Punishment: Nor for Sins But for Failing to Repent

Great Lent is a season devoted to repentance.  We have now come to the last week of that season.  Many have already taken advantage of the time given to them to receive God’s forgiveness through the Mystery of Confession.  St. Theognostos (d. 1353AD) reminds us of a truth about repentance and about God’s judgment:

“We will not be punished or condemned in the age to be because we have sinned, since we were given a mutable and unstable nature. But we will be punished if, after sinning, we did not repent and turn from our evil ways to the Lord; for we have been given the power to repent, as well as the time in which to do so. Only through repentance shall we receive God’s mercy, and not its opposite, His passionate anger. Not that God is angry with us; He is angry with evil. Indeed, the divine is beyond passion and vengefulness, though we speak of it as reflecting, like a mirror, our actions and dispositions, giving to each of us whatever we deserve.” (Through the Year with the Church Fathers edited by Emily Harakas, p 101)

Fasting Is Not Merely a Matter of Diet

“Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father’s house. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means ‘abstinence not only from food but from sins’. ‘The fast’, he insists, ‘should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body’: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: ‘You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother’. The same point is made in the Triodion, especially during the first week of Lent:

As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion…..

Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.

True fasting is to put away all evil,

To control the tongue, to forbear from anger,

To abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury.

If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.

Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food,

But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.

The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Divorced from prayers and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. It leads, not to contrition and joyfulness, but to pride, inward tension and irritability.”

(The Lenten Triodion translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, pp 17-18

In the Spirit of St. Mary of Egypt

Today in the current Orthodox practice of Great Lent we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt (d. 522AD).   Through the centuries of Orthodox history, Great Lent changed from being a time of preparing catechumens for baptism and became under monastic influence more a season of repentance and ascetical fasting.  This no doubt reflected the changing reality of the Church in the Byzantine Empire where Christianity had become the state religion and there were fewer adult catechumens to edify, and more cultural and nominal Christians which the Church wanted to inspire.  St. Mary fits very well into this monastic scheme of Great Lent.

Athanasius (d. 373) archbishop of Alexandria of holy memory, begged Abba Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria. He went down, and seeing an actress began to weep. Those who present asked him the reason for his tears, and he said, ‘Two things make me weep: one, the loss of this woman; and the other, that I am not so concerned to please God as she is to please wicked men.’ ” (Irenee Hausher, Penthos: The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East, p 59)

So we too can weep when we are more eager to participate in worldly or sinful entertainment than to please God.  We often are not seduced by the world or by sin, because we run to see and participate in all manners of pleasure.  St. Mary of Egypt lamented that in her sinful days she didn’t even always engage in sex for money but sometimes just for the pleasure of seducing men and causing them to fall.  So too we eagerly and willfully engage in the sinful pleasure and over indulge, not because it benefits us but because we can.  Sometimes we rejoice in the fact that so many others are falling with us.   Such are the depths of moral depravity in the world.

We are given Lent as a gift – a time to say no to the self so that we can truly follow Christ.

He Bowed the Heavens to Lift Us Up to Him

It is God’s good pleasure to raise humanity to heaven, to dwell with our Creator.  To accomplish humanity’s ascension, God descends to earth in the incarnation and becomes human.   They way to heaven for us is not to escape our humanity, but to unite ourselves to the God-man Jesus Christ.   God descends to earth in order to raise us up to heaven.  God even goes further than this for Christ descends into Hades to free death’s captives and to bring all humankind to life with God.

“However, God who made us looked lovingly down on us in His mercy. He bowed the heavens and came down. Having taken our nature upon Him from the Holy Virgin, He renewed and restored it. Or rather, He led it up to divine and heavenly heights. Wishing to achieve this, to bring fulfillment on this day His pre-eternal counsel, He sent the archangel Gabriel, as Luke the evangelist tells up, ‘to Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary’ (Luke 1:26-27).” (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p102)

Charity, Fasting and the Commandment of God

Below is a story from the desert fathers relating Lenten fasting  and Christian hospitality.  It is an ancient 4th Century story from a time before a 40 day Lenten Fast was decreed by the Church or followed by all monks.   In the story, these desert monks, known for their extreme rigor, themselves decide to keep a week long fast before celebrating Pascha.  Once they established this as the community rule, they expected everyone to follow it for that is what love demands of us who live together as Christ’s disciples.

“Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose custom it was not to eat every day. But when he saw the brethren he invited them with joy to dine with him, saying: Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren. They made a rule in Scete that they would fast a whole week before celebrating Easter. But it happened that in that week some brethren came to Abbot Moses, from Egypt, and he cooked them a little vegetable stew. And when they saw the smoke coming up from his cell, the clerics of the church that is in Scete exclaimed: Look, there is Moses breaking the rule, and cooking food in his cell. When he comes up here we’ll tell him a thing or two. But when the Sabbath came, the clerics saw the great holiness of Abbot Moses, and they said to him: O Abbot Moses, you have broken the commandment of men, but have strongly bound the commandment of God.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 77-78)

The Word of God
We see in the story the wisdom of the desert fathers – rules were meant to serve the community, but the community doesn’t serve the rules.  We are reminded of Christ’s own words to those in His day who had determined Sabbath rules rule humans:  “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath”  (Mark 2:27)  and  “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).  The rules are in themselves not God, and there are legitimate reasons for setting aside the rules at times – especially as an act of love for others.   The rules are meant to help maintain community love, peace, concord, and unity.   But even as important as those goals are, there still may be godly reasons for setting the rules aside in order to practice love for others.

The fasting rigor of these monks is obvious in the story: though Abbot Moses cooks for his guests not a gourmet meal but only a little vegetable stew the other monks are outraged that he has violated community rules.

In the end love and wisdom rule the hearts of the monks.  They understand that Abbot Moses had followed a greater commandment: the commandment from our Lord to love one another.  The rules of fasting, even if determined by the community or set by canon law, are still rules of humans, not from God.  They are essential rules for helping humans to live in community, but they belong only to the fallen world.  For if we all lived by our Lord’s commandments to love one another as He loved us, to love God  with all heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we would have not need for merely human rules to govern our behavior and our communities.

Holy Communion and Menstruation

Occasionally an old debate re-emerges and parishioners get caught up in the ideas being argued. So it is that I was asked the other day about whether menstruating women should be allowed to come to Holy Communion. This issue has come up from time to time throughout the Centuries of Christianity’s existence. We see this being addressed for example in the 4th Century document called The Apostolic Constitutions, written about 375AD. In this writing, concern about menstruation is portrayed as really belonging to a Judaizing of Christianity – a return to following the Law not supported by the New Testament.   That document states the following:

Now if any persons keep to the Jewish customs and observances concerning the natural emission and nocturnal pollutions, and the lawful conjugal acts (Leviticus xv), let them tell us whether in those hours or days, when they undergo any such thing, they observe not to pray, or to touch a Bible, or to partake of the Eucharist? And if they own it to be so, it is plain they are void of the Holy Spirit, which always continues with the faithful.

The point being made is that for baptized and chrismated Christians, we have been given the Holy Spirit, which cannot be taken away from us by conjugal acts or natural emissions. If we don’t have the Holy Spirit while engaged in these acts, then we are void of the Holy Spirit at all times. The corollary is if we have the Holy Spirit received in our baptism and chrismation, then we can receive Holy Communion even if in menstruation. Since we don’t lose the Holy Spirit through acts of natural emission or conjugal acts, then we can receive Holy Communion after such acts. The Apostolic Constitutions continues:

For concerning holy persons Solomon says: “That every one may prepare himself, that so when he sleeps it may keep him, and when he arises it may talk with him.” (Proverbs 6:22) For if you think, O woman, when you are seven days in your separation, that you are void of the Holy Spirit, then if you should die suddenly you will depart void of the Spirit, and without assured hope in God; or else you must imagine that the Spirit always is inseparable from you, as not being in a place. But you stand in need of prayer and the Eucharist, and the coming of the Holy Ghost, as having been guilty of no fault in this matter. For neither lawful mixture, nor child-bearing, nor the menstrual purgation, nor nocturnal pollution, can defile the nature of a man, or separate the Holy Spirit from him. Nothing but impiety and unlawful practice can do that.”   (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 3158-69)

This 4th Century Christian document is pretty clear that only Christians with wrong ideas about menstruation and the like will abstain from Holy Communion. Interestingly, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) thought the Apostolic Constitutions and their canons should be counted and read as Scripture in the Orthodox Church.

