48 Where Eagles Gather - Aug 12, 2007

I Corinthians 9:2-12

Matthew 8:23-35


We have entered the beautiful season of that 40 day period of the Cross that begins with the Feast of Transfiguration on Aug 6, and ends with the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross on Sept 14. In this Lenten-like season, we celebrate the pascha, the passover, of the Theotokos from her death in the Lord to her nativity as a daughter of God. In this blessed pascha of the Theotokos, we pass over into a new Church Year as though rising from the waters of our baptism when we are united to the likeness of Christ’s holy resurrection; and in the joy of the Theotokos, we take up our Cross in the Elevation of the Cross, and we begin another liturgical journey on that better and changeless path that ascends to the Pascha of the Lord.

In the wonderful movement of this liturgical icon of the Church, which transfigures the movement of time into an icon of our baptism and of the holy Theotokos holding in her womb the crucified and risen Lord, we come this morning to this Gospel of the parable of the unforgiving servant. The heavenly Father, moved to anger against the servant who would not forgive as he had been forgiven, hands him over to the torturers until he should repay all his debt. Having concluded his parable, the Savior turns to his disciples and to us, and he says sternly: “So my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In my meditation on this morning’s Gospel, I have been drawn to the Gospels assigned for our reading on Thursday and Friday last. On both days, we read this strange saying of the Lord recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew: “Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles gather.”[1] From a quick study of this word, eagle, as it occurs in the OT, I am led to believe that this evangelical koan is a riddle whose solution is the key for opening up to us the deeper, spiritual meaning of the Savior’s hard saying to us in this morning’s Gospel: “So my heavenly Father will do to you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

In the prophets, the eagle is associated with the Lord’s judgment against Israel. From the prophet Hosea: “Like an eagle the enemy comes against the house of the Lord, because they have transgressed my covenant, and rebelled against my law.”[2] And the prophet Jeremiah says of Babylon: “Behold, he goes up [against Israel] like clouds, and his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles. Woe to us, for we are ruined!”[3] It is the Lord, of course, who is speaking through the prophets. It is therefore no surprise, when he becomes incarnate and speaks to us no longer through the prophets but directly that he should again take up the image of the eagle when warning about the final judgment. He says: “For as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be. Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather.”[4]

It is clear, then, that this evangelical koan: “Where the carcass is, there the eagles gather,” can be rendered: “Where there is death, there is judgment.” It means that we are under judgment, for we all are subject to death. Our bodies are but future corpses. Therefore, we are the carcass round which the eagles – the judgment of God – gather.

This riddle of the Lord takes us back to the very beginning, to his words to Adam and Eve in the Garden when he gave them the command: “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.”[5] Now the riddle is answered like this: “Where there is death there is transgression. Therefore, where there is death, there is judgment for transgression.”

In monastic literature, the Garden of Eden represents the heart. In the heart of the heart stands the Tree of Life. In the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we learn that the Tree of Life is the Cross, and that Christ is the fruit of the Tree of Life, for Christ is said in the Feast of the Elevation to be carried by the Cross like a cluster of grapes full of life. St Maximus says that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the tree of death, for it is opposite the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life represents the center of the heart, whence flow the springs of life, as the Proverbs say,[6] or the living waters of the Holy Spirit, as the Savior says on Pentecost.[7] The tree of good and evil represents the center of the belly. The life that flows from the fruit of the Tree of Life, from the heart, is not ‘good and evil’ but ‘good and very good,’ because it is the life of God whose animating principle is love. The good of the tree of good and evil is not the goodness of God; for, it is intertwined with evil. Its goodness is only skin-deep, the surface beauty that delights the eyes and appeals to vanity and self-love, and seeks not after the good of the neighbor or the will of God, but seeks after sensual comfort and pleasure for oneself, and to do one’s own will. The fruit of the tree of knowledge is the good of pleasure intertwined with the evil of pain, and so you cannot partake of the good of the tree of good and evil, you cannot indulge in the sensual comforts and pleasures of this life without partaking also of its evil: the evil of pain ending in the pain and suffering of death. 

