Confession Not Concealment

May the infinite love and mercy of the Lord triumph, in consequence of our sincere recognition and confession of our sins; and may the sinful flattery of the Devil, teaching us to conceal our sins and not to acknowledge them, be covered with shame! May all the snares and bonds of the Devil be torn asunder by our repentance, like a cobweb!

The Devil seeks that we should conceal our sins, and thus give ourselves up to them in secret still more and more easily; but let us even here destroy his snares and wiles; let us confess our sins, in order that we ourselves and all others may see to what abomination we are giving ourselves up or have given ourselves up, and that thus, by recognizing this abomination, we may more easily amend. “Tell,” it is said, “all thine iniquities,” and do not be silent about them, “that thou mayst be justified.”

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 284)


Pre-Lenten Sunday Themes (2018)

26102462275_fb2f33cc7a_nAll of the posts this year related to the themes of the Pre-Lenten Sundays are now gathered into one  document and available at 2018 Pre-Lenten Sunday Themes (PDF).

Each year I gather related posts into a PDF  for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha and other themes.   You can find a list of all the PDFs I’ve created each year since 2008 related to scripture, feasts or other Orthodox topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Reflecting on Hebrews 11:24-12:2

The Epistle reading for the 1st Sunday of Great Lent is Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-12:2.  The text gives us a lot to think about in terms of Great Lent but also our daily lives.

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward.

The entire text is a challenge to anyone who wants to embrace the American prosperity gospel for its entire point is that though these people are the most faithful members of the household of God, none of them received the promised rewards in their lifetime, but all of them suffered.  They didn’t suffer because they were unfaithful, but precisely because they were faithful to God they suffered.  Thus Moses rejected the easy life and wealth that he shared as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  All the wealth of Egypt he disdained, choosing rather to suffer poverty, exile and 40 years of testing and wandering in the harsh desert so that he could be with the people of God.  He didn’t receive wealth and prosperity by being faithful to God – rather he had to disown that wealth and privileged lifestyle so he could be faithful to God.

For those of us who like to revel that we live in the richest country in the world and the richest country in the history of the world, Moses would say to us, better to choose affliction and suffering “with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.”    All the wealth and prosperity of the richest country on earth cannot purchase life with God’s people.  Suffering and affliction are not signs that God has rejected you, but maybe signs that you are choosing God rather than the world, rather than mammon, rather than yourself.

Whatever sins the wealth of Egypt had to offer, America surpasses it in wealth and in sins.

And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented-of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.

As the author of Hebrews already said, “what more can I say?”  This is not prosperity Gospel thinking.  All of these people are the heroes of the Scripture, all of them are saints and examples to God’s people.  Yet all of them suffered affliction, and none of them received the promises of God.

And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for …

The people mentioned above all proved themselves faithful to God, proved themselves to be children of God, proved themselves to be saints, proved themselves worth of God’s blessings and rewards.   But now the text takes a surprising turn.   These folk above – God’s chosen, God’s saints, God’s heroes, God’s faithful did not receive the promise.  

Why?   Because God had provided something even better for them. . . Right?

NO.  The text doesn’t say God provided something even better for them.

And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.

God provided something better for us, not for them.   They remained faithful to God, did not receive the promise fulfilled, but suffered affliction so that we might benefit from their faithfulness.  They weren’t suffering to benefit themselves, but to benefit us.  Talk about unselfish and altruistic behavior!   Not only did they not receive the promise for their faithfulness and their suffering, but they weren’t even suffering for their own benefit.  They weren’t going to get the reward at the end of their suffering – we were.  They knew of God’s promised blessings, and never received the reward, because they were living, suffering, dying in order that our generation might partake of the blessings.

We are called to have just that attitude.  We aren’t faithful to God so that we might receive the rewards of prosperity and blessings – but so that our children and future generations might know of God and choose to follow Christ, just like we have chosen.  Perfection for us is not obtained in this world, but only in and with the future generations that will receive the Tradition from us and pass it on to their descendants and the next new generation of Christians.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

We are not to embrace the temptations and sins which prosperity provide to us, but to eschew them so that we can follow Christ.  We are to be with Christ wherever Christ is.  We are to live for the Kingdom and for all Christians yet to come, and not rely on prosperity today as a sign that we have obtained the promise.  For today’s prosperity can be a snare which entraps us and prevents not only us but future generations from obtaining the promised reward.

