Preparing for Great Lent: The Temptation of Pride

She also said: “Just as treasure is found to be lacking once it is exposed, so virtue disappears when it becomes known and is noised abroad. And just as wax is melted before a fire, so too does the soul disintegrate and lose its vigor from being praised.” (Syncletica, Give Me a Word:The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 306)

“A man who outwardly fulfills all the commandments, but retains pride, contempt and malice in his heart will still remain far from God. God cannot be “bought off” by fasting or sacrifices, because-as the psalm tells us – “the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit” (meaning grief for one’s sins), but “a broken and contrite heart God will not despise” and will not reject.”   (Fr. Alexander Men, Awake to Life: Sermons from the Paschal Cycle, p 7)

Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

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But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

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1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

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 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  

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Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

Why a Fast Free Week Before Lent?

In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11).  The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline.  It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track.  It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly.  We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God.  It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins.  Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality.    But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them.    Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice.  If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic!  To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom.  Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives.  The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.

“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)

Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…

So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”

Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds  us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him.  We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride.  The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.

Preparing for Confession: Consider the Prodigal Son

Sermon notes for The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 2017)

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

1]  “… the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” –  no dualism here.  Jesus does not save souls.  The body belongs to the Lord.  In one famous old movie the sergeant barks, “his soul may belong to Jesus, but his a– (a certain part of his anatomy) belongs to me.”   St. Paul would vehemently disagree.  Even the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord – the resurrection is about the deification of the entire human being, including our bodies.  Bodily sins, sexual sins are sins against the Lord.  This is also why fasting is a spiritual exercise and spiritual asceticism involves the body.  My body becomes through baptism a member of Christ, part of Christ’s body.   This is spiritual, but involves the physical body.

2]  The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – we are to glorify God not by escaping our body but by using the body to glorify God.  We can achieve a victory for God in and through our bodies.  Thus sexual morality is essential.  Thus the importance of fasting, self control, self denial.  The body is not God and we should not treat it as if it is – it should not control our lives and selves.   We are to be masters of our own desires, not slaves to them. (The body belongs to the Lord but note also:  “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” – says st. Paul in Philippians 3:18-21).  We practice gaining mastery over our bodies in order to submit our entire life to God.  That is the goal of Great Lent – transforming our lowly body to conform to His glorious body.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
St. Seraphim of Sarov

Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 

1]  The parable, now placed before Great Lent, is commonly seen in Orthodoxy to be one of repentance, exile and return, reconciliation and restoration.   In the beginning of this parable, we don’t actually encounter any breaking of any law – it is not illegal for the son to ask for his inheritance.  He isn’t sinning against civil law, probably not against Torah either.   In a culture in which the first born son is favored by the inheritance process, the younger son might even be wise to take what is his while there is something to get, before the elder brother lays claim to everything.   Besides, the Father could have said, “NO!”, to the younger son’s request.  But the father is the most consistent person in the parable.  He is loving, merciful, forgiving.  But to this point, probably no sin is committed by the younger son – if sin is considered mostly as breaking of some law.   We have to take this into account when we prepare ourselves for confession.  Of what are we repenting?  Sin is not always breaking a law.  The story so far does not tell us much about the inner nature of the younger son – what are his motives? why is he doing this?  We have to speculate to add those details, or perhaps we need to wait to see where the parable is headed.

And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’

2]  It quickly becomes obvious the younger son has no plan regarding the inheritance.  He doesn’t use it wisely, makes no provision for the future, does not establish himself as he has seen with his own father who had some wealth, a livelihood, a path to follow in life.  The younger son is foolish.  He burns through his resources immediately and quickly finds himself on the verge of starvation.  He is incredibly wasteful, thoughtless and foolish.  He “gathered” all his possessions from his father and then “scattered” them in wasteful prodigality and recklessness.  Still, in the parable we don’t know exactly what the prodigal did with his wealth.  He wasted it, though we can imagine all manners of sin as probably necessary for burning through his wealth so quickly, he might just have been foolish, throwing big parties, spending as if there is no tomorrow, enjoying life with his friends.  Even if what he did involved no sin as such, he was a fool, and his folly left him penniless and friendless.  No one who enjoyed his prodigality is there to help him in his time of need.

It is his hunger, his need, his poverty which wakes him up.  He has nothing left, and nothing to lose.  Now he remembers his generous, kind and loving father.  He realizes even being a servant or slave in his father’s mansion is better than the freedom of total poverty.  He was feeding pigs – a form of slavery with few rewards.  He was willing to trade one form of servanthood for another – the servants in his father’s house did not live in poverty, in famine, in pigsties, in starvation.  Better a servant in his father’s house, than a free son in a pigsty.  His “repentance” as such is self serving, but no matter, the forgiving, loving father will embrace him.  Even if his father takes him in as a servant, he still is better off than his current situation.  So of what is he repenting?  Poverty, hunger, degradation?  He is abandoning his folly and embracing wisdom.  Whatever terms his father might lay down, still he will be better off being in his father’s house.

