04 June 2011

'He That Is of God Heareth God's Words'--A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

I really didn’t mean to let two full months go by without posting a thing. To make up for it, here, much belatedly, is one of two homilies that I plan to post this week. This is my homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, preached, as usual, at chapel on the Monday morning following. I had received an indirect request through my principal to make it easier for the other teachers to take something away to discuss with their students—hence the repetitions of certain carefully enumerated points. The age and generally Protestant orientation of most of the audience accounts for the tone and some details of my retelling of the Life of St Mary of Egypt. I apologise that it is hardly a model of hagiographical narration.

Hebrews 9:11-15
St John 8:46-59

‘He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the second verse of today’s Gospel, these words that I have just quoted are spoken by Christ to the Jews. By ‘God’s words’, we can be sure that Our Lord means the Scriptures, of course, but the Scriptures are not only words already written but the words He is speaking at that moment.

From this ‘living Scripture’ we learn, first, that it is important that we ‘hear’ His words, not only read them silently. In the ancient world reading was always done out loud, and as often as we can we too must read the Scriptures aloud, listen to others read them, recite them, etc.

Second, we learn that merely hearing His words physically with our ears is not enough, since the Lord says to his physical audience ‘ye therefore hear them not’. It is also necessary to pay careful attention to what He says. Commenting on this text, the English Puritan, Matthew Henry, writes:

He that is of God . . . is willing and ready to hear His words, is sincerely desirous to know what the mind of God is, and cheerfully embraces whatever he knows to be so. He apprehends and discerns them, he so hears them as to perceive the voice of God in them, as they of the family know the master’s tread, and the master’s knock, as the sheep know the voice of their shepherd from that of a stranger.’
Third, and finally, we learn from these words of Christ that even paying attention is not enough—in v. 51, the Lord says that those who would never see death must ‘keep my saying’. In other words, truly hearing entails also doing.

In his commentary on this Gospel passage, St Gregory the Great emphasises all three of these points:

Let each one of you then consider within himself if this voice of God prevails in the ears of his heart. Then he will recognize whether he is now of God. There are some who do not choose to hear God’s commands even with their bodily ears. There are others who do this but do not embrace them with their heart’s desire. There are still others who receive God’s words readily, yes, and are touched, even to tears. But afterwards they go back to their sins again and therefore cannot be said to hear the word of God, because they neglect to practice it. [2]

Hearing the Word means listening, paying attention, but most importantly, doing the Word.

In the Anonymous Collection of Desert Fathers sayings, we read that:

A woman came to [St] Antony [the Great] and declared that she had endured great fasting and had learned the entire Bible by heart. [Amazing, huh?] She wanted to know from Antony what more she should do. Antony was less sanguine about her accomplishments than she was and put a series of questions to her. He asked her, ‘Is contempt the same as honor to you?’ She answered, ‘No.’ He then asked her, ‘Is loss gain, strangers as your parents, poverty as abundance?’ Again she answered ‘No.’ Antony said to her, ‘Thus you have neither fasted nor learned the Old and New Testament, but you have deceived yourself.’ [3]
By contrast, consider the story of the monk who—

came to St Basil [the Great] and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’; and Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’; and the monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back, and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me’; and he said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’; and the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also. [4]

Hearing God’s Word means listening, paying attention, but most importantly, doing God’s Word.

Indeed, I have already mentioned that in v. 51 Christ says, ‘If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death.’ Does He mean we won’t die, but be taken to heaven like Enoch and Elijah? Clearly not. According to St Augustine: ‘It means nothing less than He saw another death from which He came to free us—the second death, eternal death, the death of hell, the death of the damned, which is shared with the devil and his angels! This is real death; the other kind of death is only a passage.’ [5] So Christ promises that if we keep His saying, we shall be delivered from this eternal death. But there is a more subtle, positive promise as well: If we hear (that is, do) the Word, its mysteries will be revealed to us.

Recall that the Jews respond to Christ’s promise: ‘Abraham is dead, and did he not keep God’s Word?’ What the Lord says in reply is rather strange. In v. 56, He tells them, ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.’ Happily, the author of Hebrews, traditionally believed to be St Paul, helps us to understand this.

