Three great Orthodox saints and teachers offer thoughts that can help us keep Great Lent.
“Do not consider your riches as belonging to yourselves alone; open wide your hand to those who are in need; assist those in poverty and pain, comfort those who have fallen into extreme distress, console those who are in sorrow or oppressed with bodily maladies and the want of necessities.” (St. Cyril of Alexandria)
“The worst kind of selfishness is not to give transitory things to those who live in poverty. . . . If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift at the same time granting a loan. You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person. You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account. It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but He will pay a great deal on their behalf. They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord’ (Prov. 19:17).” (St. Basil the Great)
“Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing…Every family should have a room where Christ is welcomed in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.” (St. John Chrysostom)
(The Pearl of Great Price: The Wisdom of the Fathers of the Holy Orthodox Church, pp. 58-59)
GOD‑BEARING APOSTLES, CHRIST WHO IS THE VINE BROUGHT YOU FORTH AS CLUSTERS OF GRAPES
GIVING THE WORLD THE NEW WINE OF SALVATION!
THEREFORE, I ENTREAT YOU, DELIVER ME FROM THE DRUNKENNESS OF SENSUAL PLEASURES; GRANT MY SOUL TEARS OF COMPUNCTION ON THIS HOLY DAY OF THE FAST, THAT I MAY GAIN LIFE AND SALVATION!
The hymns above and below are taken from the Triodion from Thursday, 2nd Week of Great Lent. Above, the hymn stays with a theme – vine, grape clusters and wine versus drunkenness which are metaphors for Christ, the apostles and salvation/sacrament versus sensual pleasures. There is a beautiful and natural gift from God to us for our salvation, or we can choose like Adam to use God’s gifts for selfish pleasure rather than for communion with the Creator.
Below the hymn puts forth a theme not overly stressed during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church: repentance isn’t attained only by enumerating our sins in confession. Rather we can apply ourselves to doing good deeds as a sign that we have repented of our self-centeredness.
IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED. ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!
The hymn has very strong words in it: “nothing” does more for our soul than giving charity to the needy! Rather than obsessing over food during Lent, we should be striving to give to those in need. We should spend more time and energy on providing for the needy than merely denying ourselves food. Alms-giving is to be inspired by fasting, but it is the charitable giving not the fasting which deliver us from death for this is true love and obedience to Christ’s commandments. Giving to charity saves our souls by being the sign we really have turned away from spending money on selfish pleasure and wish rather to love the neighbor in need as the Lord teaches us in the Gospel. This is the purpose of Great Lent!
Lenten fasting isn’t achieved by providing gourmet Lenten meals or buying more expensive organic foods. It is rather achieved by spending less time and money on our selves and instead giving that money to the poor. If you are spending more money on groceries during Lent or spending more time preparing meals, you might have missed the point of Lent: Spend time and money on the needy.
If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:17-21)
In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations. Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way. But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition. Righteousness can also be equated with salvation. When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.” They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.
Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also used to mean almsgiving/ charity. Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)]. Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:
“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine. The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth. In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune. He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of your throne.’ The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.
King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18). According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come. The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity. As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘” (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)
The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers. Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.
Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way. Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase. Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness. We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
As we continue our sojourn to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, here are some words from the Old Testament Scriptures for us to consider about how to keep the lenten season. In America we are moving through the season of family gatherings, dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, festal baking, spiked eggnogs and punches. So what should we Orthodox in America be thinking about?
Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8-10)
Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances, and do not keep him waiting for your alms. Help the poor for the commandment’s sake, and in their need do not send them away empty-handed. Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost. Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster; better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear, it will fight for you against the enemy. (Sirach 29:8-13)
And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:15-21)
“We are presupposing a kingdom free from war, which is impossible on earth. […] Brethren, I entreat you, let us not prefer darkness to light, the devil to God, that pleasure which is the servant of death and hell to eternal divine joy. Let us not choose destruction’s abundant possessions, which, as the Lord showed us through the parable of the Rich Man (Luke 16:19), are fuel for the flame which eternally burns those who acquired wealth in an evil way, rather than the love that enriches. Instead, let us live as He did, and as He showed and taught us when He was made man. Let us take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24), having crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24), that we may be glorified together with Him (Rom. 8:17), and rise up with Him, and after our resurrection be taken up to Him, as He was taken up today to the Father.” ( Homilies, pp 182-183)
November 15, 40 days before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we Orthodox begin the Nativity Fast. We find in the Book of Tobit the following wisdom about charity, which is an essential part of any fast, and is much in the spirit of the Christmas season.
“Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing; for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” (Tobit 4:5-11)
“Just as God has reached into the heart of death and pain that is part of the human experience of being alive, and has offered its redemptive transfiguration in love through the Cross of the Lord, so too the church, following in the steps of its Lord, is called to meet human suffering with personal courage and communal philanthropy and alleviate the pains of suffering in whatever way it can: physically, morally, or emotionally. This is why the church’s involvement in the social institutions of mercy (hospital and schools) or suffering (prisons and places of enslavement) is a primary element of its mission. Relieving the suffering caused by natural disasters and chronic disease constitutes a major element of the church’s necessary response: a major way of manifesting among society its belief in the glory of the human being as the radiant image of God.”(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, pp 192-193)
“This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: ‘He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-11)
“It is more blessed to give than to receive. More blessed than the poverty of the receiver is this generosity of the giver, which does not come from money that has been stored up through lack of faith or confidence, and which is not dispensed from the accumulated hoards of avarice, but which is offered from the fruit of one’s own work and from loving toil. And ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ because, although the person who has given may be as poor as the one who receives, he nonetheless strives by his own effort to procure not only a sufficiency for his own needs but also, with loving solicitude, something to give to the needy. In this way he is adorned with a twofold grace, both because he possesses the perfect poverty of Christ through his renunciation of all his goods and because by his labors and his disposition he exhibits the liberality of a rich man. He it is who honors God from his righteous labors and gives to him from the fruits of his righteousness.” ( The Institutes, p 230)
The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.
It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel. (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)
But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter. Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.
In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson. Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for. The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them. The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites. Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.
“Abba Poeman said:
‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”
Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us. But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color. We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away. But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers. And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.
The 4th Century monk Evagrius teaches that doing charity work can calm the mind and rid it of nightmares. Quoting Proverbs he writes:
“If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. And you will not be afraid of alarm coming upon you, nor of approaching attacks of the ungodly (Proverbs 3:24-25):
By this we know that compassion dispels the terrifying visions that befall us at night.
everything that is able to pacify the aroused irascibility, have the same effect, since these visions of terror tend to arise from the provocation of irascibility. […]
[One of these fathers] delivered a certain brother from the disquieting specters by which he was visited in the night by ordering him to minister to the sick and to fast while he did it. When asked about his rationale from employing this procedure, he replied:
‘Such afflictions are extinguished by no other remedy so well as by mercy.’”