Sunday, April 12, 2009

Behold the Bridegroom

Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he finds watching; but unworthy is the one whom he finds slothful. Take care then, my soul, not to be overcome with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse yourself and cry: Holy, holy, holy are you, O God; through the protection of Bodiless Powers, have mercy on us.
This evening in many Orthodox parishes, we will gather to begin our liturgical celebration of Great and Holy Week. Having left Great and Holy Lent behind with our celebration of Christ's entrance into Jerusalem, we now fix our gaze more intensely on the Resurrection of Christ (Pascha or Easter).
We begin our journey—o f if you prefer, continue our journey—to Pascha by recalling not historical events (though we do that aplenty this week) but rather giving voice to our hope for the future. For all that we refer this week to the events in the last week of Christ's life before His crucifixion, our point of reference is eschatological and not strictly speaking historical. Or to put it another way, the Church only looks back to the past in order to look look forward to a future that is wholly outside of our own control.
My daily life, my everyday attitude, is often filled plans. Just this morning after Liturgy, for example, I sat with the parish council and made plans for the near future. Planning is certainly not wrong—and more often than not it is essential.\
But there is something undeniably seductive about planning. You see my plans our mine. Whether I am planning a desirable future toward which I race or a future I dread and would flee from if I could, in both cases my plans can become for me an idol of my own making. G. K. Chesterton's observation about the relationship of truth and fiction are applicable to the relationship between the future and my plans for the future. “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” Chesterton writes in his work Heretics , “for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”
Likewise my plans. Whether comforting of frightening, my plans for the future always seem somehow my attractive, more reasonable, and much less frightening than the future since—unlike the future—my plans are made to suit my own views of how the future ought to be. There is something inescapably narcissistic about planning.
Not, I want to emphasize, that we shouldn't plan. We should plan; planning is an essential part of our stewardship of God's many blessings to us. But it is easy to confuse my plans for the future with the gift of the future itself. It is easy to confuse my desire for the coming years, next week or tomorrow, with the future itself as it comes to me from the hand of an All-Loving God.
And so for sound theological and anthropological reasons, we begin Holy Week by recalling that we do not such much move toward the future as it is that the future comes to us, to me. And when the future comes, it comes as a judgment.
The judgment of the future is not a narrowing of human life as if somehow God were some kind of Victorian moralist. No the future that comes toward me is God Himself, His Glory revealed; the judgment which is to come is His love for me, for my neighbor and the whole creation made manifest. I am judged by love revealed in all its fullness and it is in this Divine Light the narrowness, the self-satisfaction of my own heart, will be revealed.
Every year during Holy Week and Pascha I am challenged less by fasting and the many (and longer!) services and more by the smallness of my love when compared to not only to Christ's infinite love but also the finite, but still overwhelming, love for Christ in the hearts of those whose confessions I will hear.
Is it any wonder, as the troparion for the day suggest, that when faced with this challenge I am tempted simply to sleep? To lay down the burden of joy and instead allow myself the illusory luxury that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the “natural atheism” of the soul that seeks to consume creation rather than be responsible for neighbor in his poverty and need?
And so, this year again like last year, I being Holy Week by being reminded that the future belongs to God. My plans and projects have their place—they are even after a fashion necessary—but they are not ultimate. As necessary as my plans might be, what is more necessary is that I remain ready and open to the grace that rushes toward me through the Cross and the Tomb from the Kingdom of God.
Kalo Pascha.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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The Enthusaism of the Crowds

Sunday, April 12, 2009: ENTRY OF OUR LORD INTO JERUSALEM (Palm Sunday). St. Basil the Confessor, Bishop of Parium (8th c.). Hieromartyr Zeno, Bishop of Verona (ca. 260). Ven. Isaac the Syrian, Abbot of Spoleto (550). Monk Martyrs Menas, David, and John, of Palestine (7th c.). Ven. Anthusa the Virgin, of Constantinople (801). Ven. Athanasia, Abbess, of Aegina (860). Ven. Acacius the Younger, of Kavsokalyvia (Mt. Athos—1730).

Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always. Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus. The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: Hosanna! 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!' The King of Israel!" Then Jesus, when He had found a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written: Fear not, daughter of Zion; Behold, your King is coming, Sitting on a donkey's colt." His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him. Therefore the people, who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of his tomb and raised him from the dead, bore witness. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign.

(John 12:1-18)

The Gospel for Palm Sunday divides neatly in to two different, though internally related, stories.

