Sunday, January 25, 2009

Zacchaeus Sunday

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

Anyone who’s been an Orthodox Christian for more than a year knows that the Sunday of Zacchaeus can only mean one thing: that Great Lent is rolling around once again, and we are at the beginning of our preparations for it. This year, Lent begins on March 2nd. Our fasting begins one week before, and our Sunday gospel lessons over the next month will also point us toward Lent with different themes to help us ready ourselves for this holy and saving season.

The purpose of Great Lent of course is to help prepare us for that great Feast of feasts, the highest and holiest day of the Christian year, Great and Holy Pascha, the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we also celebrate as the resurrection of all the faithful who are united unto Him through faith and the new birth of water and the Spirit.

And speaking of faith, Pascha demands plenty of it. Not so much to believe in the resurrection of Christ, for there is more than ample proof of this in the history of the Church and the world itself. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, the previously defeated and disillusioned apostles would never have found reason to spread the good news to the ends of the earth, enduring persecution and martyrdom joyously for the sake of truth. Indeed, there would have been no “good news” to spread! And what group of men would be so willing to suffer and die for a known lie if the resurrection had simply been made up by them? Had not Christ been truly raised, promising resurrection to life eternal in His kingdom to all who follow Him, there would have been no Church, no transformation of the Roman empire, and no saints or holy martyrs such as we see by the millions.

No, the difficulty of Pascha is not to believe in the resurrection of Christ as an historical reality, but rather, to believe in it as a personal reality. The difficulty is to believe that we ourselves can be raised with Christ to newness of life, both in this world, and in the world to come.

And why is that so difficult for us? Is it not because we are bound to this world as it is, to our flesh and its fallen desires? We are in this world, and all too often of this world, and are guilty of loving this world more than God. The simple things that the Church asks us to do to enter into communion with God--to pray, to fast, to come to the services, to tithe and give alms, to purify ourselves from fleshly lusts and passions and attain the enlightenment of our souls, to commend ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God--these things often take a backseat to other interests, other loves, other desires. We often say, “I’m too busy to [Fill in the blank: say my prayers, go to church tonight, read my bible, visit this person, help that brother or sister],” but what we mean is, “I don’t have the desire to do those things right now. There is something else I desire more at this moment, at this stage, at this opportunity”.

It is in fact these misdirected desires that make it so hard for us to see ourselves as anything other than the perpetual fulfiller of them. We work so hard our entire lives to have the nice career, the nice house, the nice car, the nice family with every material need met, the nice nest egg, the nice retirement. We so seldom ask ourselves what it is all for or to where it is all leading us. We are like the grimy little guy shoveling coal faster and faster into the insatiable fire of the engine that is speeding toward a destination unknown to him and to which he may not even wish to go.

Spurred on by our desires and the irrational instinct to fulfill them, we become a people no longer in control of our own lives, but enslaved to impulses we never question, but only obey.

Isn’t it true that we sometimes feel as if our lives are simply out of control? Do we sometimes seem that we are on a path that we didn’t choose, or are trapped by events we didn’t foresee or wish for? Do we sometimes regret that we didn’t follow God more closely, or choose His ways more consistently over our own ways? When you look back on your life, especially as a Christian, you probably have a mix of both regrets and joys. Have you noticed that everything you now see as a regret was at one time born of your own willfulness and your own insistence on fulfilling your desire no matter what? By contrast, every joy came from those moments when you crucified your desire and set aside willfulness to humbly accomplish God’s will or whatever was best for others. When we follow our fallen desires they inevitably lead to emptiness and sorrow. But when our desire is to follow Christ and obey Him, joy and life eternal is always the result.

The theme of Zacchaeus Sunday is the theme of desire for God. Little Zacchaeus so wanted to see Jesus Christ that he laid aside his dignity to scramble up a sycamore tree to gaze upon Him. When Jesus saw this desire in the little man’s heart, and knew that it was so different from every other desire he had ever held, He called Him down and entered into his house, bringing salvation. Zacchaeus discovered the true desire of men’s hearts that day. As the composer Bach called it, “Jesus, the Joy of Man’s Desiring”. Oh, we have so many desires, but only one of these leads us to true and everlasting joy, the desire for Jesus Christ.

Filled with the Joy that eclipses every other and shows them to be lacking, Zacchaeus pledged half his possessions to the poor and the four-fold repayment of all those he had defrauded by false taxation. For a man who had so loved money, this was a remarkable, even miraculous, change of heart. But having found Jesus, Zacchaeus knew that no other love could ever satisfy him, nor could any other desire bring him such contentment. This is the love and desire that needs to be born in our hearts, that Jesus might also enter in to us, bringing salvation.

And this is why we need Great Lent. We normally approach Lent with dread, because it compels us to do things which are against our present desires. There are services nearly every night of the week, which challenge our desire to stay at home after work and relax. There is the most intense and unrelenting fasting of the church year. We are called to be more faithful in our giving, especially of alms and works of mercy. Lent also directs us inward toward more consistent prayer and repentance, an effort that is always a struggle for us because we don’t generally like what we find within ourselves and prefer to live externally. In a word, Lent is hard, because it seems to call upon us to exercise a love for God that we may not yet fully possess.

But that is why we need Great Lent. Lent is not for the super-devout; it is for ordinary sinners like us. It does not assume that we have a great love for God, but only assumes we have at least some small desire to love God. Lent gives us, not what we want, but what we need. It helps us break the habit of willfulness and the stubborn pursuit of our misdirected desires, to embrace God’s way and God’s will over our own. Lent leads us to find freedom from the endless pursuit of many desires to discover the one true desire of man’s heart.

With so much at stake in a culture hostile to our faith and to our way of life, let us pledge to keep Lent faithfully this year. Let us fill our church at the times of prayer and let us lead our families in observing Lent at home. And may God light in us that flame of desire for Jesus Christ that will help us at the end of Lent to joyously celebrate our resurrection with Him at Great and Holy Pascha.

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

1 Comments:

At 1/26/2009 11:58 AM , Anonymous Heather T. said...

Thank you for posting, I often don't get to hear these on Sundays taking care of the little ones!

 

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