The former things have passed away… Behold, I make all things new (Rev. 21:4-5)

Archive for January, 2007

Sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn

Shortly before the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy (during which the bread and wine to be consecrated are brought to the altar), we sing what is aptly called the Cherubic Hymn: “Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

First of all, we receive quite a high promotion when we participate in the Divine Liturgy, for suddenly we earthen vessels “mystically represent the Cherubim,” who are among the highest and most glorious of all the heavenly incorporeal powers. But there’s something else I noticed, which perhaps does not take us to quite the same dizzying heights, but which nevertheless expresses something of the profound richness of the Christian vocation. We “sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

That is a kind of mission statement, or even an expression of our very identity as Christians. Who are Christians? “Oh, they are the ones who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.” It’s what we do, and so it expresses who we are. You might ask precisely what is the thrice-holy hymn. Well, you have two choices, and as Christians you might as well sing them both (you already do if you are a Byzantine Christian). The first is: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” This is aptly named the trisagion, which in Greek means (you guessed it) “thrice-holy.” This seems to be what is indicated in the Liturgy, because in the prayer that the priest prays immediately before the trisagion, he says: “Accept, O Master, from the lips of us sinners the thrice-holy hymn…” But it can also refer to the “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of hosts…” which precedes the Eucharistic canon, for those three holies equal “thrice-holy.” In the Scriptures (Rev. 4:8) and in the Liturgy (“Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed”), it is the heavenly powers who sing this hymn. It is therefore appropriate that the Cherubic Hymn is situated between these two thrice-holies and in a sense refers to both of them.

The awareness of our identity as those who sing this hymn to the Holy Trinity ought to influence the way we conduct ourselves when we’re not explicitly singing in church. One who has the awesome task and privilege to mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity cannot behave in the same manner as those who do not. In time of temptation or decision, we ought to ask ourselves which is the course that one who sings to the Trinity would take, and what are the priorities of one who lays aside earthly cares in order to receive the King of All, who comes with angelic escorts.

If the Liturgy doesn’t follow us out of the church, the practical good it does in our lives is quite limited. Of course, nothing is more noble and sanctifying than to receive the Holy Eucharist, but if this divine “seed” falls on rocky or weed-infested soil, it bears no fruit. The world of liturgical worship should not be considered a radically different—and hence more or less disconnected—world than the one in which we daily live and work and recreate. That lofty cherub-inhabited world has to penetrate this world, communicate divine grace to it, make it possible to welcome the Lord and sing thrice-holy hymns to Him in our hearts even as we go about our daily labors. If this is not so, then our liturgical worship is little more than a kind of sacred diversion, a discontinuity with the mundane—without the mundane ever being transformed by it.

Christ said He would give the Bread from Heaven, his flesh, for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51), not merely to satisfy the spiritual/aesthetic tastes of those who go in for things like the rituals of liturgy. So then, let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, conduct ourselves in this world as carriers of the Mystery, as lights in the darkness, as those who have seen the Lord transfigured and who are now called to go forth and witness to his glory. We must leave the Liturgy changed. If we lay aside earthly cares in order to receive Him sacramentally, then we must return to those cares and infuse them with his wisdom, love, and healing power, bringing his life to the world. It’s not a small thing to be a singer of the glory of the life-giving Trinity. The Cherubim and Seraphim have been doing it for countless millennia, and they still stand in awe…

He Who Sees in Secret

That is one way that Jesus speaks of his heavenly Father in the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by St Matthew. He uses that expression when contrasting “hypocrites” with true disciples in the practice of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. (As we prepare to practice these during Lent, let us be forewarned as to what pleases the Lord and what doesn’t.)

The contrast is similar in each instance, and his teaching is summed up in the first verse of chapter six: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them.” In the case of almsgiving, the hypocrites loudly and publicly announce what they are doing, “that they may be praised by men.” When they pray, they call attention to themselves in public places, “that they may be seen by men.” When they fast, they ostentatiously make it known by their haggard looks, “that their fasting may be seen by men.” In all these cases, the Lord says: Do not do this. Why? The answer has to do with whatever return is received for these pious acts. If the hypocrites are looking for the praise, notice, and esteem of men, they will have that—and nothing else—for “they are already repaid.” But they will have “no reward from the Father who is in heaven.” What a complete waste of life!

