The Necessity for a Suffering Servant

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:26-27; see also Luke 24:46 and Acts 3:18, 17:3, 26:23)

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Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men— so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

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Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand… (Isaiah 52:13-53:10)

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Though the prophets had said that the Lord’s Servant would have to suffer and would be a man of sorrows, one of the heartbreaking moments of the Gospels is when . . . “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)  That Jesus experienced the terrifying prospect as a human being abandoned by His Father, cuts us to the heart.  Orthodox scholar Daniel Fanous offers these thoughts:

“Why has Jesus been abandoned by the Father?  And, how would it be possible for such an abandonment to take place?

The first question looks back to the beginning of humanity.  Man from the time of Adam fell, and with him the entire creation.  Followed to its finality, to its ultimate end, sin ‘when it is finished’ leaves man in a state of separation from God – in a word, abandoned. As the esteemed Cyril of Alexandria put it: ‘We had become accursed through Adam’s transgression and had fallen into the trap of death, abandoned by God.’ Clearly, it should be noted, the abandonment rests upon the sin of man and not the neglect of God.  For it was man that took those tragic and catastrophic steps away from God, the result of which is abandonment.  But man though abandoned, was not forgotten.”  (TAUGHT BY GOD, p 230)

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Our death, mortality, is presented in Scripture as resulting from our abandoning God.  In death we experience this separation as the terrifying prospect that God has abandoned us.  Even the Son of God incarnate as a human experiences this at His death.  Christ however does it to undo the separation and to reconcile all of humanity to God.  Christ not only empties Himself to become a human, but in his humanity, he experiences the depth of the separation from God that we all feel.  Christ gives up everything for our salvation including Himself.   Jesus Christ … “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” (Philippians 2:6-7).

 “And there is no clearer portrait of God than the crucified Christ, who has voluntarily surrendered everything for us.  The cross—the limitless self-giving voluntary co-suffering that it represents, the extent of love and mercy that it conveys—reveals to us what it is to be God.  Some theologians say that God is ‘cross-shaped.’  (Peter Bouteneff, HOW TO BE A SINNER, pp 133-134)

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Despite feeling abandoned by His Father, Christ still in love prays for those who were intentionally trying to separate Him from God – His religious opponents because they didn’t believe He was from God or that God wanted Him.  So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” (Matthew 27:41-43)  St Irenaeus of Lyons writes:

“Now, by the fact that the Lord said on the cross, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), Christ’s long-suffering, patience, compassion, and goodness are shown forth, inasmuch as He Himself who suffered also excused those who had treated Him wickedly.  For the Word of God who told us, love your enemies and pray for those who hate you (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-28), did just that on the cross, loving the human race so much that He prayed even for those who put Him to death.”  (AGAINST THE HERESIES Book 3, p 90)

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Because of us it was necessary for Christ to suffer and die.  Because of us Christ chooses to suffer and die so that we might know the love of God for us.

Exodus: The Story of Israel’s Baptism

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I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

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Roman Catholic scholar Jean Danielou shows us that the Fathers of the Church followed St Paul by interpreting the Exodus narrative to be about baptism rather than mostly about history.  This is consistent with their thinking that the Old Testament is ultimately about Christ and the Church.

St Basil: ‘What concerns the Exodus of Israel is told us in order to signify those who are saved by Baptism.  .  .  .  The sea is the figure of Baptism, since it delivered the people from Pharoah, as Baptism… from the tyranny of the devil.  The sea killed the enemy; so in Baptism, our enmity to God is destroyed.  The people came out of the sea whole and safe; we also come out of the water as living men from among the dead’ … We should note the last phrase in which the comparison is made with the Resurrection of Christ.  Elsewhere Basil writes: ‘If Israel had not crossed the sea, they would not have escaped from Pharoah; so you, if you do not go through the water, you will not escape from the cruel tyranny of the demon.

