Bright Monday (2017)

“Pascha of beauty, the Pascha of the Lord!  A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.  Pascha!  Let us embrace each other joyously.  O Pascha, ransom from affliction!  For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shown forth from the tomb and filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the apostles.”  (Pascha Matins)

Though the death of Christ stunned His disciples, causing them to flee into hiding because they feared for their own lives, His death turned out to be the source of the greatest joy for us humans.  Christ emerged from the tomb not as a zombie or the walking dead but as a glorious groom on His wedding day.  The resurrected Christ though having a physical body no longer seems to have been limited by His body but rather moved in and out of the physical world.  In the resurrected life, we are united to God, experiencing the divine life.  We now can proclaim the joyous good news to all the world: Christ is risen!

Holy Thursday (2017)

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

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On Holy Thursday, our Lord instituted the Eucharist, blessing the bread and wine, declaring them to be His Body and Blood and giving them to His disciples at the Mystical Supper.   As is normative in the Church, our commemoration of the Lord’s Last Supper with His disciples makes Christ present for us today.  We are with the disciples contemplating the Mystery which Christ places before us:  the bread and wine of the Passover transformed into His Body and Blood.   In a prayer from the Didache, a late First Century Christian document, we find the following prayer of the Eucharist:

“As this broken bread, once scattered over the mountains was gathered into one,

So gather Your Church together from the ends of the earth, in your Kingdom.

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Yes, to You be glory and power

Through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever.

We give you thanks, O holy Father,

For Your Holy name

That you have caused to dwell in our hearts,

For the gnosis, the faith, and the immortality,

That you have granted us through Jesus your servant,

Glory to you through the ages!

You it was, O all-powerful Master,

Who created the universe, to the praise of your Name:

You have given men food and drink

That they may enjoy them

And give you thanks.

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But You have favoured us

With a spiritual food and drink

And with eternal life through your servant.

We give you thanks above all

Because you are mighty!

Glory to you in the ages.

Remember, Lord, to deliver your Church

From all evil, and to perfect it in Your love.

Gather together from the four winds

The Church that You have sanctified

In the Kingdom that you have prepared for it.

For to You is the power and the glory

for all ages!

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May your grace come and the world pass away!

Hosannah to the God of David!

If anyone is holy, let him come:

If he is not, let him do penance,

Marana, tha!

Amen.”

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirit of the New Testament & the Fathers, pp. 178-179)

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Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant! Holy Week is not focused only on past historical events, it is focusing on our relationship today with Jesus Christ our Lord.  We live in Christ in the present, not in the past.

Holy Tuesday (2017)

The events of Christ’s life some 2000 years ago are remembered in order to make Christ alive for us today. The events are history, but their importance lies not so much in being ancient history, but because they are alive in the Church today and help orient all believers to the coming Kingdom of God.   Our Gospel proclamation is: “Christ is risen!”  We don’t celebrate that He was risen but rather that He is risen and is alive right now, as of this moment.  His life means the power of death is overthrown. We remember the life of Christ to seek Christ, because Christ is alive now, and because He seeks us.

In the days of Holy Week we remember Christ coming again, as a Bridegroom seeking His beloved – seeking us! – inviting us into His Paschal Banquet.  Our orientation is toward the eschaton, and life in the world to come, far more so than toward past events.  The past has happened and can’t be changed, but the present and future are becoming reality, and in our interactions with God, we are shaping that reality.

“In a series of marvelous images, St. Makarios told us why Christ was born, lived on earth, suffered, died, was buried, and rose. Why? In order to stand and knock at the door of our heart (Rev. 3.20). The fact that he knocks is a sign the He does nothing without our consent: He cannot enter unless I want Him to. Christ seeks us out and knocks on our door, waiting patiently outside like a stranger seeking warmth and shelter. In so doing, He creates within us the sense and experience of His kenosis, His self-emptying (Phil 2.7).

Why does the God of the universe stand outside in the cold, day after day, knocking on our door? Because He can’t do without us. Just as a married woman can’t do without her husband, or a married man without his wife–because each partner is integral to the identity of the other–so too has Christ arranged things so that He can’t do without us. Without us, He is naked, hungry thirsty, and has no place to rest his head (Mt 8.20). He has made us His food and drink, His clothing and shelter: He has made our hearts His only place of repose. And when we open the door and welcome Him in, He fills us with His life and light. But make no mistake: without Him we are dead; a dark, empty place, designating only His absence.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 249)

Christ is our food – we eat His Body and drink His blood. We are today His hands and feet and eyes and ears in the world. We carry out His work and ministry. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are doing this to and for Christ.  The practice of Lenten self-denial has the goal of freeing ourselves from enslavement to the self so that we can serve others.  Abstinence and asceticism have the goal of freeing us from enslavement to the self so that instead of being self oriented and engaging in constant self-love, we can become like Christ and live to love and serve others.

