By the first century the prophet Zechariah had become idealized as a figure of pure and acceptable sacrifice before God, and a by-word to faithless Jews signifying their arrogance, even murderous rebellion before God. Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke, "... the blood of Abel ... [and] ... the blood of the prophet Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary ... shall be required of this generation" (Lk 11:15). The name Abel signifies murder itself, for the first two humans born of a woman, Cain and Abel, would result in fratricide before they could even develop into fathers and men. The first death in human history will be a murder, having no clear motive. Thus, the nature of this new world following Eden is revealed: treachery, irrational selfishness, murderous intent. Whereas in Eden, all things tended toward life and ever more life, after the fall from Eden, every living thing would follow a common path toward hideous finitude. Above all else, it will be death that defines this new world, and its first instance will be violent, treacherous, egotistical. Significantly, Abel is killed offering sacrifice to God, the sacrifice of a lamb. So as death first appears on the earth, the Lamb of God has already preceded it.
Similarly, Zechariah offers acceptable sacrifice before God's Altar. Above all, he is a living sacrifice pleasing before God as he acts as a messenger warning the people that their murderous, rebellious, and selfish ways are separating them further and further from God, which will lead to their destruction, and, indeed, the Babylonian Captivity would soon crush the Jews and result in the Temple itself, the place of sacrifice, being destroyed. Zechariah, too, will be killed in the act of acceptable sacrifice, offered in the Temple at Mt. Zion. Rather than being chastened, the people instead stone Zechariah in the Temple courtyard, killing him. The day of his death would be Yom Kippur when the people are to kneel before God asking forgiveness for their sins, to be reconciled.
Through Abel and Zechariah we learn of God's desire to be reconciled to His people .... this is the whole idea of sacrifice. His desire is to accept their love, for love's own nature is always self-sacrifice and to be always reconciled. Through God we are taught this nature of love: never treacherous, always faithful; never murderous, always lifegiving; never violent, always gentle; never egotistical, always humble; never death, always life.
When Zechariah announces words like king and victory, as we read in our Old Testament Lesson this morning, sixth-century Jews would have expected chariots, proud military horses, great processions and triumphal arches to follow, but, no, our God rides upon the lowly ass, nay, even upon the foal who follows the ass. Throughout the Scriptures, it is never God's love that cools. It is humans who remove themselves from Eden, which is the place of shared love with God. God has not asked for divorce, but rather his adulterous people, whose eyes are elsewhere.
The view of Earth from High Heaven during this century reveals the same pattern: on the one side: people who are faithful, gentle, seeking, virtuous, silent; on the other side: faithless, violent, selfish, sinful, rebellious. Indeed, the sixth century is thought of by historians today as being the era of seeking and mindfulness, called the Axial Age, because it was a hinge-point, a pivotal century in human history. During this age, Pythagoras developed his mathematics; Aeschylus wrote the greatest tragedies that would ever be written; Aesop wrote his fables; and Solon laid the foundation for what we now call democracy. It is the century when Siddhartha Gautama sought enlightenment becoming the Buddha; when Lao Tzu was born and founded Taoism; and when Confucius worked out his vast map of virtuous conduct leading people to wisdom. I should add here that from the Christian point of view these philosophies are not incompatible with our own faith. They do not worship God but rather seek gentle, virtuous life. They are paths toward wisdom, not mentioning nor addressing the subject of the God of Heaven. The Buddha figure, for example, is not a god, but rather a great teacher and exemplar. And the teachings of these three wisdom philosophies are similar to our own: this world is temporary and, indeed, an illusion; empty yourself of carnal desires, for they are not your friends but will enslave you; practice humility; love others and serve them, for this is the way of enlightenment. We might say that the theme of the sixth century are the two hearts that beat within the human breast: one seeking light, even Heaven's light of gentle humility and universal love; and one seeking darkness, following the path of ego, conquest, personal lusts, selfishness, and cruelty.
