Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Harlot and the Disciple

When the sinful woman offered myrrh, then the disciple made an agreement with the lawless. The one rejoiced as she emptied out something of great price, while the other hurried to sell the One beyond price. She acknowledged the Master; he was parted from the Master. She was set free while Judas became the slave of the foe. Dreadful is sloth! Great is repentance! Grant it to me, Saviour, who suffered for us, and save us.

(Hymn at Lauds for Holy Wednesday)

At Bridegroom Matins for Great and Holy Wednesday we read from the Gospel of St John ( 12:17-50 ) while the hymnography for the service is drawn from the Gospel according to St Matthew ( 26). Far from being opposed to each other these two passages compliment each other with the hymnography for the canon serving as an illustration of the general theme of the Gospel reading: that in imitation of Christ, I must loose my life in order to save it. Or, as we read in John:

He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. (12.25-26)

For its part, the hymnography contrasts the actions of the unnamed harlot who anoints Jesus' feet with myrrh with the disciple Judas who will soon betray Him. While the content of the hymns is of the utmost seriousness, there is nevertheless a certain playfulness in them as they compare and contrast the two disciples of Christ.

The theme we have been following through the Matins services is also one that compares and contrasts two different ways of relating to Christ: planning or openness. While planning cannot be dismissed outright or minimized, it is after all an important part of our stewardship of the gifts God has given us, there is always a temptation to plan in a manner that makes our planning, and their successful accomplishment, the goal of not only our material and professional lives, but also of our spiritual life.

My planning, therefore, needs to be balanced (and often restrained) by an eager openness on my part to the will of God for my life. As we saw on Great and Holy Tuesday, to be human is to be open to love.

This openness, as the contrast between the harlot and Judas illustrates, is often hidden from not only outside observers but also even from me. Imagining myself in the position of the harlot, I can't help but think that she was as surprised by her behavior toward Jesus as anyone else. How often had she in the past anointed and cared for men with immoral intent? Now, however, there is nothing unchaste in her actions. I would even go so far as to suggest that even given her wrong intention, her past life as a prostitute was something of a preparation for the Gospel. Granted it was in many ways a perverted preparation, but however skewed her intent, no matter how false her actions, how often she was coerced by circumstances or the lust of men to attentive to the desires of others, in Christ this past is transformed into the gentle attentiveness that we see in her relationship with Christ.

None of this is to suggest prostitution as a way of life. It is rather only to illustrate that in Christ even the harshest of our experience can be transformed and transfigured and become by God's grace life giving for us and for the world.

Compare the transfigured harlot to the fallen Judas.

If her life embodies the eager, if often hidden, openness to love that we should all cultivate, Judas embodies a life that reduces human life, and especially the spiritual life, to a matter of planning and its attendant calculations. Until the moment of the harlot's encounter with Jesus, Judas was simply a disciple. As with the other disciples, he no doubt struggled with His Master's teachings and actions. If Philip and Andrew are any indication, even at the end of His ministry, the disciples didn't seem to understand that discipleship, following Jesus, requires a life of real sacrifice.

No, up until Jesus' encounter with the harlot, Judas seems to worse than any of the disciples. Like the others, Judas simply doesn't understand what it means to follow Jesus.

And then there is the whore.

Trying to place myself in his position, I think it was at this moment that Judas parts “from the Master” and becomes “ the slave of the foe,” as we sing in one of the hymns of the day. When love is made manifest, not only the human face of God's love for us, but also our love for God, Judas the disciple becomes Judas the betrayer. Why? What is it in this encounter that is so unbearable for Judas that he rushes out to betray his friend?

When I reduce my own life to a plan and my encounters with God and neighbor to a series of calculations (even if my calculations are “Christian”), I do so because I have closed my heart to divine grace. Instead of an openness to God and His love for my neighbor, for me and for all creation, my life comes to orbit around my own ego and the ever shifting pattern of my own desires. When this happens anything that does not ratify my ego, does not satisfy my desires at that moment, becomes necessarily a foe to be defeated.

As with Judas, we come to this moment slowly; incrementally my heart becomes evermore closed to grace until finally I turn from God in one finally act of rebellion.

But this is not the whole story. As with the harlot, we also come slowly to the moment of our definitive encounter with Jesus. Again, incrementally, the human heart can become evermore open to grace until finally the person turns definitively to God in an act of abandonment.

My preparation for these two acts is simultaneous. Day by day, moment by moment, my heart is both closing and opening to love. The difference between a heart which is open and one which is closed is not so much in the preparation but in the consequences. The closed heart is static, stagnant, like death and Hell themselves; the open heart is a dynamic, beating heart that grows and expands like life and Heaven themselves.

Given the strongly monastic character of all of the Orthodox liturgical tradition, and especially the services of Great and Holy Week, it is noteworthy that the worship of the Church place before us as an exemplars of the decisions we each face a harlot and a disciple. It is the harlot whose heart is pure and who embodies best what we all hope for our own life in Christ; it is Judas, the apostle and disciple, the intimate friend of Jesus, whose heart is unchaste and who illustrates the consequences of rejecting Christ. There is more than a little irony that it she who I imagine myself to be least like is closest to Christ, while he who seemed to have for three years the relationship with Christ I want is the one who will betray him.

Kalo Pascha.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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