In the icon detail: The prodigal has to raise himself above the pigsty mess he is in to see what to do.  Often we can’t see our way out of our sinful messes, we are trapped, so we need clairvoyance – clear vision – a new perspective to see Christ, to see the love of God.

And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

3]  The loving, forgiving father is over joyed to have his son back.  He doesn’t even give his son the chance to express his contrition.  The father has been ever watching and hoping for his son’s return.  All the son had to do was get himself back into the presence of the father.  His father did all the rest.  The father’s love is unconditional, full of grace, not dependent on the son making a proper confession and apology.  The father’s love is not a reaction to the son’s behavior.  The father is loving, he doesn’t wait for the son to beg forgiveness, it is already granted.  We can ask ourselves again, of what do we need to confess?  Of what should we repent?   Are we willing to leave our past indiscretions behind?  To abandon prodigal living and instead live as servants of the father?    Or do we hope to be able to continue at least in part our wasteful, self-centered pleasure-seeking, while at the same time enjoying the father’s estate?   The parable says you can’t have the father’s estate AND a pleasure-seeking attitude in the world.  We have to leave that part of our life behind – not because we have no more money to spend in the world, but because we need to live with and for the father, even if we have an abundance of goods.  Repentance – we are repenting of our self-centered, self-serving life styles.  We are denying ourselves in order to take up our cross!  We don’t repent in order to be able to continue pleasuring ourselves, but to take up the cross.

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

4]  When we call this the parable of the Prodigal, we lose sight of the fact that the parable doesn’t end with the prodigal’s reconciliation with the father.  Jesus was only 2/3rds done with the parable at that point.  The parable goes on, there is another son in this who does not like his father’s willingness to love and forgive the prodigal.    The father remains consistent, loving both of his sons, but the older son seems to think that he is loved if he is the only one loved by the father.  He doesn’t feel loved if his father also loves the other son.  This is where the parable began – the younger brother, unsure of the father’s love (or of his brother’s love), takes his property and leaves not wanting to have to share with another.  Both brothers are selfish and self-centered.  The older brother is also not breaking any law in his attitude, but his thoughts are not those of his father.  He does not love.  It is only with the older brother that we hear the accusation that the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes.  This was not mentioned earlier in the parable.  Is the older brother speaking the truth or just making an assumption and accusing his younger brother of sin?   How does he know what his younger brother has done, for all the younger brother did was done in a country far away.

So, as we prepare ourselves for confession, for true repentance, of what do we have to repent?  Sin, as the parable shows, is not just a matter of breaking the law, the Ten Commandments, or the Torah or Tradition.  We have to think about love and relationships.  For what do we live?  Is life mostly about good times and pleasure?  Are we ever willing to deny ourselves in order to serve God?  Do we avoid serving God so that we can rather serve ourselves?  Are we willing to live in the world as God’s servants rather than as free and independent individuals who get the most we can for ourselves out of life?

The Virtue of Sexual Purity

St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 that foods are relatively unimportant.  We are permitted to eat most anything, but we shouldn’t be enslaved to anything.  But more important than food is sexual purity because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – your body will be raised by Christ at the resurrection.  Therefore you need now to keep your body pure so that it can be raised from the dead – can be united with the Holy Spirit and with Christ.  But if you practice sexual immorality – something you do with your body – you make your body unfit for the resurrection from the dead.  You have killed your body through sin.  We aren’t trying to escape the body because it is unimportant, rather we are trying to make it holy through a Christian way of life.

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them.

Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Biblical Scholar Michael Gorman comments:

“The first topic of the countercultural life addressed by Paul is sexuality, specifically abstention from any kind of “sexual immorality” (NIV; NAB, “immoraility”; Gk. pornea, which includes but is broader than NRSV’s “fornication”). Paul’s basic point is that the call of God is to be different from the Gentiles “who do not know god” (4:5) by being pure rather than lustful (4:5, 7). Here Paul continues the general biblical and Jewish tradition of criticizing pagan sexual immorality and stressing that one of the primary distinctives of those in covenant relationship with God is sexual holiness (see Lev. 18:1-3, 24-30). Jews claimed to be, and were known as, those who did not engage in such pagan practices as sex outside marriage, homosexual relations, abortion, infanticide, and the exposure of unwanted newborns. The earliest believers in Jesus followed suit, and Paul follows the Levitical example in treating this matter with the utmost gravity (4:6, 8). (Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p 158)

The Stages of Sin and Repentance

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The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent.   Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. 

“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.” 