It is different with the true children of God. When they give alms, they are do it out of the public eye, “so that your alms may be in secret.” When they pray, they are to go into their room and close the door, “and pray to your Father who is in secret” [or, who is hidden]. When they fast, their “fasting may not be seen by men, but by the Father who sees in secret.” In each of these cases, Jesus concludes by saying: “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Jesus wants us to have our reward from God and not to receive mere ego-building flattery or praise from others. It is interesting to note that in the Greek text, a different word is used for the repayment of the hypocrites and the reward from the Father. The hypocrites’ recompense is a kind of “refund” for their self-serving efforts, one that they exact from others by calling attention to themselves. This repayment is cheap and vaporous, for it comes not from God but from men. But the reward of God is literally a “restoration,” as if God’s grace makes up for whatever our acts of piety may cost us in the way of humble and hidden sacrifice. And his reward is beyond all proportion to our efforts to please Him and to serve his people.

That is why genuine Christians have to live on a different level than either the general narcissistic mind-set of the world or the self-righteous self-consciousness of today’s religious hypocrites. We walk under the gaze of “the Father who sees in secret” and who alone can assess the value of our pious works, and hence grant whatever reward it pleases his heart to bestow. Perhaps we would wish to be recognized for our good works because we have a guilty conscience about our bad works. But that is not going to win us a more favorable hearing at the Judgment Seat, because the Father already sees everything, the good and the bad, and He knows that nothing is to be gained (rather the opposite) by increasing the number of people who know of our good works.

About this hidden life that Christ enjoins, Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis writes: “One of God’s chief attributes is ‘the One who sees in hidden places.’ In a way we could say that God only sees in hidden places, that consequently the actions and attitudes of hypocrites in public places are not seen by God because they are not real. Hiddenness is here a crucial criterion for genuineness, for reality, for being-in-fact. How horrible not to be seen by God, to live in such a way that our lives are mere fleeting ghosts before him! …Hiddenness, solitude, and silence have the effect, so to speak, of gathering up the scattered atoms of our being and kneading them into an image recognizable in the eyes of God. The Father has made me a steward over myself, and interiority is the space where I do the work assigned me… No other human work can be successful unless it can be traced back to this essential activity that is purely interior: seeking the Face of God so as to abide in its presence with the deepest part of my being. The call to do this constitutes human identity.”

Here we receive a further insight into the profundity of Jesus simple words: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them… your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” It’s not simply a matter of working for the better or lasting reward; it’s about realizing our true identity in the eyes of God by the way we conduct ourselves in this passing life. The attention-demanding and self-centered piety of the hypocrites will ultimately reduce them to spiritual wraiths who will who will go on trying to call attention to themselves (but with eternal frustration) in the abode of shadowy castoffs that hover on the brink of non-being—the place where even God no longer looks. But the humble seekers of the hidden Father who quietly work within the interiority of a self-effacing yet God-loving way of life, will be “restored” a hundredfold and more by Him who sees in secret. This is the “abundant life” communicated to us by the Lord.

Let us not think we’ve “heard it all before” when familiar Gospel passages are read. Rather, let us pay close attention when the Lord speaks, for He has the words of eternal life.

Moments of Contemplation

About a week ago I was walking back to my monastic cell after supper, and I paused briefly as a moment of grace and a kind of natural contemplation settled upon me. It was an unseasonably warm January day, though it was still cool and fresh. A beautiful picture formed before my eyes: yellow-orange streaks of clouds mingling with the silhouette of a leafless winter tree and its myriad tiny branches. Above it, a new crescent moon was softly setting over the forested ridge, as a puff of colored mist lightly passed before it. The tops of the firs were gently swaying in a light, clean breeze, and all creation was still, quietly joyful. It was as if the earth were breathing a sigh of contentment at the end of a blessed day, which was silently receding and giving way to the mysteries of the night.

