The LORD cleansing the ten lepers in our Gospel this morning sets before us what it is to be baptized into the Orthodox Faith. It is not exchanging one set of ideas for another, or adopting one set of religious practices over another. It is to be cleansed of the passions that eat away at our soul like leprosy eats away the skin. It is to become a new creation, a child of God born of the Spirit; it is to be transfigured, transformed, to be restored to our ‘original beauty’ in the image and likeness of God.
Descend with your mind in the quietude of prayer into the inner closet of your soul. Lay aside all self-justification. Strive to look at yourself as you really are – but do not let yourself give in to despair. In the presence of the compassionate Judge, the LORD Jesus Christ who comes to us as a little Child and judges us in the mercy of His Cross, let the eyes of your mind delineate the passions that seem to have become the substance of your soul as leprosy becomes the substance of a leper’s skin. What passions do you see that have become the ‘skin’ of your spirit? Sloth, indifference to the Spirit, lust for the flesh, malice, anger, hatred, envy, despair, to name but a few?
When I descend into my soul and I see how the passions, for example, of carnality and anger and malice and hatred have become the skin of my soul, I can despair, for I see that I can no more cleanse myself of the leprosy of these passions than a corpse can raise itself to life.
Now it gets serious. One is no longer satisfied with outward religiosity. One desires to get beneath the ideas; they cannot cleanse the leprosy of my passions. They cannot make me a new creation or put in me a new and right spirit.
Hear the Gospel, the Good News, of Christmas, Theophany, and Pascha! God is with us! Indeed, He has become a sharer with us in our flesh and blood. He entered a certain village, it says. Might we understand this theologically to mean that He entered the spiritual leper colony in which all we lepers live?
Let’s number ourselves with the ten lepers who met Him even as they stood afar off, crying out: ‘Jesus, LORD, have mercy on us!’ For, when I descend with my mind into the closet of my soul, and cry out: ‘LORD, Jesus, have mercy on me!’ I can feel myself in my soul coming to meet Jesus; but it is my spiritual leprosy that feels near to me. The LORD Jesus feels very far from me; or rather, I feel far from Him because I am so unclean, so leprous and sinful.
But let us not wallow in self-pity or despair. Let’s receive His command to the ten lepers this morning as His command to us lepers, and resolve to act on it: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priest,’ He says. I believe the soul can feel what the LORD’s command means. I myself find my soul wanting immediately to go to the priest in the sacrament of confession to cry out to the priest who makes the LORD’s spiritual presence visibly and physically concrete to me: ‘LORD, Jesus, have mercy on me! See my leprosy. See how the passions have become the substance of my soul. See how I am a spiritual corpse absolutely unable to raise myself to life, a spiritual leper absolutely unable to cleanse myself of this leprosy!’ I long to identify and articulate every passion that has become the skin of my soul, that has eaten away at my soul making me all shriveled and dark and ugly. But, alas! The leprosy of the passions is too deep, too subtle. I cannot make them all out, even though I can feel them eating away at me. I cannot name them or articulate them. My heart is desperately corrupt beyond all things (Jer 17.9); its corruption is too deep for me to penetrate. All I can say, in desperation, is: ‘LORD, have mercy on me!’
‘Go, show yourselves to the priest.’ I think there may be a theological irony here, intentional. For, the priest in the temple was but a ‘copy’ of the Heavenly Pattern, the Great High Priest who is Jesus Himself. If I go to show myself to the priest in the Church, I am going to the man who makes visible by his ordination to the sacramental priesthood the invisible mystery of the LORD Jesus Christ, the eternal Great High Priest.
There is a power in the Orthodox Church’s sacramental mysteries of the priesthood, confession, baptism, chrismation, holy Eucharist, the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the power to cleanse us from all our spiritual leprosy. This power is not from us. We cannot generate it or manufacture it. We can only receive it, for it comes to us from above. It comes to us from the Tomb of the LORD’s Resurrection.
And let us understand – because this is absolutely serious business – that I come into this power of Christ’s Holy Spirit through prayer in the way of the Church. That is, by descending with my mind into my heart, laying aside every excuse, every self-justification, every accusation, in order to stand before the merciful Judge in my soul all leprous and sinful.
Dear faithful, sooner or later, the ascetical effort to come into the presence of the LORD not in my head but with my mind in my heart must awaken my soul’s heartfelt cry, ‘LORD, have mercy on me! I am all leprous and sinful. I am darkened, I am weak, my heart is a spiritual corpse.’ Contrition, brokenness of heart – a contrition and brokenness, however, that do not engender despair but hope – these are the marks that I am ‘going to show myself to the priest’ as the LORD commands in reality and not in appearance.
‘And as they went,’ it says, ‘they were cleansed.’ It’s as they were in obedience that they were cleansed. It’s as they were on the way of showing themselves to the priest that they were cleansed. I take this to mean that to be cleansed of our spiritual leprosy, we need to be living in this obedience to the LORD’s command. We can’t walk in the way of the LORD for a bit and then go back to walking in the way of the world. We need to live in the Spirit of the LORD and not in the spirit of the world in order to be cleansed of our spiritual leprosy. This means living our lives in prayer, even in unceasing prayer, as St Paul commands, in a manner, of course, that is in accordance with our particular circumstances. It means busying ourselves inwardly with removing the beam in our own eye and to stop focusing on the speck in our brother’s eye; i.e., it means being keenly conscious of my own spiritual leprosy and standing before the LORD as the first of all sinners.
This implies that ‘going to show myself to the priest’ is a life-long journey, a life-long process of losing my life for the sake of Christ from now to the day I ‘die’ physically. And the witness of the saints, the assurance of the Church, is that even as we are doing this, even as the cleansing of our leprosy is still in process, not yet completed, the joy of Christ begins to settle over us like the pillar of fire and the luminous cloud that settled over the Israelites on their Exodus to the ‘Promised Land.’ This, says St Paul, is the pledge of our future inheritance, the testimony from Christ Himself that we are being cleansed of all unrighteousness as we confess our sins, as we go to show ourselves to the priest.
But it was the Samaritan who was saved in his thanksgiving, the one who was kin to the ‘Good Samaritan’ as we are ‘kin’ to God having been created in His image and likeness. Look at this morning’s Gospel and see how the LORD is actively present in His healing of the lepers throughout. This tells me that He is actively present with us even now, that He is working in us even now to heal us of our spiritual leprosy. If we train our eyes to see how He is working in us even now, we activate that holy thanksgiving in our soul that is an innate quality of our kinship to Christ. It dispels despair, for it draws us to Christ and reveals the healing ray of divine hope that He sowed in our nature when He became flesh and began to dwell among us in our own flesh and blood. To Him are due all glory and honor. 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!