Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem

+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. With Great Lent ’09 now officially done and gone, we the faithful have been granted the opportunity to join with our Lord in the remarkable journey of Holy Week; a journey that has in fact already begun and is now taking us from the decay and stench of Lazarus’ tomb to the life-giving and myrrh-scented empty tomb of our risen Savior.

What exactly do I mean by saying we can join with our Lord on the journey of Holy Week? Do I mean this in a sort of figurative way, as if to say that if we come to all the services and pay really close attention, we’ll almost feel as if we were really there and will have such a warm and inspiring experience? Surely I must mean that we only symbolically join with our Lord. Actually, no. Our union with Christ is not merely figurative or symbolic. It is a real union, and furthermore, it is a mystical union. What this means is that through the action and operation of the Holy Spirit, we are joined with Christ in ways far beyond human understanding, to participate with Him in everything He accomplished for our salvation, including His death, burial, and resurrection from the dead.

Western man has decided that he has a problem with such things, you know. Over the centuries since the so-called Enlightenment period, we have pompously come to declare our rational minds as our greatest and highest faculty, and the only one through which we now seek to understand and interact with all that we imagine to exist in the universe. Before that time we at least acknowledged that there were also things unknowable to the mind alone, including the mystical energies and actions coming forth from God which were beyond the ability of man to comprehend, though we could certainly experience them, participate in them, and benefit from them through the faculty of faith. But over time, as Western man elevated his reason to the exclusion of every other means of experiencing reality, his faith degraded, became itself rational and limited to human reason, and he lost his ability to commune with God on the mystical level.

Our journey during Holy Week is exactly such a mystical communion with Jesus Christ through the holy services of the Church. We are truly united to Christ on a level beyond intellectual knowing, in order that we might join with Him through the Triumphal Entry, the rebuking of the hypocritical religious leaders, the Mystical Supper with His disciples and the Upper Room teaching, the agony of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter, the arrest and unlawful trial, the scourging and mocking, the terrible march to Golgotha, the crucifixion, death, burial, and glorious third-day resurrection.

In summary, we don’t just observe Holy Week, we enter into Holy Week and participate in all the events of our salvation, by virtue of the fact that we are mystically united to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As you take a moment to reflect on this and consider it, I would ask one simple question: Can you think of any better way to spend the next seven days of your life?

It’s really no wonder that we require forty days of fasting and prayer and spiritual attentiveness to ready ourselves for this remarkable and saving journey of Holy Week. In fact, we might wonder if forty days was really quite enough for us! Or more to the point, we might wonder if we spent those forty days as wisely as we might have, to gain from them as much as we should have. Chances are the honest answer to that is no, we really didn’t. But by the grace of God we still may have gained more than we realize.

We often begin Lent with high hopes, don’t we? We might decide, “This year I’m going to really make the effort to keep the full fast, and as a matter of fact, I’m even going to lose a few extra pounds! I’m going to be faithful in my prayers, remember the poor, come to all the services, and stay focused 100% on my repentance”. And these all are fine goals, even if we do fall somewhat short of realizing them. Quite often it seems like the wheels fall off our cart sometime just after the first week of Lent and how we struggle to get them back on and make the sort of progress we had hoped for!

In fact, by the time those forty days are over, we may find ourselves feeling pretty worn out, beaten down, and perhaps even defeated. At the end of Lent, instead of feeling spiritually renewed, we might actually feel fairly dry and lifeless, kind of dead really, and wondering if--after all is said and done--we are simply miserable and hopeless.

And this is why, at exactly this point, our Mother the Church has us gather together at the tomb of Lazarus. At the end of our Lenten struggle, with the sting of defeat still fresh in our minds, that tomb is opened and our nostrils are assaulted with the stench of human corruption. Therein lies poor Lazarus, rotting away, and seemingly beyond all hope of redemption. All of a sudden we realize, that is us! There we lie, all bones and rot, defeated by our enemy Death, and fading away to nothingness! But then a voice is heard unexpectedly, that with clarity and beauty cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” And suddenly corruption is reversed and flesh is restored. The heartbeat returns and the lungs fill with air. Slowly, the eyes are opened, the body sits upright, and Lazarus is raised from the dead!

Yes, Lazarus is raised as a symbol of the universal resurrection, but for us, the timing couldn’t be better. Seeing the power of God manifested in what is certainly the most hopeless of human situations, we realize that we need not be utterly dismayed by our failures, though they may be as numberless as the stars of heaven. At the raising of Lazarus we take new and unexpected hope. God is able to give life even to the lifeless, and to raise with Him even those who seem to be 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.”

What a great message this is to us who so often are overcome with sadness at our continual failure before God! Our efforts, our struggles are so important to our salvation, but they are never enough to win the prize and always fall short, even in the lives of the greatest of saints. It is Christ who gives life to the faithful, to those who desire life, who persevere in seeking Him until the end. Christ is the Lover of mankind and the Giver of Life, and He alone is our hope.

And so you see, my brothers and sisters, that even if you come to the end of Lent feeling beaten or deeply disappointed over your failings, your weakness in pursuing the things of God, you are still not beyond the power of God to raise you and to give you life. The good Christ comes to us, and finding us dead in our tomb, resuscitates us together with Lazarus that we might not be left behind or miss this glorious journey of Holy Week.

As we continue this journey together, let us see it as our opportunity for progression from death to life. 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 the darkness of the Bridegroom services to the brilliant light of Pascha. 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.

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