Is this not the world as God had meant it to be?—not crammed with noisy, frenzied (and all too often self-destructive) activity, with the consequent blindness to the omnipresent beauty of a world full of life and wonder. Rather, a peace that passes understanding, a stillness that allows one to hear the sounds of life, to breathe in the serenity of a world turning by the hand of God, and hence turning toward God, lifted up on the heart-praises of his immortal images, so that the whole cosmos can join in the unceasing worship of those who have heard Heaven’s whispers in the evergreens and are longing for the light of Home.

After Compline that night I walked into further wonders. That magnificent night sky! We live about 18 miles from the nearest town, and we refuse to artificially light the pathways of the monastery. God has provided heavenly lights for that, and when the night is clear, we can find our way simply by starlight. The deep dark space, brightly populated with its innumerable glittering citizens, is but a super-sheer veil of the Divinity. It is always breathtaking, always wondrous, always captivating—therefore it must be a reflection of the mystery of God. The night air was almost intoxicating. The silence wrapped around me like the arms of the Heavenly Mother. The wind still whispered in the trees, its effects unseen now, yet felt from time to time as a caress on the cheek. If I were a saint, I think I would have levitated at that moment. The whole experience was like a cup of cool water to a thirsty man, leaving me refreshed but not satiated. Sometimes beauty is so exhilarating, I feel like I could literally drink it in.

There are intimations of God in all this. I’m not too interested in the chemical composition of the universe—though I am fascinated at times by what science discovers about the wonders of creation. Yet I can’t help but regard with a sort of uncomprehending pity those who still assert that it all exploded itself into existence and has no purpose but to gradually burn itself back out of existence. The effect that sunsets and night skies have on immortally-ensouled beings is not that of molecules upon molecules. It is rather the effect of divine grace upon spirits capable of receiving revelations from on high. A sunset is not merely a predictable daily solar occurrence, for the heavens are telling the glory of God.

We may sometimes become frustrated that God does not give verbal answers to our verbal questions, but if we can bring our souls to a stillness similar to that of yellow-orange evenings or infinite black-and-silver nights, we may discover that the Word speaks without words, that He is answering questions that we haven’t yet the sense to ask. Still, we may notice an “amen” rising from some hidden inner depth—for Deep calls upon deep, and our spirit intuitively knows its Creator—even if we are still stumbling over concepts and conundrums, or are caught up in the erratic currents of quotidian events, whose hidden meaning we’ve not yet properly understood.

So be still and know that the Lord is God. Find—at all costs—someplace where you can enter nature’s silence and recover the ancient capacity to hear angels in the wind and to know Him who created stars with the breath of his mouth. Contemplation isn’t a luxury—it is the key to the Gate of Heaven.

Waging War

A lot is said (in some circles) about “spiritual warfare,” and not all of it is helpful or even correct. It’s not about challenging the foul hordes of hell in a confrontational combat, or thinking that one can cast out demons just because he knows how to say the name of Jesus, nor is it something that requires our constant focus on the presence of the dark powers. Yet it is undeniable that spiritual warfare is an element of Christian life that is ignored only at one’s peril. I’d like to take a brief look at the Scriptures and human experience to see if we can get a good understanding of the essentials.

St Paul says, “Wage the good warfare” and “fight the good fight” (1Tim. 1:18; 6:12), and “take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2Tim. 2:3). Perhaps he was grooming St Timothy as his successor and wanted to make sure he was “complete, equipped for every good work” (3:17). What does Paul mean when he talks about this warfare, this fight? In the first instance, he says it means “holding faith and a good conscience,” and in the second he enjoins Timothy to “take hold of eternal life” and to “keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So one element of the spiritual warfare is simply living the Christian life in obedience and fidelity and perseverance. That is hard enough, given the world we live in today!

St Peter takes the warfare to a new level, a kind of gut level that speaks more to our personal struggles. He beseeches us, “as aliens and exiles” (that in itself sets the context—our citizenship is not here; we’re on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland and so must not get complacent), “to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (1Peter 2:11). Our warfare is not entirely on the offensive, routing Legion’s legions, but it seems to be more often than not on the defensive, since Peter says here that it is the sinful passions that are waging war on us. Here’s what he says to do about it: “Gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all you do… Conduct yourself with reverence throughout the time of your exile” (1:13-17).