Running the Race, Looking Unto Jesus

For the past two weeks the Winter Olympics have been going on enabling us to see some of the world’s best athletes.  The Olympics in some way are a good metaphor for the Christian life.  Athletes train very hard and aim to win the prize.  They commit all their soul, heart and strength to the sport.  But it is also true that the Olympics only run for 2 weeks out of every 4 years, so they represent a rather small part of the athletes whole life.  Indeed the athletes have more to their life – some are parents, some are spouses, some are in school, some have jobs, all have to train and fund raise and just live life.  They have to have food and transportation and housing.  They have all the needs and many of the responsibilities of any citizens.  Standing of the winner’s platform really ends up being only a few minutes of their entire life.  Often the actual game they participate in may last only a few minutes.  The Olympics are a very tiny part of a much bigger world and life.

So too is the Christian struggle.  We are to love God with all our soul, heart, mind and strength.  We have many mundane things we have to attend to just like everyone else – employment, housing, family, meals, health care, social and political involvement.  Our Christian life is to spill over into the rest of the things we do, but being a Christian doesn’t free us from the cares of the world.  We exercise our Christianity in the context of the greater whole of life, just like an Olympian.  And this life turns out to be just a very small portion of the entirety of human history which is dwarfed even further by the eternity of God.  Our life on earth ends up being something like the two weeks of the Olympics – a very small portion of the entire, grand picture of the universe in God’s eternity.

We encounter this Olympic vision in the Scriptures, for example in Hebrews 12:1-2 where we read:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

We have to lay aside the many obstacles to loving God and to receiving God’s love.  All those things weigh us down, but we are to run the race, just like Olympians do and this requires great endurance on our part.  But, most amazing of all we don’t have to do the hardest part of the Olympic race – Christ has already done it for us.  He ran the race, endured the cross and death, then entered into heaven and now sits with God.   All we have to do is stick with Him.  He did the hard part and he invites us to share in the prize and reward.

Last Sunday in Orthodoxy, we heard a great deal about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise.  That narrative is recorded in Genesis 3.  After Eve and Adam disobeyed God, they were filled with shame and tried to hide from God.  Not unlike many of us do when we sin or do something we know we shouldn’t do.  We try to hide it from spouse and family and friends.

After Adam and Eve sinned, God came looking for them, calling out:  “Where are you?”  (Genesis 3:9)

Every Lent God comes looking for us and calls to each of us:  Where are you?

Where are you in your spiritual life?

Where are you in your Lenten efforts?

Where are you in relation to God and His Church?

Where ae you?  Are you coming home to Him like the Prodigal Child?

Where are you?  Are you seeking Him like Zacchaeus or the Publican?

Where are you?  Are you seeing God in the people around you, the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ and ministering to Him?

Great Lent is a time for us to find our way home.  To remind us not to be so self centered and rather to see Christ in the poor and needy.  To seek Christ every day of our life.  To see God because we are working on purity of heart.  The pure in heart will see God.

In Great Lent we are walking the path carrying a cross on the way to Christ’s crucifixion:

Look at the icon of the Crucifixion:   what do you see?

Just a man dying?    Or do you see God?

It is an icon of God.  That is who we see in the icon, nailed to the cross.  If we only see a man dying and a group of saddened people around us, we are missing the main point.    God is there revealing himself to us, open the eyes of your heart so that you can see.

We are preparing ourselves to receive the Bread of Heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Holy Communion:  what do you receive?

Bread and wine?  Or Eternal life?

Do we see beyond the visible and physical?

Lent says it is time to see with the eyes of our heart.  And we have to purify our heart in order to see with it.  Lenten fasting is not about the stomach but about the heart.

Unfortunately often with our eyes we can look at others and only see their faults.  We look and we see in order to criticize and condemn.

Or, we can repent of that thinking and    we can see in the other, in the neighbor, in friend and family as well as in the stranger an opportunity to love them and serve them.  We have to have the eyes to see.  Great Lent endeavors to open the eyes of our heart.

