Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)


Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

To Know God is More Than Just to Think About God

He presented Himself to them living (Acts 1:3).

With these words, Luke is telling us that the fullness of time has come (Gal 4.4), that God’s promises have been fulfilled. Christ had to suffer, rise from the dead, ascend into the heavens, and resume His place at the right hand of the Father, in order to ensure the promise of their salvation; so that their deepest desires would not remain unfulfilled.

Thus Christ presented himself living in order to show his disciples that, if there was any point to their existence, it was precisely the vision of God: in seeing the living Christ. True communication with God is not simply thinking about God; neither is it a loving disposition toward Him. Instead, it is perfect knowledge of Him, a ‘grasping’ of God in the sense of taking possession of Him, making Him your own, having an experience of God as living. And that God is living means that I stand in relation to him as to life itself, a relationship in which the two of us – two lives, two activities, two persons – live and move together, in a process of mutual giving and receiving.

By saying that He presented Himself living, Luke is telling us that the aim of life is the vision of God: to see and enjoy the living God. Thus if I am unable to see God, or lay hold of Him, or win Him over; if I am unable to love God truly, with a love that is a true dynamic embrace, then God for me is not a living God: He is a dead God. And Luke’s words are consequently a testimony to the resurrection. In Christ, God became man, suffered, was buried, and rose from the grave – without ever ceasing to be the Son and Word of God – so that man might share in His divinity and thereby partake fully of true life.”

(Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 167-168)


The Ladder of Divine Ascent

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  (Genesis 28:12)

“Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The Ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”   (St. Isaac the Syrian, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 71)

The counter intuitive insight of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition is that to find one’s way to God’s Kingdom, one does not  look outside of one’s self – one doesn’t look to the heavens, but rather one has to learn how to go inward, into one’s heart and mind for there is where God has placed the way to Heaven.   God is not out there somewhere – distant, remote, transcendent – God is found within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within  you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (Isaiah 57:15)

The Sin of Envy

“The Christian concept of envy is twofold. It is the resentment experienced by one person when another person is perceived to have some good that he or she lacks, coupled with the strong desire that the other person be deprived of it.

Rather like vultures and flies, which gravitate toward stenches and festering sores, envious persons glory in the faults and failings of others, relishing the opportunity to broadcast such misdeeds to tarnish reputations.

Thus the healing of the illness of envy requires re-educating the mind as to what constitutes true good (i.e., virtue) and redirecting our fundamental, ambitious impulse away from the noxiousness of envy to this healthy end.”

(St. Basil the Great, On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 122, 129, 126)

Being a Disciple

The Lord said: “Go and teach all nations.” The Church is concerned with individual souls but she also is concerned with whole nations and peoples. In the formation of cultures and civilizations, the Church has a prophetic word of witness she wants heard. She presents the transcendent in its own eucharistic reality and her paschal message of the Resurrection makes her more than relevant, for she is beyond every age. The Church proclaims that Christ has come to raise the dead who are sleeping and to awaken the living.

Every people appropriates to itself a historic mission, and in constructing itself sooner or later encounters the plan of God. The parable of the talents speaks of this normative plan proposed by God for the freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom and creativity. It demands all the maturity of an adult and requires infinitely more of ascetic discipline, of freely accepted constraint and of risk than any ethics of the Law. 

(Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p. 206)

The Power of the Gospel

“The Church Fathers, such as Saint Athanasios, the Cappadocians, Saint John Chrysostom, and others had a distinct vision of the power of the apostolic kerygma. Time and again they reflect on the miraculous success of the apostles, with their simple words about the crucified and risen Lord. Not logic and philosophy, but the fishermen’s message, so the Fathers were convinced, saved souls. The truth of the apostolic message was guaranteed by the authority of God and became effective through the power of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual power was in the apostolic message, not in human words of eloquence or wisdom. According to Saint Basil, the message of the Gospel carries the power to overcome souls and arouse them by grace to an unshaken faith in Christ.

The efficacy of the Gospel can be experienced in our midst today when we concentrate on the nature of the Gospel, its blessings, demands, and promises. By way of explication, let us look at several major features of the Gospel. First, priority must be given to the content of the Gospel, i.e., the saving work of Christ, which is the basis of our reconciliation with God, the forgiveness of sins, and new life. The life, teachings, and person of Christ must frequently be proclaimed in simple language as the source of our salvation. Christ must be preached without apology as our crucified and risen Lord–the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Light of the world. The heart of the Gospel is Christ Himself, Who dwells in the church and with Whom each Christian is united by faith and sacrament. The primary aim of preaching, according to Saint Basil, is precisely to bring all people under the dominion of Christ within the Church and there to continue to build up their lives in their struggle against evil. Therefore, at every opportunity, whether in worship, preaching, the classroom, group meetings, or church assembly Christ and his work can in suitable ways be “publicly portrayed” (Gal. 3.1) as the ground of salvation. The essential Gospel must not be displaced by advice for better living, noble, moral teachings or even profound theological wisdom–despite the fact that all of these matters have value in their proper place.”

(Theodore Stylianopoulos, The Gospel of Christ, pp. 14-15)

Confess Your Sins so that You May Be Healed

“Confession extends the healing of baptism to the realities of sinful life after baptism. ‘Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects‘  (James 5:16).  Accountability to the other, and ultimately to the Other, is a healing act of humility, a necessary and often painful condition for real change and repentance. When one bares one’s soul to at least one other person then real accountability and potential for change can occur.”  

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 243)

In confessing our sins to another, we come to experience our human life as being truly social – we are members one of another.  “Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another”  (Ephesians 4:25).  Confession is teaching our self to put away falsehood – lies, pretension, pretending, covering up, deception, self-deception, hypocrisy, acting for show – so that we speak the truth about our self not only to our self but to those we are supposed to love.  In confessing to another, we get outside of the confines of the self, and experience our organic unity with the rest of humanity.  We realize we share a human nature not only with the sinful Adam but also with the Christ.