 

Lazarus Saturday (2017)

26459992532_fa78fda5db_nHoly Week is designed to be a spiritual sojourn, a chance to reflect not only on Christ’s last week on earth leading to His crucifixion and resurrection, but also on our own relationship to Him and to His Church.   Great Lent officially ends on a Friday in the Church’s liturgical calendar.  The first thing we do at the end of Lent is to commemorate Christ raising His friend Lazarus from the dead on Saturday.  The next day, Sunday, celebrates Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem which is also one of the Twelve Major Feasts of the liturgical year.  This Feast marks the transition to Holy Week.  Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday both pre-figure the events of Christ’s resurrection and entry into the Heavenly Temple.   Think about them as you make your spiritual journey toward  Pascha.   The Cross and the tomb will both be empty, and yet they are  full signs of the divinity of Christ.

Lazarus Saturday: Jesus Wept John 11:1-45

“‘Jesus wept.’ The perfect joy of His divine nature did not exclude tears from His human nature. The evangelist adds other touches to his reference to the Savior’s tears. Near Lazarus’ tomb the Saviour “groaned…troubled Himself.” How are we to understand this emotion of Christ, because in the end Jesus knows that He is going to raise Lazarus? Perhaps we must see in the Saviour’s sorrow something more than compassion for a friend who has died, but who will soon rise again. Jesus weeps over the universal destiny of men, over death which afflicts this human nature of ours which the Father had made so beautiful. Jesus weeps over all of man’s suffering, the consequences of sin. The God-Man takes this suffering on Himself. His sorrow is His share in the world’s sorrow.”  (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, pp. 71-72)

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The sins of the world cause the Son of God to weep. How should I feel about my own sins?  What about the sins of others?    In Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11 God says He had no desire for the death of anyone, even of sinners.   Yet death reigned on earth – at least until the coming of Christ (see Romans 5).  It is my sins that lead to the death of Christ on the cross. If I confessed my sins, how do I now live the remaining time of my life in repentance?

Christ’s Voice of the Bridegroom

And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” So I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:3-6)

Ezekiel saw what God prophesied, that the dead will be resurrected to life.  In John 11, Christ speaks the word – He calls His friend Adam to return to life and to leave his tomb, and Lazarus, the dead man, rises and comes forth from the tomb.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:21-26)

 

Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:43-44)

We believe that Christ has the power over life and death, over the living and the dead.  Christ calls Lazarus by name, and the dead man obeys and comes forth from the tomb.  Jesus calls Lazarus from the dead, and Death obeys and releases Lazarus back to the living.

Your voice destroyed the kingdom of hell, O Lord.  Your powerful word raised from the tomb the one who was four days dead.  Lazarus became the saving first-fruits of the world’s regeneration.  All things are possible for You, O Lord and King of all.  Grant Your servants cleansing and great mercy!  (Vespers hymn of Lazarus Saturday)

Standing by the tomb of Lazarus, O Savior, You called to Your friend, who was dead.  He heard Your voice, and awoke as from sleep.  Mortality was shaken by immortality.  By Your word the bound was unbound.  All is possible!  All things serve and submit to You, O loving Lord.  O our Savior, glory to You! (Vespers hymn of Lazarus Saturday)

The raising of Lazrus fulfills in a most unexpected way the prophecy of Jeremiah.  While death silenced many voices, they will be heard again.  Cities depopulated by death will again be filled with the voices of mirth as sickness, sorrow and sighing flee away:

“Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: In this place which is waste, without man or beast, and in all of its cities, there shall again be habitations of shepherds resting their flocks.  (Jeremiah 33:10-12)

God’s Love and Loving God

“This has taught me never to condemn anyone: as the prayer says: ‘There is no man who lives and does not sin.’

Remember, all our faith is based on our love of God and of the Mother of God and on our veneration of the saints. We can express all this by loving all people and by never refusing them help. I always tell everybody the words of the Gospel, ‘Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.’

Do you find yourself lonely? You have icons in your apartment–icons of Jesus Christ, of His Holy Mother, of our Saint Anastasia, of the Guardian Angel, of Archangel Michael, and probably you have others as well. If you feel seized by feelings of despondency, walk over to an icon and pray, and the dark forces will step away.

