Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Challenging Our Claims of Discipleship

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On Holy and Great Wednesday we are presented with a stark and striking contrast about choices and destiny. The Church on this day has us contemplate the radically different fates of "the sinful woman" and the disciple Judas.

The former, though a great sinner, was forgiven through an act of repentance; the latter, though a close disciple, was lost through an act of betrayal. What an overwhelming difference between repentance and betrayal! This is a veritable "reversal of fortune" of the greatest intensity possible. The hymnography portrays this contrast with a heightened rhetoric worthy of the interior drama brought before our gaze:

As the sinful woman was bringing her offering of
the disciple was scheming with lawless men.
She rejoiced in pouring out her precious gift.
He hastened to sell the precious one.
She recognized the Master, but Judas parted from
She was set free, but Judas was enslaved to the
How terrible his slothfulness!
How great her repentance!
O Savior, who didst suffer for our sakes,
grant us repentance, and save us.
(Praises, at Matins)

The harlot spread out her hair to Thee, O Master;
Judas spread out his hands to lawless men;
she in order to receive forgiveness;
he in order to receive some silver.
We cry to Thee, who was sold for us and yet didst
set us free:
"O Lord, glory to Thee!"
(Aposticha, at Matins)

There is more than one account of an anointing of the Savior. He was anointed right before His passion as a prefiguration of His burial (MK. 14:3-9; JN. 12:1-8). And He was anointed during His earthly ministry by an unnamed woman while dining with Simon the Pharisee (LK. 7:36-50). It is clearly this anointing that the hymnography refers to when speaking of the "sinful woman." (Not St. Mary Magdalene, by the way). St. Luke relates the story very beautifully:

And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Disregarding the rebuke of Simon the Pharisee, who reproached Christ for even allowing "this sort of a woman" to touch Him, the Lord declares: "Therefore, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much." (LK. 7:47)

In stark contrast to this, we hear of the treachery of Judas, told somewhat laconically:

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it they were glad, and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him. (MK. 14:10-11)

Jesus, fully aware of this, later uttered these terrifying words about the fate of Judas at the Mystical Supper:

"For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born." (MK. 14:21)

On the eve of the Lord's passion, we are reminded of the need to be repentant, and not self-satisfied and self-content with the content and depth of our faith. The human heart is a mysterious realm wherein "dragons" and "angels" both dwell according to St. Macarius the Great. It can change allegiances "in the twinkling of an eye." As we are moved by the sinful woman's repentance and troubled by Judas' betrayal, we must guard our hearts so that this is not simply an emotional response that does not touch the quality and direction of our lives. We can always shed tears over a good story. Have we had an experience of repentance and love for Christ that in anyway resembles that of this sinful woman? Or, are we sure that we have never betrayed anyone, including our Lord? Betrayal does not have to be spectacular. It can manifest itself in little things including apathy and indifference. We can pay "lip service" to the teaching of Christ, but actually live as if Christ was hardly "the Lord and Master" of our lives.

The services of Holy Week are intent upon challenging our claims of discipleship. Not to point out our failings, but to remind us of the seriousness of those claims and the need for God's grace to remain loyal to Christ before all other things. Jesus said that "he who is forgiven little, loves little." (LK. 7:47). But on the Cross we were forgiven everything! Are we now able to "love much?"

Fr. Steven

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