I’m sure that most of you have used Ivory Soap. In the old days, they used to advertise by saying that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100% pure. It was so pure it would float on the water. It wasn’t expensive soap, so mom would let us carve it into a boat shape and put a little sail on it. This would encourage us to stay longer in bath. Maybe mom hoped that her usually dirty children would eventually become 99 and 44/100 percent clean.
How clean do we have to be before God will accept us? Is it true that in God’s sight, we are just dirty children and no amount of Ivory soap will ever make us clean enough? Think about how much you hear “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” in an Orthodox worship service. The Orthodox must be especially dirty!
I remember reading about a great monastic father who on his death bed proclaimed tearfully that he was not ready to die, but wanted to live longer. The brothers were astounded because they had experienced the holiness of this elder. They cried out, “You, Father, have no need for further repentance.” The Elder replied, “Brothers, I have not yet begun to repent!”
How could this great ascetic still feel so unclean that he was not ready to go? I didn’t like the story because I thought that if this elder felt he needed more repentance, by comparison, I am dirty beyond redemption! Raised in the western tradition, I believed that my dirt came from my father, who got it from his father, and so on all the way back to Adam.This dirt was passed in the dirty act of sexual intercourse, and in like manner, I will pass the dirt to my children. Since God is holy (even purer than Ivory Soap), it is impossible for a dirty creature like me to hope for any direct contact with Him. So I must try my best to get cleaner, yet how clean do I have to be? Would it be enough for God if I am 50% pure – 70% pure – 90% pure – 99 44/100% pure, or do I have to be purer than Ivory Soap?
If this theology is correct, then what am I to do with the feast of “The Meeting of the Lord?”The Mother of God came to be “purified.” Purified? Why would she need to be purified? There was no act of sexual intercourse that produced the Lord Jesus, and after the birth, she remained a virgin. This law of purification came from Leviticus 12 and it reflects the tradition of “Churching”, when a woman who has given birth is absent from church for forty days.The Mother of God needed no such purification, yet she came anyway.
This is a dilemma. Either there is something wrong with the western tradition, or I am missing something here. In fact, both of these are true. First, we must reconsider the idea that we are dirty children. I’ve learned that Orthodoxy does not hold me personally responsible for the sin of Adam, nor am I compelled to commit that sin because I have inherited my dirtiness. St. John Chrysostom refuted the idea that the sexual act is sinful and said that we accuse God of sin, since He is the author of the act. St. John said that it is sinful only when it is devoid of love and fidelity within the sacrament of marriage. So, there is no dirt to be passed from one generation to the next (drat! I had gotten used to blaming old dad for everything!)
Still, the fall of our Parents continues to have its effect because by their disobedience, sin entered into the world. What effect did this have? The biblical word used most for “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Because of sin, the entire human race is missing the mark.The whole goal and purpose of life is contact with God, yet despite the best of our intentions, we are not moving towards that goal. As a consequence of our loss of communion with God, we are mortal, broken, and misguided, but the idea that sin makes us dirty in the eyes of God is absent from Orthodoxy.
So then, we come back to the question: In what way was the Virgin in need of purification? When Moses came before the Burning Bush, the Lord said that Moses had to take off his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Are shoes unholy? No, that isn’t the point. The point is that Moses was having a direct contact and experience of God and a response was needed. The Mosaic Law stated that when any human being came into direct contact with God, they were to offer rites of purification in response to that encounter. Of course, how could anyone have an encounter with God and not respond?
The Virgin came to the Rite of Purification not because she was involved in some sinful act that made her dirty in God’s sight. She was not “immaculately conceived” (as the West believes because they want to protect her from being dirty), and even though she was “filled with grace,” she was a member of the human race, a race that needed salvation. But more to the point, she had participated in the holiest act ever known, an encounter with God more direct and personal than experienced by Moses and the Prophets before her. Her presence at the Rite of Purification was a joyful response to that encounter, by which God became present to us all.
When we come to Church, we have the opportunity to have a direct and personal encounter with God. Christ will be present on the altar and those who commune will touch and taste the Lord. Could there be any more direct encounter than this? So, the Church asks us to prepare ourselves for this great and awesome spiritual event by fasting, prayer, and confession. But have you thought about what your response should be after communion? Like the Virgin, our Champion Leader, we should submit to the Rite of Purification.
Now, a great purifying rite is upon us – Lent! Here is a chance for us to respond to our encounter with Christ by using the tools of this season to help us overcome the wayward wandering of our hearts. If all we do is struggle to abstain from meat, then fasting serves no real purpose. But if fasting helps us to refrain from being judgmental, hard hearted, mean, angry, lustful, spiteful, etc., then we have truly entered into the Rite of Purification and it gives witness to the fact that “God is with us.” The Theotokos did it and she was purer than a bar of Ivory Soap.
It’s time for me to get in the bath!