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[One thing which to me leaps off the page in Basil’s quote is “The sea killed the enemy; so in Baptism, our enmity to God is destroyed.”  The sea killed the enemy (Pharoah and the Egyptian army).  And then we might expect Basil to say so in baptism Satan or our sins (our enemies) are destroyed.  But instead St Basil says “our enmity with God is destroyed.”  That seems jarring to me.  The consequence of sin – our separation from God (i.e., death) – is the real enemy, even more so than sin itself.  “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).  But it is consistent with Christ’s thought that the evil we humans do comes from our hearts, not from Satan (see Mark 7:17-23; see also Genesis 6:5, 8:21).  Christ says nothing entering the heart can defile it (even Satan!), but what comes from our hearts are the things we choose.   What comes out of the heart shows either our love for God or our enmity with God.  We have made God our enemy by choosing sin, yet God is reconciling us to Himself, doing away with our enmity! This is why Great Lent is not mostly about what we eat, but about what is in our hearts.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)]

We find the same idea in Gregory of Nyssa: ‘The crossing of the Red Sea was, according to St Paul himself, a prophecy in action… of the sacrament of Baptism.  And in fact, now once again, when the people approach the water of rebirth as they flee from Egypt, which is sin, they themselves are freed and saved, but the devil and his aids, the spirits of wickedness are destroyed.’

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.  .  .  The interpretations of the Fathers, therefore, rest on a solid Biblical foundation.  Origen is the first to make this interpretation precise.  In commenting on the narrative of the exodus, in his Homilies on the Exodus, he recalls the interpretation of St Paul and adds: ‘See how the tradition of Paul differs from the historic reading.  That which the Jews consider to be the crossing of the Sea, St Paul calls Baptism.  That which they believe to be a cloud, St Paul proves to be the Holy Spirit.  And he wishes this passage to be interpreted in the same sense as the precept of the Lord, saying: If any man is not reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.’… We see here how the union of the water and the Spirit, prefigured by the dove and by the water in the Deluge and the Creation, is here represented by the union of the Cloud and of the Sea.”  (THE BIBLE AND THE LITURGY, pp 90-91)

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The Church Fathers were not reading Exodus or the Old Testament in order to learn the history of the Jews.  Rather, they were reading it to see Christ.  Origen notes that already in the New Testament, in St Paul we see them looking beyond any literal or historic reading of the text (which in the Patristic mind was the Jewish reading which led to them rejecting Christ).  St Paul clearly embraces Christ’s own teaching for the Lord Jesus taught:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”  (John 5:39-47; see also Luke 24:25-44).

Blessed by God, or By the Things from God?

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Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. And the LORD said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and from on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.” 

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So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.  (Job 2:1-10)

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St John Chrysostom expresses the astonishing conclusion that the Scriptures present Job as a man blessed by God, which is true at the end of Job’s book, but his tragedies, including the death of all his children are hard to see in a framework of blessedness.  [Hopefully none of us would be willing to accept the death of our children as long as we end up being billionaires with replacement children!]  Job is given more children at the end of the book, yet they can’t replace the ones who died earlier nor can they take away the pain and grief caused by his children’s death.  Chrysostom says:

“For even the blessed Job, while sitting on the dunghill and running with blood from his wounds, teeming with countless floods of insects, suffering those deadly trials, spat upon by servants, by friends and by enemies, object of his wife’s schemes, and reduced to poverty, hunger and that deadly illness, was nevertheless more blessed than anyone.  How so?  Because God himself blessed him in the words, ‘You are a person blameless, righteous, trustworthy, pious, innocent of every wicked enterprise’ (Job 1:1).”   (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 90)

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Chrysostom values God’s words more than all the possessions on earth.  Chrysostom does not ignore or downplay the tragic suffering of Job, and rather summarizes it in its brutality.  Yet, God pronounced Job blessed from the beginning of the book, and so Job is blessed both when he is wealthy and prospering and when he is destitute, without any worldly comforts.  ‘Things’ as such are not the real blessing – God’s own presence is.  Sadly, too often we value things more than God.

Job is blessed when celebrating prosperity with friends and family, and he is blessed when alone wallowing in his miserable, impoverished tragedy.  Why?  Because he was in God’s presence.  God does not require luxury, wealth, power, or prosperity as a prerequisite for His choosing to be present with us.  Just think about Christ’s birth in a cave for animals.  God’s pronouncement is eternally more significant than the all the possessions Job owned because the possessions are temporary and passing away. As the adage says, when you die you can’t take them with you.  But the blessing from God is eternal and awaits us beyond death as well.

