Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, February 21, 2016
Today, we have reached a beginning, a grand opening as it were, literal and metaphorical. Today we opened the “Book of Three Odes”, the Triodion, for the first time and we heard these stirring words:
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.
This is the first opening. There is yet another opening and it is found in the Gospel reading for today: the opening of the heart of the Publican.
The Pharisee is closed up in himself. He has become wholly blended with his ego. His ego has become his god. Wrapped in his robes he feels safe and secure. But he still longs for validation! His prayer largely consists of a list of his pious achievements. Behind all this he hides his pain. His heart has become stone. He has no compassion for the Publican who weeps nearby and is to the Pharisee an annoyance.
“Look at me!” is his impoverished prayer. “Vindicate me! Placate me! Vote for me, for I am the greatest!” But he is not great. He is sick. His heart is closed fast, defended and shriveled. His wounds hidden, his pain unexplored, his robes and his religion a defense and a sham.
The Publican is different. The door of his heart has opened. He is awake and alive. Like an arm that had fallen asleep his blood has begun to flow again and he feels the painful tingling of his resurrecting nerves. He feels the weight of guilt and shame long-suppressed and will not even lift his eyes. He does not want to be seen and knows he cannot ask for vindication. This is the second opening.
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” Rumi writes, the Light of God’s eternal presence. And there is an inward light, the candle God has placed in the depths of every one. When the heart is opened from the inside by the one who hears the Lord who stands at the door and knocks, the light within meets the Light without and the truth is revealed. The Light is one!
We must risk the opening of our hearts. The Zen saying applies and is true, “Leap and the net will appear.” The great leap is when we dare to look within and experience the pain that moves us. The net is when we discover that the crucified Lord is already there working in the rich soil of the unconscious. Solzhenitsyn writes that the Cross is rooted in the human heart. So much of the Lord’s work is undercover. “My Father and I are always working,” Jesus tells us.
Why do we do the things we do? Why do we say the things we say? Why do we feel the things we feel? We will never know unless we look within to see. Looking to see is the beginning of repentance without which there can be no healing and no relief. We must allow the heart to open and reveal its secrets and when it does to meet everything that arises with compassion and joy. My favorite definition of repentance remains this one: repentance is letting go of all hope of a better past.
The Church is a hospital and the heart is the intensive care ward. St. Isaac of Syria describes the heart as a deep canyon filled with wonderful and strange sights with metaphorical angels and demons. Please do not read this literally. Theologians are always poets because the language of poetry is the language of the soul. In the heart we find wounds and treasures, both the causes of our suffering and medicine that can heal it.
“It is only when we live on the surface of life, driven by personal urges that little things can satisfy or upset us. As we sink below the surface, we begin to feel the draw of a current of irresistible love carrying us towards the depths…” (Eknath Easwaran)
In those depths dwell what St. Symeon recognizes,
“and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
Concluding with these beautiful words,
“is in Him transformed.”
And Christ’s descent into hades can be understood not only as an element of faith, but also as a metaphor for the spiritual life. What is trapped beneath is visited by God’s great compassion as we, working with Him, allow our hearts to open and we walk hand-in-hand with the Savior through the depths of our being longing for a touch from the Master’s hand.
So, what we see in the Publican is not the end of the road, but only the beginning. St. Anthony the Great said at the end of his life, “I no longer fear God, I love him.” True and deep repentance transforms us from sinners into lovers. We must not expect a life burdened by guilt from beginning to end. Life in Christ leads to infinite joy. Why else could St. Seraphim of Sarov greet everyone he met with the words, “My joy!” That is how we must meet what dwells within, with compassion and with joy. There is no end to the ascent into paradise after we have navigated the descent in to the heart. The light within is the Light of everlasting life.