2 Corinthians 6.1-10
Our Gospel this morning draws in the mind a beautiful icon of Our LORD Jesus Christ as we now set out from the Feast of the Cross on the Gospel’s inner Exodus through the wilderness of this life to the Gate of the Land of our inheritance. The Gate is the Cross and Tomb of the LORD’s Holy Passion. The Land of our inheritance is the Kingdom of Heaven; and, more precisely, it is the LORD Jesus Christ Himself. Partaking of His risen Body and Blood, we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt 1.4).
The image drawn in our mind in this morning’s Gospel shows the LORD standing where land and sea meet, the crowds pressing upon Him to hear, it says, the WORD of God. But Christ is Himself the WORD of God. With their ears, the crowds are touching as it were God Himself. Each word that comes from the LORD’s mouth carries Him Who Is Himself the WORD of God. Each WORD coming from His mouth is saturated with the Living Waters of His Holy Spirit. And so they are life-giving words, filled with the uncreated Light of God. They are going forth from the Mouth of the WORD of God now incarnate, Jesus Christ, into the darkness of our death and corruption, and they are filling the darkness of our death with the Light of God that is the Life of men, which the darkness of death cannot put out (Jn 1.3-4). The crowds are pressing upon Him because they long to receive the WORD of the LORD’s words of Life that illumine the soul.
The image of the LORD standing where earth and sea meet is of the LORD high and lifted up on the Cross. We see in this Gospel image of Christ standing by the sea, the Sun of Righteousness rising above the horizon where earth and heaven, the sea, meet. We see Him on the Cross drawing all men to Himself. He draws all men to Himself because the Exodus of His rising – following the Psalmist (Ps 18/19.6) – which proceeds from His Bridal Chamber (Ps 18/19.5) in the Tomb, in the midst of the earth (Ps 74.12) where He has united Himself to His Bride, the human soul, by His death on the Cross, and where He has poured out His Living Blood and the Living Waters of His Holy Spirit into the womb of His Bride’s heart that was dead in her sins and trespasses – the Exodus of His rising is from one end of the heavens to the other. It covers the whole heavens; it covers the whole earth, and, as the Psalmist says, “There is no one who is hidden from His warmth.” (Ps 18/19.6)
And what is this warmth of the Heavenly Bridegroom? The Psalmist, the Prophets, the holy apostles, the God-bearing fathers all tell us: it is His mercy and compassion and love for mankind. For He is the only Lover of Mankind; and He has denied Himself, emptied Himself; He has lost His own divine, uncreated Life for our sake that He might find His Life in our souls that have fallen into the darkness and misery of death so that we can find our life in His Resurrection.
Where the LORD is standing by the sea, then, is an image of Midnight, when the old is constantly trying to pass over into the new but always failing; because the old is our death, and the new it is trying to pass over to is eternal life. But whenever this worldly life bounded by death and corruption comes to that Midnight hour, it succeeds only in passing over into the same dead life it just left; in the great round that the blind call the ‘circle of life,’ 12.01 am is no different from 11.59 pm. There is no circle of life here; it is only the circle of death always circling round back to itself. The Midnight hour simply marks the passing over from the old day bounded by death and corruption to a new day bounded by death and corruption.
So we see in this morning’s Gospel an icon of the Heavenly Bridegroom coming to us at Midnight. Standing where the earth meets the sea, He is found at that spot within us where we long to come out of the darkness of death that surrounds us, like the sea that encircles the earth of our daily life in this world, and into the Boat of Christ’s Holy Church, His Body risen from the dead.
And the crowds are pressing upon Him to hear the WORD of God; they are being drawn to Him there by the Sea, the Gospel image of the LORD God incarnate high and lifted up on the Cross, drawing all men to Himself. For this Jesus alone has the words of Life. His words alone illumine the darkness and heal us of our uncleanness and from the miseries of death.
The words of the LORD’s teaching are living words, they are active, they are sharper than any two-edged sword. For they penetrate to the division of bone and marrow, of soul and spirit. They penetrate all the way into the unseen depths of our secret heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses, and they discern, they bring to light, all of our secret thoughts, all of our inmost intentions and hidden desires – not to judge us or to condemn us but to illumine us and to cleanse us, and to call us out of our darkness and into His marvelous Light (2 Pt 2.9), and to shine in our hearts with the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ, Our LORD, God and Savior.
He stepped into the boat, it says. If His standing where earth and sea meet is an image of His Cross, then His stepping into the boat must be an image of His being placed in the Tomb. That means, dear ones, that the LORD is found in the brilliance of His Holy Resurrection within us; but that means He is found not in our outward righteousness and beauty, but inside our heart where we are filled with hypocrisy, uncleanness and sin (Mt 23.27-28).
The LORD directs Simon to cast his boat into the deep and let down his nets for a catch. The boat is the Church, the mystery of Christ’s Body risen from the dead. How awesome is it that the LORD has given stewardship of His Body, the Boat of His Church, to men! Take your boat, He says to Simon, take your boat now the Church, united to My Body, take your boat out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.
Simon says, ‘By your word, I will let down our nets.’ From this, we may understand that the nets of Simon and his companions are the words of human language that have now been united to the WORD of the LORD incarnate, so that the words of the Church, given in the languages of the world, because they are united to the WORD of God incarnate, are powerful, saving, life-giving because they are filled with the Spirit of Christ.
Let down your nets for a catch. Proclaim the WORD of the Gospel. Only the WORD of the Gospel is powerful to penetrate to the depths of our soul. This is to say that we do not find the risen LORD Jesus Christ when we satisfy ourselves with the appearance of righteousness. We do not swim into the apostolic net of the Holy Spirit that would draw us up from our uncleanness and raise us up from death to life until we draw near the LORD in sincere confession and conceal nothing from Him.
For when we do acknowledge our sins and confess them, now we are swimming into the net of the LORD’s Holy Spirit and He, through His holy apostles, begins to draw us out of the waters and miseries of death and into the Boat of the Savior’s Church, His own Body that is risen from the dead. Now is when our healing begins. Now is when the renewing of our mind and the transformation of our soul begins; now our dying becomes a voluntary dying in the likeness of Christ’s voluntary death; it becomes a participation in the death of Christ and thereby a participation in His Holy Resurrection. For, in the nets of Christ’s Holy Church, death no longer has dominion over us. We live no more in the death of the world but in the death of Christ; and if we live in the death of Christ, we are living in the Resurrection of Christ. The Seed of His Resurrection begins to sprout and grow in us, and now our death becomes a trampling down of death by our death in our union with Christ in the likeness of His death.
In the vision of this morning’s Gospel icon, then, let us get serious about taking up our cross – the disciplines of prayer and fasting – and let us swim into the net of the Church by centering and anchoring our earthly life no more in the distractions and diversions of the world, filled with darkness and death, but in the rhythm of the Church’s worship filled with the Light and Life of Christ. In this way, we take up our Cross and we follow the LORD to lose our life for His sake in His Tomb, to find our life in His Holy Resurrection. Amen!
Shortly, we will venerate the Icon and sing the beautiful Hymn of Light: ‘Thy Bridal Chamber I see adorned, O my Savior; and I have no wedding garment that I may enter! O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me!’ What is the Bridal Chamber? What is the wedding garment?
Do you know that your Holy Baptism, when you were united to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection, is the Spiritual Marriage of the Church? Raised from the Font, the heavens were opened to you. You were clothed in the Robe of Light, which was Christ Himself. This is the ‘wedding garment.’ When you drew near the Chalice in the fear of God, with faith and love, you partook of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
From the moment of your baptism, when heaven was opened to you, have there not been moments in the worship of the Church when the beauty of the Church’s hymns and prayers, the fragrance of her incense, the serene countenance of the holy icons gazing down on you, the spiritual nobility and majesty of the Divine Liturgy, seized your soul and opened to you, if only for an instant, a spiritual Beauty not of this world, and there stirred within you, as it did in Solomon, a visceral love for that Beauty and a longing to make the Wisdom of God your spouse? (Wisd 8.2)
Might this be a vision of the bridal chamber that was opened to you at your baptism?
‘Thy Bridal Chamber I see adorned, O my Savior! And I have no wedding garment that I may enter!’ As Lazarus was clothed in grave clothes, soiled and stinking from his being four days in the tomb, do we not see, if ever a vision of the bridal chamber is opened to us, that we have no wedding garment? Our garments are soiled and stinking grave clothes.
The wedding garment that clothed us in our baptism is Christ the LORD. The LORD, says the Psalmist, is my life and my salvation. And St Paul says, Christ is my life. Christ Himself says to Mary and Martha: I am the Resurrection and the Life.
From this, we can see that the garment is an image of the life we are living; and there are two garments, two lives we may choose to live or choose to put on as we choose to put on a garment. There is the garment of the life of this world that is passing away, sewn with threads of corruption spun from the passions, from the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, from covetousness, which is idolatry. Its patterns and designs are cut out from the lustful thoughts and impure images, the fantasies and desires that occupy the mind.
Then there is the life of Christ, the wedding garment that clothed us in our baptism. If I have no wedding garment that I may enter the sacred bridal chamber of the Heavenly Bridegroom, can you see that it’s because I have given my soul to many husbands; I have chosen Caesar to be my king; I have given myself to the idols of the passions—gluttony, lust, greed, anger and the rest—and that the garments I have chosen to wear are the grave clothes of the corruption that is in the world through lust and covetousness?
