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1 Corinthians 8.8 – 9.2
We opened the Lenten Triodion with the Sunday of the Publican. The theme of that Sunday was judgment. The next Sunday was the Prodigal. The theme for that Sunday was forgiveness. This morning, the theme again is judgment, the Judgment of the nations on the Last Day. Next Sunday, the theme again will be forgiveness.
By means of her lectionary, the Church, like a mother holding the hands of her toddler, is walking us step by step—judgment, forgiveness, judgment, forgiveness—to the Gates of Great Lent, to the Cross and sealed Tomb of the Savior. From this morning’s Gospel as well as the Church’s lectionary from the opening of the Lenten Triodion two Sundays ago, we are given to understand that if Our Mother, the Church, is walking us to the beginning of Great Lent, she is bringing us mystically, in spirit, in truth, to the Last Day and to God’s Judgment of the nations…and, if we would co-operate with her, to God’s judgment of each one of us.
We are coming to the ‘Day of the LORD’ that the prophet Amos saw in the Spirit. ‘The Day of the LORD,’ he cried, ‘is darkness, not light!’ (Am 5.18) Tomorrow, we read St Luke’s account of the world judging the LORD and condemning Him to death on the Cross. Our Tuesday reading from St Luke concludes with the chief priest and the multitude leading the LORD to Pilate. At that point, on Wednesday, our Mother the Church directs us to the prophet, Joel, where we read, in part: ‘Let all the nations go up to the valley of Josaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. The Day of the LORD is near in the valley of judgment. The sun and the moon will be darkened, and the stars shall withdraw their light. The LORD shall cry out of Zion, He shall utter His voice from Jerusalem; and the heaven and the earth will be shaken, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God!’ (Joel 3.12-17) Then, on Thursday, we return to St Luke: ‘It was about the sixth hour…and the sun was darkened.’ (Lk 23.44-45a) We won’t read it in St Luke; but we will come to it in St Matthew on the Matins for Great and Holy Thursday: when Jesus died and sent forth His Spirit from the Cross, ‘the earth shook, the rocks were split open…And, when the centurion and those with him saw the earthquake, they feared greatly and said; ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ (Mt 27.50-54) Our Thursday reading from St Luke will conclude with the myrrhbearers descending (upostrefo) into the stillness of prayer (hesychusan) in the primordial mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest in the Tomb.
All of this takes me back to the Sunday after Theophany, to St Matthew’s account of Jesus coming down from out of the wilderness after triumphing over the devil and beginning His ministry in Galilee. Quoting from Isaiah, St Matthew says: ‘The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light. Light has risen upon those sitting in the region and in the shadow of death.’ (Mt 4.12) It takes me to St Luke’s account of Jesus burial: ‘It was the day of preparation, and,’ interpreting the Greek now very literally, ‘the Sabbath was [already] beginning to grow light.’ (Lk 23.54) And this takes me back to Genesis 2, where it reads very much as though God is forming Adam from the dust and raising him to life in the mystery of His Sabbath Rest, the mystery of His Tomb.
At the Wednesday Vespers, the prokeimenon for the entrance is from Ps 54.1: ‘Save me, O God, by Thy Name; judge me by Thy strength!’ ‘Save me’ and ‘judge me’ are in parallel, which means that the one explains the other. God ‘saves me’ by ‘judging me’; He ‘judges me’ by ‘saving me’. He saves me by the Strength of His Name—these also are in parallel. But, the Name of God can be drawn by a shorthand form of the Hebrew letter tau, which is the sign of a cross. If the Judgment of God begins from His Body on the Judgment Seat of His Cross, then the salvation of God begins as He judges me in the Strength of His Name, which is the mystery of the Cross—our weapon of victory over death and hell! And, what is the judgment of God that He pronounces from the Judgment Seat of His Cross? We will read it this Thursday: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!’ (Lk 23.34)
In this Light—not the light of the sun, obviously, for it is darkened in the uncreated brilliance of Christ, Himself the very radiance of the Father (Heb 1.3) shining from the Cross—we look back at the Gospel witness and see that Christ, going throughout the whole of Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every sickness and malady of the people, is one with His death on the Cross; all of it was the embodiment, the incarnation of His prayer on the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them!’ when He judges us even as He saves us and heals us …
…If we would now, today, voluntarily hold onto the hands of our Mother, the Church, and let her bring us to Great Lent to stand with her, weeping, at the foot of the Cross, the Judgment Seat, of her Son and our God, and ‘descend’ [upostrefo] with the myrrhbearing women into the stillness of God’s Sabbath Rest and into the mystery of the Last Day (the Great and Holy Sabbath!), ‘When the Son of Man comes in His Glory, and all His angels with Him, and sit upon His Throne of His Glory—His Cross!—and all the nations are gathered before Him and [on His Holy Mountain, Golgotha] He separates them one from the other, as a Shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’
In this biblical and Paschal light, I feel that the judgment by which the Good Shepherd separates the sheep from the goats comes more sharply into view. ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these you did it to me.’ Can you hear in this His commandment: ‘Let him who would be my disciple deny himself and take up his cross and follow me; and let him lose his life for my sake that he may find it’? If we united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death at our baptism, will not the ‘working out’ of our salvation in fear and trembling be ‘to watch and to pray’ so that our ‘hearts will not be weighed down with the cares of this life,’ (our reading from yesterday, Lk 21.34&36), so that we can see with the eye of our heart the beauty of God’s tender mercy and goodness before us, and our heart will be awakened in the desire to put to death the greed of our idolatry and self-love, that we may love Him who first loved us, and that we may be found worthy to stand before the Son of Man at the Last Day? (Lk 21.36)
St John, the beloved disciple, was our teacher this last week. ‘Children,’ he says, ‘let us abide in Him so that we might have confidence when He appears, and not be ashamed at His Parousia,’ His Second Coming. ‘[By this] we know that we have been translated from death to life [at our baptism]: that we love the brethren. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love in this: that He laid down His life for us; and so, we ought to give our life for the sake of the brethren. Whoever has the biological life of the world and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart [splangchna] off from him, how does the love of God abide in him? Children, let us love not in word or in speech but in deed and in truth.’ (1 Jn 2.28-3.18)
Dear faithful, I think that if we come with ‘Our Lady,’ the Church, our Virgin Mother, to stand with her before the crucified Judge on the Cross at Great Lent, we will know our judgment and that it is just: we squander the time of our life on this earth abiding in love for the world; we do not redeem the time, seeking to establish our heart in the love of God, and so we are like the world, we are not like God. We are like the idols we love; we have eyes but we cannot see; we have ears that cannot hear, hands that do not feel, feet that cannot walk. We are spiritual corpses. Our heart is mean, stony and small. Perhaps the sign that we are sheep and not goats is that we wish to make no attempt to justify ourselves. Rather, we see how far we are from our true self, from being like God. We mourn, we fall to our knees, crying out from our heart: ‘LORD, have mercy on me! Heal my soul and deliver it!’
This, I think, is the substance of the Lenten Exodus now one week away. By means of the Fast—the concrete form of the Cross we take up to follow Christ and unite ourselves to Him—our Lenten work is to descend into the stillness of the tomb of our heart and into the Judgment of the LORD so that we can receive the forgiveness of our sins, the healing of our soul, and the cleansing of our heart in order to abide in the love of God, in the eternal life of God that is not of this world. Amen!