Welcoming Spring

The vernal equinox reminds us that the seasons are in constant motion, time for a change.

The clouds of spring water the earth which blossoms with new life.

Like the seasons, the flowers break into our world and then pass away, as do all things.

Even fading beauty uplifts the heart and delights the eye, giving hope that always there will be something that arises even from the dead of winter.

The scents, sounds and sights of spring may draw our minds to Paradise, yet there, since fruit was in season and in abundance, it must have been more like an eternal summer or fall.

 

Here, we can praise God for beauty springs eternal, as does hope.

 

Icons: To See the Mystery of God

“According to the Church’s hymnography, the first icon of the Lord was disclosed when He became incarnate, and the first iconographer was the Theotokos: ‘The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed, taking flesh from you, O Theotokos; and He has restored the sullied image [that is, man] to its ancient glory, mingling it with the divine beauty. We therefore confess our salvation [through Christ’s Incarnation], depicting it in action [through the holy icons] and recounting it in words.’

The word of the Gospel and the ‘word’ of the holy icons help us to experience at first hand the mystery of the divine economy: ‘While our physical eyes are looking at an icon, our intellect and the spiritual eyes of our heart are focused on the mystery of the economy of the Incarnation.’

By means of the holy icons, we see the Lord and the saints. We converse with them: ‘The holy Apostles saw the Lord with their physical eyes; others saw the Apostles, and others again saw the holy martyrs. But I too yearn to see them with my soul and body and to have them as a medicine against every ill…Because I am a human being and have a body, I long to see and communicate with holy things in a physical manner too.’” (Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Litugy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, pp 40-41)

The Sunday of Orthodoxy (2016)

The Holy Prophets

“But there is more that we can take away from this commemoration today. Before the first Sunday of Lent commemorated the restoration of the icons, it was given over to remembering the prophets. This is why we had the readings from the Gospel (John 1:43-51) and Epistle (Hebrews 11:24-12:2) that we had today and why we heard much about the prophets in the hymnography last night. In a very real sense, the confirmation of the icons is a reaffirmation of the prophets: what they had foretold, the icons confirm. So we just heard Philip telling Nathaniel that ‘ We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth’ (John 1:45). It is this that the icons confirm: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ spoken of by the prophets, has come visibly in flesh.

Prophet Amos

When we turn our attention to the Epistle reading, we are taken a step further. There we heard of the sufferings endured by the prophets as they looked to the things that God had planned for us; or as we sang last night: ‘they refused to worship the creation instead of the Creator; they renounced the whole world for the Gospel’s sake, and in their suffering they were conformed to thy Passion which they had foretold.’ The prophets, by concentrating all their hearts and strength on the promise of God – the gospel – by refusing to compromise with the world and enduring all the suffering that this entails, were themselves conformed to Christ’s Passion, becoming images of Christ. Make no mistake about this. It is to this that we also are called: to be icons ourselves, by being crucified with Christ, by being conformed to his image, by living the life that he opens up for us, the life of God himself.

Prophet John the Forerunner

The Epistle concluded by reminding us that, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses – all these icons, saints who have conformed themselves to Christ – we are ourselves to throw off everything that hinders us from running the race set before us, to lay aside every weight that holds us back, every sin and passion that attaches our heart to things in this world rather than to Christ. We are, the Epistle says, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, so that he now sits at the right hand of the Father.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp 28-29)

Contemplating Great Lent

“Armed with fasting, Elijah the wonderful, was taken up in a chariot of fire;

through fasting Moses received a vision of secret mysteries; and if we also fast like the, we shall see Christ.”  

“Adam ate the food and his greed banished him from Paradise.  But may the keeping of the Fast lead us to true repentance, O Lord who loves mankind.”

“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.”

(Three hymns from the Lenten Triodion, 1st week)

 

The Breastplate of St. Patrick of Ireland

Christ with me,

Christ before me,

Christ behind me,

Christ beneath me,

Christ above me,

Christ within me,

Christ on my right,

Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye that sees me,

Christ in the ear that hears me.”  

 (Breastplate of St  Patrick of Ireland, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 198-202)

Picturing Paradise Lost

Blessed meadow,

trees

and flowers

planted by God,

O sweetness of Paradise:

Let your leaves, like eyes, shed tears on my behalf,

For I am naked and a stranger to God’s glory.

