Friday, June 26, 2009

Sunday fo St. John of the Ladder

You know because I have said it year after year that there are three times in Mark’s gospel where our Lord tells His disciples precisely what’s going to happen and He adds details every time. He tells them they’re on the road to Jerusalem and that He is going to be betrayed – that is to say that one of those He trusts will be the one who will turn Him over to His enemies, not that the police will come and arrest Him but He will be betrayed and that He will be handed over to wicked men who will scourge Him and crucify Him, and that then He’ll rise again on the third day from the dead. What’s amazing about the Lord having said this three times in Mark’s gospel is that when we come the resurrection narrative, when the disciples look into the tomb, and they do not see the body of Jesus there, it says, “And they went away wondering in their hearts at the things they had seen for they knew not yet the scriptures that He must rise again on the third day.” In other words, what Mark is telling is that even though Jesus had said to them three times, “This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to be sad. You’re going to feel abandoned. You’re going to feel fearful, but I’m going to conquer death and rise on the third day,” it did not penetrate into their thoughts. It did not go beyond their ears.

Yesterday, we had the gospel for that fourth Saturday in the Great Fast – the Saturday following the time when we began to pray for the elect, those who are going to be baptized on Lazarus Saturday or on Pascha - when we say after that point in the pre-sanctified liturgy, “All catechumens depart, but as many as are preparing for illumination draw near” – and there are special prayers that are said for them. This Saturday we had the gospel about the deaf and dumb man, and I told people yesterday these Saturday and Sunday gospels are not here simply because we’re marching through Mark and this is where the finger of the person who chose the pericope fell. It’s because all the Saturday and all the Sunday gospels during the Great Fast are meant as special instruction – first, for those who are coming to illumination, for those who have not yet been baptized. It’s to encourage them, but also to mark out to them certain rites that they underwent in the process of their preparation. You know if you’ve ever been to a baptism, which I’d be astonished if you’d never been to one other than your own, that we have prayers of exorcism that are said over the child. The devil is rebuked. He is addressed. He is reminded that he has now power over Christ and he is commanded to come out of the person being prepared and to not enter into them again.

So we have today in this gospel the story of a young man who is himself possessed. And Jesus speaks to the demon and He commands him to come out of this child. Yesterday we heard about how Jesus touched the tongue of the deaf and dumb man with spittle from His own mouth, and touched his ears, and said, “Ephathah! Be opened!” And this marks another ritual that preceded baptism, for on this Sunday, each year for years in the Church in transition, the catechumans who were to baptized that year were blessed, their lips and their ears and the word “ephathah” – one of the few Aramaic words that came from our Lord’s mouth that have been preserved in the Greek New Testament was said over them so that they might have their ears opened to be able to understand the gospel. Now they’ve been hearing the Gospel since they became catechumens – we don’t tell the catechumens to depart till after the sermon, right? In fact, this part of the liturgy is called the liturgy of the catechumens. But without special grace, the readings from the Gospel are just Bible stories, just like without special grace Jesus saying to the disciples three times, “We’re going up to Jerusalem where I’m going to be betrayed, handed over to wicked men, scourged, crucified, and rise again,” were just some kind of parabolic utterance. Just as those words did not enter into their hearts through their ears because “ephathah” had not been said over them, because they had not had their ears opened yet, because “hearing they understood not and seeing they did not comprehend.” So the catechumens up to this point had not been able to have the Gospel penetrate through the grey matter of their brains into the lamp of their heart. And now they’re blessed to understand, and not only to understand, for it is not only their ears, but their tongues. If you’re going to understand the gospel, John, why do you need your tongue loosed? So that you can do what? To tell other people what it is you understand; so you can witness to the Gospel that you now comprehend, that’s now not words ringing in your skull but a truth implanted in your heart.

So today on this Sunday, we have to blessings given to us: That we have been exorcised, that Satan’s power over us has been abolished; that not only has he been cast out of us, but we’ve taken out of the fallen world and we’ve been transplanted into the kingdom of heaven, but that our spiritual ears have been opened so that we can understand His world and that our spiritual tongues have been loosened so that we can bring others to Him.

We also, however, today, hear once more about Abraham. When the catechumens began Lent in the very early times, a lesson was read on Sunday afternoon, “God said to Abraham, ‘Leave thy father’s house and thy father’s country, and go to the land I will show you.’ And Abraham immediately packed up and he went out of the city of Err,” which was not any mean city. It wasn’t Dodge, with the wooden fronted buildings, you know, and the Long Ranch Tavern. It was a city with tiled walls; with lions and mythical animals covering the walls in beautiful ceramic tile; with a library, a stock exchange, a public office building, and a huge temple in the middle. And Abraham was told, “Pack up and go out and wander on the plains.” He did it. We’re reminded that we have done the same thing Abraham did. And St. Paul tells us that not without much suffering, much perseverance, did Abraham enter into the promise. And so we’re reminded that especially at this time, we are pilgrims in the land of the bright sadness of repentance for our own sins, and that it is going to be with struggle that we are going to enter into the promise. But for us the promise has already been given – it’s not something that we have to hope for, or imagine, it’s already been poured into our hearts.

And so today, let us with Abraham go forth from our old house and our old country, from the land of sin, from the nation of selfishness, from the kingdom of idolatry, and go into the desert with Abraham and wander to receive the promise. Let us have Satan driven away from us as he was first driven out of us at our baptism. And let us allow our spiritual ears to be opened, our spiritual tongues to be loosened, so that we may hear the word of God, and we may both keep it and proclaim it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!
Glory forever!

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