St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris

Today on the Orthodox calendar we remember the repose of two relatively modern saints whose lives have touched mine.  Both St. Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow and Apostle to the Americas (1879) and St Maria Skobtsova of Paris (1945) died on March 31.  St. Maria died at the hands of the Nazis in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Jim Forest who has written a short biography of her,“Mother Maria of Paris: Saint of the Open Door”, says of her that “She was certain that there was no other path to heaven than participating in God’s mercy.”

St. Maria’s writings are, I think, important for all of us who are not monastics about how to keep Lent.  For those of us living in the world, since we have the world’s goods it is most appropriate for us to keep Great Lent by remembering Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) which we proclaim at the Liturgy one week before Lent begins.  Perhaps more than emphasizing food fasting, we ought to be thinking about the scriptural teachings on fasting from Isaiah 58 in which God tells us the kind of fast acceptable to Him, and from Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment.  In both of the scriptural teachings, the emphasis is on charity towards others, not obeying rituals and rules.

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St Maria writes:

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need…. I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

 

 

Ancestral Sin and God’s Plan

I should like to present a lengthy citation from the part of the Commentary on Genesis which forms the basis for discord over the continuity of Theodore’s [of Mopsuestia] earlier and later work. Theodore writes:

“I have heard some inquire, if God had foreknowledge of Adam’s disobedience, why did he give him through his commandment occasion to disobey [him]?

For this reason, I answer, that God knew very well, that mortality was of use to human beings. If they remained immortal, they would sin incessantly. In addition, because it is useful for them, that in the annihilation of the body in death the [body] of sin is also annihilated. He did not give the best to humanity immediately, in order that he [his dignity] might not be violated. He first of all gave the commandment, which he knew would not be observed. He wanted to show thereby, that human beings, promised immortality for their obedience, had so little trust in their creator and benefactor, that they hoped, through their disobedience, to obtain not only immortality, but even to attain to the stature of divinity. If their body had possessed immortality, how much easier they would have believed it possible themselves to become gods through their disobedience! [God] first of all showed through issuing of his commandment, and through the disobedience of Adam, that mortality is useful. Therefore, he endowed this mortality [upon humanity]. That he has equipped humanity for mortal existence is shown by their male and female forms, which we can recognize as making possible the production of children from the very beginning. Therefore, the structuring [of the human being] was fitted to suit mortal life.”  – Theodore of Mopsuestia.

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As can be seen, the fragment denies that humanity was created immortal, instead positing immortality as a reward for obedience, and insisting that human mortality was considered by God a useful instrument. If humanity had been immortal, then it would not have had any incentive not to sin, because, as sin consists of a desire to be like God, our possession of immortality would have made it far easier to countenance sinning, as our being like God would have been seen as an even more realistically achievable end.” (Richard Paul Cumming, St. Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol. 56, Number 2, 2012, pp 186-187)

That humanity becoming immortal is contingent on human obedience to God, makes the life and death of Jesus Christ ever more meaningful to us.  We come to understand why we need Christ and are indebted to Him for our salvation – we did not, and could not have achieved salvation on our own.  The Law could not bring about the obedience needed for our salvation.  In fact the Law, though given as a gift for salvation, showed how disobedient we were as a people.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Philippians 2:5-11)

In Christ being obedient to the Father in dying for us on the cross, Christ opens the doors to Paradise and to immortality for all of humanity.  In Christ’s obedience, we all are given eternal life.   This is not so much punishment for sin, but true filial obedience out of love.  Christ does what humanity has failed to do.  Adam and Eve were disobedient unto death, Jesus Christ is obedient unto death.  The first Adam’s disobedience brought death to us all, while the new Adam’s obedience means life for us.

“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  (Romans 5:18-19)

Great Lent: Time to Change

“God has prepared us, created and blessed us, ‘for glory’ (Rom. 9:23). ‘You have died,’ Paul tells the Colossians, ‘and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ appears – He who is your life – then you also will appear with Him in glory!’ (Col. 3:3-4).

Caught up in a world of sin, dwelling in a ‘body of sin’ subject to death and corruption, we are nevertheless called, ‘destined’, to participate fully in the glory of the Risen Christ. Through ascetic practice, as through eucharistic communion, that participation becomes a present reality that little by little transforms our body of death into a true body of life and celebration. This is the perspective that makes sense out of our lenten asceticism. Against this perspective there is the subtle and powerful temptation to turn the Great Fast into an end in intself. We adopt lenten practices of bodily prostrations because of their physical benefit; we abstain from meat and perhaps dairy products in order to purge the body of toxins, or to lose weight, or to be able to say ‘we did it’. This popular distortion of the reason for lenten discipline goes hand in hand with an obsessive need to ‘do it right’, exemplified by a close examination of every carton we purchase in the grocery store, to be sure it contains not a trace of meat of dairy.

