Fasting AND …. ? Not By Fasting Alone

…see, at any rate how many blessings spring from both fasting and prayer. For he that is praying as he should, and is fasting as he should has not many wants, and he that has not many wants cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous will be also more disposed for almsgiving. He that fasts is light and prays with wakefulness and quenches his wicked lusts and propitiates God and humbles his soul when lifted up. Therefore even the apostles were not always fasting for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food but in withdrawing from sinful practices.

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works!

By itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility, for example, practiced through obedience in our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation.

Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting, but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading,and through concentrating our heart on, and longing for the kingdom of heaven.”

(St. John Cassian, Philokalia Book One and St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew from Emily Harakas, Through the Year with the Church Fathers, pp. 96 & 97)

 

Human Nature Transfigured Through the Theotokos

When we think about salvation, redemption, atonement, Christianity says all of this activity of God happens in this world, within our history, in and through us human beings.  God’s plan for salvation may come from all eternity and heaven, but it is realized only in time on earth.   The hymns of Great Lent dealing with redemption remind us how our salvation is worked out through the Virgin Theotokos.

Human nature was counted worthy of God’s revelation
through you, Virgin full of divine grace,
for you are the only mediator between God and man,
rightly glorified by us all as the Mother of God!

In choosing the Virgin Mary for the incarnation, God shows His love for the world He created. God shows creation, particularly humans are worthy not only of God’s revelation but of union with God.  Mary is the very sign that God sees in her person as well as in her humanity the creation worth saving and capable of being in union with the Creator.  God sees in Mary exactly what God created humans and the world for: to share in the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Adam’s nature was made divine, Virgin,
when God took flesh without change in your womb!
And we who were deceived of old by the hope of becoming gods
have been set free from the ancient condemnation.

Both of the above hymns are taken from the Canon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent.  God is united to humanity in the womb of the Virgin – Adam’s human nature is made divine in the union with God.  Eve was tricked by the Serpent into thinking she could become like God by disobeying God.  In Christ the hope of our being god-like becomes a reality for in Christ God submits Himself to taking on human nature.  Christ, the incarnate God, conforms humanity to God’s will that we would become divine.

A pain causing lesson: we don’t become divine by asserting our will against God but only by submitting our will to God’s will.

Clinging to the World or to the Wood?

Our Lord Jesus Christ chose His disciples not from the wise, not from the noble, not from the rich or the famous, but from among fishermen and tentmakers and poor and illiterate men. This was to make clear to all that neither poverty, nor lack of learning, nor lowly origins, nor anything else of that sort is an impediment to acquiring virtue and understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of the Spirit. But even the poorest and lowliest and least educated person, if he gives proof of eagerness and an appropriate inclination towards what is good, can not only come to know the divine teaching but also become a teacher himself through God’s grace.

And the things that hinder us from understanding and grasping the meaning of spiritual teachings are our own indifference and the fact that we cling with all our might to the fleeting concerns of this life. As a result, we do not allow space or time for listening and studying and recalling to mind what we have heard, nor do we care about the things which are to come and things eternal.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, “Homily 47,” p. 366)

The Cross as a Weapon of Peace

“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.

When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.

This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.

But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.

(John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 38-39)

Two Different Ways to Make a Sincere Confession

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) says there are two very different but equally acceptable ways to do a sincere and proper confession.  Though the two ways are very different, they both result in the same desired goal: one is humble before God.  Usually, today we think of confession as consisting of enumerating the sins we have committed.  St. Maximos says the other way is to list all the things in our lives for which we are thankful.

 

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

2017 Pre-Lenten Themes as a PDF

32505357554_0572c34ca5_nAll of the 2017 posts from my blog for the Pre-Lenten season are now gathered together into one PDF, for those who prefer to read one document rather than navigate through the blog.  You can find the document at 2017 Pre-Lent Posts.

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Charity: The Lenten Discipline

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)

 

 

 

A Poetic Phrasing of St. Ephrem’s Prayer

Poet Scott Cairns gives us a fresh look at the Prayer of St. Ephrem in his poetic rephrasing of the Great Lenten prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life,

remove from me this languid spirit,

this grim demeanor, this petty

lust for power, and all this empty talk.

endow Thy servant, instead,

with a chaste spirit, a humble

heart, longsuffering gentleness,

and genuine, unselfish love.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant

that I may confront my own offenses,

and remember not to judge my brother.

for You are–always and forever–blessed.

(Love’s Immensity, pp. 17-18)

 

Lenten Images

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.

Being Watchful in Prayer

Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)

In the Great Canon of St. Andrew, chanted in the first week of Great Lent, there are many wonderful spiritual uses and interpretations of the Scriptures.  St. Andrew reminds us to be vigilant in prayer.

“But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”  (Luke 21:36)

Vigilance in prayer, mindfulness in general, are modes of being for the Christian to be able to see God.  It may seem odd to say it, be the invisible God can be seen if you are looking for God when God chooses to reveal Himself to us.  St. Andrew says in his canon:

Be watchful, O my soul, be full of courage like Jacob the great patriarch, that you may acquire action with knowledge, and be named Israel, “the mind that sees God.” So shall you reach the innermost darkness through contemplation, and gain great merchandise. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. 

The mind that sees God enters “the innermost darkness”!   St. Andrew’s language is poetic mystery.  The encounter with God comes not when or how we expect for God is not controlled by our reason or perspective.  Andrew’s canon contains verses with unusual and unexpected perspectives which help us to see anew, and not with our eyes alone but in our hearts and minds as did the Patriarch Jacob.