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.

“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).” 

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But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.” 

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

 

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Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text.  One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God.  Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships.  God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us.  Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done.  Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal.  We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community.  This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them.   Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness.  We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family.  We are the cause of their hurt.  Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that.  It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.

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Historical Note on Memorial Saturdays

“Saturday of Meatfare week is dedicated to the memory of ‘our fathers and brothers, all the Orthodox Christians who fell asleep throughout the ages.’ This is a universal commemoration of all the  dead, which we shall find again on the Saturday before Pentecost. Thus we find such a commemoration and the beginning and the end of the moveable cycle.

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The first indication of this universal commemoration of the dead on Saturday of Meatfare week appears in the Typikon of the Great Church (9th-10th century). It is possible that it was instituted in connection with the commemoration on Meatfare Sunday of the last judgement. The Typicon St. Alexios the Studite (11th century) describes an ordo of the office very similar to what we celebrate today.

Bishop Afanasii (Sakharov) believed that, during these two days, the Church prayed in a more intense way for the repose of all the dead, familiar and stranger, known and unknown, of every age and circumstance, of all times and all peoples, of all who have died since the beginning of the world. According to him, this is the reason the Church put aside the commemoration of saints from the Menaion, in order to dedicate itself fully to prayer for the dead. Indeed, in contrast with other Saturdays, when the commemoration of the of the dead follows the glorification of all the saints, here the memorial of the dead takes up the entire focus of the liturgical celebration…

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These rubrics reflect an ancient practice, attested to by Canon 51 of the Council of Laodicea [363-364AD], which instructs that the memory of the martyrs should not be celebrated during the forty days of Lent, but on Saturdays and Sundays. Theodore Balsamon (c. 1140-c. 1195), the great Byzantine canonist, already considered that this canon concerning the commemoration of martyrs applied equally to the commemoration of the dead.

(Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, pp 147-148, 186)

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Humility: The Foundation for Being Christian

“Cultivating humility also means that we will begin to stop measuring ourselves continually against others—a problem ancient Christians had, too, judging by the many times it is mentioned in the literature:

Abba Poemen said that a brother who lived with some other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What ought I to do?” The old man said to him, “Keep silence and do not always be comparing yourself to others.” (Apoth., Poemon 79, p. 178)

Having humility will mean that we will have no particular desire to do better than others, and we will not care if someone else does better than we. Pride hurts, but humility takes the fear out of a lot of introspection, making us courageous and strong.

           Having the old virtue of humility also makes us patient with ourselves when we do find the things we probably will see in ourselves. We will be able to accept it as true that the passions, feelings, attitudes, obsessions, and certain kinds of behavior do not go away all at once simply because we have identified them.  Humility reminds us that the process of becoming free of our passions is often a long one, and that is all right. Humility allows us to follow another common piece of advice in the early monastic literature: do not try to do everything at once; take on only one passion at a time. Learning to love is a slow business.

           Humility, finally, will enable us to hear what others tell us and will help us cultivate within ourselves a continuous attitude of listening to the world around us, to friends, to those who are not so friendly, to what we encounter in prayer and worship. Humility makes us receptive of all that comes to us that might bring us to love of God and each other. Humility is the only possible attitude out of which we can ever speak a word of truth to another person without doing terrible harm to ourselves and the other. After all, what we are about is never ever executing God’s righteous judgement on another person or ourselves.”   (Roberta C, Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 83-84)

A Chariot Race: The Publican vs. The Pharisee

The Gospel lesson of Luke 18:10-14, the Publican and the Pharisee:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

St. John Chrysostom comments:

However, it is no humility to think that you are a sinner when you really are a sinner. But whenever a man is conscious of having done many great deeds but does not imagine that he is something great in himself, that is true humility. When a man is like Paul and can say: “I have nothing on my conscience,” and then can add: “But I am not justified by this,” and can say again: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am the chief,” that is true humility. That man is truly humble who does exalted deeds but, in his own mind, sees himself as lowly. However, in his ineffable loving-kindness, God welcomes and receives not only the humble-minded but also those who have the prudence to confess their sins. Because they are so disposed toward him, he is gracious and kind to them.

           To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.

For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility. The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.

So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.

           To help you to see that the one team is swifter than the other, recall to your mind the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee yoked a team consisting of justice and pride when he said: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, greedy, nor like this publican.” What madness! His self-claimed superiority to all his human nature did not satisfy his arrogance, but he even trampled the publican, who was standing nearby, under the foot of his great haughtiness. And what did the publican do? He did not try to evade the insults, he was not troubled by the accusation, but he patiently accepted what was said. But the dart shot at him by his enemy became for him a curing medication, the insult became a word of praise, the accusation became a crown of victory.       (Homily V, The Fathers of the Church, p. 158-160)