Monday, January 22, 2007

Holy Desire: A Meditation for Zacchaeus Sunday

Today is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the fifth Sunday before the beginning of Great and Holy Lent. Lent provides us with a time of preparation for the great joy of Easter, Pascha, the feast of feasts. But today we enter into a time of preparation for the time of preparation.

That may sound curious to you, but the Church has organized her life in this way for very good reasons. The purpose is to capture our attention: there is so much to distract us, to weigh us down. We can’t change rapidly or move abruptly from one spiritual state to another. And so, we take our time and turn our attention slowly to all that Lent and Pascha mean to us. In these weeks before we practice the discipline of Lent, we are given the meaning of Lent.

And all of this comes to us in the story of Zacchaeus. His great and overwhelming desire is to see Jesus, and yet he is too short. Zacchaeus was short on stature, and as many have pointed out, he was also short on character: he was a tax collector – indeed, a chief tax collector – and that meant that he was despised by his people as one who collaborated with the enemy, working to gather the hated taxes that supported the Roman occupation of Judea. Tax collectors were notorious for cheating, graft, and corruption. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Zacchaeus was a very rich man. His friends and neighbors probably figured that he “had it all,” everything he could want. And yet, there is something lacking. Zacchaeus has an unfulfilled desire: he wants to see Jesus.

And what does he do? Every Sunday School child knows the answer: “he climbs up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”

Pause for a moment and think about that: he climbed a tree. Believe me when I tell you that self-respecting adult men in that time did not climb trees. Certainly, chief tax collectors did not climb trees. Climbing a tree will make you look silly, childish, foolish. And yet, for Zacchaeus, his holy desire overwhelms his good sense. He climbs a tree to see Jesus.

This is a rich moment in the story which reveals several important things – not just about Zacchaeus, but about the holy life to which we are called. It was his great and holy desire for Jesus that motivated Zacchaeus to do something the world considers foolish. Indeed, this brief episode foreshadows the figure of the “holy fool for Christ” which has a cherished place in Orthodox, especially Russian, tradition. Many of the saints, in their great desire for Jesus, did things that the world thought strange, or bizarre, or foolish. This coming Wednesday we will commemorate St Xenia of Petersburg, an 18th century saint who did some very strange things. She became a widow at age 26 when her husband, an army officer, died suddenly at a party. She grieved deeply for him, for her loss, but also because he died without benefit of Confession or Communion.

St Xenia immediately gave her home and all of her possessions away to the poor, choosing to dress in her husband’s old uniforms and wander through the city. Whenever she received charity or alms, she would immediately give it to someone more needy than herself. She became known as a great woman of prayer and her intercession was eagerly sought by those suffering various ailments, especially children, whom she loved. When a new church was being built in Smolensk, she would show up at the construction site in the middle of the night with bricks to help with the project.

For St Xenia, it was living in poverty and prayer and moving bricks. For Zacchaeus, it was climbing a tree. Their desire for Jesus overwhelmed their sense of propriety – and we venerate them as saints because of it. So Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because of his great desire, but also because he knew he didn’t “measure up.” The truth is, we don’t either. As St. Paul wrote, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all fall short. And so, we must seek to climb up, to cultivate virtue, to grow in the love and grace of God which is lavished upon us. The climb is difficult; the tree may turn out to be a cross. But remember that our Lord told us that the way of the Cross will be the way of true Life.

So Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus, and Jesus sees him: “Make haste, come down,” He tells him. “I’m coming to your house.”

And what happens? The people grumble: Jesus is going to eat and drink with a sinner! Again, it appears that the rules are being broken, propriety is being violated. God is drawing close, despite the sinfulness, despite the rebellion, despite the checkered past… He’s going to be a guest in the house of Zacchaeus.

Pay attention to what happens next. Zacchaeus’ great desire for Jesus bears fruit – indeed, it bears abundant fruit. Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” This goes beyond the Law’s requirements for repentance and restitution (Ex 22:3-12). Zacchaeus, “the wee little man,” transcends himself. Do you remember the words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Zacchaeus’ desire for Jesus blossoms in self-denial and generosity. The short man grows in holiness and sanctity: Jesus visits him and salvation comes to his house.

Zacchaeus desires Jesus. His holy desire transforms his life. That is the first great lesson we should ponder as we turn our eyes towards our Lenten discipline. Pray for that desire; desire that desire. Ask and it shall be given. And then together, throughout the Lenten season, we will find ourselves ascending the tree, walking the way of the Cross, rejoicing in the coming new Life – the salvation – that will enter our lives at Pascha.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen.