Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Will Owen, n/OHC
Lent 5 B – Sunday, March 22 2015
|The tree of life|
I’ve been thinking a lot about judgment recently, particularly as it’s come up in our Lenten gospel readings. This week’s gospel text ends by telling us Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be driven out. What follows after, which doesn’t make it into the section we read today, is the admonition to walk while we have the light so that the darkness will not overtake us. That light, as we know, is Jesus, who by this point in John’s gospel has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the death he will meet there. By this point in Lent, we have also turned our faces and our hearts in that direction. We notice, too, that this bit about walking while we still have the light links this passage about judgment to the one we read last week. And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people preferred darkness to light.
When we hear about judgment, it’s hard to escape the image of judgment made famous by that great 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards: we are sinners in the hands of an angry God, like a spider dangling over the flames of hell. And even if we reject this image out of hand as based on an antiquated and irrelevant theology, we often try to read the scriptures as if they were law codes or how-to manuals. Okay, how do I get close to Jesus? Sell all that I have and give it to the poor. Check. Okay, how do I follow Jesus? Take up my cross. Check. How do I get God’s love? Confess my sins. Check. But the gospel accounts are not law codes or how-to manuals. No, they’re poetry. And love poetry at that. They’re full of image and metaphor and story. They’re a communication from the source of all life, a love song calling us home from our self-imposed exile. And rather than give us facts and rules, they are meant to convey the incomparable and unbearable prodigality of God’s love for the world. Incomparable because we can’t make any sense of the scope of God’s love with human reason. And unbearable, because God’s love demands a death and a surrender so total that we resist it with everything that we have and are.
Seen in the context of a love poem, judgment ceases to be something fearful and terrible and becomes a supreme act of love, drawing us ever closer to the abundant life that flows from Christ Jesus. Judgment is nothing other than an honest exposition of reality, in this case the reality that God knew and loved us completely even before the creation of the universe and that God continues to do so now, despite the manifold ways that we resist and attempt to sabotage or manipulate that love. In the light of judgment all our resistance to God’s love is exposed and our death is required. We cannot stare into the face of love without dying, and our hearts cannot make space for God’s love without breaking open.
In the exposing light of God’s judgment we see our brokenness for what it is. We glimpse both the depth of God’s love for us and the reality of how often we have made ourselves and others small to escape that love. This is a painful process. When I started visiting the monastery, I would often sit down with one particular brother. As he shared his own experience, he talked a lot about the love he’d known in his life, about God’s love for him and God’s love for me, and his own love for me. My eyes filled with tears. He said to me, “it hurts to be loved.” Not a question, but a recognition. Yes, it does. It hurts to know ourselves loved without having earned it or deserved it, for no reason at all other than because we exist. The revelation of that dynamic through the light of love—that’s all judgment is.
We cannot earn God’s love, nor do we need to. God’s love for us is more fundamental than the air we breathe, closer than our heartbeat. Seeing the reality of God’s love for us and the ways we resist it allows us to take responsibility for our own broken hearts and to move more deeply into them. When we move into those broken hearts we will find Jesus there: Jesus on the Cross, on the Golgotha of our broken hearts. He has been there all along, and we never knew it. He’s been there, hurting as we hurt, loving us from the beginning to the end of all existence, inviting us to join him in his death, in our deaths, the death of all our running away, all our resistance, all our insistence on earning love, all our self-will, the annihilation of our false self, so that we may join him in the abundance of his life.
Drawing on an image reminiscent of our gospel text today, the fourth century poet and hymnodist St. Ephrem the Syrian, in one of his poems on virginity, says that the Tree of Life, in the midst of the Garden of Eden, “saw that Adam had stolen” the fruit and “sank into the virgin ground / and was hidden / —but burst forth and reappeared on Golgotha.” Seen in this way, the Cross is none other than the Tree of Life that once grew at the center of paradise. It grows up out of the ground once more to cradle the body of Christ. When that precious body touches the dead wood of the Cross, the Cross bursts forth into fruit and flower, revealed for what it truly is: that Tree of Life. Another Orthodox theologian, David the Invincible, writing two hundred years after Ephrem, picks up the theme: “Blessed are you, Holy Wood, crowned by Christ, / that grew on earth, yet spreading your arms rose / above the arches of the highest heavens, / and brought forth and carried upon yourself / the imponderable fruit! / […] You flowered in the stock of Israel / and the whole earth was filled with your fruits.”
Just as the dead wood of the Cross becomes for us the Tree of Life, so the light of God’s judgment reveals our broken hearts to be the new Golgotha, sanctified places where Christ dwells eternally within us, bearing the fruit of new and abundant life, fruit for us and fruit for the world. This is the meaning of resurrection; this is the new life God promises us; and this is the awesome power of God’s love for us and the whole creation—not that our hearts will never break, not that we will never know death, but that through our hearts breaking and through our own dying to ourselves, the very places within us that are most barren and empty will become the fertile ground of our and the world’s most abundant life. This Lent, in the light of God’s loving judgment, may we, like that grain of wheat, die and rise to bear fruit for the world.