When looking at the gospel reading for the Sunday of Zacchaeus this past Sunday, and how it shows his repentance to be the “baptism”, the cleansing, that brings about the statement from Christ: salvation has come to this house and that Zacchaeus is revealed as a son of Abraham. Not only is this a look back at Theophany, but it is revelatory of passing into the next “stage” of our liturgical-spiritual journey…that is, into Great Lent.
This is much like the stages of the spiritual life that Father Zacharias, in Essex, talks about. He was taught by his spiritual father, St. Sophrony, who was taught by his spiritual father, St. Silouan. At the beginning of our journey toward God, we are given whatever grace is necessary to bring us into relationship with him and to set our path right, enough grace to make a start.
But then, the grace is removed. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit is removed, but that there is a point where we no longer feel the abundance of grace that we felt at the beginning. The majority of our life in Christ–here on earth–is in this middle phase.
I once ran a race. When I was given the baton to start my lap around the track, we were far behind all the other runners, but my team was there at the handoff, cheering, and I had the boost I needed to make a commitment to catch up to those runners up ahead. But as I rounded that first turn, running into the back stretch of the track, it was utterly lonely.
I am sure it was just as well-lit as the other side of the track, but it felt like the very edge of where those lights could reach. And I am sure that there were people cheering the runners on back there, and really, the other side of the track was well within my sight,…but I felt like no one was there. I pushed on, forgetting all running strategy, just giving it everything I had, with the hope of reaching the end.
That back stretch of the track…is the middle phase of our lives. And the Church gives us training, every year, in these 40 days of Lent, to be better equipped to face the back stretch of life. Of course the Holy Spirit is still present, filling all things, bestowing blessings…though sometimes those blessings are unseen. Of course we know the victory of Christ in the end, but it is a skill to learn how to take that seemingly far-off reality and apply it to today’s trial.
Lent is our exercise program. Very literally: exercise is the word used to describe it. ‘Exercise’ in Greek is “ascesis” or “ascetic”. All those hard practices in the Orthodox Church, the ones we do even more during Lent–fasting, bows, prostrations–the Church calls ascetic practices. In other words, ‘exercise practices’. Is training fun? No. Is it easy? …Well, if it is, it probably is not doing you much good.
Like Zacchaeus, we want to see Jesus. We have been given the grace, whatever grace was necessary, to enter in in this Theophany season. We have asked the Holy Spirit to come, to sanctify the water and the oil, and with them to sanctify our homes and all who dwell in them. And he has done so.
Now, we enter the next phase. We enter the days of Lent. We use the exercises the Church has given us to work toward repentance. We struggle with all our strength, because we know the success, the victory, that we have in Christ at the end of that struggle is the defeat of death, is the healing of every sickness in body and soul.
O Lord, send down upon us the grace of thine All-holy Spirit, and sanctify us for every good work.