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Biblical scholar Frances Young makes a similar kind of comment:

 “Pondering the book of Job, that intense debate about God’s goodness within the Bible, I began to discern that the answer to Job’s questioning was simply the fact that he found himself in God’s presence.  In God’s presence all the questions fade away, as you realize the immensity of the infinite, divine reality with which you are confronted.”  (BROKENNESS & BLESSING, pp 50-51)

Job Blessing God Blessing Job

Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were plowing and the asses feeding beside them; and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

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While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chaldeans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

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Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.  (Job 1:13-22)

A Fifth Century Syrian monk whom we now call Pseudo-Macarius (his writings were falsely attributed to 4th Century St Macarius of Egypt) writes about Job:

“If you want to learn from the lives of the saints what complete dedication to the love of the Lord means and from Holy Scripture inspired by God, look at Job.  How he gave up all he possessed, so to speak: children, wealth, livestock, servants, and everything else that he had, stripping himself completely to escape and save himself.  He even gave up his very clothing, throwing it at Satan; yet all the time he never blasphemed in word, neither in his heart nor with his lips before the Lord.  But on the contrary he blessed the Lord saying: ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away.  As it has pleased the Lord, so be it.  Blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21).  Although it was true that he had many possessions, but, tested by the Lord, he showed that God alone was his possession.”   (Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, p 70)

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The point being made is that Job loved God more than he loved all the blessings from God. Job valued the Giver-of-gifts more than the gifts themselves.  He was willing to give up all his blessings (even though his ‘giving’ was involuntary – in reality everything was taken from him) in order to hold on to God. Sometimes we might choose to give up something of value, and we feel good about the choice.  However, if the item gets taken from us (even if by the same people we would have chosen to give it to), we resent it.  Job shows no resentment for having everything taken from him.  He holds steadfastly to God.  Job really does demonstrate Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:24:  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Job does not remain faithful to God only as long as God makes him prosper.  This is the very point God was proving to Satan (Job 1:8; 2:3) – Job’s love and faithfulness to God is not dependent on Job’s prosperity or being protected by God.  Job loves God.

8400053099_c0aac0c849_wWe can contrast Job to the rich young man of the Gospel who walked away from Christ because he loved his possessions more than anything else – he could not imagine that the way to love God was to give away in charity all the blessings God had given him (Matthew 19:16-22).  He obviously did not remember the story of Job.  And this is because the rich young man actually loved his possessions (God’s gifts) more than he loved God (the Giver of the gifts).   He was not willing to give up the gifts in order to be with God (Remember his original question to Jesus was what would he have to do to be with God for eternity.  When he hears the answer he walks away as he preferred to keep the gifts and jilt the Giver of the gifts).  During Holy Week, we are given opportunity to think about what our priorities are – What do we love above all – what do we consider our most valuable possession?  Our relationship to God?  What are we willing to part with in order to please and serve God?  Do we believe God gives us blessings so that we can give them to others in need?   Great Lent is to be a season of charity – not just giving up food, but giving gifts to those who could never repay us.  And we do this because Lent is trying to get us to live the values of the Kingdom of God – to do what the rich young man refused to do.  Do we know what values Christ has taught us concerning the poor and needy, His brothers and sisters?   If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:17).

Job: Righteousness Apart from the Law

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil. . . .  Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.  And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and from on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.”  Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!”  And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.  (Job 1:1, 6-12)

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St John Chrysostom comments on the story of Job that God sometimes ‘delays’ acting on a situation so that people can see that divine intervention was both needed and actually happened – otherwise they might conclude that what happened was inevitable and coincidental rather than divine intervention.  In the case of Job, his wife, friends, and enemies join in piling on Job, declaring his problems are a result of his own sins and that Job should feel the burden of causing his own problems.  They kick Job while he is down, laying all the blame on Job himself.  The reader of the story knows Job really is righteous and faultless, but those around him are quick to judge him and perhaps even rejoice in his misfortune.  Chrysostom comments:

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“You see, just as God left Lazarus dead for four days in case his being raised would not be believed, so too he allowed this long time, both to demonstrate his patience and also to confirm the marvel of the transformation.  People who saw him in his condition, and who mocked him, on seeing him later transformed were thus not inclined to disbelieve that it was he.  And just as on the other occasion the people who said in the case of Lazarus, ‘There is already a stench’ (John 11:39), were taught the truth by the facts, so too in this case.

