Repent: The Merciful God is Near

“Repentance: The Lord does not will the death of a sinner but rather that he should change and live. There is a time of long-suffering, a time of healing, a time of correction.

Have you stumbled?   Arise.  

Have you sinned?    Cease.

Do not stand in the way of sinner, but spring away. Out of labour comes health, out of sweat salvation. Beware lest, from your wish to keep certain obligations, you break your obligations to God. Do not sink back. There is salvation, there is amendment. The doors are not yet shut; the Bridegroom hears; make the effort, Jesus is merciful, the Kingdom is at hand.”    (St. Basil the Great in Through the Year with the Church Fathers, p 102)

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Icons: Images of Faith and Love

Theodoret of Cyrus considers the words of St. Paul’s Letter to Timothy:

“Be a model of the sound teachings you have heard from me in the faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.”  (2 Timothy 1:13)

Theodoret comments:

Imitate the painter, he is saying, and as they take note of the originals, painting copies of them with precision, so too keep as a kind of original the teaching given by me about faith and love.”   (Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, p 239)

Theodoret gives us a way to understand icons of the saints.  The iconographer aims to give us a precise image of the saint, to remind us of their life,  holiness, their deeds and their teachings.  When we contemplate an icon, we are drawn to think about the saint’s teaching on faith and love.   We remember their teaching on and witness to Jesus Christ the Lord.  Thus every icon bears witness to Christ.

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The Sunday of Orthodoxy (2015)

The First Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church commemorates the 7th Ecumenical Council, held in 787 in the city of Nicea, and its decision that iconography is theology in lines and colors which affirms the incarnation in a unique and essential way.

“The key theological teaching defended by the Second Council of Nicaea is that as Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), we are able to depict him in colors; that iconography is a theological statement, an affirmation of our faith. This has two further important consequences. First, that we do not look elsewhere to try to see or understand who and what God is: in Christ, the fullness of divinity dwells bodily (Col. 2:9) – the fullness; we do not find God elsewhere, by some other means. Second, the holy icons are not simply religious art. We don’t place them in our churches and house simply for decoration. While reflecting different artistic schools, icons are properly a theological statement, reflecting the transformative power of God at work in Christ: the light who shines in darkness, illuminating the darkness; the one who shows that the form of a servant is in fact the lordly form; the one who by his death destroys death.

The icons are a witness to this and continue to communicate this transformation for those who have eyes to see. As the apostles depicted Christ in words, we also depict him in colors, including all the aspects of his work and salvation, all the various events we celebrate. We also depict all those who have put on Christ, all those in whose lives, words, and deeds we can see the Spirit of Christ breathing – the Theotokos and all the prophets, apostles, martyrs and saints of every age. We do not treat the icons as magic idols or ethnic art, and we certainly do not worship creation rather than the Creator; but venerating the icons, we pay honor to the ones depicted on them, and so worship the one God. Such is the historical reason for celebrating this Sunday as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.”   (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp 27-28)

Great Lent was and is also a season of preparing catechumens for baptism.  Thus there is a strong catechetical emphasis in the themes and scripture lessons throughout Great Lent.  That Jesus is Mesiah, Lord and Savior, God incarnate, becomes central to the Lenten proclamation of the Gospel.

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Take From Me the Spirit of Idle Talk

Throughout the Great Lenten season, we Orthodox pray that God will take from us the spirit of idle talk.  We also pray that God will set a guard before our mouths.  We are asking God to help us control our talking for we know through our words we often wound others, cause grief rather than bring peace to others, entice others to join in evil thoughts, gossip about others to their detriment.  We need Gods help to control out tongues so that our words can build up others and heal others and encourage others and support others.  St. John Chrysostom tells us that God has put within each of us the ability to reason and we are to use that reason to control our mouths and our talking.

Aware of this the inspired author also said, Set a guard on my mouth, Lord, and a door for encircling my lips. Now, what other guard is there than reason looming ominously, holding in its hands the fire destined to incinerate those idly using the mouth? Place this doorkeeper and guard that threatens your conscious, and it will never open this door at the wrong time, but only at the right time and for profit and goods beyond counting. Hence someone said, ‘Always remember your last end, and you will never sin:’ do you see how this person installed the faculty of reason? I presented it as even more ominous, however, speaking of it as having hands. If this happens, nothing evil will be generated in the mind. Along with this bring to the fore as well the one who says, ‘On the day of judgment you will give an account for every idle word.’

