The Sunday of Exile

Sunday, March 6: The Sunday of Exile

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This Sunday has a lot of names! It’s Cheesefare, the last day to eat dairy, so the Epistle and Gospel readings were about fasting. It’s Forgiveness Sunday, though the rite of forgiveness is a monastic practice that’s only become mainstream for parishes in recent centuries. But the hymns last night and this morning have been about the casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

I know there are folks who have very strong opinions about how the fossil record maps onto the first chapters of Genesis. But I’m not a paleontologist; I haven’t got a dog in that race. What I do know is that the biblical narrative of Genesis is a profound diagnosis of the human condition.

Adam is made for union with God. Adam is placed in Paradise, which is the place where Christ is, and Adam walks with the Lord in the cool of the day.

Christ says “The Kingdom is within you” (Lk 17:21). And Paul points to “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). The Lord says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” (John 15:1ff) and the same life that’s in the vine is in the branches. The nature of God and of man have been united permanently in the person of Christ.

So the Fathers advise us to “Bring your mind down into your heart.”

Our experience of life in this world has taught us to experience everything through our rational mind and our feelings, so that we tend to live in our heads. But our thought life and our feelings are not always aligned with reality, are they. Saint Ephrem writes,

The kingdom of heaven is within you (Lk 17:21). Insofar as the Son of God dwells in you, the kingdom of heaven lies within you all.

Saint Luke the Surgeon counsels us,

Make your heart a monastery. There, sound the semantron, there call your vigil, cense and whisper ceaseless prayers. God is next to you.

But Adam is alienated and exiled from Paradise, and a cherub with a flaming sword guards the entrance. Adam can’t enter Paradise.

Our sins and passions make us unable to open our spiritual eyes and live naturally in the kingdom of God as we were designed to do. Adam mourns outside the gates of Paradise for the life he once had with the Lord, and lost through his own sins; mankind wanders in this desert, hungry and thirsty, seeking meaning, knowing that something is broken in this world, and in ourselves. We read the headlines and ask, what on earth is wrong with us?

We are cast out of Eden, living in exile in a strange country because of our sins. We are trying to live as rational and emotional beings while we are cut off from our own hearts, where the God of wisdom and love dwells within us.

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Every year I stand here and say that the goal of Lent is Pascha. For Christ, the road to resurrection and glory was the way of the cross. It won’t be otherwise for us.

So for the next six weeks we’ll be fasting, searching our heart, taking inventory of ourselves. Letting a little hunger and frustration and tiredness strengthen our prayer. (Because it’s not obvious, but experience says that a satisfied belly does not make for powerful prayer.) And we can slog through six weeks of salads to reach the bright feast of the resurrection at the end of next month.

But Pascha really isn’t the goal.

I know this is obvious, and we all know it, but I think we forget: The goal of fasting is not to succeed at fasting.

Nobody gets a gold star if they reach Pascha with a perfect record. God is not judging your performance. And none of us made the costly choice to follow Christ and enter the Church because we wanted to get good at following rules.

Why do Olympian athletes train? Why do musicians practice? The goal of every discipline we undertake, is to make us ready for the healing, purifying, illuminating grace of God to conform us to Christ. We pray and give alms, fast and forbear and forgive, in order to humble and heal our wayward self-will. We want to remember how to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We aren’t taking up six weeks of veganism – we are renewing our ascent up to the mountain of the Lord.

So, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Make a straight way in the desert for our God. Raise up every valley, bring down every mountain, let the crooked be made straight, and the rough places smooth: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Is 40:3-5).

When we finish this brief race, then everything will be revealed. Chrysostom says:

Just as in the theatre, when evening falls and the audience departs, and the kings and generals go outside to remove the costumes of their roles, they are revealed to everyone thereafter, appearing to be exactly what they are. So also now when death arrives and the theatre is dissolved, everyone puts off the masks of wealth or poverty and departs to the other world. When all are judged by their deeds alone, some are revealed truly wealthy, others poor, some of high degree, others of no account (Homily 2).

St John of San Francisco wrote:

When ‘the books are opened,’ it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a fornicator. When the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul. And if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not become free of it, it will come to the dread Judgment also with the same desire for the sweetness of sin and will never satisfy its desire. In it there will be the suffering of hatred and malice. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth of powerless malice.

Death is not an instant sanctifier. The passions that are not healed in us here in this life follow us into the presence of God.

This is why the Church has appointed for us a Sunday and a forty-day fast to remember that we are made for Paradise. The Prodigal Son came to his senses and remembered, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread?” (Lk 15:17). Today we commemorate Adam’s exile from Paradise because we’re meant to keep fresh in our minds the regret and nostalgia for a homeland from which our sins have made us exiles and refugees.

The prophet Jeremiah, in exile in Babylon, writes in Psalm 136lxx (137kjv):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion. We hung our harps on the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us demanded a song of joy, saying: Sing us one of the songs of Sion! But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Deported from Jerusalem, the Jews were captives in a foreign nation, and the temple of the living God was in ruins. They couldn’t offer a sacrifice of praise or of intercession. So they kept their pain alive and taught their children:

If I forget you, Jerusalem, then may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

How often do we come to our senses after stress and busyness, and find that our prayer has gotten lost and we haven’t even thought of the Lord all day?

Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes:

The kingdom of heaven is within you (Luke 17:21). Insofar as the Son of God dwells in you, the kingdom of heaven lies within you also. Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. Here, O sinner, is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find it without great travail. Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God.

In Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist we have access to the healing grace of God that can open the way to see the kingdom of heaven and taste that the Lord is good. Even if we are taking only baby steps, the Lord is calling us past the cherub who once guarded the way to Paradise. Now the Cross has become the tree of life. The Cross is the death of our sins and passions, and it is the victory of Life over our death. And the fruit of the Tree of Life is the body and blood of Christ who hung on that tree. With the fear of God, with faith and love: Draw near!

On Sundays in Tone 7, we sing the troparion, “By your cross you destroyed death; to the thief you opened Paradise…” And not long ago at Christmas we sang, “The wall of partition has been destroyed; the flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the tree of life, and I partake of the delight of Paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience.”

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But “the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt 11:12). We sinners will not enter into Paradise without struggle. This is why in Psalm 136, Jeremiah and the Jews in Babylon intentionally keep alive in themselves the pain of loss and a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:6) — to draw them back, as often as necessary, to the remembrance of God; to satisfaction with nothing less than the Pearl that costs everything (cf. Mt 13:45-46).

So, in the coming weeks, with a little force, we’re going to fast from gossip and complaint; from stinginess and hardheartedness; from laziness and impurity and judgment. We’re going to take up the Christian virtues of gratitude, almsgiving, and prayer.

Because what’s the use of abstaining from meat, if we bite and devour each other?

And we will practice responding to Christ who calls us to walk with him in the cool of the day in Paradise.

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.