‘Despising the divine commands, my soul,’ Mother Church calls out to us at Friday Matins of last week, ‘by thine own choice, thou hast surrendered thyself to corruption. Sunk in slumber through thy many trespasses, thou hast covered with filth the garment that God wove for thee, and made thyself unfit for the wedding of the King. Therefore, cry to the Savior: Tear in pieces my sackcloth and clothe me with gladness.’ (LTS 306)
You have chosen to come to this Bridegroom Matins service. You have chosen to come into the presence of the Bridegroom. You have chosen to draw near the Bridal Chamber; and the Bridegroom comes to us in our filthy grave clothes as He came to Lazarus in Bethany. I think we may say that in the beauty of these Bridegroom Matins, we hear Him crying to each one of us: ‘Come forth!’ Rouse yourself in the tomb of your heart. Hear, feel, the Bridegroom’s voice calling to you. Leave the grave clothes, the garment of this worldly life behind you. What keeps us from putting on the garment of the Savior’s divine commandments? Is it not our own choice to keep wearing the grave clothes of this life? I love those who love me, says the Bridegroom. Those who seek me diligently will find me! Nothing prevents us from choosing to heed the Bridegroom’s call, to rise up and come forth in the repentance of a broken and contrite heart, that the Bridegroom may illumine the vesture of our soul and save us and receive us, clothed again in the wedding garment of our baptism, into the Bridal Chamber of His Holy Resurrection. Amen!
Behold the Bridegroom comes at Midnight!’ Midnight is that ‘instant’ when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye,’ (1 Cor 15.52) the old passes away and the ‘dead are raised incorruptible, and we are changed.’ This change doesn’t just happen. It happens because the Bridegroom comes at Midnight and consummates His union with us, the children of flesh and blood, in the ‘bridal chamber.’ But the Church shows the Bridegroom consummating His union with us in the tomb. For there, having shared in our conception and birth through His Virgin Mother (Gal 4.4), He now shares in our death (Heb 2.14) in the flesh He received from Her, and it is in that instant that ‘we are changed.’
We find the divine mystery of Midnight, then, in the bridal chamber; and we find the bridal chamber in that ‘point’ in our inner man where we are dead. The bridal chamber, that is to say, is found in our heart, ‘for the real death is within, in the heart, and is concealed, and it is the inner man that perishes.’ [Macarius Hom XV.39, 125]
If the bridal chamber is in the heart, then it is in our true ‘self’; for ‘the heart is deep, beyond all things, and it is the man.’ [Jer 17.9] In the bridal chamber, then, we come upon our true self as the image of God. In this image, we yearn to attain to the likeness of God. And this character of the imago Dei which, as Origen wrote, constitutes our very essence, itself reveals that, by nature, we yearn to be one with the Bridegroom in the bridal chamber of our heart; but if Christ is Himself the Image of God in whom we came to be and in whom we move and have our being, then we are given to see that the bridal chamber of our heart comes to be and has its essence and movement from outside itself, in ekstasis, in the Bridal Chamber of the LORD Jesus Christ our God and Savior.
Illumined by the light of this doctrine of the Church, we begin to know ourselves. We see that the essential movement of our heart is the erotic yearning to belong not to ourselves but to the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight.
And so, when the mind that has caught the fragrance of the Bridegroom in its heart learns that the Bridegroom is coming at Midnight, it rouses itself. It hastens to descend into the bridal chamber of the heart to cry out: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy on me!’ For the soul, if she only knows about God in her head, she is still dead and her heart is still stone. The soul who longs to live is the soul who longs to know God directly; but ‘there is no direct knowledge of God without an exceedingly great love, and such love does not come from the head. It must come from the heart.’ [Art of Prayer 20] And so the soul hastens to descend with her mind into the bridal chamber of her heart, for she longs to receive Him and to cleave to Him, to become bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh, so that it is no longer she who lives but the Bridegroom who lives in her.
And the Bridegroom comes. He comes to us in our own flesh and blood through the woman [Gal 4.4]. He comes to us in the Bridal Chamber of the All-Holy Virgin’s sacred womb, in the inmost sanctuary of His Living Temple. Knitting Her pure blood into the ‘schema,’ the ‘garment’ of man [Phil 2.8], He clothed Himself in our flesh and blood and was no more ashamed to call us ‘brethren.’ [Heb 2.11]
And when the soul darkened and weighed down by her many sins, learns that He has come into the ‘house’ [Lk 7.37ff.] of her own flesh and blood [Heb 2.14], she comes to Him with an alabaster jar of perfume, and she stands behind Him weeping. She wets His pure feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. She kisses them, she pours perfume on them, and through her tears, she prays to Him softly: ‘Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior; but I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me!’
