Authentic hope of salvation

14 April OS 2016 – Wednesday of Holy and Great Week

At the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts today, the Church appoints this reading from St. Matthew:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.  For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him. Matthew 26: 6-16

 St. Theophan the Recluse points out that on this day, save for this one instruction to the apostles to allow the repentant woman to anoint Him for burial, the Lord ceased from teaching and was silent until His sublime teaching at the Mystical Supper on Thursday evening.

The Lord was silent on Wednesday and Thursday until Thursday evening, so that at that time He could pour forth words with His disciples and to His disciples – words unlike anything in any writings, not only of human origin but also Divine.  Now, as the Church points out, we hear from the Lord’s mouth that [the disciples] should not hinder His anointing with myrrh, for this served as a preparation for His death.  Before His eyes was only death – the final mystery of His coming to earth for our salvation.  Let us also immerse ourselves in deep contemplation of this mystery-filled death, to draw from it good hope for the salvation of our souls, which are burdened by many sins, and which do not know how to obtain peace from the weariness of our awakened conscience, and from the knowledge of the righteousness of God’s judgment, which is dread and impartial.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 81-82

Our thoughts, then, should turn to the Lord’s death for our salvation, from which, as St. Theophan writes, we can draw good hope for the salvation of our souls.  It is only those, however, whose consciences are wearied by the constant awareness of their many sins, who can have this hope.  Those who have silenced their conscience, or who have never developed it, or who have skipped over the agonies of a sensitive conscience in order to go directly to having “spiritual experiences,” have no such hope.  Their claiming that they are “saved” or (if they are trendy new-style Orthodox, “deified”) is mere fantasy.   They have no such hope.  Their words are posturing, bombast – they do not correspond to any interior spiritual reality.  Only the deeply repentant soul, grieving over her many sins, can begin to perceive what Christ’s death means for us.

When one has been a priest long enough, one cannot help but to have heard the confession of an extremely pious person who confesses that he has no hope of his salvation.  How can this be?  How can a baptized Orthodox Christian living a pious life, free from any unconfessed mortal sins specified by the canons, and eligible to receive Holy Communion, feel this way?   It is because he is at a point to which the Lord has led him by a long, painful path of self-awareness, the point at which he has exhausted his soul with attempting to be free from sin, from the slightest sin of thought or feeling, and he has come to know, beyond any doubt, by countlessly repeated experiences, by daily failure, that he cannot be completely pure before God, no matter what he does.  Yet no impure thing can enter into God’s presence, for “our God is a consuming fire.”   Therefore, precisely because he does fear God, and precisely because he is aware of his sins, he despairs of salvation.  This is the point at which real spiritual life begins to take place, for it is only at this point that he can understand and accept that salvation is by grace, through the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. 

It is popular nowadays for Orthodox people living a mediocre and worldly pseudo-spiritual life to read the Philokalia and other “hesychastic” literature, and to chatter smugly about “theosis” and exalted spiritual states, perhaps in Facebook posts between cute kitty videos, and perhaps feeling a little superior to their Catholic and Protestant friends who do not belong to this exclusive club of “hesychastic” spirituality. Perhaps they have attached themselves to this or that “elder,” about whose visions and supposed clairvoyance they can ooh and aah and feel special.  Perhaps they enjoy imagining that they themselves are being “deified.”

The real saints, however, who wrote such literature and who knew other real saints, did not picture themselves daily ascending in exalted states of mystical union – though they in fact did enjoy such states – and did not blather constantly about visions – though they in fact received authentic visions.   So how did they spend their time?  What did they think about? They were weeping unceasingly over their sins.  They perceived very keenly that they deserved every temporal and eternal punishment, and that only the Unique Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, in which He offered His Precious Blood to the Holy Trinity for the sins of the whole world, both the Original Sin of our First Parents and every actual sin committed by every man from the beginning of the world until the Second Coming, could possibly save them.  This was what they were always thinking about, not how “deified” they were.   They wondered constantly if, in fact, they would be saved, and though some did receive this assurance, it was only a short time before death.   Many of them did not in fact know that they were saved until their souls actually left their bodies and went through the demonic toll-houses.

This is real spiritual life.   And with it comes authentic joy, “the joy of Thy salvation” that Prophet-King David sings of in Psalm 50, welling up into the quiet joy of eternal life.

Let us seize these precious remaining days of Great and Holy Week, in which we will once again live the mystery of the Awesome Sacrifice which alone forgives the sins of men, to beg the Lord to give us simultaneously the most profound awareness of our sins, the absolute conviction of the impossibility of our overcoming them by ourselves, and absolute hope in the power of the Cross to save us.

Glory to Thy Passion, O Lord!  Glory to Thy Long-suffering!  O Christ our God, glory be to Thee!  

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