The Theme of Sacrifice, Offering, Picking up the Cross, and Following Jesus in the 15 OT Readings of Holy Saturday
Sermon preached by Ioana Chirieac on Sunday, March 23, 2014
This fall both my daughters left for college. After 19 years of a house full of laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, energy and more energy, I had an empty house. All by myself. It was unusual, after so many years, to be by myself. I went through natural grieving. I realized once again that I love my children so deeply and I feel so connected to them that my heart would sink if anything bad would happen to them.
But then Abraham comes to mind in Genesis 22:1-2 “God tested Abraham, and said to him “Abraham!” And he said “Here I am.” He said “Take your son, your only son Isaac , whom you love, and go to the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you”. What if I were asked to give up and sacrifice my daughters? Would I be able to trust God so deeply as to put them into His hands? Wow. Sacrifice my daughters? No way. Am I like the Israelites doubting in their hearts “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians. For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians that to die in the wilderness” Exodus 14:12? When we continue reading the text, we realize that God did not intended for Abraham’s son to be killed - God preserved Isaac in the end. God was not looking for human sacrifice. He was looking for a faithful heart, ready to let go of everything, of attachments and fears. “Fear not. Stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today” we hear in Exodus 13:13.
Last week Andrea Popa in her sermon explored the word of the Lord and how Christ calls us to step forward in repentance and faith towards healing. Today’s themes from the Scripture and from Holy Saturday’s readings are about sacrifice, offering, preparation for Pascha, picking up the cross and following Jesus. “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Mark 8:34–39, 9:1.
I wonder though how does sacrifice, letting go and picking up my cross all look like in today’s world? I do believe that across centuries there has been a gradual increase in the level of consciousness and awareness not only at a personal level, but also at a societal level. In many parts of the world people’s consciousness and light makes it possible for humans to see each other as beautiful. In many places human sacrifice is no longer acceptable nor desirable, and humans of different race, gender, socioeconomic position are valued as equal. And although the practice of those rights is far from being fully incarnate, the human consciousness has evolved. We live in a society where we have so many choices - from education, career, to living conditions. For many people picking up the cross does not mean staying in the same job for life, nor in the same city. Children now are taught at a young age to search for their talents and choose their vocation.
With so many choices though, one of the dangers is to live too much in our minds. We might get caught in our long-term vision: our career, remodeling our house, News at 10pm, Facebook, the stream of emails or texts. We run to the next meeting, appointment, movie, show, or through the next red traffic light. We are so engrossed in the next minute (or year or next decade) that we forget the person next to us. Or maybe we are caught up in the past - still going over past hurts in our personal lives, or what the boss told us yesterday, going over and over past discussions “Did I say the right thing?” “Could I have done this better?” Planning for the future is essential, as we need time to plan. Learning from the past is needed as well, otherwise we continue to make the same mistakes. But it seems that with the easier modern lifestyle, we get caught up too much in either the past or future, which do not really exist. If we stop for a moment and reflect on this, the past is gone, there is nothing we can do about it. And when the future comes, it is only experienced as Now. When that beautiful vacation comes, we don’t experience it as anything else than the Now.
As every lent and Pascha unfolds, I am always amazed with the richness of our orthodox tradition and feel that I am always uncovering jewels. Many of the treasures are mysterious and take a long time to grasp. One example is the question that has been stuck in my mind for a while: how is it possible to be aware of the fullness of Christ and in the same time be fully present in everything we do? Why is it that in our orthodox tradition there is so much emphasis on praying all the time “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”? My scientific mind is saying that if we think of too many things in the same time, we accomplish the opposite: we miss life. Is it possible then to pray and have a deep meditative stance, while fully present in the now?
There is more to the story. Our church fathers are teaching us to descend the prayer into our hearts. Interestingly enough, psychological research is showing that this is possible. We have a Two Track Consciousness: on one hand, we experience our moment-to-moment stream of awareness of everything happening to us, and on the other hand we have a hidden, deeper consciousness, which processes information in a parallel and quieter way. Translating that into our church fathers, the second type of deeper awareness corresponds to the inner heart. While our mind is fully present in whatever we do, our hidden consciousness can connect with Christ; we can pray “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” and descend the prayer into the heart, and then we allow our minds to be freed and engaged in the present moment.
