Sermon given by metropolitan Anthony
6 March 1977
On the Sundays of Preparation for Lent and the Lenten Sundays
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. To go through Lent receiving all it can give, we must understand in what spirit we approach it; many endow Lent as a period of sadness and they are mistaken. Bitter, challenging, bracing would have been the weeks of preparation when we are confronted in the reading of the Gospel, in the songs of the Church, with all our human situations: with our blindness in the person of Bartimaeus who causes us not only to understand that we are blind. It causes us to come to a point of such desperation that we should no longer be able to bear it and should turn to Christ when He passes our way in the words of the Gospel, in the prayers of the saints, in the gifts of sacraments, and cry to Him louder than all the voices that try to silence us, “Lord, have mercy, Lord, save me, Lord, give me my sight!”.
And then we are confronted again with what happens when we begin to see; we cast a glance around us and we see human faces, we are confronted with human judgement and we are afraid of the appraisal of men. We must learn from Zacchaeus to reject all our fear of human judgement, of human mockery, of human rejection, and turn to God whatever the cost, however foolish it may appear, however much it discloses to others that we are sinners and that we need salvation, while they may have been thinking that we are better than we really are.
And then, when we turn away from the judgement of men, we are confronted with the stern judgement of our own conscience. You remember the story of the Pharisee and the Publican; how the Publican stood at the threshold of the Temple, having of a sudden perceived that this place belongs to God, that this realm is holy, that he, with the life he had led, had no right even to step into it. And yet, he did not turn away, he did not turn from the presence of God because even his worldly life had taught him that in a human cruel society there are moments, there are oases of mercy, of compassion and that such moments can give hope, that justice or cruelty may suspend their action and that a miracle may occur, and freedom, liberation, forgiveness may be offered. And yet, in the face of his own judgement he did not dare walk in the sacred realm of the holiness of God; he returned to his house, beating his breast, recognising his sins, but the Lord had seen him and he returned home more justified than the righteous Pharisee who was unaware of sin.
But there is more to our relationship to God; the story of the Prodigal Son teaches us that we need not, when we are condemned by our conscience, only beat our breast, only stay at the threshold and then sadly return to the world of godlessness, the world where he is not the Lord and King: however far we have strayed from home, however cynically we have taken all the gifts of God to squander them in the strange land, we must remember that we have a home and we have a father, that we may have become unworthy sons and daughters, prodigals indeed, but that the Father has remained faithful and fatherly while we have forgotten Him. He has remembered us with pain and love. We can, like the prodigal son, move homewards and will be met on our way by the Father who has been waiting for us and we will be reintegrated into the household for no other reason than that we have not forgotten that we have a father and a home and we have come to be forgiven and may fall again.
And again, the Church confronted us in these weeks of preparation with the judgement. And again we were faced with something more than the judgement of’ man, the judgement of our conscience, the testing hope of the publican, the sure hope of the prodigal or the despair of the blind Bartimaeus. We were confronted with the fact that the very substance of the Judgement is not the multiplicity, the variety of good and evil actions which we may have done on earth, or committed on earth, but love. The story of the sheep and the goats tells us that the only judgement is based on love: have you been human? Have you been compassionate? Have you been merciful? Have you had pity, have you been, at your own cost and risk, faithful to the solidarity and fellowship of men? If you have, then you may enter into the greater realm of the greatest love which is love divine. But if not, there is no way into divine love – but what to do?
And the next Sunday told us that if we cannot get love, we can at least forgive, if we wish to be forgiven, and if we cannot yet forgive with greatness of heart, wholeheartedly, generously, we can at least accept one another, sinful as we are, difficult as we are, a cross to one another as we are, and carry one another's burdens; and the first burden is my neighbour’s person and personality, and so, one day, become able to receive one another as Christ has received us.
But this is the end of preparation. After Forgiveness Sunday, when we have entered into the spirit of forgiveness, we enter also into a new realm, because forgiveness has one characteristic which judgement has not: it is gratuity. We enter now, we have entered into the realm of grace, into the realm in which God, gratuitously, freely gives to all who will come to Him, all who need to be saved.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy which we have kept last week speaks, indeed, not of a triumph of a visible Church over visible enemies or adversaries; it speaks of the victory of God, of divine love, of divine truth, of the divine grace and power over each of us, over all of us, and through, in, and around us, over all the world that surrounds us. The Triumph of Orthodoxy is the beginning of a new life; Orthodoxy is nothing else but a true knowledge of God as He is, and adoration of God in a manner which is worthy of His holiness, of His beauty, of His greatness.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy is our gradual growth by the grace, mercy and love of God into life eternal. And now we are in the realm of grace.
And today we keep the memory of Saint Gregory Palamas, who taught about grace and who revealed in his life what grace can do to make a man into a saint of God. In his teaching, he proclaims, together with the whole Orthodox Church, against all those who were in error against him, that grace is not simply a created gift which God bestows upon those whom He chooses and loves, but that grace is the outpouring of God Himself, reaching us, communing with us, giving Himself to us, making us partakers of His own life, indeed, according to the daring words of Saint Peter’s Epistle, of the divine nature. This is what God is doing. The triumph of Orthodoxy is the triumph of God making us by participation, communion into the brothers and sisters of Christ, into the true children of the Living God.
And if we ask ourselves how can that be, next Sunday the answer will come. We will be confronted with the Cross, the sacrificial, crucified love, God giving Himself at the cost of His own life, acquiring the right to forgive because He has paid the cost of sin, acquiring the right to give us eternal life, because He has died our death and also a Cross that must fill us with certainty and with hope, the certainty that God has so loved us that nothing, nothing can snap us, tear us out of the hand of God, out of the love of God. And also, if that was done by God for us, then we are truly precious to Him, as precious as life and death are; and then, what shall be our response?
Saint John Climacus will help us and the image of Saint Mary of Egypt will stand before us. Saint John Climacus will teach us that nothing, nothing but repentance, that is turning away from all things and turning God-wards, God-wards can make us partakers of this life. And Saint Mary of Egypt will demonstrate to us in her whole life that all sins can be overcome and that all things are possible to anyone who turns to God in the power of Christ.
And then will come the resurrection of Lazarus, preparing us for Holy Week and out of the contemplation of the deeds of God we will enter into the contemplation of God Himself become man that we may be saved.
Let us therefore re-examine ourselves and if we have not done so according to the passages offered in the weeks of preparation, take off our blindness, become aware of a desperate condition, turn to God in desperate hope away from human judgement, face our own conscience, face God’s own judgement, and hope, and love, and enter into the realm of gratuitous love of the grace of God which is Lent.
Let us enter into this time which is called “the spring of life” as we enter into the physical spring of this season, when all things are made new, when all things begin to breath with new life, and only then shall we be able to face the stern and yet life-giving days of the Passion, of the death and the Resurrection of Christ. Amen.
CATHEDRAL NEWSLETTER March 1999 No. 328