|48 Afterfeast of the Transfiguration - Aug 10, 2008|
I Corinthians 1:10 – 18
Matthew 14:13 – 22
St Matthew tells us that the crowds found Jesus in the desert because that’s where he withdrew when he heard of the murder of his cousin John the Baptist by Herod. If we read this on a literal level we might infer that Jesus withdrew to the desert to hide from Herod. But for one thing, it doesn’t say that he withdrew to the desert to hide; and for another thing, the Scriptures are a spiritual book and there is always more than the literal narrative to a Gospel story. To sound the spiritual depths of this morning’s Gospel’s we must reflect upon it within the setting of the worship of the Church.
The bible seems always to be taking us away from the city and into the desert to meet God. Abraham meets God in the desert and receives the covenant that made him the father of many nations. The Israelites follow Moses into the desert and encounter God at Mt Sinai and receive the Law. The prophets of the OT repeatedly call faithless Israel back to the desert to renew her covenant with God. John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, came preaching and baptizing in the desert of Judea. Against this biblical backdrop, we should recall that Jesus was crucified outside the city in a place whose name denotes barrenness and death, like a desert: Golgotha, the place of a skull.
You can see clearly now that there is spiritual significance to Jesus’ withdrawal into a desert place when he hears of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod. What is it?
Created in the image and likeness of God, man lives naturally in God. According to monastic texts, the Garden of Eden reflects the fullness of life in man’s heart when he lives in God according to his nature. It is in his heart, his personal center, that man turns away from God to follow after his own will rather than the will of God. Being cast out of the Garden reflects how man has been cast out of the fullness of life in God that is most natural to him. It reflects the profound schizophrenia that is the result of sin; in his heart man is split off from himself. In a sense he is cast out of his own heart. Separated from God and from the fullness of life in God that is most natural to him, man becomes in his heart lifeless and barren like a desert. The desert, then, is a symbol of our heart that has turned away from God. In this light, it is clearly not just mere literary device that God is always found in the desert. He is found in our heart that has become barren like a desert. The bible leads us into the desert because it wants to bring us back to God who has come to meet us in our heart and to restore us to wholeness and to that life in him that is most natural to us. Jesus withdraws into the desert; this is an icon of his descending into hell to look for each one of us, the one lost sheep, like the woman turning her house upside down looking for the one lost coin, and the merchant selling all that he has for the pearl of great price – our heart. Christ goes into the desert looking for us and to call us back to himself in repentance. In the terms of this morning’s Gospel, he is calling out to us to turn around, to repent, and to come away from the city and into the desert of our heart, to confront the fact of our inner barrenness and our profound spiritual schizophrenia, and to submit ourselves to his healing touch that makes the desert to blossom like the rose, so that he can raise us up to live again in his Holy Spirit and to become partakers of the food that is most natural and most nourishing to us: the Living Bread and the Cup of Life of his holy Eucharist, his own body and blood which he gives to us in his holy Church, his body.
But we have each gone our own way. We have not listened to the call of God and we have become forgetful and finally ignorant of God, altogether worldly, altogether “citified”. In our ignorance, we have sought to escape the emptiness of our heart by coming out of the desert to live in the city. In our heart, we chase after the glamour of lust and vanity in the hope of finding life – but one day it must dawn on us that we are still in the desert. I have shared with you my impression of “the strip”, as it is called in Las Vegas, when my wife and I were there a few weeks ago to visit my daughter and her fiancé. Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert, and “the strip” dazzles with lights that are brightest, of course, at night. The night sky surrounds the lights of Vegas there in the middle of the desert. The image of the ocean comes to mind. The lights of Vegas hold the night sky at bay like the dikes of Amsterdam hold back the sea - until the electricity fails, and then the night sweeps over the strip like a tidal wave. Even with the lights of Vegas sparkling in all their brilliance, you could say that the night reflects the spiritual emptiness and darkness that broods in the heart of all the pleasures offered to lust and vanity beneath those lights. The lights and pleasures of Vegas can make you forget about the night and that you are in the desert; but even so, you are still in the night and you are still in the desert. So also, the diversions and escapes we indulge in hoping to keep the ache of our inner emptiness at bay can make us forget for a time about the loneliness in our heart, but they cannot for all that take us out of the desert. Our inner emptiness and darkness are still there, surrounding us without and filling us from within.
Perhaps now we begin to discern the spiritual light that surrounds and fills this morning’s Gospel text. St Matthew says that when Jesus heard of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod, he withdrew from there by boat into a desert place, alone. Read in the setting of the Church’s liturgical worship, one sees these earthly movements of the God-man opening onto and making visible, like an icon, the inner history of every human soul and the unfathomable depths of God’s mercy. The desert place he comes into is the Garden of Eden, the human heart that has become desolate like a desert. He comes alone because no one else is there: all have sinned, no one is righteous. We are all exiles wandering the streets of the city outside the Garden, outside the desert of our heart. For, having renounced slavery to God, we have become slaves to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life as the Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Unsettled, driven by the vague unease of vanity, we wander the city streets from one diversion to another, from one street light to another, trying in every way to stay out of the desert, looking for we no longer know what and so easily seduced by anything that has the appearance of light, all the while mindless of the fact that wherever we go and whatever we do, under whatever street light we place ourselves, we cannot get away from our heart; the desert of the night and the ache of our heart is always surrounding us without and filling us from within.