23977733249_1d881d6e9b_w[Chrysostom recognizes how unfair the judgment and comments of Job’s friends really are.  And he recognizes how unfair life is to Job.  Chrysostom however seems to think that time itself is needed for healing and salvation to manifest themselves.  The good news that Chrysostom sees comes after enough time has passed.  Everyone thought God had deservedly judged Job harshly, but at the end of the story we see God blessing Job and realize the suffering of Job was neither Job’s fault nor God’s plan.  In Chrysostom’s mind the brief period of Job’s intense suffering, nor does it compare to the love of God which Job experienced in life as well as eternally in God’s Kingdom.  Job’s misery is temporary, God’s love is eternal.  “Behold, we call those happy who were steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful‘ (James 5:11).  Still, being creatures who live in time, even temporary suffering can seem eternal and unfair and it is hard for us to understand how suffering is the purpose of the Lord or how we are to consider God compassionate and merciful when we suffer or when He allows us to suffer as He did Job.]

Do you see how everywhere God shows his providence for human beings?  When the Jews were in Egypt, and the country itself was without models of behavior, they had Job’s story.  Observe him, for example, in riches and in poverty, a model in both cases, neither conceited in one case nor depressed in the other, in pursuit of virtue before the Law as after the Law; Scripture says, remember, ‘The Law is not given for the righteous’ (1 Timothy 1:9).  Observe the luster of the thoughts that came to him from nature.  Whence came his knowledge of God?  Whence his worship likewise?  Whence his avoidance of error?  Whence the evidence he gave of an evangelical lifestyle?  Whence such marvelous patience?  He had no one from whom to learn.  How did he become like this?  Who taught him, who instructed him?  Do you see that Christ came as a teacher of nothing that was new and unprecedented?  (COMMENTARY ON THE SAGES, pp 14-15)

47180953642_1d64a4be0a_w[Chrysostom recognizes that though we as God’s people do suffer in this world, suffering belongs only to the fallen world, and it is of limited duration (not eternal, even though we often feel suffering seems to go on forever.  Certainly the Psalmist frequently laments, “How long, O Lord?“).  God reveals Himself over the long haul, and we need the patience to remember that.  Time can seem to move torturously slowly, yet God who exists outside of time, loves us and continues to move us towards salvation.  And Job’s story is really the same as the story of Israel enslaved in Egypt: suffering lasts for a time (even hundreds of years!) but it is not eternal, and God is working out His plan for eternity.  We will one day catch up with God’s plan.  Job prefigures Christ because Christ too was judged by the people as being rejected by God as He hung on the cross (see Matthew 27:42-43).  Yet, in the end it is Christ who rises victorious and we see God’s love for His Son.

A footnote to Chrysostom’s text notes that in Chrysostom’s mind, there are two major periods of history: the period of the Law (Torah) and the period of grace (Gospel).  But Job exists before the Torah.  This explains Chrysostom’s question: from whom did Job learn his morality since Torah did not yet exist?  Chrysostom marvels that Job was not taught by Torah or in the Temple, yet was righteous. Job prefigures righteousness apart from the Law and the Temple, therefore He is a sign of the Christ.  For the Jews who found righteousness apart from the Law impossible, Chrysostom points to Job and says in your own scriptures we see righteousness apart from the Law, so how can you doubt Christ?  Even before Torah there was a knowledge of morality.  Even without Torah Job is declared righteous.   If Christ represents a righteousness apart from the Law, it is nothing new or unexpected for we already see this in Job.  Job prefigures Christ and is thus both a prophet and herald of Christ, which is why we read his book during Holy Week.]

Palm Sunday: Children vs Adults?

Today we celebrate one of the Twelve Major Feasts in the Orthodox calendar:  Palm Sunday.

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Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

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The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on an ass’s colt!” His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. (John 12:1-18)

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A meditation on the meaning of Palm Sunday, the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, which for Orthodox is always linked to Christ’s raising His friend Lazarus from the dead:

“On the eve of His Passion, Jesus clearly demonstrated His power over death, announcing at the same time the universal resurrection by which everyone who is ‘in Christ’ will be raised bodily at the time of the Last Judgment.  Christ is the friend of Lazarus, as He is of all mankind.  Many of the prayers of the Orthodox Church end with the formula: ‘For Thou art good and lovest mankind!’  He weeps over each one of us as He ‘wept’ over Lazarus (Jn 11:35).  His will was to bring him and everyone of us back, not only to an earthly life, but to life in all its fullness, to a spiritual life…  But what the adults are seeking, as they look to earthly possessions, is one who would restore the kingdom of Israel rather than the One who conquers death, the Lord of a kingdom that is not of this world.  On the other hand, the children being singing: ‘Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord…’    (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON, p 152, )