Finally (for this post, anyway), Paul gives us the classic text: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood [i.e., human beings], but against… the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (read the rest for yourself, Ephesians 6:10-18). He lists as our armor and weaponry: truth, the Gospel of peace, faith, the hope of salvation, the word of God and prayer.

Even though we have all these grace-giving counsels and alerts, we may find that in our own experience we either don’t take them very seriously, thinking that we’re more or less OK and don’t need to get all concerned about warding off demonic attacks, or that the demons are so cunning, vicious, and relentless that the spiritual remedies seem ineffectual. In the former case, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall, or have already unwittingly allowed ourselves to slide into the acceptance of a gradual deception, a noose that gets a little tighter each day until it’s too late to extricate ourselves from its stranglehold. In the latter case, we must simply increase our prayer, our efforts, our recourse to the sacraments and the saints and angels, trusting that God will not let us be hammered into submission before He comes to rescue us.

Before we can effectively fight we have to recognize what is going on, for the “passions that wage war against your soul” are not always the same for everyone, and not always the same at different stages of the same person’s life. For some, there really is a kind of face to face struggle with demonic manifestations, but these are quite rare, so we needn’t dwell on that here. For others, there are the smokescreens that lead to unbelief, indifference or despair (remember the last post—the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right), or the blinding power of money or prestige, and the sour fruit of pride in its many dimensions.

For others it may be the seductive power of lust, which also comes in many forms. This is particularly insidious, because the sexual drive, unlike inclinations to unbelief, pride and avarice, was placed in us by God as something good, part of his divine plan for love between man and woman, and for the propagation of the human race. The devil, however, is ingenious in coming up with ways to pervert it, and his works are becoming more perverse and ubiquitous every day. This inner drive is not something that can be willed away, or prayed and fasted out of existence. Insofar as it is a fundamental biological drive, it is irrational, and here is the point at which spiritual efforts may seem to stall. You can’t reason with it, you can’t quote Scripture to it, you can’t silence it even by taking up your cross and following Jesus (even though that is the only path to resisting its obstinate demands). It is the gut-wrenching power of this dark irrationality that constitutes war waged on the soul (it may be that other passions, for other reasons, exercise a similarly tenacious force in our lives; each has to examine his own experience and conscience). See, the Apostles were not just tossing around clever phrases or peddling platitudes, they were talking seriously about matters that are life or death for the soul. And that is why we have to take spiritual warfare seriously.

St James gives us the two-edged sword of spiritual warfare: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (4:7-8). Resist the devil and draw near to God. We must do both, and our primary focus must be on God. If you only resist the devil, but do not immediately draw near to God, you are setting yourself up for a major disaster (see Luke 11:24-26).

After nearly completing a draft of this post, I went into my room to pray a while. Almost immediately some sort of bee or fly, in an evidently suicidal rage, began to hurl itself repeatedly at my window, making an annoying tapping sound. I could have ended the annoyance by simply opening the window, but then what greater havoc might the little kamikaze have wrought if I had let it into my room? The situation is not unlike our struggle with temptation. Sure, you can relieve the annoyance of its insistent suggestions by simply opening the window of your soul and giving in to it. But once inside, the damage it does is far worse than mere annoyance or even harassment. It begins to eat away at your spirit and it is much harder to get rid of. Finally tiring of battering himself against a closed window, the bee gave up and I was left to pray in peace. A word to the wise…

We don’t want to focus on the devil or give him too much credit for his influence in our lives (remember that St James says that falls from grace are due to the “lure and enticement of your own desire,” 1:14). But just in case there is some spiritual enemy leading us down a path that is not good for our souls, we ought to pray that it may be unmasked, so that we can get a good look at the beast that lurks behind those suggestions to do what is not God’s will for us. We would hardly race with desire toward a stinking and grotesque drooling monster but, as I also mentioned in the last post, evil can assume pleasing forms in order to seduce us—before zeroing in for the kill.

