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2 Timothy 3:10-15
Not the self-righteous Pharisee but the penitent publican went down to his house justified, says the LORD. The justified (or the righteous) live forever; righteousness is deathless (Ps 37:29, Ps 112:6, Wisd 1:15). If he went down to his house justified, it means more than that he went to his house on Fifth and Main. It means he descended into his heart, not the physical organ of his heart but the spiritual sanctuary of the temple of his body, his spiritual center, his deepest and truest self, that “point” in himself where he begins and ends, where he comes upon the mystery of the image of God in himself, where he is “deep, beyond all things,” where he opens onto the mystery of eternity in the mystery of God.
Here is where the mystery of the union of God and man takes place. This is why the knowledge of the “heart” is true knowledge, infinitely superior to the knowledge of the “mind”. Whereas knowledge of the mind “functions by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning,” knowledge of the heart is rooted in the immediate experience of union with God Himself (Philokalia I: 362). The mind speculates on God as an idea. The heart knows God through immediate experience.
But, the spiritual “heart”, the “innermost shrine”” in the depths of the soul, so the Church teaches, is entered only through sacrifice and death (Philo I:361). Note the paradox bordering on if not passing over into contradiction. Try to figure it out with your own wisdom and it will break your mind; and you, if you are trusting in your own wisdom, will reject it as nonsense (Lk 20:17-18).
So, the publican went down to his heart justified, made immortal, by sacrifice and death?
This morning, we open the Lenten Triodion. We are drawing near the fearsome and dread mystery of God’s death and burial in the Tomb—the Tomb, as we will read from St Luke on the Thursday before we “pass over” into the wilderness of the Lenten Exodus, over which, even as they lay the Body of the crucified God in it (the supreme paradox!), the “Light began to shine” (epefosken, Lk 23:54). Which Light? The Light of the weekly Sabbath? No, the Light of God’s Sabbath Rest, from which He creates man anew from the dust of the ground in Christ, His own Image (Col 1:15), and breathes into Him anew the Breath of Life (Gen 2:1-7, Jn 20:22), as we hear the Church proclaiming on Great and Holy Saturday as we stand, mystically, before the Tomb of the crucified God. It is the Light of the New Heaven and the New Earth, the world that shall never be moved because it is rooted in the death of God in which He has destroyed death and given life to those in the tombs.
This morning we leave the world, mystically. We pass beyond worldly understanding and experience. We begin making our way, mystically, onto the sacred Path that leads into the Sanctuary of the Temple not made with hands, that is not of this creation (Heb 9:11). This is the Sanctuary of the LORD’s Tomb. Here, the arrogance of worldly logic is defeated. Worldly logic itself is illumined and transfigured. But the arrogance of our logic is put to shame! Here, true theology, the divine logic of the Divine Logos Himself, reigns. Only in union with Christ, the divine Logos incarnate, do we begin truly to think logically or theologically.
Sts Peter and John entered the LORD’s Tomb on the Third Day and discovered it was empty. In it, not outside of it but inside of it—i.e., not in the ordinary understanding of the worldly mind but in that divine logic that is not of this world, that is on the other side of the grave, not on this side, that is attained through sacrifice and death—inside of the LORD’s empty Tomb is where they finally understood the teaching of the LORD. In our spiritual heart, not outside of it in the abstract concepts of the mind, having united ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, do we discover the empty Tomb of the LORD’s Resurrection and His victory over death and corruption.
The iconology of the Lenten Triodion is an illustrated map of the Gospel’s inner Exodus of the soul that would lead those who would receive the WORD of God (Jn 1:12) and follow Him back to the gates of Eden, up to the summit of Golgotha, into the empty Tomb of the LORD and out onto the “better and changeless Path” that ascends from the depths of hell into the Heavens opened at the LORD’s Baptism and into the Heavenly City of Jerusalem.
Let us note well, then, the point at which we begin the Lenten Exodus and where the Lenten Exodus leads us to. This is the “backdrop” of this morning’s Gospel. Our Gospel this morning itself is showing us how we make that Lenten Exodus to the LORD’s empty Tomb, so that, if we would, we may enter it, mystically, truly in our hearts in the desire to unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, so that our hearts may be transfigured into a bridal chamber and we become “eyewitnesses of these things!”
Casting our eyes up the road to the Thursday before Great Lent begins when we will stand before the Lenten gates, you will see from the Gospel assigned on that day that our Lenten Exodus begins from the LORD’s Tomb. On that Thursday, the Church lectionary will bring us with the myrrh-bearing women to see His Tomb and how His Body is laid. The seven weeks of Great Lent and Holy Week, then, are the visible face of the invisible mystery that lies on the other side, in the three days of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest in the Tomb. In this sacred season of Lent, if we engage the outer work of prayer and fasting in the fear of God, we will be preparing our heart invisibly with mystical spices and ointments to come into the presence of the risen Christ in the LORD’s empty Tomb on Pascha Night (Lk 23:56).
The LORD’s Tomb! How and why do we see the eternal, transcendent God dead, His Body buried in the Tomb! Human logic governed by its own wisdom cannot comprehend this. Let worldly man in his arrogance reject the Gospel as nonsense! The Light of divine logic is not extinguished but shines still!
The death of God reveals the extreme humility of God. In this, it reveals how being “exists”. It exists in the humility of God. Like Living Water, He seeks the lowest point. The death of God reveals the principle of true Life. It is humility. It reveals the essential character of the image of God which defines our human nature. It is to exist in the image of His own eternity (Wisd 2:23). It is to be like God! It is to exist in humility. This is what it is to be holy as God is holy, to be perfect as He is perfect.
I ask you to look again at the Publican. He stands off at a distance. He can’t even lift his head. Dear faithful, I believe the publican is standing, mystically, at that point where his soul opens onto eternity. He is seeing the self-righteousness of his soul, which the Pharisee does not see in his own. He is seeing how far his arrogance has alienated him from the humble and merciful God and made him altogether unlike God. He sees that in his soul, he is dead, estranged from God and from his own being made in the image and likeness of God!.
So, the Church teaches us to pray the prayer of the Publican, to make it our own. It is the prayer of the heart at the heart of the Orthodox spiritual Tradition. By this prayer, revealed in this morning’s Gospel to be very ancient, even primitive and not a later Byzantine innovation as some “scholars” maintain, she would lead us down from the “visible Church” into the “invisible Church”, the “house” of our heart. This is the tomb of Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday, the destination of Great Lent whence we pass over into Great and Holy Week! She helps us in this prayer to acknowledge our sin, come down from our high horse, and rest in the stillness of our heart, so that the LORD’s life-giving command to Lazarus, “Arise!” may pierce the tomb of our heart as well.
In the tomb of our heart, we pass over into Great and Holy Week. Making this prayer our own is how we catch up with Peter and John to go with them into the LORD’s empty Tomb on Pascha Night, mystically, spiritually, truly as into the “narthex” of the Heavenly Church. This is the Path by which we make our way to Great and Holy Week not as to a pageant but as to a liturgical icon through which we enter in our heart the reality of the LORD’s empty Tomb in the fearsome and dread joy of His Holy Resurrection! Amen!