Consider that death also came on the scene: if the woman had not said it to the serpent what she said, if she had not heeded his words, she would have sustained no harm, she would not have given anything to her husband, he would not have eaten. I say this, blaming not tongue and mouth – perish the thought – but untimely use of them, which happens because of negligence in reasoning.”

(St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms, pp 285-286)

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Great Lent: Returning to Christian Morality

“It’s rare to hear a rip-roaring Sunday sermon about the temptations of the five-course meal and the all-you-can-eat buffet, or to hear a high profile pastor who addresses the sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:

The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you can help.

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seem terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high-finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda. But a Christianity that cannot use the language of Basil – and of Jesus – to attack the cult of Mammon will inevitably be less persuasive when the time comes to attack the cult of Dionysus. In much the same way, the Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists. The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pp 289-290)

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2015 Pre-Lenten Blogs as PDF

All of the blogs I posted this year related to the Pre-Lenten season are now available in one document as a PDF at  2015 Pre-Lenten Blogs.

You can find links to all the Pre-Lenten and Lenten blogs I’ve posted for the past years as PDFs at Fr. Ted’s Blog Series.   Each year I collect all of the blogs for that year posted in Lent and put them together as a PDF.

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The First Fruits of Great Lent

porphyriosLooking at a few hymns from the Monday, the first day of Great Lent, we can learn some of the goals of the Great Fast.  First is compunction.

Saint Porphyrios points out that compunction is related to the word puncture – to be stabbed or wounded.   He writes, “‘to feel compunction’ means that I am wounded over and over again by the love of God.”  (WOUNDED BY LOVE, p 120).  The first-fruits of the first day of Lent is to be wounded by God’s love!  God’s love pierces our heart changing it from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26)

Let us acquire compunction of soul

As God-given first-fruits of the fast.

Let us cry: Accept our prayer as pure incense, O Christ our Master.

Deliver us, we entreat You, from the stench of corruption and from fearful torment.

For You alone are ready to forgive! 

Yesterday, at Forgiveness Vespers, we learned that the fastest way to obtain the forgiveness of our sins is not through repentance but through forgiving others.    Today we learn that the very first fruit of Great Lent is compunction – we are ‘punctured’, wounded by God’s love.  When we forgive others, we become God like, filled – pierced! – by God’s own love.  No wonder the hymns speak of the joy of the Lenten fasting season!

Let us begin the all-holy season of fasting with joy;

Let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God:

With the Brightness of love and the splendor of prayer,

The strength of good courage and purity of holiness!

So, clothed in the garment of light,

Let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day,

That shines on the world with the glory of eternal life!  

While the fast involves a change of diet, the real goal is not to set aside food, but to set aside sin!  A number of ancient church fathers commented that they thought the real Sabbath was to take rest not from work but from sin, whose wages are death.    So too the main purpose of the fast is not to give up food, but to set aside sin so that we can love our Lord.  They hymns of Lent constantly remind us that unless we struggle against sin, against our passions, against our self-will, against alluring temptations, fasting will be of no value.   Those who obsess over dietary violations in Lent often miss the big picture, that fasting is done in the context of loving God and loving neighbor.

This is the first day of the Fast.

For you, soul, let it be the setting aside of sin,

The return to God; to life with Him.

Flee from the abyss of evil.

Love only those ways which lead to peace,

resting before and within God.  

We are to use the time of the Fast to do those things that lead to peace – peace in our hearts but also peace with family, friends, neighbors, and ultimately even enemies.

Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord!

A true fast is alienation from the Evil One;

The holding of one’s tongue, the laying aside of all anger,

The removal of all sensuality,

Of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing.

The weakening of these will make the fast true and well pleasing.

There is a good fast, a true fast which we can read about in Isaiah 58.  This implies that there is also a fast that is neither true nor good.   A true fast involves forgiving others and also asking them to forgive us.  A good fast involves being wounded by God’s love so that it is God’s love which pierces our hearts and come to guide our behavior.   When our heart is pierced by God’s love, we have no place in the heart for the work of the Evil One.  This is the first fruit of the Lenten season.   It comes right at the beginning of Great Lent!

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