So put on that armor of God! There may be some things that are not within our power to control, but our will is always ours to exercise freely, and that, once we have sustained ourselves with all possible means of grace, will be our final stronghold. Fierce though the attack may be, we can still say (or scream, or croak): No! “Man does not live by bread [i.e., material things, human satisfactions] alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.” That is how Jesus waged war in his own time of temptation. He will stand by us, even if apparently unhelpful in the fray (as St Anthony the Great once complained after a terrible tussle with demons). But his grace is invisibly with us, his reward is in his hand, and his mercy is upon those who struggle for his sake and the sake of the Gospel. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Witchery of Paltry Things

There is a curious passage in the Book of Wisdom, rather poetic actually, that expresses a basic spiritual insight. “For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right, and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind” (4:12). This occurs in the passage reflecting on one who dies “before his time.” When this book was written (perhaps 150 BC), the understanding that our souls are immortal was beginning to take hold, probably through Greek influence (this book was originally written in Greek). So the reflection upon someone who dies early is filled with hope for everlasting life, not sorrow at a promising life cut short, as we would find in earlier writings. Indeed, it is even seen as a blessing: “Snatched away, lest wickedness pervert his mind or deceit beguile his soul.”

The lament is not over one who would die early, but rather over those things that distort or pollute life in the meantime. We can be “bewitched” by paltry things, by passing fads, foolish pleasures, or corruptible goods. Such things “obscure what is right.” It seems like the advertising and entertainment industries see it as their task to bewitch us with paltry things, for if we could see clearly what is right, most of them would go out of business.

I often have rather weird dreams, and not long ago I had one that made me think of the above passage from Wisdom. I had come across a large serpent, which was quite unfriendly to me, and I engaged in battle with it, seemingly defeating it. But it somehow recovered from the wounds I inflicted upon it, and then it transformed itself into the image of a witchy-looking woman. I remarked (to no one in particular) that such an image wasn’t the least bit attractive to me. Then the demon revealed its tactic: “I can appear in any form that pleases you.” Suddenly, a priest who had been at the monastery many years ago, and who had subsequently renounced his priesthood, was standing next to me, and he followed after the image, which was evidently appearing in some form pleasing to him. I tried to warn him, but he went after it anyway…

So I learned a little something about the way idols and temptations beguile us. The witchery of the pleasing appearance obscures the reality of the evil behind it, and thus obscures our perception of what is good. We tend to forget that one of the effects of original sin is a vulnerability to deception, an inclination toward concupiscence, and a general tendency to take the path of least resistance, or the path that seems to promise some immediate and tangible benefit. Deceit beguiles our souls, and if we follow after the demonic chameleon, wickedness will eventually pervert our minds, and the serpent will have his victory.

That is why St Paul urges us to put on the armor of God (Eph. 6) and in many other places we are urged to be awake, sober, alert, able to discern the spirits, to distinguish between the true and the false, the authentic and the spurious, reality and illusion. It is in our best interests, to say the least, to be able to recognize paltry things for what they are, and to dismiss them in favor of what is really good, true, and beautiful, that is, what lasts forever, what is of God. There is a terrible price to pay for mindlessly following what superficially seems pleasing or attractive. Bewitched by paltry things, you could be playing the devil’s game. And everyone who plays that game ends up a loser.


Well, what are you waiting for? Or maybe I should ask: are you waiting for anything at all? I think that one of the fundamental reasons for the secularization of the Church is that people aren’t waiting anymore. They don’t know what Christians are supposed to be waiting for, so they live their lives essentially without any sort of eschatological hope.

Christians aren’t supposed to be too settled in this world, not too concerned with building a secure and comfortable environment in which to enjoy the few decades they’ve been granted here. No, here is what Christians are supposed to do: “renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:12-14). We’re supposed to be waiting for the return of the Lord!

Now this doesn’t mean we have to engage in all sorts of apocalyptic speculations about dates and times and the geopolitical configurations that indicate his imminent return (in fact, we shouldn’t). But it does mean that we should have a goal, a vision, a direction of our thoughts and actions toward the coming of the Coming One. For if we’re clear on our ultimate goal and expectation, we will know how to organize our lives in this world so as to move steadily toward that goal, living in readiness and earnest desire for the fullness of life in eternal joy.