St Matthew says that the Savior withdrew by boat into a desert place. In the spiritual light of the Church, we easily understand the boat as an icon of his Incarnation that was brought about by his conception of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. For she is the boat; the Church calls her the ark of the covenant because she carries the Christ as the ark carried the covenant – and the covenant, of course, is Christ. She gives to him his human body, and his body is the Church. In his body, the Church, he comes into the desert, into our hearts, today. In his body, the Church, he looks on us with compassion and from her holy altar, he calls out us to come away from the city, away from vanity and lust to be with him where he is: in the Church, in the desert, in our heart that he has made to blossom like a rose. In the Church, he heals our spiritual schizophrenia and makes us whole. And then he gives us his body and blood as our food in the mystery of his Holy Eucharist; we become partakers of the divine nature, living in God according to our nature. He takes the bread, baked from the wheat grown in the gardens of the earth and he blesses it and makes it holy. He unites it to himself as he unites our humanity to himself in his incarnation, and he transfigures it as he transfigured our humanity. He fills the consecrated bread in the same way he filled our humanity with the radiance of the splendor of his divinity as the disciples bore witness on the holy Mountain. The bread grown from the garden of man that we offer to him becomes his body, and we who receive it as our daily bread become his body; we become his holy Church. Having partaken of his body and blood, having become members of his body, we too are surrounded without and filled from within by the uncreated light and the divine life of his Holy Spirit that fills his body, the Church, and the desert of our heart blossoms like a rose.
Now, we understand that when Jesus withdrew and went by boat into a desert place, he wasn’t fleeing at all. He was going deeper into the heart of Adam and Eve, all the way into hell and into the desert of our heart to heal our schizophrenia at its root in hell, to deliver us from bondage to the enemy, to destroy death by his death and to bestow life upon those in the tombs. If we are not healed it’s because we have chosen not to repent, not to leave the city of our vanity and our conceit, our lust and our greed, in order to come out into the desert of our heart, to confront the darkness and the emptiness of our soul – and to encounter the Word of God incarnate, the light of God shining in the darkness of our heart, who has come to us in the boat of his holy Church to make the desert of our heart blossom like a rose and to clothe us with his Holy Spirit, the Robe of Light.
We are still this morning in the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration. “Today,” the Church cries out on the feast, “Christ on Mt Tabor wast transfigured and hast made the nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Christ’s own divinity.” The Church is the body, the humanity of Christ that shines as lightning and that is filled with glory and that has been made godlike in the mystery of his incarnation. The Word that washes over us in holy Baptism and that we receive into our mouths in holy Eucharist is this Word of Christ that sounds forth from his body, his holy Church. This Word is filled with the splendor of his divine glory and it can make our nature that had grown dark in Adam to shine again as lightning, transforming it into the glory and splendor of Christ’s own divinity, if we want it to. And so Christ warns his disciples – beware the leaven of the Pharisees. Beware the words of self-righteousness. Beware the words your own wisdom. Beware that religious zeal for God that is not according to knowledge, but seeks to establish itself in its own righteousness, in the wisdom of its own opinions. Those are the words of the city and they do not lead you into the desert. The words of human religious opinion are words of self-importance. They are the words of the city and they produce schism, as St Paul says in this morning’s epistle. They deepen, they do not heal our spiritual schizophrenia. They are not the Word of God that goes by boat into the desert of your heart, and that heals your infirmities when Christ was crucified for you outside the city and that raised you up to life eternal in holy baptism beyond the grave, and made you a communicant of life eternal. Take note that in the Gospel no self-righteous scribe or Pharisee was healed by Christ; and those scribes and Pharisees who came to John the Baptist in their self-righteousness were not baptized but rebuked by the Forerunner.
The Feast of Transfiguration (Aug 6) began a liturgical season that will conclude forty days later in the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on Sept 14. Within this Lenten-like period, the Church passes over from the old year to a new Church year. The old year concludes with the feasts of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos and the beheading of John the Baptist. The New Year opens with the feasts of the birth of the Theotokos as the child, the daughter of God, and, following the Elevation of the Cross on Sept 14, the conception of John the Baptist on Sept 23. In her liturgical worship the Church transfigures time into a moving icon of baptism. We leave the old year as though descending into the font and dying with the Theotokos and John the Baptist in the Lord. We come to the evening of the year, sitting at the feet of the Savior, receiving his healing touch in the mysteries of the Church and listening to the Word of his teaching as did the faithful in this morning’s Gospel. We enter the New Year of the Church as though rising from the baptismal font, born from above as children of God like the Theotokos and then rising to take up our Cross under the preaching of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord in repentance, to make straight his paths that will take us from the barrenness of the city and into the desert that has been made to blossom like a rose in the Pascha of the Savior. Through prayer and fasting and by observing these transitional feasts of the Church in the fear of God, with faith and love, we enter in time the New Church Year while we step in our mind and heart onto that better and changeless path of the Church that ascends to God and that takes us away from the city and into the desert, up the holy mountain and into the splendor of Christ’s divine glory that fills his holy Church and that has changed the darkened nature of Adam and filled it with brightness and made it like God. By forsaking the city of our own wisdom and our own religious opinions, in other words, and by making our way into the desert where Christ is, submitting to the Word of God that sounds forth from his holy Church, our nature that has grown dark in Adam can begin to shine again as lightning, and in the joy of the feasts we pass over with his holy Mother and the Forerunner beyond even the desert that now blossoms like a rose. We pass over and are translated in the mystery of his holy Ascension into his incorruptible Heavenly Kingdom of Light and Life. Amen. May the Joy of the Feasts be with you!