First, in a passage not found in today’s Epistle, but in chapter 11, v. 13, St Paul, having spoken of Abraham, writes: ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them.’ In other words, yes, Abraham died the lesser death, and he died before Christ brought deliverence from eternal death, but he foresaw the deliverance, and he obtained this through faith—through hearing (that is, doing) the Word of God. St Irenaeus of Lyons says, ‘Righteously therefore, having left his earthly family, Abraham followed the Word of God walking as a pilgrim with the Word so that he might afterwards make his home with the Word.’ [6]

Now, the Fathers say many things about what Abraham saw—the mysteries revealed to him for his faith, like the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. But most Fathers specifically connect what Christ calls ‘my day’ with His crucifixion and death. St Irenaeus writes, ‘Abraham was a prophet and saw in the Spirit the day of the Lord’s coming and the dispensation of His suffering’; [7] St Chrysostom says Abraham ‘was gladdened at the cross’; [8] and St Gregory Palamas says the ‘mystery of the Cross was working in Abraham’. [9]

How was this so? The Fathers say it is especially true in the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (found in Gen. 22:1-14). St Cyril says Abraham ‘saw the day of the Lord’s slaughter . . . when, as a type of Christ, he was enjoined to offer up for a sacrifice his only begotten and firstborn, Isaac . . . making clear the exact force of the Mystery in a type in what happened.’ [10] St Ephraim the Syrian writes, ‘“He saw and rejoiced,” for he recognized the redemption of all the nations through the symbol of the lamb. “He said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’” For He existed, but in hidden fashion, when Isaac was being redeemed and revealed His sign through a lamb.’ [11]

Christ is of course the true Agnus Dei, the true Lamb of God—that is the Word of God that Abraham saw, and it is this ‘Word of God’ which we ‘hear’ in today’s Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15. In verses 13-14, St Paul writes:

For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

This is the Mystery revealed to Abraham. Christ is the perfect sacrifice, who delivers us from death and frees us from the dead works of the Law—sacrificing animals, etc.—so we can follow ‘the Word of God’. To paraphrase St John Cassian (Conference 21.4.3), we no longer offer sacrifices of animals or mere ‘tithes of our possessions’, but ‘disdaining property, we offer ourselves and our own souls to God’. [12] We hear and do God’s Word by imitating Christ’s sacrifice. We participate in the Mystery of the Cross by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. For as we listen to today’s Gospel, we ourselves must be hearing the Word of God, and if we do this, we like Abraham will learn its Mystery. The Jews to whom Our Lord spoke heard but did not hear—we have the opportunity to hear what they did not.

In St John 8:58, Christ says: ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.’ Commenting on this passage, St Gregory the Great writes:

Our Redeemer graciously turns their gaze away from His body and draws it to contemplation of His divinity. . . . ‘Before’ indicates past time, ‘I am’ present time. Because divinity does not have past and future time but always is, He did not say, ‘I was before Abraham’ but ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ And so it was said to Moses [at the burning bush], ‘I am who I am’, and ‘You will say to the children of Israel, “He who is has sent me to you”’ (Ex 3:14). [13]

In other words, Christ existed both before and after Abraham. It was Christ Who appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre, and the sign of the Precious Cross was stamped on his life. But this should not surprise us. As one modern theologian puts it:

Theologically speaking, creation and its history begins with the Passion of Christ [His suffering on the Cross] and from this ‘once for all’ work looks backwards and forwards to see everything in this light, making everything new. Christian cosmology, elaborated as it must be from the persective of the Cross, sees the Cross as impregnated in the very structure of creation: stat crux dum volvitur orbis—the Cross stands, while the earth revolves. The power of God revealed in and through the Cross brought creation into being and sustains it in existence. [14]

He then quotes St Isaac of Syria:

We do not speak of a power in the Cross that is any different from that through which the worlds came into being, [a power] which is eternal and without beginning and which guides creation all the time without any break, in a divine way and beyond the understanding of all, in accordance with the will of His divinity. [15]

If all this theology is a bit too much for you though, I’ll tell a little story that might make it easier.

Starting about 600 years ago, the Church that I belong to began a tradition of reading the Life of a Saint named St Mary of Egypt every year on the 5th Sunday of Lent. In the West, not many know about St Mary, so I’ll tell her story briefly.

