselves to Him when we approach the baptismal font.

Photine was a Samaritan, and she had had five husbands when she met Christ by the well of Jacob. As a Samaritan, Photine represents those Israelites, those who had been chosen by God, who were descendants of the Northern Kingdom that had fallen to the Assyrians centuries earlier, and who had corrupted the Law of Moses with false teachings drawn from other religious sources. She had had five husbands, and the one to whom she was married now was not her husband. She was something like a harlot, and so, even though she was a Samaritan, she was actually an icon of Israel who was unfaithful to the Lord and was called a harlot by the prophets. And, we could say that she is an icon of baptized Christians who in their baptism were united to Christ but who in their hearts and in their daily life unite themselves to the world and to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

This Gospel story of the Samaritan woman, therefore, is a love story; and Christ is her true Lord and lover. That is why He is bold to speak to her with such familiarity. It’s why He knows all about her love life, and He has come to win her back.

He is the beautiful and the good who is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved, whom all things seek at every opportunity, and in whom everything participates. If we do not know that He is the One whom our souls seek, it is because we have turned away from Him toward other lovers, and we have forgotten Him, and finally become altogether ignorant of Him. And that is why we are in this life uneasy, unsatisfied, always seeking a pleasure that will satisfy our desire. Like the Samaritan woman, we have had many lovers, and even the pleasure we love now is not our true love. It, too, will pass away like the other loves and leave us still seeking for that one, true love.

According to the fathers of the Church, the force that is driving us to seek for love is the divine force of love, which the fathers call the “erotic power pre-existing in the good”, that is, in Christ the Word of God. This divine force of love, writes St Dionysios, has given birth to the same blessed force within us, by which we long for the beautiful and the good.

The divine origin and character of the erotic force within us means that we are by nature lovers of God. It means that by nature we exist in a capacity for God – this is how St Didymos the Blind, for example, defines the “image of God” in which we were made. We are meant to receive and partake of God, the beautiful and the good who is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved. It means that in our heart, in the center of our being, we open onto the eternal, onto the infinite God. It means that we who are creatures are animated by a force that can unite us to the uncreated so that we are not destroyed in union with the uncreated God; we are fulfilled. And this means that when we are not seeking after God, when we are not directing our erotic desire towards the beautiful and the good, which is Christ God, we are living in a way that is contrary to our nature, and we become sick in soul and in body, so sick that we become subject to death and corruption, subject to division, fragmentation and finally dissolution, dissolving back into the nothingness from which we came.

In His love for mankind, Christ, the beautiful and the good, comes to the Samaritan woman who in her ignorance of God had become separated from Him and had given herself over to other lovers who could not satisfy the intensity of her erotic desire. In the words of St Dionysius: “Just as ignorance divides those who are deluded, so the presence of spiritual light draws together and unites those whom it enlightens. It makes them perfect and brings them back to what really exists; it converts their many fantasies into one simple, true and pure spiritual knowledge, and fills them with a single, unifying light.”[2] So the Christ did to the Samaritan woman, and she became Photine, the Enlightened One.

So Christ does to us in our baptism, which we also call Holy Illumination, so that we become Photine’s, Enlightened Ones. In His Incarnation, in His Death and Crucifixion, the Christ unites Himself to man. In His Holy Resurrection, the Christ destroys death which divides us from the beautiful and the good. He illumines the darkness even of hell, so that those who sat in darkness may turn in their erotic desire to the uncreated Light of Him who is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved. In His Glorious Ascension, He fills the earth with His Holy Spirit so that He is everywhere present, filling all things, so that all who want to, wherever they are in space and in time, may turn to Him who is the Only Lover of Mankind and unite themselves to Christ in His Holy Spirit, the beautiful and the good, who is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved.

We are now preparing ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s Holy Ascension and the outpouring of His Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost. We need to be vigilant against the seed of corruption that is in our flesh, this seed sown in our souls and bodies from the fruit of the serpent’s tree that makes us thick and sluggish and weighs us down with a distorted erotic desire that is dark and deluded and quick to forget the mercy of God. We can darken ourselves to the light of God and make ourselves forgetful and ignorant of God; but we cannot expunge the erotic force within us and its intense longing for the eternal and the uncreated God, for it is the essential character of our nature. And, if we are not vigilant against the seed of corruption that is in our soul and body, we can easily fall again into the darkness of forgetfulness of God and return to an unnatural way of life that is governed by delusion and ignorance, in which we are uniting ourselves in erotic desire to everything but the beautiful and the good, Christ our God who is truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved.

The Lenten fast is over – but the inner fast is never over, the fasting with the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands and the feet to guard our minds and our deep heart from the vanities of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Even in this season of feasting, remain inwardly vigilant through unceasing prayer in a spirit of repentance and confession, and in the illumination of the knowledge given us by the teaching of the Church, namely that the erotic force within us is of divine origin and divine character and finds its fulfillment not in the lusts of the flesh or the lust of the eyes or the pride of life but in the love of Christ God, maintain an inner asceticism, turning our mind and heart again and again away from the vanities of the world and towards the eternal things of Christ our God in His Holy Spirit, the beautiful and the good who are truly admirable, sought for, desired, pleasing, chosen and loved. Amen.

[1] 5th Cent. Of Various texts, §83, Philokalia II, 280.

[2] Ibid., §82, p. 280