12 April 2012

'Saddened Eyes Beheld a Vision of Joy' - A Homily

The following is a homily that I prepared for Monday, 9 April--Holy Monday on the Orthodox calendar, Bright Monday on the Western, but due to a mix-up had to revise for delivery on 16 April--Orthodox Bright Monday. I was feeling a bit lazy and pressed for time when I started working on it, so unlike most of my homilies it was actually written out from the beginning rather than being composed in notes and then expanded into readable prose later for blogging purposes. I find it much easier to work that way.

I Corinthians 15:1-8
St Luke 24: 13-32​

'O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?'

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

The poet T.S. Eliot begins his famous poem 'The Waste Land' with the words, 'April is the cruellest month', [1] and the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, seems to be telling us why when he writes, in his own poem:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring;... [2]

While almost all of you out there this morning celebrated Easter at your churches yesterday, my family and I still have a week to go. In the Orthodox Church, yesterday was only Palm Sunday, when we celebrate the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem before His Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. In other words, we're still thinking of the cruelty this month, of Christ lying slain. This left me momentarily in a bit of a conundrum about what to speak about today. I didn't feel I could just plunge comfortably into a homily about the Resurrection, but on the other hand, I didn't think I could speak as though the Resurrection was still to come when almost the whole school had already celebrated it.

But a bit of reflection reminded me that this was not as big a problem as it seemed. For one thing, Christ's entry into Jerusalem, and our Palm Sunday celebration, are already looking ahead towards the Cross and the Resurrection. The Lord's Entry is a triumphal procession, such as that a Roman emperor might have made after defeating a terrible enemy, and Christ is openly proclaimed as King. For Christ is the King of Glory, and the enemies He has defeated are Death, Sin, and the Devil. The poets Eliot and Merton know this as well as you and I, but an ancient Byzantine hymn says it better than they could:

O immortal Lord, Thou hast bound hell, slain death, and raised the world: therefore the children, carrying palms, sing praise to Thee as Victor, O Christ, and they cry aloud to Thee this day: 'Hosanna to the Son of David! For no more', say they, 'shall the little children be slain because of Mary's Child; but Thou alone art crucified for all, both young and old. No more shall the sword be drawn against us, for Thy side is pierced by a spear. With great rejoicing, then, we cry: Blessed art Thou that comest to call back Adam.' [3]

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the people laid their clothes on the ground before the Lord as He rode forth on the donkey. The clothes being trampled could be read as the mortality of the Old Man, which we are to take off to be clothed with Christ the New Man (Rom 6:6), and the poor, humble beast on which the Lord is mounted might be the ignominious but Precious Cross, 'unto the Jews a stumblingblock and unto the Greeks foolishness' (I Cor 1:23). Furthermore, we recall that the very same crowd that welcomed Christ as their Saviour, shouting 'Hosanna!', would shortly be shouting 'Crucify Him!'

​So already, those of us who celebrated Palm Sunday were shown an image of the Crucifixion. But as I have suggested, even this image of the Crucifixion is not one of defeat, and the element of triumph, of victory, glory, and honour, is present already in the entry into Jerusalem as well as in the Crucifixion itself. For it is by His own death that the Lord has trampled upon Death, for He was not taken and put to this death against His will. He willingly underwent Crucifixion when He said, 'Not My will, but Thine be done' (Lk 22:42). The old Anglo-Saxon poem, 'The Dream of the Rood', speaks of Christ stripping like a warrior before battle, and mounting the Cross like a war-horse, and while we know that this is not 'historically' accurate, it is most definitely 'theologically' true. In other words, the Crucifixion is also an image of the coming Resurrection. [4]

But both the Entry into Jerusalem and the Crucifixion itself left the Disciples confused, didn't they? In St John's Gospel, having quoted the prophecy in Zachariah 9:9 about Israel's King coming to her 'meek, and seated upon a donkey', the account of the triumphal entry tells us, 'These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of Him, and that they had done these things unto Him' (Jn 12:16). In other words, they did not recognise the significance of what was taking place before their very eyes. Much less did they recognise it at the Crucifixion itself, nor even when they first heard the news of the empty tomb from the Myrrh-bearing women. 'But when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of Him'. When did this happen?