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Quenot in his comments notes how it was the children who welcomed Christ in song, blessing Him that comes in the Lord’s Name.  The Jewish adults on the other hand are looking for a more earthly kingdom with worldly values, hoping Christ is there to lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire (and if He can raise the dead, His army will be invincible for they would die in battle only to rise and fight again).  We might think about how children can so joyfully join a Palm Sunday procession, while for the adults they often have ‘more important things’ on their minds.   Christ will offer the world the conquering of death, but many in the world want death for their enemies and will not even consider the value of destroying death to save all.  We Orthodox sing in one of the hymns from the Feast celebrating eternal life rather than an earthly army which is able to kill forever.

Buried with you be baptism,

O Christ our God,

We have been given eternal life

By your resurrection.

We sing your praise and cry out:

Hosanna in the highest!

Blessed is the one who comes

In the Name of the Lord. 

(Hugh Wybrew, ORTHODOX LENT, HOLY WEEK AND EASTER, p 84)

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Proclaiming the Good News with Great Power

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Christ’s raising His friend Lazarus from the dead is reported only in John 11:1-45. It is a singularly important event as it prefigures Christ’s own resurrection. The Church interprets the event to be important in shoring up the faith of the Twelve Apostles as they struggle through Holy Week with Christ’s own trial and execution. The Blessed Theophylact in his commentary on John’s Gospel (which often is his repeating comments of earlier Fathers) is critical of the faith of Martha, Lazarus’ sister:

“Martha had some faith in Christ, but not full belief in Him as God. Her lament, ‘Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died’, clearly shows that she did not believe that Jesus could have saved her brother, without being present. Her next statement betrays an even greater lack of faith: ‘Whatsoever Thou wilt ask of God, He will give it Thee.’ Martha never thought to say ‘Whatsoever Thou wilt, Thou shalt do.’ She believed Jesus was merely a virtuous man who asked and received favors from God.

[Theophylact as with some other Fathers is critical of Martha as he holds to a piety that Martha should have had a stronger faith at this point in Christ’s life. But none of the apostles really demonstrates such a steadfast faith in Him. Peter will deny Christ, Judas will betray Christ, and Thomas expresses the frustration of not having any idea where Christ is headed and all of the apostles abandon Christ when He is arrested and flee. And remember the Centurion who came to Jesus and said he was unworthy to have Jesus enter his house?  When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith (Matthew 8:10).   Jesus did not find such great in all of Israel, which would have included His men disciples!  On another occasion He rebuked His men disciples saying they were of little faith (Matthew 8:26).  So the disciples are not exactly paragons of faith.

To me, Martha shows a remarkable faith, within her own understanding. She believes if Christ had been present, her brother would not have died – none of the male Apostles expressed such an abiding faith. She has faith in Christ but thinks he needed to be present to heal her brother – a point Theophylact refutes. She actually has quite a strong faith in Him knowing that God the Father will grant whatever He asks. She doesn’t quite yet comprehend that He too is God but then her understanding is not much different than that of the apostles. Theophylact’s criticism of Martha continues, though I think his critique of her is off base and perhaps more represents a medieval misogynist attitude towards her.]

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The Lord does not go along with her limited understanding of Who He is by responding, ‘I will ask God, and He will grant it to Me.’ Instead, He begins to correct her by telling her, ‘Thy brother shall rise again.’ Then He affirms His authority and power more clearly: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Martha still did not comprehend, and misinterpreted Jesus’ momentous declaration, ‘Thy brother shall rise again.’ She thinks the Lord is telling her that Lazarus will rise at the common resurrection. Martha had some knowledge of this from the divine Scriptures, and especially because Christ often taught about it. Because she was still thinking in human terms, the Lord now directs her thoughts upwards and awakens her nearly dormant faith. ‘You say that whatever I will ask of God, He will give Me. But I tell you plainly: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ My power is not confined to one location; I can heal a man whether or not I am physically in his presence. I – and no other – am the Giver of every good thing. Because I am the resurrection and the Life, I also have power to raise the dead and give them life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead physically, yet shall he live.” (THE EXPLANATION OF THE HOLY GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN, p 181)

Christ speaks plainly to Martha about His being ‘the resurrection and the life’ but because Christ was not yet raised from the dead, the ‘resurrection’ was not fully understood by any of the people following Christ. They heard Him speak about it, but it was still an event in their future, so they didn’t know exactly what He meant. They were hearing a prophecy about the resurrection, but most biblical prophecies are also enigmas and not immediately comprehended by those who hear it.  However, Theophylact does rightfully showcase the power in Christ’s words – Jesus doesn’t need to be present with the sick to heal them, as he demonstrated on a couple of occasions – his words could heal even at a distance.