(Hymn from Lenten Matins)

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

A Fast Pleasing to God

Right before Great Lent begins, or at the beginning of Great Lent, all Orthodox Christians should read and meditate on Isaiah 58, especially verses :4-11.  Great Lent, as God describes a fast, should be about the very things Christ teaches in the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) which we proclaim 8 days before Lent begins.   As Isaiah recorded it, the Lord said:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

mercytoChrist

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

God does not bless Great Lent to be a season of criticizing, condemning or accusing others of not keeping the fast, of not being rigorous enough, of being too rigorous.  The fast that God blesses has to do with virtue, with justice and charity.   Fasting as Jesus taught it is do be done secretly.  It is not intended to be a public witness.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:16-18)

Unfortunately, this godly emphasis is not always obvious in the Orthodox fast as Lent gets turned into being about menus and diet and personal asceticism, rather than being about how we relate to and treat others.  Great Lent is about loving God and neighbor.  It is about us humans living as God created us to – as relational beings with a social and theological dimension.  As the Lord Jesus taught:

“But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”   (Luke 11:41-42)

If we search enough we can find these themes in the hymns of Great Lent.  Here are a few such hymns below reminding us that fasting is not mostly about changing our diets and our stomachs, but rather is about transforming and reforming our hearts and minds.

Now the season of virtues has come,
And the Judge is at the door.
Let us not hold back with a darkened face,
But offering tears, contrition and giving of alms
Let us keep the fast, and let us cry:
Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea,
But forgive each of us, that we may receive an incorruptible crown, Savior of all!

The goal of fasting is to overcome sins and all evil influence in our lives.  The perfect fast does not consist of checking the labels on every food item to make sure it adheres to strict rules limiting which foods we eat.  We can strictly keep the rules, but if our hearts remain unchanged, if we are not conformed to the image of Christ, then the fast is not going to be well-pleasing to God.   We are not trying to torment the palates of family members, rather we are trying to transform our hearts so that we are virtuous, humble, loving, forgiving and asking forgiveness.   Fasting that leaves us angry and judgmental does not form us in the image of our Savior.

Let us use fasting as our sword,
To cut away all evil from our heart.
If we do this, we shall receive the true crown
At the day of Judgment from Christ the King of all!

Cutting away evil from the heart, not cutting calories is the purpose of the fast.  We fast from food in order to help train ourselves to adhere to the Gospel.  Abstaining from food is not the goal, abstaining from evil is.

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 sensuality,
Of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing.
The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.

Indeed, we want a fast that is well-pleasing to God, not one that inflates our spiritual egos.   We are to fast from evil thoughts, evil words, evil images, evil actions.  Fasting from food is supposed to help us learn that we can in fact say no to our desires.  We are not controlled by our genes, nor by nurture or nature.  We have free wills and can refrain from some things we like and desire in order to do things which are desirable and pleasing to others and their salvation. 

Restrain yourself, soul, from harmful passions,
From hate and envy and from every evil.
Be nourished in the Fast with the spiritual meat from heaven,
Which is the Word of God.

If we refrain from hate and envy, from sexual immorality and allurement, from pornography, from lying, drunkenness, impatience and greed, then we really would be doing a fast well-pleasing to God.

Forgive us as We Forgive Others

“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  (Matthew 7:2)

In our Orthodox Church we begin Great Lent with Forgiveness Vespers and within the parish mutually asking each other for forgiveness and forgiving others.    If Great Lent is a season of repentance – seeking God’s forgiveness, Christ would tell us the first step along this path is to forgive others.   Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev expands on this theme while commenting on one line in the Lord’s Prayer.

“ ‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Prayer is inextricably bound up with a person’s way of life. The reason for the difficulties a person experiences in prayer lies in an incorrect, unspiritual, and non-evangelical life. We sense this especially when we say the ‘Our Father’. Each petition of this prayer places us in front of a given reality, as if we were being judged – judged by our own conscience. And this prayer, if we pray from our soul and heart – if we really think about what is written here – should constantly force us to change our lives.

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35)

We say:

‘And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,’

that is, we ask God to forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are in debt to us. When we speak these words, we should ask ourselves: do we forgive our neighbors? Are we ready to place our own forgiveness by God in dependence on whether we forgive others? Isn’t this too frightening? Isn’t this too much responsibility?”

