If you ever happen to go hiking on the hills of New England you might run into a very peculiar animal called the ermine. Most likely you have never heard of this creature. I wanted to bring an ermine here for you to see tonight but I didn’t think bringing a furry creature of the wild in this chapel would be the wisest thing to do. I wanted you to see an ermine because it is famous for its beautiful white fur. I wanted you to see that if you let the ermine run free in this chapel it would not go anywhere near places where there is dust or grease or anything that might stain its fur. The ermine takes great pride in that fur and it has developed a very strong instinct to keep itself extremely clean. In fact, so strong is that instinct that the ermine will suffer capture rather than defilement. Hunters who know of this will smear filth over the paths that the ermine would normally choose to escape by and it falls into their trap. The result, is the death of an innocent little animal; a flaw of nature one might say. But at the same time, by such a death the ermine wins its battle of trying to keep itself clean. It has managed to preserve the purity of its fur as its final offering to this world. It is because the ermine engages itself in a life-long battle of preserving its purity that such a death translates into the ultimate victory.
There is something to be learned from this little creature of God. We learn that there is a definite connection between purity and the way we view death. The tradition of the Church hints to this connection by placing on the commemoration of the dead on the seventh day of this week we call the Pure Week. The small tradition of sprinkling white sugar powder on the kolyva offering for the dead is no accident. The Third Saturday of Souls serves to remind us that the connection between preservation of purity and death is as close for us Christians as it is for the ermine. For the ermine which is captured because it keeps its fur clean, death means victory, the end of a battle well fought. In the same way, our Christian life is a battle to preserve the purity we received at baptism. In a battle well fought, we can also view death as the ultimate victory.
Preserve the purity of your baptismal garment and death will become your victory. Since when did purity take on such a crucial role? We always hear of fasting, prayer, almsgiving to be the means to holiness. But at Matins we hear that to be holy in the way that God is Holy means to be pure and undefiled in the way that by nature God is pure and undefiled. Therefore, the preservation of purity is exactly the goal of fasting, and the goal of prayer, and the goal of almsgiving. By fasting we purify our bodies from rich foods, and by prayer we purify our minds by constantly thinking about God. By almsgiving we purify our hearts from every attachment to worldly possessions. But ultimately, because of the Fall, man could never entirely preserve his purity from sin and thus deliver himself from the bondage of death. Complete purification for sins and deliverance from death could have only been brought about by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself .
According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in this Saturday’s epistle, purification for sins encompasses all of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The incarnation of the Word, the rushing in of the Kingdom of God, the miracles, the Cross, the Resurrection, the gift of eternal life, all these events collapse into one deed: the purification for sins. Christ’s work as a man was to deal decisively with the problem of human sin. He made purification for sins in order for us through baptism to be reconciled to God, in order for us to be able to approach God, in order for us to be able to see God and live eternally. This He promised in the Sermon on the Mount when He said: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”. This purity of heart becomes possible only through Jesus Himself, His cross and resurrection, His making Himself purification for sins.
Christ, through His Church, continues the work of purification which only He can bring about for us. The miracle which we commemorate on the Saturday of Souls attests to that very fact that Christ continues to intervene in human history in order to keep the purity of His faithful unspotted and their salvation intact. History tells us that in the year 362, emperor Julian the Apostate tried to defile the faithful of the city of Constantinople by replacing all the foods in the marketplace with his own foods that were sprinkled with the blood from sacrifices. His plan entailed that since Christians would not bow down to idols they would unwillingly defile themselves by partaking of the sacrifices to idols. In order to prevent this defilement, St. Theodore of Tyron appeared to the then Patriarch Eudoxios and instructed him to boil wheat - in his country they called kolyva - and to give it to the faithful to eat instead. Patriarch Eudoxios did as he was told, and all the Christians of the city were kept undefiled in their Lenten fast.
The intervention of Saint Theodore was instigated by the Lord Himself. His task of purification for our sins will continue until His Second Coming. In our baptism we were given a completely pure, white baptismal garment, yet the battle of the preservation of its purity and of its effectiveness over death, will continue until we depart from this temporal life. Through the sacrament of confession Christ continues His work in the cleansing of our sins. Through the gift of tears we call upon Jesus to wash away our iniquities and to create in us a clean heart. Through Holy Communion He purges away our sins and grants us eternal life. We are given the purity purchased for us by the very blood of our Savior. Preserve this purity and death will indeed be your victory.
The gospel reading for the Third Saturday of Souls tells us that the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Jesus through His cross and resurrection stands as Lord of the eternal day that lies beyond death. At the same time He is Lord over every temporal institution like the day of the Sabbath. He is Lord of every country, every culture, every institution, every circumstance of life and death. In all walks of life He is busy clearing by His own blood a path that leads to Him. In the seemingly most desperate situations, Christ is there to point the clear way through the filth that may surround us or the obstacles that are placed in our way. He is there to take us out of despair, to cleanse us once again, and to lead us on His path of purity so that His sacrifice on the Cross will not go in vain.
No longer can our fallen nature stand as an excuse to prevent us from loving God, or from keeping His commandments, or from maintaining the purity of our body and soul. No longer can we make excuses that in this kind of world we are not able to remain true to our pure Orthodox Christian identity. Merely the fact that the Son of God accepted to die on the Cross in order to bring about the purification of sins makes the availability of a clear path all too important. In fact, the abundance of filth that we claim to be in the world especially today, only makes it easier to point out that one path that is truly clear. Follow that path, and unlike following all others, you will start seeing that death is no longer the inevitable tragedy of our fallen nature, but the victory in a battle well fought.
It is certainly not an easy path to take. All of us here know this very well. Following the purifying path of Christ means sacrifice as it did for the ermine, and as it did for Jesus Himself. Even if we do not suffer physical death as they did, we might have to nail on the cross our pride, our passions, our weaknesses, and our comfort.. But with every strike of the nail Jesus is there cleansing us from all the stains that those nails might cause. Having carried His Cross first He carved the clear path for us. And at the end of time He will turn around, and show His life-giving face to all of us who have followed Him. We only need to have the purity of heart to be able to see Him. It would indeed be terrible if besides all our efforts we never got to see the face of our Creator because of our uncleanliness. St. John Chrysostom expresses this fear best when he says: “I would not mind the fires of hell as much as I would mind not seeing the sweet face of Jesus”.
Remember the ermine as it escapes the filth that the hunter smears in its regular paths. It falls into the hunter’s hands thus realizing by being captured, the purpose of its life: to keep itself clean and unspotted. Christ has given us our own spotless pure garment at baptism washed by His own precious blood. He Himself continues to cleanse each one of us through His Church. By being Lord of the Sabbath He has assured that in there is no place in either side of death where a clear path will not be available for us in order to preserve our purity until the end. In the battle of this Pure week, we look to the Saturday of the souls and see that death is nothing more but the ultimate victory. We should pray that the purity of the ermine will decorate the souls of those who have left us behind. We should also pray that our own offering to Christ will be as pure and spotless as the offering we received from Him at baptism, so that on that eternal day, with the clear vision of a pure and contrite heart we too shall see God and live. Amen.