Read a chapter of the Gospel every day. In the Four Gospels there are eighty-nine chapters, so in the course of a year you will be able to read the whole Gospel four times. I started reading a chapter of the Gospel every day from an early age. I have been a heiromonk for fifty years and I celebrate the liturgy almost every day, but every time I read a chapter I find something new in it, something good and inspiring.

Be with people and help them, whoever they are. They can be your colleagues, your friends, or your relatives. Help everyone and those who around you will understand what a Christian is and will come to the Church, to God. ”

 (Father Arseny, A Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 109-110)

Sins Which Entice Good Christians

St. Mark the Ascetic writes about sins that do overcome even good Christians and monks.  These are the kinds of sins we might commit daily, sins we assume everyone commits, sins which are part of human nature.  They are sins nevertheless from which we are to repent and to replace them with Christian virtues.  They are sins from which we are to abstain, especially during Great Lent.    St. Mark laments that:  

“They were secretly enticed and overcome by

malicious envy, by jealousy that hates everything good,

by strife, quarreling, hatred, anger,

bitterness, rancor, hypocrisy,

wrath, pride, self-esteem,

love of popularity, self-satisfaction,

avarice, listlessness,

 

by sensual desire which provokes images of self-indulgence,

by unbelief, irreverence, cowardice,

dejection, contentiousness, sluggishness, sleep,

presumption, self-justification, pomposity,

boastfulness, insatiateness, profligacy,

greed, by despair which is the most dangerous of all,

and by the subtle workings of vice”

(The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 4273-78).

Perseverance and Persecution

“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’”  If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’  (Jn 15.20-21).

            True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).

           A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.”  (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)

God as the Prodigal’s Father

The Prodigal’s father watched for his son’s return and while the Prodigal was still a long way from home the father saw him and ran to meet him.  So too God is always watching for our repentance.  In Great Lent Christ calls us to confess our sins and return to God our Father.

“It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. When God sees that we suffer grievously in multifarious trials, this gift penetrates into our thought, lest we should depart from life in the midst of all these calamities and afflictions, having reaped no profit from this world. Our lack of understanding is not due to the difficulty of temptations, but to our ignorance. Often it happens that while some are in the midst of these trials, they depart from the world laden with guilt, since they did not confess, but rather denied and blamed. But the merciful God waited with the hope that somehow they might be humbled, so that He might forgive them and make for them a way of escape. And He would not only have provided them with a way of escape from their temptations, but would have forgiven them their transgressions by reason of the brief confession of their hearts.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian: Homily 74, pp. 262-263).

Correcting Vices with Virtues

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”  (Matthew 12:43-45)

Repentance has as its goal spiritual healing as we endeavor to overcome the sickening affects of the Fall.  Confession is not mostly about enumerating sins but rather about finding healing for our spiritual ills.   Fr Alexis Trader reminds us that in penance we are trying to find an antidote for our sins and the church fathers did suggest specific virtuous behaviors to replace sinful ones.  He writes:

“Ascetic tradition singles out eight principal bad thoughts that encompass and engender all the other sins that the mind can commit. The eight bad thoughts include gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. They are the conceptual analogues to specific behaviors, for “what the body acts out in the world of things, the nous acts out in the world of conceptual images.” Hence, the thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms as the gluttonous behavior of someone overeating, the unchaste conduct of someone having illicit sexual relations, the avaricious actions of someone gambling, and for forth. This patristic connection between thought and behavior links the subjective reality of the eight bad thoughts to the objective reality of concrete actions that can be observed and measured by an external observer. 

Furthermore, if bad thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms, their antidotes can also be framed in like manner. For example, in a text attributed to St. John of Damascus, the author notes that

“gluttony can be corrected by self-control;

unchastity by desire for God and longing for future blessings;

avarice by compassion for the poor;

anger by goodwill and love for all men;

worldly dejection by spiritual joy;

listlessness by patience, perseverance, and offering thanks to God;

vain-glory by doing good in secret and by praying constantly with a contrite heart;

and pride by not judging or despising anyone in the manner of the boastful Pharisee, and by considering oneself the least of all men.”

(Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 79)

It is not enough in confession to simply catalog one’s misdeeds.  If we don’t replace our sinful behaviors with virtuous ones, we will find the momentary gain of emptying our sins in confession is confounded by the fact that the same behaviors will continue and become worse.  Healing takes place as we rid ourselves of our sins by replacing bad behaviors with good deeds.  We have to fill our time and our hearts with good things or the empty heart will remain the haunt of our sinful thoughts which also are our demons.