Every human is part of a bouquet – there is beauty in each of us, and yet when arranged with others, the glorious result is even more stunning and profound.  The individual beauty of each flower is highlighted and intensified by being in and with all of the other flowers, leaves, stems and greenery of the arrangement.

Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

 The cross of Christ is central to our spiritual lives and to the glory we will obtain from God.

Taking up the cross to follow Christ is essential to our discipleship.  We cannot be Christians unless we do what Christ commanded:  Take up our cross and follow Him.

This week as you fast, pray and prepare yourself to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, focus on the cross bearing we are called to do.

It is not easy to follow Christ – every day in the most mundane and simple ways we see how hard it is to do the right thing.  We struggle with patience, sloth, forgetfulness, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, being thankful, not getting our way, with disappointment, with having to share the world with others.   And all of that can occur just in the morning before we go to church!

We must die with Christ in order to live with Him.  As St. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.   (Romans 6:3-8)

But we do have to die with Him if we want to live with Him. This dying to self is hard because we so want to get our way always.

To be a Christian is to live for the kingdom of God, which means denying ourselves in this world.  We are not Christians in order to become more prosperous in this world, for as Christians we claim citizenship in God’s Kingdom.  We may experience blessings in this world, but we aren’t to live for them, but must live with a willingness to give up the things of this world for life in the world to come.  We receive blessings from God so that we might share those blessings with others.

There is an account in the lives of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska of an event that happened in 1796.  There was a certain Aleut Indian chief who was notorious for his bad behavior – drunkenness, fighting, stealing, rape and adultery.  His villagers sought out an Orthodox missionary to try to convert their chief to Christianity as they wanted to improve his behavior.  The missionary priest came to the village and saw the evil going on and did his best to present the Gospel to all the people in the village.  Surprisingly the chief demanded to be baptized at once, threatening harm to the priest if he refused. The priest reluctantly baptized him.   The chief however did not undergo any conversion and continued his evil ways.  The villagers were furious at the priest for having failed them.  They told the missionary priest: “You lied to us.  You told us that if we or the chief converted to Christianity that we would be better people.  Our chief was baptized and is as bad as ever.”  In a rage they took the priest and killed him on the spot.  This is the story of St. Juvenaly, whose icon we have in our church.

My point in telling you this story is that those Aleuts only thought of Christianity as making their life on earth better.  They wanted to improve their material lot in life.  They did not accept the Gospel as a call to set aright their own lives with God, nor did they intend to follow Christ in suffering for truth and righteousness.  They in fact rejected the Gospel and in bitter disappointment became murderers.  They were not able to see beyond life in this world.

We follow Christ not for material gain in this world but in order to give our life to Him.

What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their life?  (Mark 8:36)

In the Service for Receiving Converts into the Faith, one of the petitions we say in the litany for the new convert is this:

That grace may be given to him/her through anointing with the all-holy Chrism, so that boldly, without fear and unashamed, he/she may confess before all people the Name of Christ our God, and that he/she may be always ready for Christ’s sake to lovingly suffer and to die, let us pray to the Lord.

Yes, as Christians we commit ourselves to always be ready to lovingly suffer and die for Christ!

To follow Christ is to take a new look at the questions: “What does it mean to be successful?”   and   How do I measure success?

For Christians success can only be measured in terms of whether or not we are following Christ.

In the Gospel lesson today, we could paraphrase Jesus as saying: “If any wants to be my disciple  and enter into eternal life, then say no to your self, say no to your desires, say no to your self interest, say no to your self preservation.”

We live in a country full of over weight people, people with porn addictions, binge drinkers, and drug addiction partly because we refuse ever to say no to our selves.  We confusedly think abundance means over indulgence is blessed.  Great Lent says precisely because there is such abundance we need to learn self control and how to say no to all that abundance which surrounds us so that we don’t literally become buried in over indulgence.

You want to be a Christian?  Then take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Christ.  Great Lent is given to you and me as a gift – an opportunity for us to seriously and literally fulfill the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.


The Icon of the Crucifixion

“The icon encourages us to reflect on this climax to our Lord’s earthly life; his work has been accomplished, and he commends himself to the Father. The following verses come to mind: ‘I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work that thou gavest me to do’ (John 17:4); ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30); ‘Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46). And these verses from the letter to the Hebrews seem equally appropriate: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:1-2); ‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, bearing abuse for him. For here we have no abiding city, but we seek the city which is to come’ (Hebrews 13:12-14).

The following extract from St. Theodore the Studite’s On the Adoration of the Cross shows how the victorious nature of Christ’s death on the Cross was interpreted by a great teacher of Orthodox theology (759-826):

How precious is the gift of the cross! See, how beautiful it is to behold!…It is a tree which brings forth life, not death. It is the source of light, not darkness. It offers you a home in Eden. It does not cast you out. It is the tree which Christ mounted as a king his chariot, and so destroyed the devil, the lord of death, and rescued the human race from slavery to the tyrant. It is the tree on which the Lord, like a great warrior with his hands and feet and his divine side pierced in battle, healed the wounds of our sins, healed our nature that had been wounded by the evil serpent. Of old we were poisoned by a tree;  now we have found immortality through a tree.

…By the cross death was killed and Adam restored to life. In the cross every apostle has gloried; by it every martyr has been crowned and every saint made holy. We have put on the cross of Christ, and laid aside the old man. Through the cross we have joined Christ’s flock, and are granted a place in the sheepfold of heaven.”

(John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, pp. 108-109)