Joy of All Who Sorrow

35th Sunday after Pentecost / The Holy New Martyrs & Confessors of Russia

Gospel [Luke 18:35-43 (§93); Luke 21:12-19 (§106)]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Dear Father, brothers and sisters: Happy Feast!

Today we hear two passages from St Luke’s Gospel, the first retelling Jesus’ beautiful healing miracle of a blind man in Jericho and the second a stark prophesy of the Lord of what will happen to His disciples and followers. At first glance these two passages seem to have little in common, but if we look into the wider context of our first Gospel, and what Jesus says to His disciples immediately before it, we can perceive the connection between them and how this can help us to understand and celebrate the Feast of the New Martyrs & Confessors of Russia whom we also commemorate this day. To help us to interpret the Gospels we will turn to our holy Father St Gregory the Great, the Apostle of the English, who wrote a most beautiful homily on our first Gospel.

Our first Gospel follows on almost immediately from our Gospel last week concerning the that rich ruler of the Pharisees, but there is a small passage in between which is very important considering our commemoration of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia.

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.

Here in between the Gospel we had last week and our Gospel this week, Jesus makes one of several prophesies of His imminent suffering and Passion. But again as we see throughout the Gospel, the disciples could not take this in, they could not accept that their Lord and Master who had control over the elements of wind and water as well as power to heal, to excorcise and to resurrect, that He the Promised Messiah could be subjected to such cruel punishment and death. How could this be? And it is right here, whilst they are pondering this again that we hear the start of our first Gospel reading.

And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging:

In his homily for this reading, St Gregory makes a beautiful and profound allegorical interpretation of this simple story of Jesus’ healing a persistent blind beggar on His way to Jerusalem. As St Gregory says –

We do not know the historical identity of the blind man, but we know whom he mystically denotes. The blind man is the human race. In our first parents it was driven from the joys of paradise, and ignorant of the brightness of the divine light, it suffered the darkness of its condemnation.

We can thus see that the blind man’s physical darkness is the spiritual darkness of our fallen human nature, blinded by pride and sin.

And what of the blind man’s posture, that he is described in the Gospel as, sitting by the wayside begging. How are we to interpret this? St Gregory answers,

Truth [our Lord Jesus Christ] Himself told is: I am the way. Anyone ignorant of the brightness of eternal light is blind. If he already believes in his Redeemer he is sitting at the wayside. If he already believes but only pretends to ask for eternal light, if he refrains from praying, he is indeed a blind man sitting at the wayside, but he is now begging. If he believes, and knows the blindness of his heart, if he begs to receive the light of truth, he is sitting at the wayside begging.    

And hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant.

And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.

Physically and spiritually how many passed along that way? Sure there were Christ’s disciples who were following in the Way. But there were also many who were not walking in the Way, perhaps they were going their own way or in the opposite direction, away from Jerusalem. And what was true then, physically and spiritually, is all the more true for us spiritually. How few are those who are beside the Wayside, and how many fewer could be said to have the faith and humility of this blind man, to be begging by the wayside.

And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.

What more beautiful, pure and heartfelt cry can there be to Christ than this. Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we immediately can connect this to the Jesus Prayer, or the Arrow Prayer, as the Desert Fathers were wont to call it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner!” This prayer, like an arrow, shoots straight up to God, it is simple, heartfelt and says everything necessary, without any superfluous, puffed up words. Straight from the heart. Commenting on the blind man’s own form of Jesus Prayer, St Gregory says –

If anyone recognizes the darkness of his blindness, if anyone understands that the light of truth is wanting in him, let him cry from the bottom of his heart, let him cry also with his whole mind, let him say, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!

Despite this perfect, pious and heartfelt cry. What happens now?

And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace:

Again, this reminds me of a parallel incident which occurred only a few verses previously earlier in chapter 18, when the little children were brought to Him, they also were also rebuked. In St Gregory’s allegorical interpretation, who are symbolized by these voices?

‘What is meant’ St Gregory says, ‘by the ‘people ahead’ as Jesus comes if not the crowds of bodily desires and the uproar caused by our vices.

St Gregory goes on to relate this to the way in which we too are also so frequently disturbed by sinful thoughts, temptations and images which comes from our passions as well as without from the demons. As St Gregory says again –

Before Jesus comes into our hearts the evils we have done rise up in our thoughts as images, and they throw us into confusion in the very act of praying.

Despite this discouragement, however, our blind man, does not give up. Thus we read he –

cried so much the more, Thou son of David, have mercy on me.

Here, brothers and sisters, we can see a real example of perseverance who incarnates the example of the importunate widow right at the start of this chapter, the one who cried out unceasingly to the unjust Judge. Here we can see how the Just Judge will always hearken to His servants who He finds persevering in prayer and entreaty to him. Thus as St Gregory says –

In proportion to the tumult of our unspiritual thoughts must be our eagerness to persist in prayer.

And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him:

In a beautiful passage in his homily, St Gregory says –

You see how one who was passing by stopped. While we are still suffering the crowds of images in our prayer, we realize that Jesus is in some sense passing by; but when we persist ardently in prayer, Jesus stops. He revives the light, because God is fixed to our hearts, and the light we have lost is restored.

Going deeper still, St Gregory discerns in this seemingly simple action of the Lord, moving and stopping, a deeper revelation of His Two Natures.

Passing by is characteristic of His humanity, standing still His divinity. Through His humanity He was able to be born, to grow up, to die, to rise, to go from place to place … It pertains to His divinity to stand always still, since He is present everywhere and neither comes nor goes by motion.

Our Lord thus hears Him whilst he was walking along the road, according to His human nature, but when He stops, He then goes onto Heal Him as God Incarnate.

and when he was come near, he asked him, Saying, What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?

Again when Christ asks these questions, it is important that, according to the fully Orthodox Christology above that we understand that of course, Jesus, the Incarnation of the Pre-Eternal Logos knew the answer to His own question. In his homily St Gregory quotes Jesus’ previous teaching about constant prayer, ‘For your Father knows what you need before you request it of him’. Again for those outside, it is obvious what the blind man will ask, yet, as we have seen despite, and no doubt, partly because of his physical blindness, look at his spiritual prowess. In this sense it is not at all obvious that one with such perfect spiritual vision should want anything to change in his physical vision. So what does our blind man answer?

And he said, Lord, that I may receive my sight

St Gregory highlights how pure is this man’s request:

The blind man does not ask the Lord for gold, but for light … Let us imitate him, dearly beloved … Let us not ask the Lord for deceptive riches, or earthly gifts, or passing honours, but for light.

And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee.

It was precisely this man’s simple, clear-spiritually-sighted faith in Christ, that impelled our Lord to restore the sight of his physical eyes.

And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.

St Gregory then turns our attention to what this man does immediately after receiving his sight back. As soon as he sees, He follows the Lord.

Let us consider where he is walking, and let us follow his footsteps by imitating him.

This brings us back to where we started our homily this morning. For we must remember where Christ is going. He is going before us to Jerusalem for the last time, the city in where He will be arrested, beaten, scourged, stripped and crucified. Will we follow Him there?

As St Gregory says,

If there is a person who believes in Christ, but who still pursues the gains of avarice, who is exalted by pride in honours, who burns with the flames of envy … who eagerly desires to succeed in the things of the world, that one is refusing to follow Jesus in whom he has believed.

As we heard in our second Gospel reading

And ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.

Dear father, brothers and sisters, in order to follow in the Way of the Light, we must be prepared for all that the darkness of this world will throw at us because of the Light within us. And today when we commemorate the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians who suffered for Christ in the land of Rus under the Bolshevik yoke, those who went to their deaths, freezing in gulags, killed by a communist’s rifle, thrown down a mine shafts: monks, priests, laymen, hierarchs, children, we can say they truly followed Christ and walked with Him to Jerusalem.  By the prayers of all the Martyrs & Confessors of the Land of Rus, may we not dare to deviate from the Way our Lord walked whilst He was on this earth, the Way that leads to all the sorrows and pain of the Cross but also the Way which leads to the joy and the lightness of the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection. As we hear in the Ikos of the Feast:

When the days of trial by fire began of the Church of Russia, and the Lord was not pleased to accept wholeburnt offerings and oblations from us, many hierarchs and priests did not confer with flesh and blood, but, understanding the will of the Lord, offered themselves up as an unblemished sacrifice. And following the eternal High Priest and Mediator of the new covenant, they entered into the holy of holies with their own blood, that the sins of the people might be washed clean. Glorious are your names, O valiant passion-bearers, for ye are a model for us who venerate your struggle; for neither tribulation, prison, nor death could separate you from the love of God.