On the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 13, 2008
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
I would love to make NEW SEEDS OF CONTEMPLATION by Thomas Merton the great Trappist monk and mystic required reading. It is a continual source of inspiration for me. I will refer to it in today's sermon.
When James and John heard Jesus tell of his coming trial and death they responded as would anyone facing the death of a loved one, "We do not want to let go of you." They posed the question like this, "Won't you please permit us to sit at your right and left hand in the kingdom?" Remember also how shocking this would be for them. Most still expected the Messiah to be a regal and earthly ruler! I am not sure they were primarily looking for prestige or power as the other apostles seemed to believe. I think it was an earnest desire to stay close to Him. Still, the other apostles had their feelings hurt. Egos at the ready accusations were thrown. Jesus managed to calm the situation by explaining to them that if they wanted to remain close to Him they would have to share in the cup He would drink and the baptism He would undergo. It is clear that they did not understand what He meant. He spoke to them of something so beyond their experience they were unable to understand it.
Mary Magdalene experienced the same dilemma later when she discovered that the gardener she spoke to in the Garden of Gethsemane was really the resurrected Lord. When she reached out to hug Him He said "Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to my Father." What could that have meant to her? What does it mean to us? The question is how do we develop intimacy with Christ?
James and John did not understand yet who Jesus was, what he came to do and what the consequences of his coming would be. They knew something, but their understanding was incomplete and impartial. They interpreted His message as best they could, but were not prepared for the radical shift in consciousness that would be required. A new wind was blowing. A radical change was coming.
When we are faced with the unknown we look for something familiar to hold on, but in the spiritual life the opposite is called for. What we need to do is let go and learn. That is, to let go of familiar things and be open to whatever God brings. Old wine skins are inadequate for new wine! Mental attachments distort spiritual vision. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who opined that science contrives to keep us locked in a "simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitably constructed and falsified world." His comments also apply to how our minds usually work. We try to avoid things that threaten our comfort, our personal beliefs and opinions, that don't fit in the convenient and patently false worlds we create for ourselves.
But the Cross and Resurrection present an unprecedented challenge to us. The coming of Jesus is the invasion of Reality into our fallen world. To embrace the message of Christ means the end of delusion, the opening of new doors, the renewal of the mind. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost punctuates the invasion even more, making it strikingly personal. Looking back I'll bet the apostles said to themselves more than once, "How could we have been so blind?" We must be careful not to cling so tightly to what we think we know that we actually close our eyes to the truth. Faith that doesn't grow and change is dead.
This is where I turn to Thomas Merton's essay entitled "The Mystery of Christ." In it he writes that the mystery of Christ in the Gospel is like a magnifying glass that concentrates all the power of the sun "into a burning knot of heat" that "sets fire to the spirit of man. For in Christ God is made man. In Him God and man are no longer separate, remote from each other, but inseparably one, unconfused and yet indivisible. Hence in Christ everything that is divine and supernatural becomes accessible on the human level" to every one. He continues, "But the glass of... Christ... seeks out spirits that are well prepared, dried by the light and warmth of God, and ready to take flame in the little knot of fire that is the grace of the Holy Spirit." We will not be ready to take flame if we are afraid to burn. If we are afraid to change, then we cannot know God.
But here's what trips us up. We are caught up in imagination. We imagine who and what Christ is in ways that are comfortable to us, but imagination does not save, faith does! We think we know Him and yet what we know are our images of Him. They may be nice, but they fall far short of the Truth. We are not called to form for ourselves mental images of Christ. We are called to let go of them and to allow Christ to form Himself in us. The real Christ is alive and living in us. "Christ forms Himself by grace and faith in the souls of all them who love Him," Merton writes. If Christ is Risen and Alive then our fantasies, our personal interpretations simply won't do. Instead, we must stop relying on ourselves and wed ourselves to the reality of Christ, not as we think Him to be, want Him to be, or even believe Him to be. We must be wedded to the overwhelming desire to know the Living Christ as He really is in direct, unmediated encounter.
Thomas Merton reaches the same conclusion reached by the God-mantled Fathers and Mothers of Holy Orthodoxy and it is this: "...if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth, consult not your imagination but faith." How? Merton continues, "Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form Himself in you by His Cross." A "broken heart, O Lord, Thou wilt not despise," writes the Psalmist. Jesus teaches that the pure in heart will see God. Purity means, among other things, emptiness.
Keeping in mind the need to divest ourselves of "impure" and wholly inadequate images of the Savior no matter how wonderful they may appear to be here is a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor: "It is for this reason that the Savior says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God': for He is hidden in the hearts of those who believe in Him. They shall see Him and the riches that are in Him when they have purified themselves through love and self-control; and the greater the purity the more they will see." What is left for us is to pray continuously with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, "Come, Lord Jesus."