How do we find our path out of the darkness toward the light? First, we must confront our most dangerous opponent, ourselves — the chaos of our interior selves, our noisy minds, our unsteady natures. But this most people will not, perhaps cannot, do. Have you ever practiced silent, wordless prayer? Immediately, you will discover thoughts crowding in, a chaotic flood of unconnected impulses and commands and question such as, "And don't forget to buy bread on the way home tonight"; or "I wonder what he meant when she said ...."; or "I recall when I was a boy ...."; or "Oh! What's that distant sound? ...;" and on and on. Our minds are busy, and the mental noise never stops. That is the fallout of civilization, the role we play in a vast machine that has expectations and makes demands. And we have become strangers to complete silence. We are driven, or perhaps there is a ceaseless, driving wheel within us, until we attempt to drown out the mind's noise with still more noise — turning on the radio when we get into the car or pressing the television remote ON button when we get home after work or compulsively chattering when there is nothing to say. In extreme cases, it is why angry teenage boys rage in his loud, violent music or why the teenage girls lose themselves in a rapid-fire collages of multi-processed social networking, texting, and telephone. It has become human habit to ping each other with words and sentences, like sonar in the dark, to get a fix on our own egos and the approval of others. And, then, Of course, the other thing we do to fill the silences we fear is to stimulate our bodies to the breaking point. And pornography continues to constitute roughly three-quarters of all Internet traffic with both genders and all age groups now using it. "But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body," St. Paul writes in our Epistle lesson this morning, "you will live."
To the other extreme is complete silence. The eighteenth-century Russian Orthodox monk, St. Seraphim of Sarov, tells us that "Silence is the Cross on which we must crucify our egos."
In seminary, I was under the spiritual direction of a Benedictine monk from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, who was visiting Yale in the School of Divinity. Part of this spiritual discipline involved praying with ten other people every day. We promised to remain silent after supper each day, to keep this silence through the evening, to continue it upon waking, and then walk quietly in the pre-dawn light to a small oratory on campus. Upon arriving we would not greet each other except to smile or nod, and then we would sit and share silence for one hour. But this last hour was not to be an ordinary silence. We were to still our minds by not permitting a single thought to enter. We might fix our gaze on a crucifix, for example, to fill our mind with only that, refusing every, other thoughts. You understand, we must not think about the details of the crucifix or to enter into reflection or to compose a homily(!) or to enter into any kind of analysis for these are all thoughts, but rather to permit the totality of that focus to hold our minds to one, still point for one hour. Some people fixed themselves on a single word, say, God or Jesus. Others silently recited the Jesus prayer "saying" the first half upon inhaling and the second half upon exhaling. These words would become a holy rhythm offered before God, but not to become a theological or spiritual reflection. Above all, the mind is to be quieted and wholly fixed on a simple rhythm ebbing back and forth.
I was surprised at how unquiet my mind was. I thought myself to be a rather quiet fellow. I found that I involuntarily carried out inventories of things that I had to do, items I had to buy, people I needed to see. There was no end to it. And I discovered a very important principle: my mind was not my soul. In fact, my mind competed with my soul, dominated my soul, even tried to extinguish the practice and presence of God, which is the soul's chief faculty.
During the early days of this discipline I could scarcely go through one minute, nay, five seconds, without my unquiet mind speaking up, unbidden. But slowly, these intervals stretched and then stretched further until the rather loud fellow between my ears was tamed and sat still without constantly displaying his bad manners. Finally, peace permeated my whole being. My spiritual concentration grew more powerful. My soul could stretch its atrophied muscles, so to speak, and my conversations with God were no longer interrupted by a mind that behaved rather like a an unruly child constantly running in to interrupt the conversation.
And then suddenly I had a great insight. I saw that the busy-ness of so much worshship consisted in the mind going up and down the ladders of an exercise that had nothing to do with communing with God. Had often had I prayed the Rosary thinking about other things and simply mouthing the words of the prayer? How often had I celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with my mind wandering to other things? Yes, the mind cannot worship. The mind is the enemy of worship.
And then I learned something deeper: our personal power lies in our silence. Certainly, I had been taught that if you reserve what you have to say and articulate them quietly when you do share them, that people will listen more attentively. But the practice of silence goes far deeper than social dynamics. The most powerful man on earth, indeed, in the history of mankind, when faced with mortal peril, "never said a mumblin' word," to quote the old Negro Spiritual. His mother was the quiet woman, wrapped in silence, who pondered all things in her heart. His stepfather barely spoke but listened .... to angels. And His Father dwells in mysteries that can only be contemplated in the deepest silences of human capacity, or should I say human incapacity?
His Son, the empyreal King would arrive to great Zion, sitting upon .... not even a donkey, but rather the lowly foal of a donkey, as we read this morning. And, as we know, He did.
Receive your God and King,
Who seeks to quiet your mind and to dwell in the well-ordered spaces of your heart in peace.
To borrow St. Seraphim's words once more,
"Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved."
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Ghost. Amen.