We pride ourselves on our ability to sacrifice some pleasure (movies, alcohol, sex, ice cream), at least during the first and fifth weeks of Great Lent. Yet the Old Adam remains very much alive. Our sacrifice all too often translates into narcissistic self-congratulation and all too seldom issues in self-giving love. We still harbor the same old grudges, still neglect the anonymous undesirables in our neighborhoods, and still take vengeance when the opportunity arises. In St. Basil’s words, we abstain from meat yet devour our brother!” (John Breck, Longing for God: Orthodox Reflections on Bible, Ethics, and Liturgy, p 140)

 

The Pre-Lenten Sundays (PDF)

I have gathered together into one document all of the 2016 posts on my blog related to the themes of the Pre-Lenten Sundays.  You can find that document at Pre-Lenten Sunday 2016 Blogs (PDF).

You can find a complete listing with links to the PDFs I have created each Pre-Lenten Season since 2008 at at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.   There you will also find PDF’s of each year’s Lenten blogs as well as Paschal blogs and post-Pascha Sunday blogs.

The Annunciation to a Pure Heart

“There was a time when the heart of man was filled only with God – a mirror of the beauty of God, a harp for the praise of God.

There was a time when it was, in truth, in the hand of God, preserved from danger; but when man, in his madness, took things into his own hands, many wild beasts attacked the heart of man; and from there has, inwardly, come the bondage of the heart of man and, outwardly, that which is seen as the history of the world. Incapable of taking responsibility for his heart, man has looked for support to things – animate and inanimate – around him.

But whatever man has found to support his heart has fouled and wounded it. O wretched heart of man, seized on by many who have no right or power over you – as a pearl among swine! How hard you have become through your age- long slavery, and how darkened you are by the weight of darkness! God Himself has had to come down to free you from slavery, to save you from darkness, to heal you of your sinful leprosy and to take you once again into His own hand. The coming of God among men is the most gentle expression of His love for men, tidings of the greatest joy for the pure and the most devastating even for the impure of heart.

Like a flaming pillar in the deepest darkness, so is the coming of God among men. The news of this coming began with an angel and a maiden, with a conversation between heavenly and earthly purity. When an impure heart converses with an impure one, there is strife. Only when a pure heart converses with a pure one there is joy, peace and a great wonder. The Archangel Gabriel is the first messenger of the good news of man’s salvation, of this wondrous act of God’s – for the salvation of  man could not come about without God’s wondrous action.

The most pure Virgin Mary was the first to hear this good news and, first among human beings, trembled with fear and joy. Heaven was mirrored in her pure heart like the sun in clear water. Beneath her heart, the Lord, the Creator of the new world and Renewer of the old, was to lay His head and clothe Himself in flesh.” (Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p 2)

Who Can Forgive Sins?

On the second Sunday of Great Lent we read the Gospel lesson from Mark 2:1-12.

And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone? But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins. He said to the paralytic,  I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house. Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Forgiving others their debts and offenses, and seeking forgiveness from God are two key elements of living the evangelical life in Christ.  And while Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Lord’s prayer specifically makes it clear our receiving forgiveness is dependent on our willingness to forgive, Fr. Boris Bobrinsky points out the forgiveness originates in God before we are asked to do anything.  God forgives us while we are still sinners.  We are imitating God when we forgive others.  We show mercy and love to others because Christ first loved us.

“ ‘How can we ask for God’s forgiveness, if we ourselves do not forgive those who owe us?’ (Sir. 28:3). […]The entire context of the Bible compels us not to make mutual forgiveness the condition for the forgiveness of God, but, quite to the contrary, to see the necessary consequence in it. One of the fundamental parables, in which we discover that God’s forgiveness is first, sheds light on the Our Father: A man who owed ten thousand talents – a vast sum of money – to his master, threw himself at the feet of his master and asked for a delay. The master set him free and granted him a remission of his entire debt (Mt. 18:23-35).

We encounter this fundamental fact everywhere – the priority, the primacy of the forgiveness of God. St. Paul also speaks of it in the Epistle to the Romans: ‘At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Very rarely will anyone die for a good man, but Christ demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us – that is the profound meaning of forgiveness.’ (Rom. 5:6). St. Paul confirms in the Epistle to the Ephesians: ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’ (Eph. 4:32).” (Boris Bobrinsky, The Compassion of the Father, pp 74-75)

Who can forgive sins?   God can.  And we in imitation of God can forgive others as well.  In so doing we accept the forgiveness God offers to us.

The Annunciation: the Kenotic Mary

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

“The dogma of the Annunciation is not the revelation of a solitary and autocratic God; nor is the Annunciation a story of human subservience to that God.  Mary is called to an act of kenosis (self-emptying, suffering love), imitative of her own Son’s, even before he himself has revealed it to the world. For by conceiving the holy child, she risks humiliation and social ostracism. But whatever the Father asks of the mother, he asks also of his Son, who “emptied Himself… taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:5-11, NKJV).

