Friday, April 14, 2006

Palm Sunday/The Triumphal Entry

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, also known as Palm Sunday. Great Lent 2006 is officially over, and the Church has now joined with our Lord Jesus Christ in the journey of Holy Week that will take us from before the stinking tomb of Lazarus all the way to the gloriously radiant and myrrh-scented empty tomb of our risen Savior. This journey represents what can be our own progression from death to life, from corruption to incorruption, if we so choose. The Paschal message is that we are not bound to be forever enslaved to sin and to the degrading passions which rob us of our human dignity and of life eternal. We can lay aside all manifestations of death and separation from the love of God to be united with Him in glory.

Orthodox Christians often begin Great Lent with high hopes. We might think to ourselves, this year I’m going to really pay attention to my prayers, fasting and almsgiving as the Church instructs me to; I’m going to come to all the services; I’m going to fight my besetting sins more diligently and try to make my repentance more consistent. And if we apply ourselves we can generally make some true progress in many of these areas. Yet during Lent we might also become more aware of our sinfulness than before, we may suffer some stunning setbacks, we may be laid low by some illness or difficulty, or we may have some unexpected and unpleasant conflict with another person. Due to these things, we may come to the end of Lent feeling defeated, feeling as if we have lost more ground than we have gained.

Is it any wonder therefore that the Church ends Lent and begins Holy Week with an image of death and corruption? The first image we encounter is that of poor Lazarus, rotting in his tomb, seemingly beyond all help and hope. The Church presents us with this shocking image of our own mortality caused by sin, and then like a good Mother instructs us, “Pay attention, my disheartened little children, and witness the power of your Lord”. Next we see Lazarus raised from the dead as a foretaste of the general resurrection of the faithful!

Do not be dismayed by your failures, though they may be as numberless as the stars of heaven. Take hope, and let not your heart be troubled. God is able to give life even to the lifeless, and to raise with Him even those who are pronounced dead in their trespasses and sins.

In the book “Gifts of the Desert” by Kyriacos Markides, the author recounts a conversation with Bishop Maximos in which the elder described the Church, the Ecclesia, as a hospital in which the reality of healing from the effects of sin takes place. He says, “It is indeed a hospital. As in the case of an ordinary hospital, in the Ecclesia we can meet doctors, nurses, recovering patients, sick people, and very sick people. Sometimes we can even find corpses”. “Do corpses have a chance?” one of his listeners asked. “Naturally they do,” replied Maximos. “Doesn’t the Ecclesia call Christ the Giver of Life? In whatever category we may belong within this spiritual hospital, we always have the hope and the possibility to achieve our own resurrection and the restoration of our spiritual health.”

It is very important that we never lose sight of the Church as a place of healing, and all of the Holy Traditions that comprise her life as the therapeutic cures for our suffering and disease. We can lose sight of this and fail to be healed in several different ways. Let me suggest three.

The first is that we simply never learn that we are sick, or fail to see the seriousness of our condition. By extreme inattentiveness to our souls, we can ignore or take for granted the means of our healing, and instead live out an egocentric counterfeit of Christianity. Our unhappiness with ourselves, which is natural for those who are not spiritually engaged, is soon psychologically transferred and manifested in a judgmental attitude toward others. We may criticize our family or friends for not being what we want them to be. We may become harshly critical of the priest or the parish council and insist that they are doing things wrong. We may justify our sloppy lives by insisting that others have failed us, and thus we are reduced to the role of perpetually indignant victims. You can find us on life-support in the ICU of the Ecclesia, yet we imagine that our difficulties are the fault of anyone else but ourselves.

The other way we can fail to be healed within the hospital of the Church is if we simply refuse to follow doctor’s orders. In the medical world this is called “non-compliance”; in the Ecclesia it is called “spiritual sloth”. We all struggle with this. Sloth is one of the Seven Grievous Sins and the reason why we find it so difficult to challenge ourselves in any way spiritually. We often lament that we do not pray, come to Church, read the Bible, or do the works that we feel we should do, on as regular a basis as we think we would like. But the real way that sloth is manifested is in our inability to simply challenge ourselves to any degree spiritually and develop an inner life centered on the remembrance of God.

This is to be expected, because we are broken, shattered, darkened and confused in soul. Building a habit of prayer and communion with God is difficult for all of us. Yet if we don’t make the effort to strive for something greater, in the end it cannot be said that we really wanted anything more than to succumb to our sloth. It was comfortable, we could deal with the guilt; thus we stayed there.

This can lead us to the third reason why we can fail to be healed within the Church, and that is because we simply become a corpse. We can become a corpse because of consistent, unrepentant sloth, or because of some besetting sin that we refused to resist and gave in to each and every time it was presented to us. In the end we are left immune to the Gospel, deaf to the voice of the Spirit, unmoved by conscience and manifesting all the characteristics of a dead person. Outwardly we may be alive, but inwardly we can become absolutely dead to God.

Can such a corpse live again? Yes indeed! Let us remember the story of Lazarus and the lessons it gives us. Lazarus was dead and laid to rest in his tomb, wrapped in bandages. Nevertheless, one last, impossible time his ears heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Lazarus, come forth!” Notice that Jesus did not say to those around Him, “Lazarus is alive; go in and get him”. Rather he put it upon Lazarus to hear His voice and “come forth!” This act of divine mercy awoke Lazarus from his terminal slumber and, still wrapped from head to toe in the raiment of the dead, he clumsily rolled off his slab and stumbled forth into the bright light of the living, where he was greeted by his loved ones who immediately rushed to help him.

So it is for those who are dead in the Church: one last time you may hear the voice of God calling you to repentance. If you arise and stumble out into the company of the faithful, they will strip you of the garments of death which bind you and help clothe you in the robe of life. How tragic our end will be if we ignore the many mercies of God and prefer the separation of death to the fellowship of the living in Christ, or the spiritual healing of the Ecclesia!

As we enter into Holy Week together, let us see this as an opportunity for progression in our own lives. Throughout this week, the Church will be incrementally filled with the symbols of Christ’s victory, together with the sweet smells of flowers, rose water, bay leaves and incense, and will go from darkness to bright light. May the same transformation take place in our souls as well, lifting us out of sorrow to the place of joy without measure.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 4/17/2006 7:02 AM , Blogger sorry kari mary lynn said...

I really really adored this homily, Father.

At 4/18/2006 3:44 AM , Anonymous bruce said...

Father, This homily was a wonderful message. It was a great way to end lent, and enter Holy Week.

Thank you for all you do,


At 4/23/2006 11:03 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you arise and stumble out into the company of the faithful, they will strip you of the garments of death which bind you and help clothe you in the robe of life.

I have discovered this so concretely this Lent/Pascha. It is a wonderful truth.



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