Share   Print
Related Content

On the Deadening of the Human Spirit

A Sermon on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women

By St. Ignatius Brianchaninov (+1867)

Today’s Gospel passage proclaims the actions of the holy women who followed the God-man during His earthly sojourn, who were witnesses to His Passion and were present at His burial. The burial took place on Friday evening. When the malice of the Jews was being poured forth like fiery lava from fire-breathing Mount Etna, directed not only at the Lord but also at all those close to Him; when the holy Apostles were forced to hide themselves, or were only able to observe the terrible event from afar; when only the most intimate disciple of love, who was afraid of nothing, remained persistently by the Lord—then that disciple took action who had always been a disciple in secret, and who had continually concealed his heartfelt pledge out of fear of being persecuted by the Sanhedrin. Joseph—a respected member of the Sanhedrin—suddenly trampled down all the obstacles and vacillations and all the bewilderment that had hitherto constrained and worried him. He came to cold, cruel Pilate and asked for the body of Him Who had been executed by means of a shameful death. He received the body and buried it with reverence and honor. The Gospel imparts to Joseph’s act the significance of a magnanimous, courageous action. And that is just what it was. A member of the Sanhedrin—before the face of the Sanhedrin, which had committed deicide; before the face of Jerusalem, which had taken part in the deicide—took the body of the God-man, Who had been murdered by men, down from the Cross and bore it away to a garden situated close to the city gates and walls. There—in solitude and quiet, under the shade of the trees, in a new tomb cut out of the solid rock face, with an abundant outpouring of fragrant spices and myrrh—he placed the body, by which the bodies and souls of all mankind have been redeemed, having wrapped it in the purest linens, the way a precious treasure is wrapped and concealed.

Another member of the Sanhedrin took part in the burial: Nicodemus, who had come to the Lord by night, and who had recognized Him as the One sent by God. Having leaned a great stone against the door of the sepulcher (in the Gospel the low opening into the cave is called a door), Joseph left, as one who had completed his service satisfactorily. The Sanhedrin was watching Joseph’s actions. After his departure they took care to set a guard at the sepulcher and to affix a seal to the stone that blocked the entrance. The Lord’s burial was witnessed by His persecutors and enemies. Some members of the Sanhedrin, having in a frenzy and rage committed the greatest crime, had involuntarily performed the greatest sacrificial offering: by sacrificing the all-holy Victim they had redeemed mankind and had put an end to the fruitless series of archetypal sacrifices, making those sacrifices and their statutes themselves superfluous. Other members of the Sanhedrin, representatives of all the righteous ones of the Old Testament, in a God-pleasing way and spirit performed the burial of the Redeemer of men, and by this action completed and sealed the pious work of the sons of the Old Testament. Henceforth commences the exclusive ministry of the figures of the New Testament.

The holy women were no less courageous than Joseph in their self-renunciation.Having been present at the burial on Friday, they did not consider it permissible on the Sabbath—the day of rest—to disturb the repose in which the Lord’s body slept in the sacred darkness and reclusion of the cave-sepulcher. The women intended to pour out their zeal for the Lord by pouring myrrh on His body. Having returned from the burial on Friday, they straightway bought a sizable quantity of fragrant mixtures of spices and awaited the day following the Sabbath. On that day, at the rising of the sun, the pious women set out for the tomb. On the way they remembered that a large stone had been rolled in front of the tomb’s entrance. This caused them to worry, and the women began to speak among themselves: Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? (Mark 16:3). The stone was very great. When they arrived at the sepulcher, to their surprise they saw the stone rolled away. It had been moved aside by a resplendent, powerful angel. After the Lord’s Resurrection the angel had descended from heaven to the tomb that had held Him Whom the heavens could not contain. He had struck the guards with fear, and at the same time had broken the seal and moved the heavy stone aside. He was sitting upon the stone, awaiting the arrival of the women. When they came he proclaimed to them the Lord’s Resurrection, commanding them to inform the Apostles. Thanks to their zeal towards the God-man, thanks to their resolution to render honor to the all-holy body—guarded by sentries and vigilantly watched by the hatred of the Sanhedrin—the holy women were the first people to receive precise and reliable information about Christ’s Resurrection. They became the first and most powerful preachers of the Resurrection, since they had heard the news from the mouth of an angel. There is no partiality with the all-perfect God: all are equal before Him, and that man who strives toward God with great self-renunciation is made worthy of the special gifts of God, in exceptional abundance and with spiritual beauty.

Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? These words of the holy women have a mystical meaning. It is so edifying that love for my neighbor and desire for his spiritual benefit do not permit me to be silent about it.