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Metropolitan Kallistos Ware focuses quite positively on the power in Christ’s own words. He raises Lazarus with three short words. Metropolitan Kallistos then talks about how words for all of us if spoken carefully, wisely, and with faith can also be words of power. He points to the spiritual gift which some starets have to see into a person’s life or soul.

“With this gift of insight there goes the ability to use words with power. As each person comes before him, the starets or geronta knows immediately and specifically what it is that this particular individual needs to hear. Today, by virtue of computers and photocopying machines, we are inundated with words as never before in human history; but alas! For the most part these are conspicuously not words uttered with power. The starets, on the other hand, uses few words, and sometimes none at all; but, by these few words or by his silence, he is often able to alter the entire direction of another’s life. At Bethany Christ used three words only: ‘Lazarus, come out’ (Jn 11:43); and yet these three words, spoken with power, were sufficient to bring the dead back to life. In an age when language has been shamefully trivialized, it is vital to rediscover the power of the word; and this means rediscovering the nature of silence, not just as a pause in the midst of our talk, but as one of the primary realities of existence.” (THE INNER KINGDOM, pp 135-136)

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And today with the Internet, political pundits, social media, QAnon, conspiracy theories, politicians who can’t tell the truth or can’t tell the difference between a truth and a lie, words are emptied of their power. As Proverbs 10:19 says: When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.  Lazarus Saturday may also be a good reminder not to fill the air and our minds with endless chatter and nonsense.  Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:2). Turn off all your electronic devices and listen for God in the silence. Go to church early before any service, stand or sit in the silence and contemplate the icons – a better way to fill your heart and mind. Elijah heard God not in the roaring wind or the earthquake or in the raging fire, but in the still, small voice (1 Kings 19:11-19).  You are unlikely to hear God in the passionate raging and roaring political disputes of our time.  Seek God and His Kingdom.

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Christ’s words to Lazarus were His ‘proclaiming the glad tidings with great power‘ (as we pray that the deacon will do just before he proclaims the Gospel in the Liturgy).

Oh!, Brother

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When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. “Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)

4587918704_6f8610de8e_wJoseph’s brothers have plenty to fear from Joseph. They abused him and misused him by selling him, their brother, into slavery and then lied to cover up their misdeeds. Now, their father, Jacob, is dead and they are feeling very vulnerable – no one to protect them from Joseph. Their reaction and fear is very human, but Joseph has not chosen to harm them as they did him. He is treating them as he would want to be treated by them – as a brother, a family member. His life is completely changed from the days of being the younger brother among Jacob’s first 11 sons. Now he is a ruler in Egypt and they are subject to him. Still, Joseph has a view about what God is doing that governs his thinking, in a way that his brothers do not. They are still not accepting that somehow God was guiding everything, since they know they did and intended to do evil. So their problem is coming to terms with how God’s plan could take into into account their evil actions and evil intentions.

49424616331_8cf66bdded_wJoseph’s reaction upon learning his brothers’ fear of him is to weep, as Jesus did when he came to His friend Lazarus’ tomb. Joseph is heartbroken for his brothers still do not consider him one of them! They see him as a stranger despite all Joseph has done for them and their families. Note too, that the brothers are passive aggressive about talking to Joseph. They don’t approach him as a brother with their concerns but tell Joseph that their father commanded Joseph to forgive them, as if Joseph needed to be ordered by his father to do this.  They still don’t appeal to brotherhood with Joseph because they still don’t accept him as such.  Additionally, they are putting words into their father’s mouth, because Jacob could have talked to Joseph directly about this. But the brothers clearly do not see Joseph as their brother, even if he is their father’s son. All of this is incredibly painful to Joseph, and so understandably he weeps for once again his brothers have treated him as not part the family. His brothers treat him not just as a stranger but as a potential enemy and they are xenophobic.  They made Joseph into an enemy, that was never Joseph’s intention or choice.  Joseph is just cut to the heart. He may be doing God’s plan, which he clearly believes, but he has to do it without the support of his brothers.  Even worse, he realizes they still don’t see him as their brother.  They also seem to lack a sense of God’s own mercy, and that human godliness means mercy as well.  Even with all that has happened, the brothers still aren’t looking for reconciliation with Joseph as they apparently fear his heart is as dark and perverse as their own.