The Life as we have it was written down in the 7th c. by St Sophronius of Jerusalem. It tells of a St Zosimas who lived in the Holy Land and was a good monk who ‘never ceased to study the Divine Scriptures. Whether resting, standing, working or eating food (if the scraps he nibbled could be called food), he incessantly and constantly had a single aim: always to sing of God, and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.’ According to the custom of his monastery, St Zosimas set off to the desert across the River Jordan to spend Lent alone with Christ (so, following the Word of God).

After 20 days, St Zosimas saw a human being whose body was ‘blackened, burnt by the heat of the sun’ [16]—an image of self-denial, of suffering, of the Mystery of the Cross—and discovers that it is a woman who already knows his name through Spirit. She is too humble to speak of herself, but St Zosimas begs her to tell him her story and finally cajoles her into it.

She says her name is ‘Mary’ and that she is from Alexandria, Egypt. Before she came to the desert, she was a very sinful woman—she liked to party, she wore lots of makeup and fancy clothes, and committed adultery many times. One day she went to Jerusalem and heard it was Feast of Precious Cross (at that time the Jerusalem Church still had all of the actual Cross that Christ was crucified on). Mary tried to go into the church with the crowd, but a mysterious force held her back. She realised that God was preventing her to enter because of her sins, and she promised to go to the desert and live in repentance. At that moment, she was able to enter the church and kiss Christ’s Precious Cross, upon which she immediately left and crossed the Jordan. At the time that she meets St Zosimas, St Mary believes that it has been 47 years since she left the Holy City to follow the Word of God.

When St Mary quotes Scripture to St Zosimas, he asks if she has read the Bible. Interestingly, she says: ‘I never learned from books. I have never even heard anyone who sang and read from them. But the word of God which is alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge.’ So Christ revealed to her His mysteries—she has heard His living voice, of which Scripture is only a record, and has been freed by grace to ‘serve the living God’. St Zosimas says, ‘Blessed is God Who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!’

The end of the story is that St Mary tells St Zosimas (who is a priest) to bring her Holy Communion. When he goes back to the Jordan he sees her on the other side, but she crosses by walking across the water to receive the Mysteries and says, ‘Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.’ When St Zosimas goes back at her request after a year, St Mary has fallen asleep in the Lord.

Because St Mary has heard (and done) the Word of God, He has made known the Mystery of His Cross to her.

Because St Zosimas has heard (and done) the Word of God, He has made known mystery of St Mary’s cross to him.

Obviously, not all are called to live in the desert of the Holy Land, but as we get ready to celebrate His death and resurrection in a couple of weeks let’s try to remember that—

Whenever we are asked to do something we don’t like, we have an opportunity to share in Christ’s Cross just a little bit.

Whenever someone insults us or hurts us, and we are tempted to get angry and get back at them, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever we feel like fidgeting during Matins, or ignoring our teacher, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever we have to wait for something we want, we can share in Christ’s Cross.

Whenever our tie is too tight, the day is too hot, our chair is too hard, our class is too long, or the book we have to read is too boring, we share in Christ’s Cross.

If we do this, if we take advantage of these opportunities and even seek new ones, we will truly hear God’s Word.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: New One Volume Edition, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966), p. 1555.

[2] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 1-10, NT Vol. IVa of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006), p. 309.

[3] Douglas Burton-Christ, The Word in the Desert: Scripture & the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (NY: Oxford, 1993), p. 161.

[4] Benedicta Ward, Foreword, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. xxii.

[5] Elowsky, p. 313.

[6] Ibid., p. 316.

[7] Ibid., p. 316.

[8] Ibid., p. 316.

[9] St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, ed. & tr. Christopher Veniamin with the Monastery of St John the Baptist (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor, 2009), p. 79.

[10] Elowsky, p. 316.

[11] Ibid., p. 317.

[12] St John Cassian, The Conferences, tr. Boniface Ramsey (NY: Newman, 1997), p. 721.

[13] Elowsky, p. 317.

[14] Fr John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2006), p. 90.

[15] Qtd. in ibid., p. 90.

[16] All quotations from the Life of St Mary of Egypt are taken from here.

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