The New Testament is full of this teaching about the “orientation” of disciples of Christ: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20). “The creation waits with eager longing… we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies… if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:19, 23-25). “Set your hope fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:13). “We wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells… since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2Peter 3:13-14). “You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1Thess. 1:9-10). Etc, etc.

This waiting, however, is not like the bored or irritated waiting of people in doctor’s offices or traffic jams. It is an active, attentive waiting. “Watch and pray, for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). “Be sober, be watchful” (1Peter 5:8). “Look carefully how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time…” (Eph. 5:15).

Many Christians seem to have lost the awareness that we’re supposed to be watching and waiting, living in such a way as to be found worthy of Him who has died for our sins, so that “you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1Peter 4:13). As people tend not to look for his coming anymore (even though they express this conviction every time they say the Creed), and hence gradually fall away from a life-giving relationship with God, we have to ask, with Jesus, the dreaded question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).

Be aware, then, what Christians are supposed to be waiting for, and by the way you live your life look to Him who is coming. If we do not believe in the return of the Lord and hence the resurrection of the dead, Christianity becomes devoid of its life and power, and is reduced to the status of a set of moral guidelines, or worse, one more self-help technique for acquiring a bit of inner peace, or still worse, a mere social convention that has no effect whatever on people’s actual convictions or behavior (it already is this for Communion-receiving, baby-killing politicians).

Let your life reflect your hope; let it indicate what you are waiting for. Take the necessary steps toward Him who is coming back for you. “I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). This is the hope of Christians.

Wait a minute. Wait a year. Wait as long as it takes, but make sure you are found waiting for Him when He comes.

Zacchaeus, Come Down!

It’s that time of year again. We’re beginning the series of preparatory Sundays before Lent. Every year after Lent is over, I think: I’ll never be able to do that again! Yet it always comes around and we just do it. For some, “Lent” may be a “four-letter word,” denoting a long period of rigorous fasting and self-denial, and heavily penitential liturgical texts and services, but essentially it is something we all really need. These five preceding Sundays are kind of an overture of Lent, giving us an idea of its inner meaning and what we need to live it fruitfully, so we don’t wander aimlessly through the 40 days, waiting till the last moment to get serious about our spiritual efforts.

I think there are three main themes to this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 19:1-10): desire, repentance, and, on the negative side, the pride that manifests in criticism and contemptuous indignation.

First, desire. Fr Alexander Schmemann offers this as the main theme of Zacchaeus Sunday in his book, Great Lent. We’ll never make any progress during Lent if we don’t want to, if we don’t have a real desire to change our lives, to grow spiritually, to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s 40-day struggle in the desert as well as his passion and resurrection. The first stage of this spiritual exercise is shown to us by Zacchaeus: the Gospel says he “sought to see Jesus.” His desire was not a vain or superficial curiosity, for when he met an obstacle, he went to great lengths to overcome it, making up for his natural deficiency by climbing a tree to obtain a better perspective. So, despite his sins—and the people would readily testify that they were many—something within him drew him to Christ. This is the beginning of his salvation, for as Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father draws him.” So, if Zacchaeus was drawn to encounter Jesus, it was the grace of the Father at work in his soul.

Jesus rewarded this God-given desire of Zacchaeus. Perhaps Zacchaeus initially wanted to remain hidden and anonymous. For one thing, since he was a tax-collector, the most despised occupation in the eyes of the people whose money he was stealing, he would prefer not to have to face all those angry citizens. For another thing, he might have wished to let this first glance at Jesus pass by in silence, and then he could decide later if he wished to become his disciple. But if the Father was drawing him to the Son, then it had to be done the Father’s way. So Jesus stopped at Zacchaeus’ tree, looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” This was not only a calling out of a tree, but a call to repentance, to discipleship and salvation. Come down, Zacchaeus! Begin a new life; embrace the salvation that is being offered you this very moment! Whatever plans Zacchaeus might have had he instantly discarded and joyfully hurried down. He may have perceived this as a great honor for himself, but it is clear that the grace of God was already working in him, for his desire to see Jesus immediately bore fruit in repentance.