Therefore, when we chase after the delightful appearance of the fruit of this life of good and evil, we fall away from our heart and we descend into our belly. There, we are immersed in the sea of this worldly life, the sea of forgetfulness and ignorance of God, a sea surging with the storm of temptations where outbursts of passion – lust, gluttony, anger, greed – trouble us and fill our souls with great despondency.[8] We become sick, ailing in soul and body.

I said that in monastic literature, the Garden of Eden represents the heart. Therefore, expelled from the Garden, we have been expelled from our heart. Having partaken of the fruit of the serpent’s tree, we have fallen outside of the Garden, outside of our heart. We live in our belly, in the coils of the serpent, and in the passions of lust and greed, anger and hate. In the depths of the belly, the enemy, the Evil One, persecutes us, so the Psalmist cries out. He crushes our life to the ground. He has made us to dwell in darkness, like those who have been long dead. Our spirit is overwhelmed within us. Our heart is appalled within us. We have become like those going down to the pit.[9]

From Scriptures like these, it seems clear to me at least that when the Lord says that the father handed the unforgiving servant over to the torturers until he should repay all his debt, he is talking about us in the body of this worldly life. Cast out of the Garden of Eden, our heart, we no longer live in our heart; we live in the outer man, our belly. The belly, the outer man, has become our prison. In this life of the belly that grows from the seeds of that fruit of good and evil, we are tortured by the evils of this worldly life as the flip side of that fruit of good and evil. We are caught in the coils of the serpent and our life in this world is centered on death that empties all our plans and hopes of any meaning or purpose. And we will not escape this prison until we have paid all that we owe. And what do we owe God? We owe him our life; for it was he who raised us up from nothing into existence, who fashioned us from the clay and breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life. Therefore, we are the carcass round which the eagles gather. We live under the judgment of God’s wrath against us.

For we have transgressed God’s command to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and our neighbor as being ourselves. Instead, we love our body, we love our own ego, with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind; and we love ourselves as being ourselves. Our neighbor we hate, unless he loves us. We are good only to those who are good to us. This is the love and goodness not of the Tree of Life but of the serpent’s tree, the good that is but the outer face of evil, like a whitewashed tomb that is beautiful on the outside but full of stench on the inside. Having partaken of the fruit of the serpent, who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning, we have become like Cain. We are liars and murderers, murdering our neighbor in hateful words if not in deed – and oftentimes in deed, too.

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have each one turned to his own way.[10] We have by our own choice centered ourselves not in our heart but in our belly. We have stirred up the judgment of God’s wrath against us. He made us living souls but we, by our choice, have made ourselves to be living corpses until that dread day when we shall no longer be living but only a corpse. And, where the corpse is, there the eagles gather. Where there is death, there is God’s judgment against us – for where there is death, there is transgression of God’s command: “On the day you eat of the tree of good and evil, on that day you will die.”

So when the Lord says we must forgive from our heart he is showing us how to escape God’s judgment against us. But when he says to forgive from the heart, I believe he is talking about much, much more than even sincere sentiment; for we are talking here about life and death which is much deeper than sentiment however sincere it might be. I believe the Lord is saying that we must get back to the Garden of Eden. And how can we possibly do that? Obviously, it doesn’t mean feeling sincerely; it means becoming again living souls. But we are dead in our transgressions, says St Paul. How can a corpse, even a sincerely feeling living corpse, give life to itself? Life comes not from us but from the Holy Spirit of God. So, what is this way of escape the Lord is showing to us when he says we must forgive from our heart?