Though the teaching about menstruating women and Holy Communion has actually varied in different periods of Orthodox history and in the varying cultures influenced by Orthodoxy, there have been some clear teachings that say this should not be a concern for Christians. The concern results from a tendency ever present in the legalizing piety of Orthodoxy toward Pharisaic attitudes. It is a piety that becomes popular at times. For some it seems more pious to abstain from Communion when in menstruation. However, since we don’t follow the Jewish Law regarding clean and unclean in all matters, it seems unusual that we would pick this one matter and then suddenly make ourselves feel more holy by keeping one aspect of the Law.  We would do well to remember the words of St. James in his epistle:  “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”   The piety which says menstruating women should refrain from Communion seems to say that you can keep one point of the law and ignore the rest and consider yourself holy.

As the Apostolic Constitution points out it is really only “impiety and unlawful practice” which can separate us from the Holy Spirit.  Neither childbirth nor menstruation is  impious or unlawful.   Additionally one might ask oneself, if in the Liturgy we faithfully proclaim Christ’s commandments – “Take, eat” and “Drink, all of  you” – under what circumstance would we dare disobey Christ? He commands us to receive His Body and Blood for the remission of sins. Why disobey the Lord?

I see the question about women’s menstruation and Holy Communion in the context of Acts 15, where there is a debate in the nascent Christian community as to whether Gentile men must become circumcised in order to become Christian. In other words, are Christians obligated to keep Torah? The then early Christian community, largely Jewish, had to decide whether you must become a practicing Jew in order to become a Christian.   The council of apostles and elders decided, NO!   If we read that text, we see that the chosen apostles of Jesus decided that the Law really was for a Jews a burden they couldn’t bear, and so it was neither spiritually prudent or good to impose the law upon converts to Christianity.     I think that decision by the apostolic founders of the Church applies today to the discussion on women and Communion. Does menstruation suddenly demand that Christian women must keep Torah?  Following Jewish or Pharisaic practice is not required of us as Orthodox Christians. The Apostles themselves settled that discussion in their lifetime.   Yet, pious ideas emerge which overrule even the apostles themselves.   Indeed it has frequently become part of the piety of various Orthodox nationalities, and seems so pious to tell menstruating women not to receive Communion. There is, however, strong reason from the Apostles, in our Scripture and from the Tradition of the Church to recognize that piety for what it is and to know there is sound reason for us not to follow it. Our task is, as we pray in the baptism liturgy to “preserve our baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God.”  Neither menstruation or childbirth defiles the baptismal garment nor do they take away from any woman the Holy Spirit.

This debate will go on, and I’m not trying to resolve it.  I am answering as a pastor a question I received from parishioners about how I see this issue.

The Annunciation (2015)

On March 25 we Orthodox celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  This Feast celebrates the beginning of salvation for all creation as God becomes incarnate in the Virgin’s womb.   The event is described by St. Luke in his Gospel:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.   (Luke 1:26-38)

The early Christian writer, Tertullian (d. ca 220AD) says:

“First of all, we need to show the reason why the Son of God had to be born of a Virgin. The initiator of a new birth had to be born in a new way, and Isaiah had predicted that the Lord would give a sign of this. What is that sign? ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive in her womb and bear a Son’ (Is. 7:14). Therefore the Virgin conceived and bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And this is the new birth: that man is born in God when God is born in man, having assumed the flesh of the old seed, but without using this seed, and to purify the flesh after having eliminated all its ancient stains. But, as it happened, this whole new manner of birth was prefigured in the ancient wise design that depended upon a virgin. When man was created by God’s action, the earth was still virgin, not yet pressed down by man’s toil, not having been sown. We know that, from this virgin earth, God created man as a living soul.

If, then, the first Adam was introduced in this way, all the more reason that the second Adam, as the apostle said, had to come forth from a virgin earth, that is, from a body not yet violated by generation, by God’s action, so that he might become the spirit who gives life. However, lest my introduction of Adam’s name appear meaningless, why did the apostle call Christ ‘Adam’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45), if his humanity did not have an earthly origin? But here, too, reason comes to our aid: through a contrary operation, God recovered his image and likeness, which had been stolen by the devil.

