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.

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)

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)

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!

The Lenten Spring Has Come (Figuratively Speaking)

One of the hymns for the beginning of Great Lent says:

The Lenten Spring has come,

The flower of repentance!

It is good that we Orthodox love figurative language as is seen in our interpretation of the scriptures, for this is what things looked like for us at the beginning of Lent 2015:

Not feeling like spring, and no flowers to be seen with a high temperature for the first day of Lent predicted to be only 10 degrees (F) and going down to -10 (F) tonight.  Figuratively speaking, our favorite way of spiritually understanding the scriptures,  we feel the spring – in our hearts, we are warmed by the Holy Spirit.  We also can go to indoor flower shows and feel the joy of the Lenten spring and the flower of repentance:

The Fast shines upon us all more brightly than the sun,

bringing us the light of grace,

proclaiming the good news of the Cross,

of the precious Passion, and the saving day of Resurrection.


Lent: Time to Shake Off Life’s Irritations

Just yesterday we Orthodox were called by Christ to forgive one another as part of Forgiveness Sunday and our preparation for entering into Great Lent .   Lent is a season of repentance.   Forgiveness is the basis for repentance in the Christian experience, according to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Forgiving others doesn’t mean that we will never be annoyed by them or that we will always be free of anger or irritation.  And it doesn’t mean that we have to like everyone or accept the behavior of everyone else.   Forgiveness though is part of an inner peace that we strive to attain as disciples of Christ.  On this, the first day of Great Lent, we can think about some advice from St. John Chrysostom on how to deal with life’s irritations.

“So I beseech you: with a view to being able to bear without difficultly the effort which virtue involves, let us give evidence of great love of God, and by devoting our attention in that direction let us not be deflected by any of this life’s concerns in our course towards that goal. Instead, let us keep in mind the constant enjoyment of future blessing and thus bear without distress the hardships of the present life:

let insult not disturb us,

nor poverty oppress us,

nor bodily ailment sap the energy of our soul’s purpose,

nor scorn and derision on the part of the majority render us listless in practicing virtue.

Let us rather shake off all these irritations like dust, adopt a noble and elevated attitude, and thus take a stance of great fortitude to all problems. As we recommended to your good selves yesterday, let us with all zeal be reconciled with our enemies and dispel the remaining passions from our soul:

should untimely desire beset us,

let us ward it off;

should choler (i.e., irascibility) arouse our anger,

let us suppress its upsurge with the singing of spiritual exhortations and thus show in its true light the ruin that passion brings.

‘A man of quick temper,’ Scripture says, remember, ‘is not honorable;’ and again, ‘The person who is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to the hell of fire.’ Should desire for money unbalance our thinking, let us be quick to shun this noxious ailment and expel it for what it is – the root of all evils. Let us be zealous in correcting each of the passions that beset us, so that by avoiding harmful ways and practicing those that are good we may on that dread day be judged worthy of God’s loving kindness, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”   (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 196-197)

Forgiving Others: The Greatest Lenten Practice

Liturgically, we Orthodox enter Great Lent at Forgiveness Vespers.  The first thing, the most important thing we do for Great Lent is to forgive from our hearts our fellow parishioners and our family members.

The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.   (St. Mark the Ascetic, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 3609-10)

St. Peter of Damaskos reminds us that it is forgiving others, more than anything else we do as Christians, which will lead to God forgiving us.  Nothing, not fasting, nor even repentance more quickly brings about God forgiving us than our forgiving others!

Moreover, if we do not forgive others their debts, the Father will not forgive us our debts (cf. Matt. 6:14). Indeed, nothing leads more swiftly to the forgiveness of sins than this virtue or commandment: ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven’ (cf. Matt. 6:14).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26234-40)

We of course read in the Orthodox Church the Matthew 6 Gospel about forgiveness on the day before Great Lent begins.  We are reminded of the utmost importance of forgiveness to our own spiritual lives.   The way to being forgiven our sins, the way to repentance, the way to Pascha, the way to the Kingdom of God is to forgive others.

The Expulsion of Eve and Adam from Paradise

The Sunday before we enter into Great Lent has the theme of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.   Early church writers imagined that Paradise was a temple which God had built so that we could worship Him.  God’s expelling Eve and Adam from the Edenic temple was not done for punishment but rather to make us long for God and our lost relationship with Him.  On earth, we experience the absence of God and so seek for Him.  Liturgy and the church sanctuary are where we look to find God.

So repentance and the prayer life are natural ways which God provided for us on earth to seek Him and to work to re-establish the proper relationship with Him.   Priest and Professor Baby Varghese writes about the wisdom of St. Ephrem the Syrian regarding the Fall:

“When Adam and Eve trusted the word of Satan instead of God’s commandment, God ceased to be the center of their life. Thus man ceased to be a liturgical being and priest of the creation. He was incapacitated to offer worship pleasing to God. God expelled Adam precisely to give him an opportunity to repent and to make him aware of his former glory. God wanted that we should supplicate to regain our lost inheritance and dignity:

The Good One in His love wished to discipline us for doing wrong,

and so we had to leave Paradise with its bridal chamber of glory;

He made us live with the wild beast which caused sorrow,

So that we might see how little our honor had become,

and so would supplicate Him and beg to return to our inheritance.

In fact the goal of prayer is to return to our former inheritance:

We should learn from Daniel, who prayed

that he might come up from Babylon to the land of promise;

Babylon is the likeness of this earth, full of curse.

God gave us this type which He depicted so that we too

might pray that we return to our dwelling in Eden.

Blessed is He who brings forth through grace to our goal.

[…]For Ephrem, Adam’s fall means estrangement from God and consequently the cessation of the worship of true God. The very goal of incarnation was to bring man back to God and to restore the worship of true God:

The All-Knowing saw that we worshipped creatures.

He put on a created body to catch us by our habit,

To draw us by a created body toward the Creator.”

St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly Vol. 56, Number 1, 2012, pp 22 & 24)

Images of Energy

Almost all the energy on our planet is related in one form or another from our local star, the Sun.   So it seems appropriate to occasionally capture an image of the sun and images of energy on earth.   Above the sun is framed between the two transmission towers.  The wires carry the power of the sun converted to our use.  The sun is no god, for we can make it serve our purposes.

A coal barge carries sunpower converted to carbon through the many millions of years of earth’s history.    The sun’s reflection parallels and illumes its older energy now hardened into coal.     The earth stores the sun’s power for us.

We can appreciate  apricity – the warmth of the winter sun, not only as it burns brightly in the February sky, but when the coal is burned as well.    (see also my blog Appreciating Apricity).    The sun’s energy becomes converted to material substance, in one of many mysteries and miracles of our solar system.

We do appreciate apricity especially as we feel the effect of  a Siberian plume merging with a polar vortex.   Despite the sunshine, we still experience record cold temperatures.

As we wend our way through cloudy days
Of sunless cold and winter’s greys,
Siberian plume’s fearful bite,
Apricity scatters the heart’s malaise
Birthing the hope for spring: a seasonable delight.