The tomb is our heart. Our heart was a temple, but it has become a tomb. Christ enters therein by means of the sacrament of Baptism, in order to dwell within us and act through us. Then the heart is consecrated to God as a temple. We take from Christ the possibility of acting, and we revive our “old man,” when we continually act according to the inclination of our fallen will and of our reason, poisoned by falsehood. Christ, Who entered at Baptism, continues to abide in us, but He is as it were wounded and put to death by our behavior. The temple of God, not made with hands, is turned into a cramped and dark tomb. A stone, very great, is rolled against the entrance. The enemies of God set a watch before the tomb, and with a seal they make fast the opening that is shut up by the stone. They seal the stone to the rock wall so that, in addition to the weight, the substantial seal might prohibit one from touching the stone. The enemies of God themselves keep watch to preserve this deadening! They have deliberated and have set up every kind of obstacle to warn them in advance of a resurrection—to prevent it, to make it impossible.

The stone is that infirmity of the soul by which all other infirmities are kept inviolable, and which the Holy Fathers call “insensibility.” [1] What is this sin? Many will say that they have never even heard of it. According to the definition of the Fathers, “insensibility” is the deadening of spiritual feelings. It is the invisible death of the human soul regarding spiritual matters and a total revitalization regarding material matters.

It happens that due to a long-term physical illness, all one’s strength is exhausted and all the body’s faculties wither. Then the sickness, not finding food for itself, ceases to torment the bodily frame. It leaves the sick one worn out—deadened, as it were—and incapable of activity because he has been wasted by sufferings, because of a terrible, mute sickness which is not expressed by any particular kind of suffering. The same thing happens in a human soul as well. A long-standing negligent life amidst continual distractions, amidst continual voluntary sins, in forgetfulness of God and eternity, in forgetfulness of—or in the most superficial remembrance of—the Gospel commandments and teachings, removes one’s feeling for spiritual matters and deadens the soul to them. Though these spiritual matters exist, they cease to exist for him, because his life has ceased for them—all his strength is directed only to that which is material, temporal, empty, and sinful.

Anyone who examines the state of his soul dispassionately and thoroughly will see in it the infirmity of insensibility. He will see the extent of its influence, he will see its severity and importance, and he will admit that it is the manifestation and evidence of the deadening of his soul. When we want to take up the reading of the word of God, what boredom attacks us! Everything we read seems to be of little importance, undeserving of attention, strange! How we wish to be quickly freed from this reading! To what is this due? It is due to the fact that we have no feeling for the word of God.

When we stand at prayer, what dryness and coldness we feel! How we rush to finish our superficial supplications, filled with distractions! Why is this? Because we are strangers to God: we believe in the existence of God with a dead faith. He does not exist for our feelings. Why have we forgotten eternity? Is it possible that we will be excluded from the number of those who must enter its boundless domain? Is it possible that death does not stand before us face-to-face as it stands before other men? What is the reason for this? It is because we have become attached with all our soul to material things. We never think about eternity, and we never want to think about it—we have lost our precious presentiment of it and have acquired a false concern for our earthly sojourn. This false feeling makes our earthly life seem to us to be endless. We are so deceived and captivated by this false feeling that we arrange all of our actions in accordance with it. We offer up the faculties of our soul and body in sacrifice to that which is corruptible, taking no care at all for the other world which awaits us, even though we must without fail become eternal inhabitants of that world. Why do idle talk, joking, judgment of our neighbors, and biting mockery of them pour forth from us as from a spring? Why is it that without feeling burdened we spend many hours at the most shallow entertainments without finding satiety in them, and endeavor to replace one empty occupation with another, while we do not want to dedicate even the briefest time to the examination of our sins and to weeping over them? It is because we have acquired a feeling for sin, for everything shallow, for everything through which sin is introduced into man, and by which sin is preserved in man. It is because we have lost the feeling for everything that introduces the God-beloved virtues into man, and increases and preserves them in him.

Insensibility is inculcated in a soul by the world which is hostile toward God and by the fallen angels who are hostile toward God, and with the cooperation of our own will. It grows and is strengthened by a life that conforms to the principles of the world. It grows and is strengthened by following one’s own fallen reason and will, ceasing to serve God, and serving God negligently. When insensibility tarries in one’s soul and becomes its nature, then the world and the rulers of the world affix their seal to the stone. This seal consists in the human spirit’s contact with the fallen spirits, in the human spirit’s assimilation of the impressions produced on it by them, and in its subjugation to the forcible influence and predominance of the rejected spirits. Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? This is a question filled with anxiety, sadness, and bewilderment. This anxiety, sadness, and bewilderment are felt by those souls who are making their way to the Lord, having ceased serving the world and sin. Before their gaze is revealed, in all its terrible magnitude and significance, the infirmity of insensibility. They desire to pray with contrition, to read the word of God without desiring to read other things, and to abide in continual contemplation of their sinfulness, in continual pain over it. In a word, they want to be adopted by God, to belong to God, and they encounter something unexpected—an opposition within themselves that is not comprehended by the servants of the world: insensibility of heart. Their heart, struck by their previous negligent life as if by a mortal wound, displays no signs of life. In vain does their mind gather thoughts about death, about God’s Judgment, about the multitude of their sins, about the torments of hell and the delights of paradise. In vain does their mind try to smite their heart with these thoughts—it remains without feeling for them, as if hell, paradise, God’s Judgment, one’s own transgression, and one’s state of fallenness and perdition had no relation whatsoever to the heart. It sleeps a deep sleep, a sleep of death. It sleeps, drunk and intoxicated with sinful poison. Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? This stone is very great.