Nathaniel in today’s Gospel was quick to judge and criticize Jesus:  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

The response to his quick criticism:  Come and see.  Only when his eyes were open could Nathaniel see Christ.

A story from the desert fathers reminds us about what we are looking at and how we see the world around us:

Certain Old Men went to Abbâ Poemen to ask him a question, “Would you like, Abbâ Poemen, if we see our Brothers sleeping in the congregation, to give them a swift kick (or as one old English version has it: smite him mightily) and wake them up?”  Abbâ Poemen answered them, “If I see my Brother sleeping, I place his head on my knees, and I give him a place to rest.”

Then one of the Old Men said to him, “And what, then, do you say to God?”

Abbâ Poemen replied, “I say this to God: You Yourself have said, ‘First of all, pluck the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see well enough to remove the splinter from your Brother’s eye.’” (St Matthew 7:3)


Great Lent is the time to take out the log from our own eye which blocks us from seeing clearly.  To confess our sins, to acknowledge the power of sin in our life, so that we can see the icon as a window to heaven, to see the neighbor or the stranger as Jesus Christ, to see heaven opened and to see beyond the physical and visible into the eternal Kingdom which Jesus has opened to us.

Sunday of Orthodoxy (2018)

“The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is not fulfilled by having the right answers to particular questions, nor by preserving the traditions for the sake of their antiquity or particular practices because we think that they will make us better Christians. No. The orthodoxy that we celebrate today is that of having our attention captivated by, our gaze fixed upon, our ears opened to, and our hearts enthralled with our Lord Jesus Christ. He is for us the beginning and the end of all things; he is the one who began our faith, and he is the one who will bring it to fulfillment.

For the joy that was set before him, he endured the Passion, and only by having his joy before us are we able to set our hearts on high, above the things of this world, focused on the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, so that he can conform us to his image.”

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 80)

A Brief History of Icons

“Compared to metal and mosaic icons, the painted wooden icon is perhaps the longest lived subcategory of the Byzantine artistic medium of portable devotional icons. The earliest collection of wooden painted icons is found at St. Catherine Monastery in Sinai: some twenty-seven pieces dated to the sixth through seventh centuries. They are all painted in encaustic (pigment and wax) and tempera (pigment and egg yolk).

In terms of style, the portable icons follow the Late Antique commemorative portraits and imperial lavrata. Thematically, they employ scenes and figures from the Old and New Testaments. These icons were introduced into church as votive donations and remained in use for extra liturgical or individual devotional purposes.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, when art was well linked to a more standardized liturgy, the portable icons begin to reflect the new trend by depicting various subjects of liturgical feasts. The liturgical appropriation of the portable icons may be detected in their moving from being stored in the aisles unto the emerging templon (the screen separating the altar from the nave) and the proskynetarion (the icon stand in front of the templon). The eleventh through twelfth century portable icons are characterized by a high degree of creativity within the liturgical framework. The climactic point for the proliferation of portable icons occurred in the fourteenth century during the Palaeologan period. This is the time when the templon becomes the high iconostasis found in most Eastern Orthodox Churches today.

(Eugen J. Pentiuc, The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, pp. 282-283)

To Be Christian: Embracing the Gift of the Resurrection

“For this reason the resurrection is the gift common to all men, but remission of sins, the heavenly crowns, and the kingdom become theirs alone who have given due cooperation, who have so ordered themselves in this life as to be familiar with that life and with the Bridegroom.

They have been born anew since He is the new Adam, they are resplendent with beauty and have preserved the youth which the baptismal washing infused in them, for He is ‘fairer than the children of men’ (Ps 45:2).  They stand with heads uplifted like the Olympic victors because He is their crown;

they give ear because He is the Word; they lift up their eyes because He is a sun; they breathe deeply because the Bridegroom is a sweet odor and ointment poured forth (Cant 1:3), they are stately even in vesture because of the wedding feast.”

