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

Lenten Rose

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

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

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

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

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

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

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

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


The Ladder of Divine Ascent

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

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

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

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

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

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

The Sin of Envy

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

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

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

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

The Power of the Gospel

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

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

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

Confess Your Sins so that You May Be Healed

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

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

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

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

Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Icon of the Crucifixion

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

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

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

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

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

The Way to Joy? Take Up Your Cross

“The kingdom of God cannot be imposed; if it is to be brought about we must be born again, and that supposes complete freedom of spirit. Christianity is the religion of the Cross, and it sees a meaning in suffering. Christ asks us to take up our own cross and carry it, to shoulder the load of a sinful world. In Christian consciousness the notion of attaining happiness, justice, and the kingdom of God on earth without cross or suffering is a huge lie: it is the temptation that Christ rejected in the wilderness when he was shown the kingdoms of the world and invited to fall down and worship. Christianity does not promise its own necessary realization and victory here below; Christ even questioned whether he will find any faith on earth when he comes again at the end of time, and foretold that love itself will have grown cold.

Tolstoy believed that Christ’s commands could be easily fulfilled simply by recognizing their truth. But that was a mistake of his over-rationalizing consciousness; the mysteries of freedom and of grace were beyond him, his optimism contradicted the tragic depths of life. “The good which I will I do not,” says the apostle Paul, “but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” This testimony of one of the greatest of all Christians unveils the innermost part of the human heart, and it teaches us that the “failure of Christianity” is a human failure and not a divine defeat.”

(Nicholas Berdiaev, Tradition Alive, pp. 96-97)

Confession: Seeking the Compassion of God

“Our tendency is to conceal and minimize our sins, thinking that God’s compassion means that He will ‘go easy on us’ and understand that ‘we’re only human.’ This section of the Canon [of Repentance of  St. Andrew of Crete] invites us to a different view: that all our sins are very serious (even those we don’t know about), and yet God is abundant in mercy. He already knows all about our sins, and is ready to rush toward us in compassion. All that is necessary is for us to admit we need his compassion. Repentance is truth telling, and ‘the truth will make you free‘ (John 8:32). What hidden sins can you begin to admit, and allow God to take away?”

(Frederica Mathewes-Green, Firstfruits of Prayer, p. 14)

Falling Asleep on the Cross

Christ … for my sake fell asleep on the cross  (Lenten hymn)

The imagery of some Orthodoxy hymns about the crucifixion of Christ, seem all too pleasant …  Jesus falls asleep on the Christ.  No mention of the agony and torture he would have suffered.  Many icons reflect that same calm demeanor.  It was Christian humanism of the Middle Ages which really took an interest in the suffering and agony of Christ and began to describe and portray the agony and torture which crucifixion is.  Read the biblical texts and we see that the bodily suffering of Christ is hardly mentioned.   It was the focus on Christ’s humanity which was seen as realism, that started Christians moving away from a focus on Jesus as the incarnate God.  Instead of seeing God, all that was seen was another human dying a painful death.

The image of Christ falling asleep on the cross is deeply rooted in the theology that God is passionless.  God is not moved by emotions and their visceral affects on us – God doesn’t have a body so does not experience emotions like we do.  God does not love us as a reaction to us for God is love.  God dying on the cross does not change His reaction to humans: He continues to love them.  And so Jesus says while dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  He came into the world because of divine love and dies on the cross for the same reason (John 3:16-17).  Christ doesn’t forgive in reaction to what his tormentors are doing for He came into the world as love in order to forgive humans.

God is love, and doesn’t wait to see what we will do before reacting to us.  God always acts towards us in love.  God becomes incarnate because God is love.  God dies on the cross because God is love.  The crucifixion does not change God’s relationship to the world.  Sin does not change God’s reaction to humans.  God forever acts in love toward humans no matter how humans behave.   As another Lenten hymn says:

In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the cross raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree.  Therefore, You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises forever!

God loves humanity and accepts that love means God will suffer for us humans.  God suffers for us, with us and in us.   God does this for our salvation.  God is not changed by our sin, by our reaction to God, by our rejection of God, by our crucifying God’s Son.  God is love.  Thus the Passionless God suffers the passion as one of the great mysteries of God’s love.  And because it is God on the cross, the suffering is infinitely deep, yet God is still love and God continues to act toward us in love.  This is why the icon is so correct in portraying the sleeping Christ on the cross – divinity suffers in us and for us and with us in all eternity and yet this does not change God’s love for it is God’s love for us.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:8-10)

God even takes on a human body and experiences all the pain, sorrow and torment of being human because this is God’s love for us.  It is a love infinitely and eternally deep – yet it is the love that God offers to us and invites us to share with Him so that our life, and our suffering, becomes our life in God.   God dying on the cross is still love, and still loving us.

Christ lives and dies for Adam, Eve and each of us.  The hymns of Lent often move from images of God dealing with Adam to God dealing with each of us.

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

Christ’s death on the cross is the sign of the blessed Sabbath Day on which the Lord rests for His work for us and for our salvation is complete.  Christ sleeps on the cross in order to awaken us from the sleep of death and to awaken us from our having fallen asleep in the world when we should be awake, alert and vigilant.  In Christ we awake from our sleep whether in this world or the world to come.

In Christ dying on the cross we see God’s love for us undisturbed by the sin of the world, encouraging us to unite ourselves to Him so that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”  (Romans 14:8-9)

See also my post Arising From Sleep.