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a reading for the feast of the Birth of the Mother of God. St. Paul argues that the kenosis of the Son of God lights the way toward a religious affirmation of human freedom and holiness. The true end of human freedom is voluntary self-limitation in loving service to others and to God. God holds to this law of love when he condescends to become one of us. Mary is the first human being to obey this command wholly and consummately.”  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 702ff)

Rejoice, Theotokos, Bridge to Heaven

Seeking to know the incomprehensible, the Virgin cried to the ministering spirit: “Tell me, how can a son be born from a chaste womb?”

And in fear, he answered, crying out:

Rejoice, initiate of God’s secret counsel!

Rejoice, faith in that which must be guarded by silence!

Rejoice, prelude of Christ’s miracles! Rejoice, crown of his teachings!

Rejoice, heavenly ladder by which God came down!

Rejoice, bridge which conveys men from earth to heaven!

Rejoice, wonder of angels, blazed abroad!

Rejoice, wound of demons bewailed afar!

Rejoice, for ineffably you bore the Light!

Rejoice, for you revealed your secret to none!

Rejoice, wisdom surpassing the knowledge of the wise!

Rejoice, dawn that illumines the minds of the faithful!

Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!  

(Akathist to the Theotokos, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc. 2374-82)

Great Lent and the Lord’s Commandments

Keeping Great Lent properly and strictly is always a struggle.  Here is one hymn which tells us what to do and what to pay attention to during the Fast.

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“Since we know the Lord’s commandments,

let us live accordingly:

let us give the hungry food,

the thirsty drink;

let us clothe the naked,

welcome strangers to our homes,

visit those in prison and the sick;

so that he who will judge the whole earth

will say even to us:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,

inherit the kingdom prepared for you.’”

(Vespers Hymn in Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter by Hugh Wybrew, pp 32-33)

Charity for the poor and needy is the best way to keep Great Lent – it is how we change our hearts to love as Christ loves us.

Fasting, Ritualism and Repentance

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.

(Psalm 51:16-17)

One aspect of Jewish religious life that our Lord Jesus criticized was hypocrisy, which can mean that people diligently adhere to keeping Torah in strict and minute detail, according to a particular interpretation of the Law, but their hearts are not united to the Lord.  In other words, obedience to the Law is not in itself enough for having a true relationship with God.  As we see in Psalm 51 above, even though God had commanded sacrifice in the Torah, the very purpose of the Law was to touch the hearts of believers.  God relates far more to the broken, contrite heart than to the rigidly obedient one.  The intention of true religion according to Christ is to have a heart felt relationship with God.

“Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:
‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.   (Matthew 15:7)

Faithfully performing ritual must come from a heart that is steadfastly attuned to God, and the external actions are a sign of the inward faithfulness to God.  From the heart was to flow religious observance.  To mindlessly and mechanically do religious routine or repetition is not only joyless to the doer but also to God.  Rigid and rote adherence to tradition cannot win God’s favor.   This is a frequent Gospel lesson as is clear in the pre-Lenten Sunday readings in the Orthodox Church.  Lent is given to us a time to restore a joyful relationship with God – to pray constantly but not mechanically but with joy, to fast with thanksgiving and charity, not with obsessive and slavish detail to rules.  Fr Gregory Polan expresses the idea quite well in his article, “A Fitting Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, Praise, and Repentance: Psalms 50-51.”  His words are especially pertinent to us Orthodox since we recite Psalm 51 so frequently in our daily prayers and services.

“Psalms 50 and 51 have an important function in the Old Testament literature.  They point out that mere ritual action does not necessarily find favor with God; the external offering of an animal, grain, or first fruits must also be accompanied by action of the heart, mind, and spirit of whoever makes the offering, whether individually or communally. It is too easy to perform a ritual sacrifice and think ‘I’ve done my duty to God, and all is well,’ because ritual actions are an achievement of sorts, demanding both time and effort.  The covenant between God and the people involves a relationship of commitment on the part of both parties.

But just as important, the enacting of the rituals associated with the covenant demands something deeper than mere perfunctory legalism.  The Hebrews notion of ‘heart’ brings together our contemporary sense of both mind and heart, and this combinative reality was what God expected of the people.  A responsive commitment to the covenant called for both external action and interior disposition toward God: hearts ready to praise and thank God, hearts made pure by repentance and forgiveness.”  (THE BIBLE TODAY, March-April 2016, p 93).

The fasting, prayer, repentance, prostrations and charity of Great Lent are to be the results of hearts filled with praise and thanksgiving, and they are designed to reinvigorate our relationship with God and one another.  If they remain only exercises in personal asceticism, they do not accomplish the goal of a heart which is well pleasing to God.  It is our hearts we must continually work on – removing the hardness in order to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us.  So this Lent, we should focus on a heart which is well pleasing to God.   It is not sacrifice which God is seeking as He says in Psalm 51:16-17, but a contrite heart – the heart of the repentant sinner (the Publican, the Prodigal) not of the rigid righteous (the Pharisee and the older brother).