For just as the death-creating word of the devil had penetrated Eve, who was still a virgin, analogously the life-building Word of God had to enter into a Virgin, so that he who had fallen into perdition because of a woman might be led back to salvation by means of the same sex. Eve believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. The fault that Eve introduced by believing, Mary, by believing, erased.”  (Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p 67)

The Virgin Mary: Spanning the Old and New Testaments

As we prepare ourselves for the celebration of the Feast of the Annunciation to the Theotokos, we can contemplate the Virgin Mary’s role in our salvation.

 “Mary is the bridge from Old Testament righteousness to its fulfillment in the New Covenant. `All the sacred tradition of the Jews is a history of the slow and laborious journey of fallen humanity toward the `fullness of time;” writes Vladimir Lossky, “when the angel was to be sent to announce to the chosen Virgin the Incarnation of God and to hear from her lips human consent, so that the divine plan might be accomplished…”‘  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 598-600)

Great Lent: Keeping the Fast Real

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says about Lenten fasting:

“Let our every care be for the salvation of souls, and for ways of curbing the motions of the flesh and demonstrating a real fast. Abstinence from food after all, is undertaken for this purpose, to curb the exuberance of the flesh and bring the beast under control.

The person fasting ought most of all keep anger in check, learn the lesson of mildness and kindness, have a contrite heart, banish the flood of unworthy passions, keep before one’s eyes that unsleeping eye and that incorruptible tribunal, avoid becoming enthralled by money, be lavish in almsgiving, drive all ill-will to one’s neighbor from the soul. This is real fasting, as Isaiah says when speaking as God’s mouthpiece:

‘I did not choose this fast, says the Lord – not to bend your neck like a dog collar, nor to make your bed of dust and ashes, not to call a fast of this kind acceptable, says the Lord.’ So what kind, pray? ‘Loose the bonds of crippling contracts,’ he says, ‘share your bread with the hungry, welcome the homeless poor into your home.’ And if you do these things, he says, ‘then your Light will burst forth like the dawn, and your healing with quickly emerge.’

Do you see, dearly beloved, what true fasting really is? Let us perform this kind, and not entertain the facile notion held by many that the essence of fasting lies in going without food till evening. This is not the end in view, but that we should demonstrate, along with abstinence from food, abstinence from whatever is harmful, and should give close attention to spiritual duties. The person fasting ought to be reserved, peaceful, meek, humble, indifferent to the esteem of this world. You see, just as one has neglected the soul, so it is necessary to neglect empty esteem as well, and to have regard only for him who examines our inmost being, and with great care to direct prayers and confessions to God, and provide for oneself according to one’s ability the help that comes from almsgiving.”

(Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, pp 55-56)

The Connection Between Baptism and Great Lent

Great Lent was at one point in church history a time for preparing candidates for baptism.   We find in historical documents descriptions of how this worked.

“This preparation for Baptism was introduced by the rite of enrollment, which we find described in this way by Etheria (4th Century) in her account of her pilgrimage:

‘Whoever wishes to give in his name does so on the eve of Lent; and a priest notes down all the names. The next day, the opening of Lent, the day on which the eight weeks begin, in the middle of the principal church, that is, the church of the Martyrium, a seat is placed for the bishop, and one by one the candidates are led up to him. If they are men, they come with their godfathers; if women, with their godmothers. Then the bishop questions the neighbors of each person who come in, saying: “Does he lead a good life? Does he respect his parents: Is he given to drunkenness or to lying?” If the candidate is pronounced beyond reproach by all those who are thus questioned in the presence of witness, with his own hand the bishop notes down the man’s name. But if the candidate is accused of failing in any point, the bishop tells him to go out, saying: “Let him amend his life and when he has amended it, let him come to Baptism.”   […]

The literal meaning of these rites is obvious, – what interests us is the interpretation given to them by the Fathers. The examination, which precedes the inscription in which the claims of the candidate are discussed, signifies for Theodore of Mopsuestia that at this moment Satan ‘tries to argue against us, under the pretext that we have no right to escape from his domination. He says that we belong to him because we are descended from the head of our race,’.

Against him, ‘we must hasten to go before the judge to establish our claims and to show that by rights we did not belong to Satan from the beginning, but to God Who made us to His Own image’. And Theodore compares this ‘temptation’ to the scene in which Satan ‘tries to lead Christ astray by his wiles and temptations.’ Even the attitude of the candidate is symbolic: he is clad only in his tunic and is barefoot, ‘to show the slavery in which the devil holds him captive and to arouse the pity of the judge.’ ”    (Jean Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, pp 19-21)