According to the teachings of the Holy Fathers, in order to destroy insensibility man needs a constant, patient, uninterrupted activity against insensibility; he needs a constant, pious, and attentive life. The life of insensibility is put to shame by such a life. But this death of the human spirit is not put to death by man’s efforts alone: insensibility is destroyed by the action of Divine Grace. An angel of God, at God’s command, comes down to the aid of a toiling and troubled soul, rolls away the stone of hardness from his heart, fills his soul with contrition, and proclaims to the soul its resurrection, which is the usual result of constant contrition. [2] Contrition is the first sign of the quickening of the heart with regard to God and eternity. What is contrition? Contrition is a man’s feeling of mercy and compassion for himself—for his disastrous state, his state of fallenness, his state of eternal death. Concerning the people of Jerusalem who were brought to this frame of mind by the preaching of the holy Apostle Peter and became disposed to accept Christianity, the Scripture says that they were pricked in their heart (Acts 2:37). [3]

The Lord’s body had no need of the fragrant myrrh of the myrrh-bearers. The anointing with myrrh was forestalled by the Resurrection. But the holy women—by their timely purchase of myrrh, by their early walk to the life-bearing tomb at the sun’s first rays, by their disregard of the fear that had been instilled in them by the malice of the Sanhedrin and the military watch that stood guard over the tomb and the One buried therein—manifested and proved by their actions their heartfelt care for the Lord. Their gift turned out to be superfluous, but it was recompensed a hundredfold by the appearance of the angel, who had hitherto been invisible to the women, and by the news—which could not fail to be utterly true—of the Resurrection of the God-man, and the resurrection with Him of all mankind. God does not need for Himself the dedication of our lives, the dedication of all our strength and capabilities to His service—but for us it is indispensable. We offer them as myrrh at the Lord’s tomb. Let us opportunely buy myrrh as an offering of love. From our youth let us renounce all sacrifices to sin. At the price of this renunciation let us buy myrrh, as an offering of love. Service to sin cannot be combined with service to God: the first destroys the second. Let us not permit sin to mortify the feeling for God and for all things Divine in our spirit! Let us not allow sin to place its seal upon us, to receive a violent predominance over us.

He who has entered into the service of God from the days of his unspoiled youth, and who remains in this service with constancy, submits himself to the continual influence of the Holy Spirit. He is imprinted with the Grace-filled, all-holy impressions which proceed from Him, and he acquires, in time, an active knowledge of Christ’s Resurrection. In Christ he comes to life in spirit and is made, by the election and command of God, a preacher of the Resurrection to his brethren. He who through ignorance or fascination has enslaved himself to sin, has entered into a relationship with the fallen spirits, has numbered himself among them, and has lost within his spirit his bond with God and with the inhabitants of heaven—let him be healed through repentance. Let us not put off our treatment from one day to the next, that death may not steal upon us unexpectedly; that it may not carry us off suddenly; that we may not turn out to be incapable of entering into the habitations of unending repose and festivity; that we may not be cast, like useless tares, into the fire of hell, which forever burns and is never quenched. Chronic diseases are not quickly cured, and not as easily as ignorance imagines. It is not without reason that God’s mercy grants us time for repentance; it is not without reason that all the saints implored God that they be granted time for repentance. Time is needed for the blotting out of sinful impressions; time is needed to be imprinted with the stamp of the Holy Spirit; time is needed to cleanse ourselves from impurity; time is needed to be clothed in the raiment of the virtues, to be adorned with the God-loving qualities with which all the inhabitants of heaven are adorned.

Christ is resurrected in a man who is prepared for it, and the tomb—the heart—again becomes a temple of God. Arise O Lord, save me, O my God (Ps. 3:7). In this, Thy mystical and, at the same time, substantial Resurrection, consists my salvation. Amen.

Endnotes

  1. See St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 18.
  2. See St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 1:6.
  3. In the Slavonic Scripture it is said that they became contrite in heart.—Trans.

From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 41, No. 5 & 4 (#244, Sept-Oct, 2005), pp. 225-233. Translated from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, Ascetical Sermons [Minsk, 2002], pp. 144-51 [in Russian]. Posted on July 4, 2006.