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I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2
Matthew 25:31 – 46
Since the Sunday of Zaccheus, when the spires of Great Lent appeared on the horizon, the Scripture lessons of the daily lectionary have been of the last days. Last week, we read in St Mark of the LORD’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His betrayal, trial, crucifixion and burial. “The women were there [at the Cross],” we read, “looking on from afar. Many others were with them who had gone with Him up to Jerusalem.” (Mk 15:40-41).
We in the Church are among these “many others”. Over the course of these last five Sundays, since the healing of the blind man and Zaccheus at Jericho, we have followed the LORD in the Scripture lessons from Galilee up to Jerusalem; and now, we find ourselves outside the city standing with the women and the “many others,” looking on from afar at His Cross.
This next week, we turn to St Luke’s account of the LORD’s trial and crucifixion. On Thursday, we will read from the Gospel for the last time – our readings starting on Friday will be from the OT, except on Saturday and Sunday – until Great and Holy Week. We will read on Thursday how the “women”, having seen how His body was laid in the tomb, return to prepare spices and ointments; and, it says, hesychousan on the Sabbath, according to the commandment. In the Spirit of the Church, we do not take this to mean they rested. It means they began to pray the prayer of the heart (hesychia is a technical term for prayer in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church). We may surmise that it was the Theotokos who taught them, following St Gregory Palamas; for, he says, in his homily on her Entrance into the Temple that she “discovered” this prayer when she was growing up in the Holy of Holies, and she taught it to the apostles and disciples of the Savior.
Nor do we take, “they returned,” to mean they went home. They may have gone home; but it’s primary meaning for us is that they turned inward, in repentance, in the “prayer of the heart”.
It says they prayed on the Sabbath; that means, in the deeper reading of the Church, in the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest, His Death in the Tomb (Lk 23:54-56), which, says St Macarius, is the tomb of our own heart (St Macarius, Hom 11.11).
In these Gospel readings, I believe we are given both the work and the destination of Great Lent. Our work is the prayer of the heart, descending with the vision of Christ’s death and burial set before us, into the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest in the “tomb of our heart” in order to go with Him up to Jerusalem, the Heavenly Jerusalem, in the joy and glory of His Holy Resurrection.
Our Gospel this morning of the LORD judging the nations on the Last Day stands in the middle of these Gospel readings from St Mark and St Luke of the LORD being judged by the nations and condemned to death. Do you see? While the nations are judging Him and condemning Him to death – as they have been doing down to the present day – He judges the nations.
But, do you see how the Judgment Seat, from which the LORD judges the nations, coalesces in the Gospel lectionary into His Cross? His Judgment Seat is His Cross. The Cross is the Footstool, as the Psalmist says, of His Throne which is His Judgment Seat. Standing at His Cross, we stand before His Judgment Seat on the Last Day. Standing at His Judgment Seat, we are standing at His Cross. As we enter into the mystery of His Sabbath Rest through the ascetic disciplines of Great Lent, we are given to see that we are in the last days. Indeed, as we read in St John’s first epistle last week: “It is the last hour.” If the mystery of God is “Christ in you”, as St Paul says, dear faithful, then the hidden, invisible, spiritual setting of Great Lent, I dare say, is the mystery of the death and burial of God the WORD made flesh on the Last Day that is in you. That’s why the work of Great Lent isn’t to conjure up pious sentimental feelings about how Christ died for us back when and to try to be good; it is to “return” now, today in the mystical “Last Day” – as St Paul writes in Hebrews, urging us to repent so long as the Last Day is still Today and not, I suppose, “Yesterday” – by descending into our heart in hesychia, in the inner stillness produced through prayer and fasting and the giving of alms, in order to “look from afar” in our soul on Christ crucified, so that we may go with Him up to Jerusalem.
I ask you to take in the spiritual reality of Great Lent the Church is leading us to. Perhaps we can say it like this: there is one thing that stands between us and eternal life, it is the Cross of Christ, which is His Judgment Seat. In order to pass through death and come out into the Garden of the Resurrection to eternal life, we must put to death all that is earthly in us and be buried with Christ in His Tomb. That means that we must stand before His Judgment Seat and submit to His Judgement. There is no other way.
Dear faithful, as we are able, let us come in spirit to stand this morning before the Cross as before the Judgement Seat of Christ. Here is the unutterable wonder: on the Cross, the WORD of God judges us not saying a word; or rather, the word of His judgement is the act of His extreme humility in the absolute stillness of His Tomb. At the Bridegroom Matins sung on the evening of Palm Sunday, we will hear: “O invisible Judge, how is it that you have come to be slain by lawless men? By your Passion, you have condemned our condemnation!” His judgment is the act of His unutterable compassion by which He condemns our condemnation and heals our wounds by His wounds.
Dear faithful, how do you hear the LORD’s Judgement against the goats this morning when you hear it in the Church’s icon of Christ on the Cross? What is it to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned if it is not a form of uniting ourselves to Christ in a death like His? But, what is that compared to the LORD Jesus Christ – the “Righteous One” St John called Him in our epistle reading last week – taking upon Himself our grief and our sorrows, voluntarily offering Himself to be wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and taking upon Himself the chastisement for our sins that we might be made whole? (Isa 53)
Who of us, “looking on from afar” at the LORD suffering for us on the Cross would be so hardened of heart that we would want to bleat with the goats: “When did we not minister to you?” If we were to “look on Him whom they have pierced”, dear faithful, would not any word we might try to speak die immediately on our lips? It will be swallowed up in the stillness, the hesychia, of the LORD’s extreme humility and inexpressible compassion? Would we not see every good deed we might claim corrupted at its root by self-esteem? Who of us would not fall to the dust on our faces, judged, seeing in the humility and compassion of the Righteous Judge on the Cross that in all of our supposed good deeds we have done nothing good on the earth.
But, look into your souls, dear faithful; if you are looking at the icon the Church sets before us this morning, you should feel how this judgement against us is not throwing us into despair but into a visceral longing to learn how to mourn and weep the sweet tears of repentance. You should feel welling up from your “gut” a yearning to root out from your heart every trace of self-righteousness, a desire to be taught from the Holy Theotokos how to return, how to repent, how to mourn and weep for our self-centered ways, how to take up the prayer of the heart in the mystery of this, the blessed Sabbath of God’s death and burial, and that the LORD would create in us a clean heart and put in us a new and right spirit. In this vision of God dying on the Cross for my sins, I think we might find ourselves crying out with the sheep: “LORD, when did we ever minister to others in the way that you have ministered to us! We are so riddled with pride and vanity, it is not possible for us to minister to others as you minister to us! LORD, we are unworthy sinners! LORD, heal us, save us, cleanse us, create us anew that we may come to be like Thee!”
Dear faithful: Great Lent is this way given by the Church to those who long to be healed in their soul and made to become like Christ! Brothers and sisters, let us get ready this week to “return, and take up the prayer of the heart and descend under the guidance of the Church into the mystery of God’s Sabbath Rest and into the joy of His Resurrection. Amen!