In the prophetic literature, the eagle is associated not only with God’s judgment, but also with God’s deliverance. For example, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,” the Lord says to Israel through his prophet Moses, “and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.”[11] He is speaking, of course, of the crossing of the Red Sea – the Passover of the Lord. In the mystery of Christ, this event reveals an inner meaning: the death of God the Word himself, who, in his death on the Cross, took upon himself the iniquity of us all. So says Isaiah the prophet.[12] By oppression and judgment he was taken away[13] – and when he was taken away, the judgment of God against us was taken away.

The Church is the body of Christ. She is the crucified and risen body of Christ. Round the Church, the eagles that gather are the eagles of God’s deliverance, because the corpse of the Church is the corpse of God’s body that was crucified for our sake and by whose death was cancelled the judgment written against us. The corpse of the Church is the body of those who through their baptism, through their entering into the mystery of the crossing of the Red Sea, have died in Christ and who, in their death in Christ, have passed over to the other side, the side of the Resurrection. It is not so much that we escape God’s judgment in the Church; for we still die. It is rather that when we are made members of Christ’s body, his holy Church, the eagles of God’s judgment against us are transfigured into the eagles of God’s deliverance of us in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In the words of St Paul that we read on Friday, our death is transfigured into the perishing of the old man; and in this death we do not lose heart – because, in fact, we gain our heart; for, by the Cross of the Savior, we gain entrance again to the Garden of Eden and to the Tree of Life. “For, though our outer man is decaying – or perhaps, precisely because our outer man is decaying – our inner man is being renewed day by day”[14] – like the eagle, as the Psalmist says.[15]

For, when in our baptism and chrismation, and in the partaking of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Eucharist, we are incorporated into the body of Christ, his holy Church, we are united to that very body of God that was nailed to the Cross and shattered the gates of hell, destroying death by his death, and so transfigured the Cross into the Tree of Life that has been plunged into the belly of this world, reaching all the way into the abyss of hell so that we who were trapped in the dark coils of the serpent might take up the cross, might exalt it and elevate it, and by dying with the blessed Theotokos in the Lord, ascend to the other side of the Red Sea, the other side of the Jordan, and come into the Promised Land of the Kingdom in the mystical wonder of Christ’s holy resurrection.

This suggests that we are able to forgive from the heart in the way the Lord commands only as we deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to die in the Lord. And how do we do this? We simply do what the Church, the body of Christ, tells us to do. We submit our mind to her teaching; our bodies – our hands and our feet, our eyes, our ears – to her ascetic disciplines; our souls and our mouths to her prayers and her liturgical worship; our hearts to the commandments of Christ. And the Church herself, the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all, will raise us up from our belly and into the center of our heart whence flow the springs of life, the living waters of God’s Holy Spirit.

With this Gospel of Glad Tidings as our joy and our hope, let us come before God, laying aside every excuse, acknowledging that we have sinned against him and that he is blameless in his judgment against us. And in this humble confession of our sins, let us enter in spirit into the mystery of the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos so that, dying with her in her “yes” to God, we may be raised up with her in her nativity as children of God. Reaching the other side of her passover, we take up our Cross and, mounting up with wings like eagles,[16] we pass over in the body of Christ, his holy Church, from God’s judgment to God’s deliverance, to him who by his grace that is good, so very good, grants us to be with him in Paradise to partake no more of the fruit of good and evil but of the fruit of the Tree of Life, Christ our God. And, forgiving even those that hate us in the joy of Christ’s Holy Pascha, we are born from above as children of God, raised up from the dead to become communicants of life eternal in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit in the Kingdom of our heavenly Father. Amen.

[1] Mt 24:28

[2] Hos 8:1

[3] Jer 4:13-14

[4] Mt 24:27-28

[5] Gn 2:17

[6] Prov 4:23

[7] Jn 7:38

[8] From the Akathist to the Theotokos

[9] Ps 143

[10] Isa 53:6

[11] Ex 19:4

[12] Isa 53:6

[13] Isa 53.8

[14] II Cor 4:17-18

[15] Ps 103:5

[16] Isa 40:31