(Prayer: Encounter with the Living God, pp 117-118)

It indeed is both frightening and tremendous responsibility.  The way we will be judged by God is totally dependent on how we treat other people.  God judges us by our own criterion of judgment.   This is no doubt why in the church we pray constantly, “Lord, have mercy.”  God’s judgments are righteous, we constantly ask Him to remember to be merciful.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Adam Laments His Exile

Adam

In the previous blog, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, we read the words of Archimandrite Aimilianos reflecting on what Adam might have thought and said to God when God questioned him as to why he was trying to hide from His Creator.   In the meditation below, St Silouan puts in Adam’s mouth words lamenting what he lost in being exiled from Paradise.  Though the earth has beautiful landscapes, he cannot find joy in them knowing what exists in Paradise, yet which is no longer attainable for him.

“Adam wept:

‘The desert cannot pleasure me;

nor the high mountains,

nor meadow nor forest,

nor the singing of birds.

I have no pleasure in any thing.

My soul sorrows with a great sorrow: I have grieved God. And were the Lord to set me down in paradise again, there, too, would I sorrow and weep – ‘O, why did I grieve my beloved God?’”

(St Silouan in Remember Thy First Love by Archimandrite Zacharias, p 200)

Adam & Eve worship at the heavenly altar

Adam sees the magnificent beauty in God’s created world, and yet he agonizes over what he lost in being exiled from Paradise.  The pleasures of this world are nothing compared to Paradise Adam tells us.  The entire world was his – a vacation paradise.   Yet, he finds nothing on earth comparable to the Paradise lost.

Great Lent is trying to help us believe Adam’s lament – what we humans have lost is far greater than anything we might experience on earth.   We may be quite attached to this world, yet Great Lent calls  us to yearn for something greater, something we’ve never known.   Can we feel Adam’s exile and believe there is something even more glorious awaiting us, if only we will let go of the things we value so highly on earth?

The Expulsion of Adam from Paradise

In the long history of Christianity, many insightful meditations have been offered giving Adam voice to explain his free choice and to lament the loss of Paradise after sinning against God and being expelled from God’s hand-planted Garden of Eden.  Below is a modern meditation from Archimandrite Aimilianos who has Adam fearfully explaining himself, ignoring the merciful nature of the God whom Adam knew from the beginning.

“And so it was with Adam: ‘I’m over here, hiding, because I was afraid to see you, because I have sinned. I’m afraid that you wouldn’t accept my excuses; that You’d say it was all my fault. I was afraid that you would no longer acknowledge me as Your child.’

To be sure, Adam’s desire to justify himself, the various excuses he contemplated, were the signs of certain death. And this is why St. Makarios says: ‘When Adam fell away from God, he died spirtually,’ Seeking to justify himself, Adam condemned himself to life without God. Until then, the damage wasn’t fully done; the blow could have been blunted, the tradgedy averted. This was the critical moment which we all must face, when it becomes clear whether we’ll choose God or our self. As a general rule, we choose our self. Every day we repeat the sin of Adam. He fell when he opened his soul to the poison of the serpent, but there was still hope that he might turn and embrace God.

He could have raised his arms to God and cried: ‘God, I am your voice, your self-expression; I am your creation, your child, and I have sinned. Bend down and hold me; save me before I perish completely!’ Instead, he said, in effect: ‘What do You want, God? Have you come here to judge me?’” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p 239)

Interestingly in the Gospels, it is the demons who have nothing but fear for Christ; they are terrified that He is there to judge them, yet they do not repent.  For example in Mark 1:24, the demons possessing the man cry out:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Adam feared God and God’s judgment, yet it did not bring him to repentance, to seek reconciliation with God.  Instead, Adam blames Eve and God for his sin and fails to ask the merciful God for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Also in the various versions of the Gospel lesson of the Gadarene swine and the demoniacs (Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:26-39), the demons squeal in fear that Christ is there to torment them before the Judgment Day, yet they do not seek to be reconciled to God.  So too in Archimandrite Aimilianos’ meditation, Adam fears God’s judgment, yet fails to seek reconciliation with the merciful Lord.

So often many want a just God who punishes sinners, yet so seldom do we willingly seek God in confession.   We believe sinners should fear God like the demons, yet what we should be doing is offering all an example by our own repentance.

In the next post we will consider words from St Silouan as he too gives Adam a voice of lament for sinning against his Creator:  Adam Laments His Exile.