In today's Gospel, we discover the nature of the disciples' misunderstanding as well as the means of their understanding. Two disciples, one named Cleopas and the other traditionally identified as St Luke himself, are walking to Emmaus, when they meet Jesus on the road. It is a meeting that inspired part of Eliot's 'Waste Land', where he writes, 'Who is the third who walks always beside you?' (360) For so complete is the Disciples' misunderstanding, their inability to recognise what is before their eyes, that they do not even recognise the risen Lord Himself--'But their eyes were holden that they should not know Him' (Lk 24:16). In response to His question about why they are sad, the disciples tell Him about 'Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and have crucified Him. But we trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel' (Lk 24:19-21).

In other words, the disciples believed that because Christ had been crucified, it could not be He that was to deliver Israel. As Bl Theophylact writes, 'the people expected, incorrectly, that Christ would be their savior and redeemer from the temporal afflictions that beset them, and from the yoke of slavery to the Romans. And they hoped that He would rule as king over an earthly kingdom'. [5] They thought that the Crucifixion meant that He could not redeem them, not realising that it was precisely BY the Crucifixion that He DID redeem them. Bl Theophylact exhorts us, 'You, O reader, consider how entering into glory comes by means of suffering.' [6]

So what did Christ do? He responded, 'O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself' (Lk 24:25-26). In other words, He told them that it was by His suffering that He was glorified, and began to expound the Scriptures to them. He proclaimed the Word to them, and having proclaimed the Word, 'He took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew Him; and He vanished out of their sight' (Lk 24:30-31). Notice that the first verse I just quoted consists of precisely the same words that were used when Christ instituted the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper.

Do you see what happened? He gave them the Liturgy of the Word or of the 'Catechumens', who are instructed in the Scriptures, and then He gave them the Liturgy of the Sacrament or of the 'Faithful', who partake of the Eucharist, and it is through this two-fold celebration of the divine mysteries that ​their eyes were opened and 'they said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?"' At last, 'Jesus was glorified, and they remembered'. Of course, it was in His suffering, death, and Resurrection that He was glorified, but the Disciples were not able to see this until He reminded them of the Scriptures that had foretold all of this, and then served them Holy Communion. In the words of St Augustine:

It was for our sake that He didn't want to be recognised anywhere but there, because weren't going to see Him in the flesh, and yet we were going to eat His flesh. So if you're a believer, any of you, if you're not called a Christian for nothing, if you don't come to church pointlessly, if you listen to the Word of God in fear and hope, you may take comfort in the breaking of bread. The Lord's absence is not an absence. Have faith, and the one you cannot see is with you. [7]

It is only the Church that gathers together to hear the Word and celebrate the Sacrament that truly knows WHO Christ is, that is able to see in the midst of a savage beating and a shameful death, in the midst of an extreme condescension, the Maker of all the universe lifted up, glorified, and defeating the evils that have plagued us since the Fall of our Forefather in Paradise. According to one of the hymns of St Ephrem the Syrian:

When the disciples' eyes
were held closed,
bread too was the key
whereby their eyes were opened
to recognise the omniscient:
saddened eyes beheld
a vision of joy
and were instantly filled with happiness. [8]

In the light of the Resurrection, and only in this light, we are able at last to see the true meaning of all of the events of Christ's life, of all of the words that He spoke, of all the Old Testament Scriptures, and of all of human history for that matter, and it is ultimately as St Ephrem says, 'a vision of joy'. We couldn't celebrate the Entry into Jerusalem, or the Crucifixion, if it we didn't already know the Resurrection followed them, and if our eyes had not been opened by the grace of God of which we partake in Word and Sacrament. But in the wake of this experience, we see that He has made all things new (Rev 21:5), and we are 'instantly filled with happiness'. As G.K. Chesterton has written:

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn. [9]

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

[1] T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays 1909-1950 (NY: Harcourt, 1971), p. 37.

[2] Thomas Merton, Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, enlarged ed. (NY: New Directions, 1967), p. 13.

[3] Ikos of the Canon at Matins for Palm Sunday; Mother Mary & Archimandrite Kallistos [Ware], tr., The Lenten Triodion (South Canaan, PA: St Tikhon's Seminary, 1994), p. 499.

[4] I'll add a reference and perhaps quote a line or two soon just to improve the post a bit.

​[5] Bl Theophylact, The Explanation by Bl Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St Luke, tr. Fr Christopher Stade (House Springs, MO: Chrysostom, 1997), p. 320.

[6] Ibid., p. 322.

[7] From Sermon 235; qtd. from Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed., Luke, Vol. III of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), p. 378.

[8] St Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, tr. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1990), p. 183.

[9] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (SF: Ignatius, 2008), p. 213.

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