42 - The Door, July 15, 2012

Romans 12:6-14

Matthew 9:1-8

Jn 10:1-1-9 (St Vladimir)

John 17:1-13 (Fathers of First Six Ecumenical Councils)

This morning, let’s reflect on the three Gospels assigned for today starting with the Gospel of St John. In His parable, Our Lord speaks of the “sheepfold” of the sheep who know and heed His voice – i.e., who obey His commandments. The Greek word translated as “sheepfold” is of a significance that belies its apparent ordinariness. This word seems, in fact, to be the key that opens onto the heavenly vision of the bible that the Savior’s parable presupposes. The word is “court” or “courtyard” (aulh). In the agrarian context of the Savior’s parable, It refers to the uncovered courtyard that surrounds the house outside where sheep and cattle and other farm animals would be kept; but, it also is the word for the central courtyard, covered or uncovered, within the house, reserved, of course, for the master of the house, his family and special guests.

But the word has a religious meaning, too; and here it opens onto the bible’s heavenly vision. It refers to the several courtyards of the temple in Jerusalem. The outer courtyards are for the different categories of people, depending on their ritual cleanliness. Those least ritually clean are confined to the outermost courtyards of the temple. The inner courtyard of the temple, of course, is only for the priests.

The Savior’s parable of the sheepfold, then, evokes not only the image of an ordinary house but more significantly the temple, God’s House, where God dwells, laid out in several different courts of increasing intimacy to the Master of the House, God Himself, as one passes from the outer to the inmost courtyard, the Holy of Holies.

So also, because it is in direct continuity with the temple of Jerusalem, an Orthodox Church is laid out in several courts. The outermost courtyard is the narthex where the unbaptized and penitents would stand in the first centuries of the Church’s history. The inner court, the nave, is where the faithful preparing to receive Holy Communion would stand. The innermost court is the sanctuary where the priests who are preparing the gifts stand, together with the deacons, the sub-deacons and acolytes who assist them. And within the sanctuary, there is yet another court: the “Holy of Holies”, i.e. the altar on which the bloodless sacrifice is offered, and the area that immediately surrounds it, extending through the Royal Doors, an unmarked but palpably felt area which none but the bishop, his priests and deacons and sub-deacons may enter.

When Our Lord speaks of the “sheepfold”, i.e., the “outer courtyard”, we may take it as a veiled reference to the layout of the temple. But, if this is the case, there is more that needs to be set before us before we can begin to uncover the profound lessons veiled in the imagery of the Savior’s parable.

It is from studying the holy fathers of the Church that I have been led to see that the bible very clearly reveals a spiritual connection, even a unity between the inner court or Holy of Holies of the temple and the summit of Mt Sinai where God gives the Law to Moses. And, Mt Sinai and the Holy of Holies open spiritually onto the summit of Golgotha, where Christ is crucified, and the mountain of Paradise, Eden, so that the altar of an Orthodox Christian temple, since it is one with the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, as it opens mystically, or spiritually, onto the mystery of Mt Sinai and the mountain of Paradise, opens also onto the Cross of Christ and the Tree of Life, whose fruit is Christ, given as food and drink to the faithful who draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love.

It suddenly comes into view that the door of the “sheepfold”, or of the outer courtyard to which Our Lord refers in this parable, is His holy tomb, the Holy Sepulcher. Jesus says that He Himself is the Door through which anyone who enters will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture (v.9) – i.e. His own body and blood that He gives as food and drink unto eternal life. That is to say, the door of the sheep, Christ, is the mystery of His Holy Pascha. We enter into the “courtyard” of the holy temple, which is the body of Christ, His Holy Church, only as we put on Christ in Holy Baptism; and we put on Christ only as we unite ourselves to Him daily in the likeness of His death. Dying in Christ daily, denying ourselves every moment and every hour, making no provision for the lusts of the flesh that we should act out its lusts (Rom 13:14) in constant inner vigilance and unceasing prayer, taking up our Cross to follow Christ – this is how we come into the “courts” of the Lord’s temple, His Holy crucified and risen Body, His Holy Church, and find green pasture, eternal life.

The Blessed Lord Jesus speaks of calling His sheep by their name, and leading them out, (vv. 3&4), going before them. One thinks immediately of Christ calling creation into being from out of nothing, of leading the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land, and of raising the dead to life in His Holy Resurrection. In other words, Christ the true Shepherd calls out to His own (Jn 1:11) to follow Him on an ascent up to the Tree of Life at the summit of Eden as up to Mt Tabor, to transfigure them from children of flesh and blood into children of God.

All of this is reflected in the way an Orthodox Christian Church is laid out in concentric courtyards. As one passes through the courtyards from the narthex to the sanctuary, one is ascending with Christ up the mountain of Sinai, of Zion, of Tabor, of Golgotha that open onto the Tree of Life at the summit of Paradise, to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life, Christ God Himself, in the sacred mystery of Holy Communion.

Can I say again, now, that the Christian Faith is not a school of thought, not a code of ethics, not even one of several world religions? The Christian Faith is an ascent from nothing to existence, from death to immortality, from earth to heaven, from darkness to light. It is the entrance through Christ the Door and into the courts of the Lord with thanksgiving, eucharistia, and praise (Ps 100:4) – i.e., with joy and love for Christ God who first loved us and gave Himself for us, and opened the gates of Paradise to us in the sacred mystery of His Holy Pascha so that we could become one even as Christ and the Father are one. (Jn 17:11)

The visible layout of the Christian temple – laid out in the different “sheepfolds” or courtyards of the narthex, the nave, the sanctuary and the altar within the sanctuary – is itself the outer court that opens onto the inner court of our soul. When we enter the outer court of the visible worship of the Church with reverence, in the fear of God with faith and love, then the worship of the Church, in her visible and audible and material dimensions, opens onto the inner court of our soul where we hear the still, small voice of Christ the true Shepherd calling us into the innermost courtyard of our heart to become one with Him in the likeness of His death and resurrection.

This voice of Christ is the Word of His command that called the creation from nothing into existence. It called Israel out of bondage in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. It calls those in the tombs from death to life in the glory of His Holy Pascha. It called the paralytic in this morning’s Gospel from his bed of paralysis to health even as it cleanses his soul from all his sins and transgressions. Do you see that the voice of Christ is full of healing power? In the words and sounds of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship that same voice falls on each of us standing this morning here in the court, the “sheepfold” of the Lord’s temple. All the words of the Church, because they are words of Christ who is the Word of God, carry the healing power of Christ that can heal the paralysis of our soul even as it cleanses us of our sins and raises us from death to life, so that, if we want to, we can receive that word; and, in the fear of God, with the faith and the love that are raised up from its healing power, we can, if we want to, take up our bed, our cross – these are the ascetic disciplines of the Church – and draw near to Christ in the innermost courtyard of our heart. Once our heart was a tomb; but now, by Christ’s Holy Pascha, it opens onto Paradise as onto the central courtyard of the house of our body and soul in the glorious mystery of His Holy Church. For, He has transfigured the inmost courtyard of our heart by His death on the Cross and His three day burial, and He has made it into a green pasture where grows the wheat of the Bread of Life, a bridal chamber where we become one with God, born from above as children of God. Amen.