The Sunday of Exile from Paradise

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

Two weeks ago, the Prodigal Son came to his senses in a far country, where he was broke, hungry, and enslaved: “Even the hired help in my father’s house have plenty to eat!”

The Lord woke in him a holy nostalgia – a longing for the time that he remembered when things were right. When he was home, in the place he was made for, in the place that was made for him. This God-given longing for home called him back to the place where his father was already waiting to welcome him.

For the past few weeks throughout the Russian Orthodox Church during Matins we have been singing Psalm 136: “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept when we remembered thee, O Sion.”

This is the prophet Jeremiah’s lament in exile. The temple at Jerusalem – the only temple of the Lord God – was famous for the singing of the Levite choirs. Now the temple was destroyed; the city of Jerusalem was in ruins; all the priests and princes and chief people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon. And the people of Babylon said, “We’ve heard of your singing, of the songs of Sion! Sing us the songs of Sion!”

And Jeremiah says, “How can we sing the song of the Lord in captivity in a foreign land? No, we have hung up our harps.” And he speaks to Jerusalem, to his memory of the City of God, and says: “O Jerusalem, if I ever forget you, may I lose the power of speech; may my hands forget their skill if I don’t set you at the head of everything I love.” And for seventy years the people of Judah kept alive in themselves that grief, the mourning for the city that they had lost. For the temple where once they could worship God. They taught their children, “This is what you were – and someday may it be so again!”

And why have we been singing this Psalm now as we prepare to enter into the great fast? It’s to teach us what we once were. What we hope and struggle to reclaim.

In the beginning, Adam is made in the image and likeness of God. The Lord sets him in a garden of delight — the name Eden means delight. Our word paradise comes from a Persian word for a king’s royal garden, protected by walls, inaccessible to anyone else.

Paradise is our word for the place where man meets God. Where God walks in the cool of the day, and face to face the man and woman walk with him. But now man is cast out.

One of the verses we sang last night at Vespers:

O precious Paradise, unsurpassed in beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the righteous, joy of the prophets, and dwelling of the saints, with the sound of thy leaves pray to the Maker of all: may He open to me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may He count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life and of the joy which was mine when I dwelt in thee before.

Where is the temple where we can go to meet God?

The Lord has always been with his people – but since Pentecost, since you were anointed with holy oil at your baptism to receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, as the Lord promised the Holy Spirit of God dwells in you.

Saint Ephraim the Syrian writes,

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. O sinner, here 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 The Art of Prayer.)

Paradise, the place where God dwells and waits to meet man, is built within you, in your heart.

If you visit the cathedral in San Francisco you’ll see the icons and frescoes, the relics, the services. All the tourists come snap their photographs, say a prayer and move on, and there’s even an Orthodox school. A cathedral is a house of prayer, but it’s also a place of shared culture, a place where we as a people come together, and so much activity happens there.

But most of us have not gone downstairs into the basement. Almost every cathedral has a crypt or an undercroft, a place where tourists don’t go, that’s used for nothing but prayer and the divine liturgy. If our head and our brain is a cathedral and school, dedicated to knowing everything about God, then our heart is a place where nothing happens but prayer and thanksgiving and worship, and there the Lord dwells.

But, as we commemorate today, man is cast out from paradise. A cherub with a flaming sword guards the gate to Eden.

Most of us live in our heads: we are concerned with our job and our mortgage, with rights and ideas and politics, and every kind of thing that exists outside our heart. “The only place where modern man does not like to visit is himself” (Bishop Panteleimon of Smolensk).  Even in the church we tend to live in our heads. Some of us can quote canons and scriptures and argue about the Liturgy and a rule of prayer. But how many of us have spent the time on our knees to become experts who can speak first-hand about prayer?

This is why the church calls us to descend: To come down from our heads into our hearts. To come down from a religion of concepts and arguments, down to the basement Chapel where God awaits in quietness. And there we will find that the gates are open.

Christ our God has already become man, has taken our death and sin down into hades, and buried it deep in hell. He has broken the gates of bronze, and shattered the iron bars, and led all out of prison into newness of life, and the way to Paradise stands open.

On the third Sunday of Lent, we will sing the Kontakion of the Cross:

The fiery sword no longer guards the way to Paradise. It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross. The sting of death and the victory of hades have been vanquished; for Thou, my Savior, hast come and cried out to those in hades: “Enter again into paradise.”

We know all this. Yet it seems we need a calendar to call us all together to a season of sobriety, to remember that we are a people who fast and repent and give alms, in order to heal every thing in us that keeps us living outside the Garden, separated from the Lord.

Before Christ was revealed, Saint John the Baptist preached from Isaiah chapter forty:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every low place shall be lifted up and every proud mountain brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places smooth. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Preparing the way of the Lord begins today by appointing a day of remembrance for what our life could have been.

From the Lenten Triodion:

Banished from the joys of paradise, Adam sat outside and wept, and beating his hands upon his face, he said: ‘I am fallen, in Thy compassion have mercy on me.’…

When our patron, Saint Silouan the Athonite, read these verses, he wrote wrote a poem called “Adam’s Lament.” In one part he says:

My soul wearies for the Lord,
and I seek Him in tears.
How should I not seek Him?
When I was with Him my soul was glad and at rest,
and the enemy could not come nigh me…
I cannot forget [the Lord] for a single moment,
and my soul languishes after Him,
and from the multitude of my afflictions I lift up my voice and cry:
‘Have mercy upon me, O God. Have mercy on Thy fallen creature.’

Like Jeremiah’s sons in Babylon, we are called to remember the homeland we were made for even if we have only seen it in glimpses, in recollections of the saints and moments of grace.

These hymns and prayers are given us to keep alive in us the pain of exile.

In seven years in the Philippines I grew to love the people and appreciate the subtlety of their language and the unpretentiousness of their culture. I was made so welcome there! But I was always a foreigner.

Christians in this world are like Moses in the desert, “here we have no city of our own, but we seek one to come” (Hebrews 13:14; Exodus 2:22; Hebrews 11:9.)

We are foreigners, and our citizenship is in a Kingdom that’s not of this world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Ephesians 2:13,19.)

No longer strangers, but citizens with the saints in the Kingdom of God.

And so in a paradox, this morning we are remembering with grief the kingdom we were made for, and together with Adam, we recognize that we are exiles living our lives in alienation from the presence of God.  And we also know that the gates of Paradise are open, and in this season the God who walked with the man and woman in the cool of the day calls us to enter into Paradise.

Here is Saint Ephrem again, calling us to rouse ourselves and strive to enter the gates:

What will you say to the Judge in that day of fear and trembling? Come to your senses, while there is still time. While you are still the master of your thoughts, while your mind is still functioning, while there is yet movement in your body, while it is still possible for grace to touch your heart, and while you can still shed cleansing tears — take a brave stand against the passions and, with God’s help, valiantly smite Goliath.

Hurry, do not let a thief outrun you, do not let a harlot reach the entrance before you, do not let one of the violent who take the kingdom of God by force block the door.

Hurry, for when the contest is over it is no longer possible to enter competitions. When the market is closed it is not possible to seek goods; and when a transaction is completed, it is not possible to take part in it. (St Ephraim the Syrian, in A Spiritual Psalter, 48.)

The Lord says in Revelation, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture… Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (John 10:9; Revelation 3:8)

How do we go through that door? How do we enter into the Paradise that God has already opened and prepared for us? In the age to come you will have no enemies. Forgive them now and enter into paradise.

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