We have the first half of the story that looks back to yesterday's celebration when we commemorated the restoration of Lazarus to life after four days in the tomb. The second half of the Gospel commemorates Jesus' triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. The first half looks backwards to what was done, the second half forward to what is yet to be done: the death of Christ on the Cross and His glorious third day resurrection from the dead. And in both parts of the Gospel, there are the various human actors who never quite seem to understand Jesus.

Jesus is shown sitting at table Lazarus with Martha—as always—busy with much serving. And there is Mary who, again, has chosen the better part and anoints His feet with costly ointment. There is Judas, the disciple, the thief and the one who will soon betray his friend and teacher.

Outside this domestic tableau there are the Jewish authorities who jealousy and fear of Jesus has turned murderous not only toward Jesus but Lazarus who restoration to life has caused many to come to believe in Jesus.

And of course, as always, there are the crowds. Today the crowds welcome Jesus as their King and Liberator. As St John Chrysostom has it, today the crowds “showed now at last that they thought Him greater than a prophet: And went forth to meet Him, and cried, Hosanna! Blessed is the King of Israel, that comes in the name of the Lord.”

In this, of course, the crowds are more correct then they know.

Unlike the undisciplined enthusiasm of the crowds, St Augustine, looking at the events of Palm Sunday with the eyes of sober faith. He knows that it is “a small thing to the King eternal to be made a human king. Christ was not the King of Israel, to exact tribute, and command armies, but to direct souls, and bring them to the kingdom of heaven. For Christ then to be King of Israel, w as a condescension, not an elevation, a sign of His pity, not an increase of His power. For He who was as called on earth the King of the Jews, is in heaven the King of Angels.”

It is in the space between undisciplined enthusiasm, or if you will a faith that is untempered by asceticism and reason and the sober faith that has been so purified that will grow the seed of the crowds later rejection of Jesus. The crowds, for all their passion and noise, cannot bear the difference between who they think Jesus is and Who He is actually.

As with the crowds, so to I think with each of us in our own spiritual lives. It is easy for me to fall in love with my idea about God or (for that matter, my neighbor) and to love the image more than the Person that the images points me toward. Like the crowd, I am tempted always to sentimentality, to falling in love with my own feelings and thoughts at the expense of my supposed Beloved. In the Church's more exact language, like the crowds, I am subject to prelest , spiritual delusion.

While the Apostle Paul does not use the word, he nevertheless is aware of prelest and its effect on the person. He warns the young bishop Timothy to not “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.” (1 Tim 1.4) He warns Timothy that those who do give themselves over to prelest eventually stray from Christ and instead give themselves over to “to idle talk” and pride “desiring to be teachers of the law,” but fail to be such since they understand “what they say nor the things which they affirm.” (vv. 6-7)

The idle talk that Paul mentions is rather more serious than we might imagine. It is because of idle talk that over the next week the crowds will turn against Jesus. Their prelest inspired disappointment will quickly turn to rage, a rage that not only kills their own souls, but is unwilling as it is to accept any limits on itself, will turn Christ over to be crucified.

Compare this to the words we heard last night at Vespers:

Thus says the Lord, 'Rejoice, daughter of Sion. Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your iniquities, he has ransomed you from the hand of your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. You shall see evils no more. At that time the Lord will say to Jerusalem, 'Be of good courage, Sion Do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst. The Mighty One will save you. He will bring joy upon you and renew you by his love. He will rejoice over you with delight, as on a day of festival. And I will gather your afflicted. Alas! Who has taken up a reproach against you? I will work for your sake at that time. And I will save her that was oppressed and receive her who was rejected, and I will make them a boast and famed in all the earth'. ((Zephaniah 3:14-19, LXX)

The therapy for prelest is, I think, found in the prophet's words: I must rejoice in God. I must do this not in undisciplined enthusiasm, but as the fruit of repentance, of my acceptance of God's forgiveness not only of me, but all humanity. To do so requires from me courage. Why? Because once I see all humanity as loved and forgiven by God in Jesus Christ, I set myself against those who imagine—as did the Jewish authorities—that they, and they alone, know God's mercy, a mercy they hold fast to as if it was something of their own making. Those who do this are like Judas, for their own selfish ends they steal from the common grace of God for all humanity. If I am like this, how can I imagine that I will not murder God once I have Him in my grasp?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God delights over His People today; God delights over you and all humanity. He knows that in a few days they, we, I, will betray Him and yet this in no way lessens His delight, His love, His forgiveness, for us, for you and for me. Even though by my own actions I give myself over to sin again and again, God in Jesus Christ will renew me, as He renews all of us, by His love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory