Come, let us rejoice in the Lord, proclaiming the present mystery; for He has broken the middle wall of partition, and the flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life. As for me, I shall return to enjoy the bliss of paradise from which I was driven away before, by reason of iniquity; for the likeness of the Father, and the Person of His eternity, which it is impossible to change, has taken the likeness of a servant, coming from a Mother who has not known wedlock; free from transubstantiation, since He remained as He was, true God, and took what had not been, having become Man for His love of mankind. Wherefore, let us lift our voices unto Him crying: O You Who was born of the Virgin, O God, have mercy upon us.
Vespers of Nativity
According to the hymns of the Orthodox Church, which proclaim the doctrine of the Church, Christ’s Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension have reopened Paradise: “The flaming spear shall turn about, and the Cherubim shall admit all to the Tree of Life.” Paradise is open and all who will may enter and eat of the Tree of Life, which is Christ Himself: the Bread of Life, the Mana that has come down from the Father. Paradise is open for all, yet why do I not enter?
In one sense, in a very important sense, I do enter. I enter liturgically. I enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life by regular participation in the liturgical life of the Church. When I come to Church, when I strive to prepare myself through prayer, fasting and confession to receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the holy Mysteries of the Divine Liturgy, then I do indeed enter Paradise and eat of the Tree of Life. I eat of Christ, and yet, I am often distracted (by the crying children, by cares and responsibilities, and by base distractions of all sorts). I prepare, or at least I mean to prepare, I always intend to prepare—but even if I say all of the pre-Communion prayers and fast and confess regularly, still I don’t feel prepared. I only perceive in the slightest ways that I am coming before the Judge of all, the Judge who knows everything and still loves completely, the Judge who rejects no one but rather desires that all come to Him in repentance.
But most Sundays, I am full of distractions and cares. Sometimes I say only one pre-Communion prayer: “Lord Have Mercy!” Sometimes I am so focused on what I have to do or say that it is not until after the Liturgy, sometimes after everyone has left the Church, sometimes not even until after I have gotten home and started to unwind, that I begin to sense in some small ways that I have been to Paradise, that I have eaten from the Tree of Life, but I hardly noticed it.
Why is this? How is it that I can return to the “Ancient Bliss,” and yet still not know it, not appreciate it, not rejoice in the return to Paradise?
When Adam and Eve left Paradise, they were clothed in animal skins. These animal skins, the Church Fathers tell us, refer to the animal passions, the animal-like ways of thinking, desiring and perceiving. So long as we cling to these animal ways of thinking and experiencing, we will be trapped, trapped in a kind of prison, a kind of hell, a kind of straight jacket. But there is a way out, a way to become free to enter Paradise and walk with God there.
God has given us holy Fathers and Mothers who have found the way to free themselves from most of the spiritually debilitating effects of these animal skins. This way is the way of asceticism and the continual remembrance of God. The holy Fathers and Mothers tell us that through asceticism, by learning to say no to ourselves and yes to God and those God has brought into our lives, we begin to lessen the pull of, or the passions of, the animal skins. But asceticism is a tricky thing. It’s not as easy as just limiting what you eat or where you go or what you do. Asceticism involves external behaviours, but it is not about them. Asceticism is about controlling the inner person, or what the Apostle Paul called “the old man.”
To enter more fully, or with more full awareness, into Paradise, we must learn to let die our old man (which is growing corrupt through deceitful lusts). We must learn to put on Christ. This involves, of course, outward actions and attitudes, but is mostly about inner attention and nurture. It is not easy. What is easy is to be distracted by deceitful desires, fears, and cares. It is easy, like an animal to go with the conditioned response, the familiar fix, the fast relief. And every time we do, we reinforce our addiction to the Pavlovian responses of our old man, the old person clothed in animal skins. Putting on Christ is sometimes rather painful, it’s inconvenient, it involves self control and suffering a long time (aka Patience). Putting on Christ requires hope in the Resurrection, faith that death is not the end, and love for God and others that is greater than our love for ourself.
Paradise is opened for us as a gift from God. The new person within us, the new man (which is created by God within us according to righteousness and holiness) is born in us also as a gift from God in Baptism. However, what we will nurture and what we will attend to (either the new man or the old), that depends on us.
Paradise and hell are open to us. And we in this life, or so it seems, may experience both. The world and the world’s ways of thinking and doing train us to think and act in hellish ways: ways of selfishness and fear, ways of lustful appetites and futile coping mechanisms. We are so easily caught up in these hellish ways of thinking and doing that, like my dog who starts salivating and jumping in circles when she hears me shaking her food bowl, we too just jump and spin in our thoughts to places far away or to things urgent (but not necessarily important) or to matters too high for us (as the Prophet David puts it in the Psalms). Our minds jump to stimuli that we have little control over because we have not trained ourselves to attend to “the one thing needful.”
And this brings me back to Liturgy. One of the purposes of liturgical services is to provide us with time and space to attend to the one thing needful. It is a less important matter that I perceive very poorly (or perhaps even not at all) the spiritual Paradise I enter in the Divine Liturgy. My perceptions matter much less than my intentions. When I go to Church to pray, when I go to Church to teach my children to pray (even though I know I will pray very little), I am choosing Paradise. I am saying yes to God and no to myself. When I eat and drink the precious Body and Blood of Christ, I am nourishing the new man within me—even if I have not trained myself to perceive it very well, or even at all. I am forcing myself, animal skins, old man and all, to submit to the Kingdom of God, to humble itself before the dread Mysteries of God.
The day will come when we will all shed our animal skins. “This body of death” is one of the names St. Paul gives to the old man at work in us. When we die, we will be free. There is no sin after death. After death everything will change and nothing will change. Nothing will change in that we will still be ourselves. What we have longed for—even if we could never actually attain it in this corrupt and corrupting age—everything we have longed for we will still long for: whether it is the corrupting passions of this age or the Paradise of God’s Presence. And in the Age to Come everything will change in that this body of death that has distracted and deceived us will be separated from us. Everything will change in that we will have nothing distracting us from the intense Presence of God. And what we have longed for in this life will make all of the difference for us in the next. And even in this life, although imperfectly, often almost imperceptibly, even in this life we have a foretaste of what is to come, what St. Paul calls a fragrance of life or a fragrance of death.
Paradise is open for all. Those of us like Lazarus’ sister Mary, those of us who have learnt to attend to the one thing needful, these perceive Paradise most clearly now and often sit in peace at the feet of Jesus. However, we Marthas, those of us distracted by much serving, distracted by the cares and deceitful desires of this world, we Marthas still come to Jesus. We come like Martha with questions and objections, very seldom at peace. We come in a flurry of mind and activity, distracted and inattentive. But we come. And our Master receives us and feeds us His heavenly Food—even if we as infants do not realize what we are eating. We come to Jesus distracted and sinful and often oblivious; we come to Jesus and He receives us. We come to open Paradise, even though we barely perceive it. And yet we have hope that in the Age to come we will all perceive Paradise fully, even as the Marys among us perceive partially it now.