(St. Nicholas Cabasilas, THE LIFE IN CHRIST, pp 83-84)

The Tyranny of the Flesh

“… the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘”  (Matthew 4:16-17)

6849430658_240066832e_nThe first sermon that Jesus preached according to St. Matthew was a one line, straight forward message:  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.‘   That message, a call to repentance has been central to the Christian message ever since.  At every Orthodox liturgy we pray that “we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and in repentance.

All of us who are members of the Orthodox Church have personally embraced that message and have agreed that repentance is essential to cure what ails us as human beings.  Every year we attend the “School of Repentance” – Great Lent – in order to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  We are the ones who have said “I need to repent” – Christ’s Gospel message have resonated with us.  In the first week of Great Lent we pray the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.”  We each acknowledge our personal need for God’s mercy and the forgiveness that Christ offers to repentant sinners.  St. Andrew’s Canon is not a dreary dirge but rather brings us face to face with Christ’s call to repentance.  It is meant to change our heart of stone into one of flesh, which feels the pain of sin and it’s result – our separation from God.  The Canon is meant to awaken in us that pain of separation so that we seek God with all our heart.

Repentance in Orthodox spirituality is normative to our daily spiritual life – instead of blaming everyone else for the world’s sorrows and problems, we acknowledge our own personal contribution to the problems and sorrows of the world.  We come to church not to blame violent shooters and sexual predators, but to repent not only of our personal sins but also of anything we do which enables such sin to continue in the world.

We can consider the words from one of the Lenten hymns for the first week of Lent:

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

But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions;

That we how are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh

May become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God.

4446986418_6c3154f029_nStrangers to bodily passions . . .  enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh –  sounds like monastic exaggeration or extremism.  Yet, for all of us “living in the world” we can readily understand these words in our daily experience.  How often do we make choices purely because it is easy, comfortable, convenient or pleasurable?  When choices made based on any of those become our pattern of behavior, we have become slaves to them.  We avoid choosing what is good or right or godly preferring to follow that path of least resistance – what is pleasurable, convenient, comfortable or easy.   We don’t want to have to fast, or practice self denial, or attend a weekday service, or give more to charity or to have to apologize to others or forgive them.   Thus ease and convenience and comfort tyrannize us – as we don’t want to have to deal with what is difficult or important and so allow our lives to be controlled by the tyranny of the flesh =  that which is easy, convenient, pleasurable and comfortable.  Instead of doing the next right, good or godly thing, we opt for ease and convenience and let that govern our daily lives.

Lent is the chance to regain control of our choices. To recognize how ease and convenience are really tyranny of the flesh.  Repentance means changing one’s mind and heart, allowing it to be healed of the tyranny of the flesh and the passions, so that we in fact strive for what is godly.


Humility as Being Human

“’What is humility?’ had a simple but penetrating answer: ‘It is when your brother sins against you and you forgive him before he comes to ask forgiveness.’ One story, which illustrates this, suggests that it was only through realizing this kind of humility in practice that one could become reconciled to another with whom one had a disagreement.

A brother was angry with another brother for something he had done. As soon as the second one learned of this, he came to ask the brother to forgive him. But the first brother would not open the door to him. So the one who had come to ask for forgiveness went to ask an old man the reason for this and what he should do. The old man told him,
‘See if there is not a motive in your heart such as blaming your brother or thinking that it is he who is responsible. You justify yourself and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition, I tell you this: even it is he who has sinned against you, settle it in your heart that it is you who have sinned against him and justify your brother. Then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.’

Convinced, the brother did this; then he went to knock at the brother’s door and almost before he heard the sound the other was first to ask pardon from the inside. Then he opened the door and embraced him with all his heart.”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 252-253)

Forgiveness Sunday: Starting the Journey Home

Great Lent is often metaphorically described as a journey.  It is not a journey that we embark on by ourselves, but we do sojourn with our community of fellow believers.  It is a strange journey though.  Often when groups start on a sojourn more people begin the journey than finish it, as some always drop out along the way.  Lent is not like that.  For today we will begin the Lenten journey, officially it begins at Forgiveness Vespers tonight.  And while we all should be there to wish each other a good journey, sadly only a few well wishers will show up.  But at Pascha, the end of the journey, suddenly everyone wants to be there even if they didn’t sojourn at all.

