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2 Timothy 3.10-15
On this Sunday, we open the Lenten Triodion. A heavenly light rests upon the horizon, shining in the darkness, illumining the tips of three spires rising just above the skyline. They are the tips of the three crosses on Golgotha. They are the gates of Great Lent; and we will be standing at their feet within the next three weeks.
Guided by the Church’s lectionary, we have walked with Our LORD on the Path of the Church’s liturgical cycle as beside the River that came forth from the Temple of the Last Days, seen by Ezekiel (chptr 47). This River of Joy as we call Him at the Feast of Theophany, Our LORD Jesus Christ, came forth from the Living Temple of the Virgin Theotokos as a little brook at Christmas. As He increased in depth and strength—as He increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man (Lk 2.52)—we went with Him throughout Galilee, watching Him heal and give life to everyone He touched, just as Ezekiel foresaw (Eze 47.1-9).
Then, on Friday, more than two weeks ago now (Feb 5), the River of Joy, the LORD, set His face to “go up to Jerusalem,” (Mk 10.32) to His Holy Pascha. The River of Joy came out of Galilee and headed for the Arabah, the desert as far as the sea. On the map, this looks like it would be the Dead Sea. His purpose is to heal even the waters of death (Eze 47.8).
In the bible, geography is theology. The desert signifies death, but also complete trust in God. It is the ‘place’ of the Exodus. Now, the Dead Sea has no outlet, and because it’s so salty, no marine life can live in its waters. It is a perfect image of death before the LORD’s Pascha, when there was no outlet, no path that passed over from this created world of heaven and earth into the uncreated Kingdom of God (Heb 9.8-&12.2).
What Ezekiel was seeing was the New Exodus of the LORD’s Pascha, the inner Exodus of the Gospel (Eze 11.17-20; 20.33-44). Ezekiel’s prophetic vision reaches its climax in chptr 37.1-14, his vision of the valley of the dry bones, their resurrection by the Spirit of God, and their being raised out of their graves and brought into the Land of their inheritance. This is the prophecy read in the Church on the evening of Great and Holy Friday when the Church has brought us inside the LORD’s Tomb.
The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Way to the Father. He is the Path of the New Exodus Ezekiel foresaw, the Path of the inner Exodus of the Gospel, the River of Joy that goes down into the tomb of the heart where we were dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph 2.1), to make fresh the stagnant waters (Eze 47.8-9). In the waters of death, in the tomb, He rolls the stone away and opens the heart that was dead out into the uncreated realm of His Father’s uncreated Glory in the radiance of His Resurrection.
If the Church is the Body of Christ, and if Christ is the Path to the Father, then coming into the Church, we have stepped onto the Path of the inner Exodus of the Gospel. We have stepped into the Mighty River that Ezekiel foresaw whose mighty current would carry us all the way to the “Dead Sea” in the LORD’s Holy Pascha, all the way to our heart where we were dead in our sins and trespasses, to make those stagnant waters fresh, making everything to live wherever it goes (Eze 47.8-9). Let’s map out this Path a bit to see where He is leading us.
This last Friday, we read in St Mark that the LORD, the Path, went out of the Temple of Jerusalem and sat, it says, on the Mount of Olives, which, geographically, is opposite the Temple. Is this what Ezekiel was seeing when he saw the Glory of the LORD depart from the temple—for Jesus Christ is the Glory of God—to stand on the mountain opposite the city? (Eze 10.18&11.22) There, on the mountain opposite the city, the LORD begins to instruct His disciples on the signs that will signal the Last Days. In the middle of all these signs is the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (Mk 13.1-8).
The Temple of Jerusalem, historically, was destroyed within just a few decades after the Temple of Christ’s Body was destroyed on the Cross, and then raised from the dead on the third day. (Jn 2.19&21) So, we are in the Last Days the LORD was talking about on the Mt of Olives opposite the temple. This is the biblical setting of our Gospel this morning; it is the biblical setting of the Church today, and has been since the Last Day began on Great and Holy Friday.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, it says—the very Temple we heard the LORD telling us (last Friday) would be destroyed in the Last Days. Two men, it says, went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. It says literally that he “stood with himself,” thanking the LORD because he (the Pharisee) was so righteous. The other, it says, was a publican. He stood afar off, beating his breast and praying, “LORD, have mercy on me, a sinner!” It was the publican, the LORD says, who went to his house, justified—which opens onto a profound teaching when contemplated in its Lenten and Paschal setting.
Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden because they had ‘become as though they were one of [the Holy Trinity].’ (Gen 3.23) Expelled from the Garden, they settled opposite Eden, the same place, theologically, Ezekiel saw the Glory of the LORD go when He departed and stood on the mountain opposite the city. (Eze 11.23, Jerusalem, or Mt Zion, in Jewish theology, is Eden; Jesus is said to have been crucified on the spot where Adam fell, which is Golgotha, opposite Mt Zion! Here’s some geography that spells some profound theology!) And, after they were expelled from Eden, it says, the LORD placed the cherubim and the flaming sword to guard the Way of the Tree of Life. (Gn 3.25 LXX)
Well, the Tree of Life is Jesus Christ; and He is the Way of the Tree of Life. And we see Him now making His way to Golgotha and into the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest. Standing before His Tomb is where the Church, through her lectionary, will have brought us on Thursday before Great Lent begins. We’ll be standing with the myrrhbearers to “contemplate the Tomb and how His body was laid.” What we are seeing is a Theophany; for this is the mystery of God in His Sabbath Rest. (Gn 2.4) And, there at the LORD’s Tomb, it says, when the darkness of night has fallen, the Sabbath will begin to dawn. (Lk 23.53-54) What is that Light beginning to dawn from the LORD’s Tomb?
I believe it is the uncreated Light, the Glory the LORD had with the Father before the world was: and it is illuming the Path back into the Garden. That Path goes through the sea, the “Dead Sea” we can say, and its footprints are unseen (Ps 77.19) because they are the footprints of God in the flesh healing the waters of death by His death and passing over into Eden as the New Adam, bringing the old Adam and Eve with Him, refashioned and restored to their original beauty.
So, the Pharisee, standing with himself as though he was a god, is standing in the Temple that will be destroyed. The Publican, standing afar off, in brokenness of heart and contrition of spirit, goes down to his house where he will come into the Light of Christ resting on the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest that illumines the Way back into Eden.
The Church’s lesson to us this morning is obvious to all of us: the way into “the Light of Christ that illumines all” is the way of humility, of repentance, brokenness of heart and contrition of spirit.
Follow the Church’s lectionary these next three weeks as we approach Great Lent. We’ll see that it brings us to the beginning of Great Lent with the myrrhbearers in front of the LORD’s Tomb—as to the Gate of Great Lent, the Temple of God about to be raised up on the cornerstone of God’s Body laid in the ‘midst of the earth working salvation’ (Ps 74.12). Great Lent, that is, begins with the Supreme Theophany--God crucified on the Cross and His corpse in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest, in a Tomb in which no one had been laid before (Lk 23.53). And, if that is so, then we are given to understand that Great Lent is a creation, the re-creation of our heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (40 days represents the 40 weeks of gestation; we are dying in Christ to be born again from above).
From the LORD's Tomb, the path of Great Lent, however, turns and goes with the myrrhbearers downward or inward (upostrepho) not into the LORD’s Tomb but into the stillness (hesychusan) of our own heart, our own tomb, our own “house”. (Lk 23.55) This is the path of the Publican this morning. From the LORD’s Tomb, the Lenten path will lead us over the next six weeks to the tomb of Lazarus. This is the end of Great Lent. At the tomb of Lazarus, we come with the Publican to our own house, the house of our own heart where we are dead in our sins and trespasses. There, we are ‘justified’, i.e., we are raised from death to life: this is the mystery of Holy Baptism. Raising Lazarus from the dead as He raises us from the Font, the LORD leads us now into Jerusalem, and then out of Jerusalem to the mountain opposite the city, and into His Bridal Chamber—Great and Holy Week. And, on Great and Holy Friday evening (at the Matins for Great and Holy Saturday), the Church will bring us from our “house”, from the tomb of our own heart, into the LORD’s Tomb. And, from there, on Pascha night, at Midnight when the old passes over into the new, the crucified God will come forth as a Bridegroom in procession. Those who love Him, who have denied themselves and lost their lives out of love for Him that they might find their lives in Him, all the publicans, will be those in the procession following Him out of the grave—as Ezekiel foretold (Eze 37.1-14)—not back into the created world, but into the Land of their Inheritance, which is the uncreated Kingdom of His own uncreated Light to live with Him forever.
This is the joy set before us, for the sake of which we are now getting ready to take up our cross, the Lenten Fast, that we might be joined with Christ in the likeness of His death and so become one with Him in the joy of His Holy Resurrection. Amen!