I was not one to necessarily pay attention to my dreams, but one night and had a memorable dream. Surreal and impossible. In my dream, right in the middle of my apartment, Fr. Antony was performing the Divine Liturgy. How impossible and how beautiful! He had full vestments, had the censor, and was swinging it up and down, with beautiful smelling aroma lifting up to heaven. It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was majestic. And where was I? I was asleep. Really? Divine liturgy happens in my house and I am asleep? Outrageous. How can I miss it? How often does it happen that a priest performs the mystery of mysteries in our homes? Never. But this was happening in my apartment, and I was out. In my dream I woke up right at the end of the liturgy and I was horrified! I started to cry and felt utter despair that something so beautiful happened right next to me and I was completely unconscious. In my dream I went to Fr. Antony and said ‘I am so sorry. I fell asleep”. With his kind voice and twinkle in his eyes he said “It’s ok, be awake next time!”
Be awake next time. What does this mean? Is it possible that this is a metaphor for what is happening in our hearts? Is it possible that something mysterious is happening every moment and we are most of the time unconscious? Maybe there is an amazing symphony unfolding every second and the divine censer is moving up and down, spreading the sweet smelling aroma of creation everywhere. Alexander Schmemann describes in one of his books “It is this world, and it is this life that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God.”
We could be so focused on what we want or don’t want, what we like or don’t like, our desires and fears, and miss the way life mysteriously unfolds and miss the beautiful liturgy unraveling every second. When we let go of our ideas, from future or from past, as Abraham was letting go of his child, and accept Christ in the present moment, with all the joy and the sorrow, we pick up our cross and our eyes are opened. The process of letting go is always a journey, as the Israelites traveled from Egypt to Israel. We learn in 6th reading on Holy Saturday that the Israelites were on a few day journey, but it took them 40 years, as they dealt with fear, desires, and doubts. Many times our journey of letting go takes a long time, as we cling to what we perceive we have or need. If we would only listen to the verse “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” Exodus 14:14. When Abraham’s heart was ready to let go of his son, then, and only then, was there no need of human sacrifice. The sacrifice of letting go in his heart was enough.
We walk on Earth on sacred land every day and might not realize the majesty of God in the simple task at hand, otherwise we would feel compelled as Joshua (from the Holy Saturday’s 5th reading), to “put off our shoes from our feet, for the place where we stand is holy” Joshua 5:15. There is no moment and no place where God is not. The Psalm 139 express it so beautifully ‘Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”
Our Two Track Consciousness can help us connect the outer world with our inner world of stillness in Christ. Kids are born and go to college (or preK) and we see the full divine symphony unfolding. In the end, our children are not really ours – they belong to life, to God. We see joy and wonder in the eyes of a wise elder; censor goes up and down. We catch the thankful eyes of a Central Square homeless person when we spare a dollar or two for him; the symphony gets sweeter. We see the beauty in parent - child interaction or in the couple in love, and the censer goes up and down again. Snow is falling in the middle of March and we see that we are lucky to even have water. It is very cold outside, but we are lucky to be alive, and to feel sensations (even cold ones). Beautiful symphony.
And then the symphony gets clearer and louder, and we desire to expand our consciousness even further by seeking God in everything and being grounded in the present. Did I pay enough attention to the person talking to me? Did I see the icon of Christ in his or her eyes? Did I listen attentively to the heart of my colleague who interrupted my work? Did I allow the hurried Bostonian driver to pass before me, so he can go to his assignment in this amazing symphony? Did I hurried to help out without complaining? Ultimately we can feel Christ’s breath in and out, as life unfolds.
The sacrificial physical lamb was needed centuries ago; in the 3rd reading from Holy Saturday in Exodus we learn how Israelites were instructed in each sacrificial step in a very concrete way. Now the sacrifice of Christ, the lamb, is in our hearts, where He makes his home, a quiet, peaceful, and joyful place, where is just Christ and I. Christ and You. What can be more beautiful and fulfilling? Christ is the high priest of our hearts, performing the liturgy in the secret room of our souls, as in today’s epistle “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.” Hebrews 4:14–16.
Nothing else counts as deeply as Christ’s divine love and joy; neither Jews nor gentile, happy nor sad, neither married nor single, neither rich nor poor, neither to the left nor to the right. When we pick up our cross and choose Christ, the heaven opens in the sacred now, and through our hearts, Christ fills and sanctifies the world with divine love. I pray that during this Lenten season the uncreated light of Christ becomes manifested in our souls and shines in the world. And the music of His Liturgy fills our hearts and the world. And the censer goes up. And down.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amin.
Next week we will continue the journey with Marianna Seyag who will lead us in exploring the themes of Creation, Renewal, and Resurrection.