And the Savior, ‘spellbound as it were by goodness, love and longing, relinquishes His utter transcendence’ [St Maximos Philo 281] to the point of death on the Cross. Partaking of our death, the Bridegroom breathes out His Spirit on the Cross [exepneusen, Lk 23.46] and destroys the death that separated us from His love in the bridal chamber of our heart;’ [Heb 2.14-15, Rom 8.39]. His Body was ‘placed in the tomb,’ the Tomb was ‘changed’ into the Bridal Chamber, ‘and the Sabbath dawned,’ says St Luke [epephosken, Lk 23.54]. And in the Bridal Chamber of the LORD’s Tomb, the soul was enlightened, and the heart that before was a tomb sealed off by a stone was ‘changed’ in that instant into a bridal chamber and into a heart of flesh, a living heart!
The wedding garment? It is Christ Himself, whose Light we put on when we were raised from the Font, having united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. Can you see, then, that the Baptismal Font is the bridal chamber? And can you see that the Bridal Chamber is the Church? For the Church is Christ’s Body that He received from the pure blood of the Virgin, and in this Body, we are fashioned anew as children of God in the mystery of His Sabbath Rest, in the Tomb of our death that has received the Body of Him Who Is the Resurrection and the Life. When we pursue the Bridegroom in the baptismal Font, we receive His Seed into our dead, stony heart, and in that instant, our heart is ‘changed’ into a heart of flesh, a living heart; and we are ‘changed’ from children of blood born of the desires of the flesh into children of God born from above in the Love of the Holy Spirit.
From an ancient Christian text, we come upon this ancient biblical rubric of the Church: ‘By striving in the visible Church, we enter the invisible Church of the heart and the invisible Church of Heaven.’ (Liber Graduum XII) In the coming week, on the loom of this biblical rubric, we will weave the sights, sounds, movements, smells, all the elements of creation, both visible and invisible, into a wedding garment that can be seen, heard, smelled, and touched with the bodily senses. Who would not want to be clothed in this wedding garment who has caught the fragrance of the Bridegroom? For ‘He is the Beautiful and the Good whom all things seek at every opportunity, and there is no being who does not participate in Him, and He attracts the [erotic] desire of all who are drawn towards Him, and He thirsts to be thirsted for, He longs to be longed for, and He loves to be loved!’ [Philo II 280-81]
And if we would clothe the hidden man of the heart with the death of Christ made visible for us in the rites of Holy Week, then would we come invisibly into that ‘Midnight’ when the Bridegroom comes, and we are changed. We become like the children with the palms of victory. They are the emblems of the Cross of Christ our King. And on Pascha Night, we follow, mystically, our King who goes forth from the Tomb like a Bridegroom in procession. He is raising us from our graves and bringing us to our own land into the Jerusalem on high as His prophets foretold. [Eze 37.13-14]
For, if we have received into the bridal chamber of our heart, in the sacramental mysteries of the Church, the Seed of the ‘heavenly man,’ then we carry the Bridegroom’s death in our mortal body. [2 Cor 4.10] That is, we carry the Bridegroom’s love in our body—for His death is the supreme manifestation, the final Incarnation of His extreme humility and compassion in which He created the world, and in which He recreated it when we had fallen. And if we tend that Seed and cultivate it through the ascetical disciplines of the Church, the Cross of Christ the Church gives us to take up if we want to follow Him—for they are the ‘flower of abstinence that grows from the wood of His Cross’ [LT 231]—then yearning for the Bridegroom begins to grow in us into a tree of life, and love for the Bridegroom begins to reign in our mortal bodies. We tend that Seed by taking up the ascetical disciplines of the Church, our cross, our ‘palm of victory.’ By the Grace of the Holy Spirit that shines in them, we strive to be obedient to sin and its carnal desires no more. We strive to lose our life for His sake; that is, in our love for the Bridegroom, we now present our bodies to Him as instruments of righteousness and no more to sin as instruments of unrighteousness. [Rm 6.12-13] Now the Bridegroom’s death is swallowing our death; now our mortal and perishable bodies are putting on the immortal and imperishable ‘wedding garment’ of the Bridal Chamber; now the Life of the Bridegroom begins to manifest itself even now in our mortal bodies [2 Cor 4.10]. It manifests itself in the hope that begins to form in us from the Seed of God’s love poured out into our hearts in the Bridal Chamber of His Holy Church. This is a real and living hope; and it is the pledge of our inheritance, which is our own land that is not of this world. It is the kingdom of heaven with all its glorious riches, found through the doors of Midnight in the deep, beyond all things, in our deep heart, in the mystery of the bridal chamber. Amen!