When the crowd voiced their disapproval of Jesus’ choice of dinner company, Zacchaeus proved the sincerity of his repentance. He didn’t engage in the externals of repentance, saying “Woe is me!” or making some other pious show of remorse. He immediately promised to change his life, and that’s what real repentance is. And he changed in a big way. He had made a lot of money by overcharging people at the tax booth, but suddenly he’s giving half of all he owns to the poor. And he doesn’t stop there. Half a fortune would still have left him wealthy. But he then said: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything [and he most certainly did!], I restore it fourfold.” There goes the rest of his fortune, and he has suddenly become one of the anawim of the Lord. The Lord knew he was sincere and therefore pronounced a great blessing: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Wouldn’t we all love to hear that from the mouth of the Lord! There was rejoicing among the angels at that moment, for the Son of Man, who came to seek and save the lost, had won another soul for the Kingdom of Heaven.

One would think that everybody would be rejoicing by this time. But it seems that only Jesus and Zacchaeus were the happy ones, for pride and bitter criticism were poisoning the spirits of the rest of the people. In this case it was not only Pharisees, but it says that all the people murmured: “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” There are many components of this poison—contempt, indignation, envy, anger, and haughtiness—but they all flow from pride. They did not want the one they despised to be blessed by Christ, for after all, they were more righteous than he was. Why didn’t the Master come to their houses instead?

Archimandrite Sophrony, in his book, We Shall See Him As He Is, has written an incisive description of the evil of pride. He says: “Nothing that is…proud can draw near [to God]. Pride is abomination, the opposite of Divine goodness. Pride is the principle of evil, the root of all tragedy, the sower of enmity, the destroyer of peace, the adversary of divinely-established order. In pride lies the essence of hell. Pride is the ‘outer darkness’ where man loses contact with the God of love… Repentance alone can deliver us from this hell… He who has experienced divine love finds himself revolted by the poisonous fumes emanating from the passion of pride… Pride separates man from God and shuts him up in himself… The manifestations of pride are innumerable, but they all distort the divine image in man.” That’s why Christ didn’t go into their houses as a guest!

St Augustine has an interesting take on this mystery in his commentary on the Psalms. He’s referring to Levi as the sin-sick soul that the Divine Physician came to heal and save, but it applies just as much to Zacchaeus, the repentant sinner at whose house Jesus chose to stay. Augustine says, about the proud who judge the sinner and who judge Christ for having compassion on sinners: “There are some strong men…who place their confidence in their own righteousness… the Lord came not to call these strong men, but the weak… O, you the strong, who do not need the doctor! Your strength does not come from health but from insanity… The Master of humility, who shared our weakness and who made us take part in his divinity, came down from heaven to show us the way and to be himself our way… to teach us to confess our sins, to humble ourselves and thus become strong… Those who pride themselves on being strong, who, in other words, claim being just by their own virtue, ‘stumbled over the stumbling stone’… They had placed themselves above the weak who hurried to the physician… and [finally] they killed the physician of all men. But he, by dying, prepared through his blood a remedy for all the sick.” Not content to allow a sinner a chance to repent, they ultimately turned on the Master Himself, who still offered his life to save the lost.

So what shall we learn from all this as we turn our eyes toward the coming of Lent? First, let us desire to see Jesus, to encounter Him personally in the Gospels, in prayer and the sacraments, and in all the events of our daily lives. Let us be willing to overcome all obstacles to getting a new perspective from which to see Him more clearly, and know and love him more deeply. When He sees the sincerity of our desire, He will call us: to repentance and salvation, so let us hasten joyfully to Him and to welcome Him into our hearts more than ever before. And let our repentance be genuine, not just in words, but in practical action, changing for the better, as Zacchaeus did.

Finally, let us avoid pride and all the rotten fruits of it: judging and criticizing others, not allowing them the same chance for repentance that we expect for ourselves, being envious, contemptuous, counting ourselves more righteous than others. For these, all that remains is the outer darkness, cut off from the life and love of God, who receives humble and repentant sinners as his prodigal children. So let us begin our Lenten pre-preparations by making ready our interior homes, our souls, because the Lord wishes to dwell within us, to stay with us. Then we will rejoice to hear those words that all those who hope for eternal life long to hear: “Today salvation has come to this house!”

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