Below are thoughts about family, brothers and sisters, from St Maximos, St John Chrysostom and St Matthew the Evangelist. You can put in brothers or sisters or both wherever the word “brother” occurs in these quotes.  Maximos is first:

“If you wish not to fall away from the love of God, do not let your brother go to bed feeling irritated with you, and do not go to bed yourself feeling irritated with him. Reconcile yourself with your brother, and then come to Christ with a clear conscience and offer Him your gift of love in earnest prayer (cf Matt 5:24).” (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 2, p 58)

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Now Chrysostom’s comment:

“This do with regard to your brethren; when you see them cut off from your friendship, make all haste to recover them! Do not wait for them to make the first advance, but press onward, that you may be foremost to receive the prize. We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him be you never reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart. And if there should be any narrowness of soul, let it be only an ephemeral thing, and never last beyond a day’s space. For, ‘let not the sun,’ He says, ‘go down upon your anger’ (Eph 4;26). (“Preparation for the Great Lent”, OLOGOS PUBLICATION, p 7)

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The Evangelist Matthew quotes Jesus as saying:

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  (Matthew 5:22-24)

The Deceptive Sparkle of Wine

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Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaints? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?  Those who linger long at the wine, those who go in search of mixed wine.  Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it swirls around smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart will utter perverse things. Yes, you will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, or like one who lies at the top of the mast, saying: “They have struck me, but I was not hurt; they have beaten me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake, that I may seek another drink?”  Do not be envious of evil men, nor desire to be with them; For their heart devises violence, and their lips talk of troublemaking.  (Proverbs 23:29-24:2)

45895102484_b51b686095_wSt Basil the Great speaking as bishop – shepherd of Christ’s flock – concerned about the salvation of his parishioners, offers some pastoral thoughts about the place of alcohol and drunkenness in our spiritual lives.  Basil recognizes the potential goodness of wine as a gift from God for our enjoyment and health, but also how it is readily abused by some people.  While he speaks about ‘wine’, we can substitute the word alcohol for wine, as the points he is making covers any alcohol, drug or substance which causes us to lose control of our behavior.  Basil says:

Wine has caused us the loss of these souls; though wine is the gift God gave to the sober as a comfort for infirmity it has now become an instrument of licentiousness for the lascivious.

Drunkenness is the demon of our own choosing, entering souls through pleasure.  Drunkenness is the mother of wickedness, the antithesis of virtue.  It turns the brave man into a coward, the chaste man into a lecher.  Righteousness it knows not; prudence it destroys.  For as water counters fire, so too does an excessive amount of wine extinguish rationality.  And so, I was reluctant to say something against drunkenness, not because it is an insignificant vice or worth overlooking, but because whatever I say would produce no benefit at all.  For the drunkard is out of his mind and in a stupor, whoever rebukes him goes through this rigmarole in vain since he does not hear a thing! . . .  so what I say can be useful for half of you: it can provide a safeguard for those not under the influence, but cannot provide relief and healing for those who have succumbed to the disease.

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[St Basil recognizes the futility to talking to drunks, especially when they are drunk.  The drunkard has given up his mind and rational nature choosing to live in a brutish, irrational way.  The drunkard chooses to give up the very unique thing that makes him/her human – our rational mind.  The drunkard choose to live in an inhuman way.  Thus for Basil, the drunkard deserves no pity, and in any case pity doesn’t help them.  Alcohol has medicinal value for Basil, and when properly used, it can provide some comfort to a wounded heart or mind.  But it is addictive and can take over one’s life.]

How do you differ, O man, from irrational brutes?  Isn’t it by the gift of reason, which you received from the one who created you, that you became the ruler and lord of all creation?  So whoever has deprived himself of his wits through drunkenness is compared to senseless beasts and becomes like them (Ps 49:12).