The Lenten Journey is strange for another reason – for all of the spiritual hymns suggest that we are not beginning our journey today, but rather are headed home.  We are now far away from home, we are in exile in this land we call home – like the Prodigal Son, we find ourselves far away from home.  Where we are is a land of exile, even if earth is the only planet we’ve ever been on – and yes even the United States of America turns out to be a land of exile, not paradise.  And we only have to pay attention to the news to remember this – this is a land in which we use guns to murder our children.

But out true home is God’s paradise, and that is where we are headed, to the kingdom of God.    We are not leaving home, but going home.  And the foods we will eat on the way – Lenten foods – are not foreign foods, but the foods of paradise.  We have been away from home so long that we have forgotten what God gave to us.   Our Lenten sojourn is to revive in us that sense that we are in exile here and we need to find our way home, to our heavenly Father’s home.  In the Narnia books, if you read them, you might remember that the witch gave the children a candy delight which they loved so much that they forgot their true home.  That is the world which seduces us into wanting this to be the only world there is.  We think America is great again, so we aren’t even looking for our true home.

In a few hours we will embark on that noble journey which will last 7 weeks.  Few of us are ever willing to travel for seven weeks to get somewhere.  But Great Lent is a 7 week sojourn which is worth every minute, if we make it so.   We will be challenged by the duties we are to perform – forgiving one another, fasting, repenting, praying, maintaining sobriety, loving, being spiritually vigilant, attending the weekday church services.

Sometimes when we think about this great voyage of Lent, the image which comes to mind is that Pascha is all light, the light at the end of the tunnel.  The tunnel which we must pass through to get to the light is darkness.  This is often how we feel about Great Lent.  But the image is not correct.  In today’s Epistle we heard these words:

Romans 13:11-14:4
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

The imagery of today’s epistle is not that we are moving into darkness, but rather we are putting the darkness behind us.  The darkness is ending and the light is dawning on us.

In Lent we are moving into the Light.  So one of the hymns of Vespers tonight says:

The Lenten Spring shines forth, the flower of repentance!

Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:

Glory to You, O lover of mankind!

We are to awaken from our spiritual hibernation and joyfully embrace the Light of Great Lent who is Jesus Christ.

One image to keep in mind – it is said in dealing with alcoholism and other addiction that the definition of insanity is to do the same things over and over but to expect that one will get a different result.  Nothing changes unless we do something different.  Great Lent is the time to stop the insanity, to stop our addictions and to do things differently:  repent, forgive, pray and love.

Forgive others from your heart and God will forgive you.   Treat people as if you have forgiven them.  Do it not to change them but to change yourself.

This past week in our country we had yet another instance of gun violence in which 17 people died in in one shooting incident.  A  young man with a gun inflicted untold pain on so many families in Parkland, Florida, but really across our nation.

Today is forgiveness Sunday and I want us to think about another story of a young person who lost her life to violence in an event that happened over 100 years ago in Italy.

Maria Goretti, an 11 year old Italian girl who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old, and her mother and siblings lived in poverty, sharing a house with another family.  On July 5, 1902, Maria was home sewing and watching her younger siblings when the teenage son of the family whom they shared the home with attacked Maria with the intent of raping her.  Maria resisted her assailant and he stabbed her 14 times.  She lived about 24 hours after the assault and before she died she forgave her attacker who because he was a teenager was spared the death sentence and instead was sentenced to 30 years in prison.   While in prison, her assailant had a vision of Maria who came to him to say she had forgiven him.  She handed him a bunch of lilies but as soon as he took them in his hand they wilted and died.  He repented of his sin against Maria and when after 30 years  he was released from prison he became a lay monk and even attended the service in which Maria was declared to be a saint.

We are to forgive those who trespass against us – we forgive the sinner, we don’t forgive the trespass, for we cannot always undo the trespass.  Maria forgave her assailant but not what he did to her, for in the end he murdered her.

Maria understood the words of today’s Gospel that we are to forgive.  Maybe you feel someone you know has offended you and you can’t forgive them, maybe they even stabbed you 14 times by their deeds and comments.  Eleven year old Maria Goretti shows us it is possible to forgive such a person.

Our sojourn begins with forgiveness.