On this Clean Tuesday of the first week of Great & Holy Lent, I would like to share with you three things that have helped me in the work of repentance. The first two are quotes from my favorite writers, both of which make me choke up whenever I remember them. The last is a sermon I delivered a few years back on the liturgical anniversary of this day. It speaks mostly of the Canon of St. Andrew which the Church gives us as an aid for compunction.
And so I did the more abundantly weep at the singing of the hymns of Thy sweet-singing Church, formerly panting for You, and at last breathing in You, as far as the air can play in this house of grass.
—Blessed Augustine, Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 7
Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.
— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Holy Cross Chapel
March 8, 2011
Clean Tuesday Vespers: What the Old Testament Sinners Have to Teach Us
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Why for these forty days does the Church give us so many Old Testament readings and make us fast, as it were, from the New Testament, except on weekends? This, especially when we have grown so used to basking in the glow of New Covenant glory and throwing our weight around as children of God. From this ‘status’ perspective, we too easily become like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal who takes his place in the father’s house for granted. With our presumed New Testament accomplishments, these Old Testament figures can seem, well, quite primitive. Their sin is quite appalling, their judgments questionable, and their behavior hardly to be discussed in mixed company. What could the Old Testament saints have to teach us in the light of Christ’s fulfillment of the law?
It is safe to keep the Old Testament at arm’s length through the Church year, but during Great Lent, the lectionary rubs our faces in it, and St. Andrew of Crete is there to make sure we don’t miss the point. Verse after verse, we sing in Andrew’s canon of terrible, even notorious sinners, and then we are accused of being even worse. For example, the brothers of Joseph sold their brother into slavery, but we have one-upped them by selling ourselves entirely into sin. (Canticle 5, Verse 4) Or David, the forefather of God, the forefather of God, surely he has a better track record. But no, “David once joined sin to sin, adding murder to fornication… But thou, my soul hast done worse things than he, yet thou hast not repented before God.” (Canticle 7, Verse 4) And the canon goes on with countless more examples of our sinfulness mirrored in the lives of these wretches. What are we to make of this? Is this mere exaggeration to prove a point? Can we really be as bad as all that?
Yes, we can, says St. John Climacus precisely because of a particular habit we have all developed too well, the same habit which keeps us away from the embarrassing ugliness of the Old Testament: It is often the habit of the demons to persuade us either not to confess, or to do so as if we were confessing another person’s sins, or to lay the blame for our sin on others. Lay bare, lay bare your wound to the physician and, without being ashamed, say: ‘No one is to blame for this, no man, no spirit, no body, nothing but my own carelessness.’ — St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 4.
It is only when we come to this moment of realizing our tendency to hide, to rationalize, to sweep our sin under the rug that we begin to find the way to repentance. Let us in this holy season of struggle for the virtues not miss the point and pass the blame onto someone else. But let us learn to pray in the words of the old negro spiritual:
My mother taught me how to pray, My mother taught me how to pray,
If I don’t pray then my soul be lost, ain’t nobody’s fault but mine. Amen.
God Bless you, son!
Very moving and thought-provoking sermon. Thank you.