. . .  Whoever is possessed by a demon is pitiable, but whoever is drunk, even though he suffers the same things, does not deserve our pity because he wrestles with a demon of his own choosing.”  (ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 84-85, 87)

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For St Basil both human reason and wine are gifts from God to us.  We need to use the gift of reason if we are going to make use of the gift of wine.  Both can be used to the glory of God, and both can be abused by sinful humans.  Alcohol, as with many drugs, has the ability to take away the gift of human reason and to reduce us to an irrational, brutish animal.  Basil did not have the modern idea of alcoholism, and so doesn’t hold to an idea that a person might be genetically predisposed to alcoholism.  He may have agreed that drunkenness is related to some kind of disease, but like most ancients he believed drunkenness was something someone chose to engage in and so such folk were not deserving of any pity as their brutish behavior was their own choice.

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The Fast Pleasing to God

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Shout out, do not hold back!

Lift up your voice like a trumpet!

Announce to my people their rebellion,

to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me

and delight to know my ways,

as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness

and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;

they ask of me righteous judgments,

they delight to draw near to God.

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“Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

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?

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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?

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Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your healing shall spring up quickly;

your vindicator 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.

(Isaiah 58:1-11)

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Isaiah’s commentary on fasting is read by the Orthodox at the end of Great Lent, but perhaps would have been a good reading at the beginning to remind us what Lent is about.  Coming at the end of Lent, it gives us a chance to look back over our spiritual effort of the past 40 days and whether we did a spiritual fast or whether we did nothing more than the very things the Prophet Isaiah says God hates.  We come to recognize that fasting in and of itself cannot produce righteousness in us, as we know from St Paul: Train yourself in godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Or as he wrote to the Colossians: Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh (2:20-23).

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St Basil the Great building on the logic of the Prophet Isaiah and on the writings of St Paul says this about fasting:

“Nonetheless, do not define the good derived from fasting only in terms of abstaining from food. For true fasting is being a stranger to vice.  Loose every bond of wickedness (Is 58:6). Let your neighbor grieve you; forgive him his debts.  Do not fast only to quarrel and fight (Is 58:4).  You do not devour meat, but you devour your brother.  You abstain from wine, but you have not mastered your arrogance.  You wait until evening to partake of food, but you spend your day judging others.  Woe to those who are drunk, but not with wine! (Is 51:21)  Anger is a drunken state of the soul because, like wine, it robs the soul of sense.  Sadness, too, is a drunken state because it drowns the mind.  Fear is another drunken state, when things happen that should not happen.  For it says: deliver my soul from fear of the enemy (Ps 64:2).  Generally speaking, since each of the passions disturbs the mind, each can rightly be called a drunken state of the mind.

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Think of the person who rages with anger, how he is drunk with the passions.  He lacks self-composure.  He lacks awareness of both himself and those around him.  As if in some nocturnal battle, he lunges at everyone and trips over everything.  He talks wildly and cannot be restrained.  He rails, he assaults, he menaces, he swears, he shouts, he erupts.  Flee this drunkenness! But neither should you give yourself over to the drunkenness that cones from wine.  Do not anticipate drinking water by drinking wine.  Do not let drunkenness initiate you into the fast.  Drunkenness is not the doorway to fasting.  After all, the doorway to righteousness is not rapaciousness, the doorway to moderation is not licentiousness, and to sum up, the doorway to virtue is not vice.  There is no other way to enter into fasting.  Drunkenness leads to licentiousness, sobriety to fasting.  The athlete prepares by training, the one who fasts by practicing self-control.” (ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 69-70)

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Basil sees outbursts of rage and anger to be just the same as being drunk, both are morally unacceptable.  He sees all the passions as being about the same ask drunkenness.  So for those who see drunkenness as reprehensible, they may feel morally superior because they rarely drink, but Basil would say, if you rage in anger, it is the equivalent of getting drunk.  If you allow your passions to control you – lust, greed, despondency, despair, hatred, etc. – you are really not any different morally than a drunk.

Basil in his final comments also is clearly criticizing those who think the way to prepare for the Great Fast is to engage in Mardi Gras – having a self-indulgent gourmandizing day as a step into Lent.  Basil is as blunt as he can be: drunkenness, overindulgence, and overeating will not lead to fasting but to sin.  And the same is true when the fast is comes to its conclusion.  If we practiced true fasting, the first thing we do at the end of Great Lent will not be to rush into overindulgence: drunkenness or overeating.  If we do engage in over consumption on the day the Fast ends, then we show we never understood the purpose of fasting to begin with.  Going ‘cold turkey’ on alcohol for fasting periods and then resuming over indulgence in non-fasting periods, is a pretty good sign that the person has a serious problem with alcohol.  Moderation in all things and at all times is the spiritual lesson of Great Lent.

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