The Doorway to Mystery: On Palm Sunday
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on April 13, 2014 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
I have worked with young people for most of my life as a priest. Many of them have kept in touch from their pre-teen years into college and beyond. Along the way they often reach crisis points and one of them sounds like this: “Father, I just don’t believe like I used to.” Or even more extreme, “Father, I don’t believe what the Church teaches anymore. What should I do?” My answer is usually, “Good! Now grow!”
The Passover crowd in Jerusalem had the same problem. They were conditioned by what they had been taught about the Messianic prophecies. They did not know what to do when what they expected didn’t show up. Who of us wants a Suffering Servant when we want a change of emperor? The unhappy crowd was not able to face reality and grow.
Anthony DeMello taught it this way: “There is one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them. Because of these false beliefs you see the world in a distorted way.” Changing emperors, even from Caesar to the Messiah, would have changed nothing since happiness can only come from within. That is why Jesus plainly taught that the kingdom of heaven is within and did not attempt to create an earthly one. So, they delivered him up to death.
I’m afraid we have learned very little since then. Do you know the great Southern writer Flannery O”Connor? She once wrote that the South does not so much believe in Jesus as it is haunted by him. We are also haunted; haunted by Byzantium and Holy Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. But I digress.
Often reality is not what we think it is. It is not as we have been taught it is, not what we want it to be, not what we believe it should be. It does not fit our preconceived notions and refuses to cooperate with our attempts to make it do so and we are so blinded that we don’t even think to question our assumptions. That is where the problem lies. In order to preach the Gospel to our generation we must open our eyes and see things as they really are. Instead of trying to control and manipulate the world around us, it is time that we learn to love the world around us. Either that or the church will continue to slide into irrelevancy and lose more and more of its youth as they search for answers to their questions in greener pastures.
So, I take St, Gregory of Nyssa’s famous definition of sin, “The only sin is the failure to grow,” as a starting place and encourage people to grow. It is necessary for all of us to get real and be willing to move from a kindergarten, childish faith to one that is childlike and, paradoxically, mature. A childish faith is one that refuses to look reality in the face, holds on to its Legos and refuses to grow. A mature faith is childlike, wide-eyed and susceptible to wonder, that nurtures the ability to be amazed. A childlike faith is fearless. It wants to discover, to question, to be challenged, to grow. Look at children. That is how they are and to enter the kingdom of heaven, that is how we must be. Not know-it-alls, but see- it- alls. Fearless to understand and fearless to change in the face of what the truth turns out to be.
Last week Alex Orlovsky caught me up on one the latest discoveries of the Hubble telescope. When it was pointed to the darkest area in space they could find they discovered thousands upon thousands of new galaxies, with billions upon billions of stars, and who knows how many planets? Who knew? Right? The darkest place filled with amazing light and color and dynamism! The three-tiered universe collapsed a long time ago with Copernicus and Galileo and now we see something far more glorious than the ancient writers of scripture or the Holy Fathers could have imagined. And as science looks deeper into life we discover the same incredible infinity stretching inward as well as outward. The mysteries of creation, both micro and macro, are simply astonishing. And yet we dare to think that we understand all there is to know about the God in whom all this wondrous creation is enfolding. When God surprises us and appears differently than we believe, wish, or expect either our faith must change and grow or stagnate and die.
I believe that the Church should be that place where faith is allowed and encouraged to grow even though the process cannot be codified or controlled. Even though messy, it simply must be allowed. Life is messy! We don’t like messy! But that is what life is. Young people long for the space to explore and grow. In truth, we all do, though perhaps we don’t know it.
One thing Orthodoxy teaches and should know (although it often seems to forget) is that God is greater than our beliefs. The thing the crowd in Jerusalem did not know is that the real Messiah was greater than their false one. He is not the glorious conqueror of our enemies. He is the Suffering Servant that points to true happiness. The Suffering Servant is far more glorious and mysterious that an earthly king. The Suffering Servant flies in the face of logic and crushes our expectations and therefore he is the doorway to mystery and wonder. Because of this alone we know that it must be true: he is not what we think he is.
Holy Week shows us the great Christian metaphors writ large in matchless ritual and pageantry. If we look deeply, in stillness and meditation, Holy Week has the power to coax the meaning out of the metaphors for us and what we will discover is that the ritual is not just about the historical context of the Lord’s passion it is also about our own. It is a psychodynamic journey into the soul. Holy Week is about Christ and it is about us as we navigate through the ups and downs, the joys and triumphs, the Gethsemanes and the Golgothas of life. The Crucifixion is in us and the Second Coming is in us, just as the kingdom of heaven is in us. We will hear the great hymn of Bridegroom Matins, ”Behold the Bridegroom comes and midnight, blessed is the one whom he shall find awake”, and realize that it and the entire week speaks of the illumination of the soul, your soul and my soul.
And in all this ritual, the unfolding of the Christian Gospel before our very eyes, we have the possibility of growing, of maturing, of becoming children, wide-eyed and awe-struck and utterly transformed. If you are not careful, you may notice an effortless transformation taking place. You might, if you are open and not afraid to change.