Sometimes people ask what it is they might have to confess – they haven’t violated the 10 Commandments, so what else do people confess?
The 7th Century martyr, St John of Damaskos , provides us with a list of vices which we might consider as we prepare for our confession. For St. John, even some things we might consider to be normal human traits can be sinful or sins. To uproot them from our own hearts requires us to admit to them so that we can overcome them.
“The passions of the soul are
forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance.
When the soul’s eye, the intellect, has been darkened by these three, the soul is dominated by all the other passions. These are
impiety, false teaching or every kind of heresy,
blasphemy, wrath, anger,
bitterness, irritability, inhumanity,
rancor, back-biting, censoriousness,
senseless dejection, fear, cowardice,
quarrelsomeness, jealousy, envy,
self-esteem, pride, hypocrisy,
falsehood, unbelief, greed,
love of material things, attachment to worldly concerns,
listlessness, faint-heartedness, ingratitude,
grumbling, vanity, conceit,
pomposity, boastfulness, love of power,
love of popularity, deceit, shamelessness,
treachery, pretence, indecision,
assent to sins arising from the soul’s passible aspect and dwelling on them continuously, wandering thoughts,
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)
Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas. As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life. He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis. Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives. St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:
We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!
Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.
O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.
The sense of the presence of God. Something I pray everyone I know may have. I wish everyone in the world could have it.
In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener. They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them. And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking. They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence. They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator. Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God. Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything. In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do. They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise. Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]
How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made? And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God. Amazing! Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.
God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence. When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power. God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will. Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example. God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power. The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits – the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence! Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.
If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation. The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms. In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices. Just look at Genesis 2:19 – “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal. God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates. Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation. [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians. In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals. Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be. Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story. God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done. Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]
The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence. We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example, God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.
And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation. Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence. The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.
Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation. The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.
In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion. For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve. We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation. We can experience God directly and fully. We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection. Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father. Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God. We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ in our midst and Christ in us. As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :
Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.
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.
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.
“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.” (James 3:5-10)
While we often think of Great Lent as mostly being about what foods we put into our mouths, or the quantity of food, St. Basil the Great says there is an even more important aspect of Lent which involves the mouth – what comes out of it! Just in the book of Proverbs we find these adjectives associated with the tongue: lying (4 times), smooth, perverse (twice), mischievous, backbiting, flattering. The tongues sins aren’t involved in the foods it tastes, but in the words it speaks! We are to control our tongues and how much we talk and what we say. If you think you can’t really keep the food fast strictly in Lent, then practice fasting from the words your tongue speaks! It would be a better Lenten discipline! St. Basil describes the variety and numbers of sins which we commit through our tongues and our speech.
“‘Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.’ If you wish to live in the good days, if you love life, fulfill the precept of life. ‘He who loves me,’ He says, ‘will keep my commands.’ The first command is, ‘Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.’ The most common and varied sin is that committed through the tongue. Were you provoked to anger? The tongue is already running on. Are you possessed by concupiscence? Before all things you have a tongue, a sort of pimp and promotore, as it were assistant to the sin, subduing your neighbors by histrionic arts. Your tongue is also a weapon for your injustice, not uttering the words from the heart, but bringing forth those inspired by deceit. But, what need is there to put in words all the sins committed through the tongue? Our life is filled with faults due to the tongue. Obscenity, scurrility, foolish talk, unbecoming words, slanders, idle conversation, perjuries, false testimony, all these evils and even more than these, are the work of the tongue. But, they who open their mouth against the glory of God and talk of injustice on high, do they perform their act of impiety by some other instrument and not through the instrumentality of the tongue? Since, then, ‘by thy words thou wilt be justified, and by thy words thou wilt be condemned,’ check your tongue from evil and do not fabricate empty treasures with a deceitful tongue. Stop also your lips from speaking guile; instead, let the whole organ, which was given to you for the service of speech, have nothing to do with wicked deeds. Guile is hidden wrongdoing brought to bear against the neighbor under a pretense of better things.
‘Turn away from evil and do good, seek after peace and pursue it.’ These counsels are elementary and are channels to piety; they describe accurately how to prevail over the tongue, how to refrain from deceitful schemes, how to turn away from evil. Mere abstinence from evil is not a characteristic of a perfect man; but, for one recently instructed in basic principals it is fitting to turn aside from the impulse to evil and, being delivered from the habits of a depraved life as from a bad road, to pursue the performance of good. In fact, it is impossible to cleave to the good unless one has withdrawn entirely and turned away from the evil, just as it is impossible to repair one’s health unless one rids himself of the disease, or for one who has not completely checked a chill to be in a state of warmth; for, these are inadmissible to each other. So also, it is proper for him who intends to live a good life to depart from all connection with evil.” (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, Homily 16, pp. 265-266).
Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. (Psalm 34:13)
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”(Luke 7:47)
Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep. Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love. God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.
If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you. It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal. God loves you, not just humanity. God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.
The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross. Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner. His love is that personal. He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death. We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.
It matters little how many or how few sins others commit. Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.
Christ seeks each sinner personally. So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.
As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .” (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)
However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf. The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.
I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:36-47)
If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ. I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts. Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me. When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me. Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them: the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
St. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us that as wonderful and spectacular as things of nature are, including stellar events in the universe, it is only humans who are created in God’s image. And besides, as he puts it as immense as the entire universe is, however infinite space may be, it still metaphorically fits in the hand of God. Yet, each human mysteriously and miraculously contains God within themselves for God’s image is imprinted on each of us. Heaven and earth are temporary and will pass away (Matthew 24:35) but, according to Scripture, humans are created for eternal life.
For this is the safest way to protect the good things you enjoy: by realizing how much your Creator has honored you above all other creatures. He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe.
You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light, and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him Who shines within you, Whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit into the palm of God’s hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of his hand (Is. 40.12).
And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you, nor is he cramped as He pervades your entire being, saying: I will dwell in them, and walk among them (2 Cor. 6.16).
If you realize this you will not allow your eye to rest on anything of this world. Indeed, you will no longer marvel even at the heavens. For how can you admire the heavens, my son, when you see that you are more permanent than they? For the heavens pass away, but you will abide for all eternity with Him Who is forever. Do not admire, then, the vastness of the earth or the ocean that stretches out to infinity, for like a chariot and horses they have been given in your charge. You have these elements in your power to be obedient to your will. For the earth ministers the necessities of life, and the sea offers its back like a tame steed to its rider.” (From Glory to Glory, pp. 162-163)
St. Gregory has a highly exalted view of humans. In the modern world, we have attained heights over nature which 4th Century Gregory could never have imagined. He certainly implies that the heavens are nothing to be marveled at – they can be conquered by humans! All the vastness of the earth, the oceans and the heavens are merely elements for our use in his vision of the created universe. They are given to humans for us to harness and use their power. That view of creation is very modern and scientific, yet his point is that even with all vastness and power which the earth, oceans and universe represent, the tiny and seemingly insignificant humans are far greater than the endless expanse of the universe. For humans alone are created in God’s image and have the potential for eternity within them.