“…see, at any rate how many blessings spring from both fasting and prayer. For he that is praying as he should, and is fasting as he should has not many wants, and he that has not many wants cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous will be also more disposed for almsgiving. He that fasts is light and prays with wakefulness and quenches his wicked lusts and propitiates God and humbles his soul when lifted up. Therefore even the apostles were not always fasting for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food but in withdrawing from sinful practices.
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works!
By itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility, for example, practiced through obedience in our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation.
Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting, but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading,and through concentrating our heart on, and longing for the kingdom of heaven.”
When we think about salvation, redemption, atonement, Christianity says all of this activity of God happens in this world, within our history, in and through us human beings. God’s plan for salvation may come from all eternity and heaven, but it is realized only in time on earth. The hymns of Great Lent dealing with redemption remind us how our salvation is worked out through the Virgin Theotokos.
Human nature was counted worthy of God’s revelation through you, Virgin full of divine grace, for you are the only mediator between God and man, rightly glorified by us all as the Mother of God!
In choosing the Virgin Mary for the incarnation, God shows His love for the world He created. God shows creation, particularly humans are worthy not only of God’s revelation but of union with God. Mary is the very sign that God sees in her person as well as in her humanity the creation worth saving and capable of being in union with the Creator. God sees in Mary exactly what God created humans and the world for: to share in the love and life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Adam’s nature was made divine, Virgin, when God took flesh without change in your womb! And we who were deceived of old by the hope of becoming gods have been set free from the ancient condemnation.
Both of the above hymns are taken from the Canon for the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent. God is united to humanity in the womb of the Virgin – Adam’s human nature is made divine in the union with God. Eve was tricked by the Serpent into thinking she could become like God by disobeying God. In Christ the hope of our being god-like becomes a reality for in Christ God submits Himself to taking on human nature. Christ, the incarnate God, conforms humanity to God’s will that we would become divine.
A pain causing lesson: we don’t become divine by asserting our will against God but only by submitting our will to God’s will.
Our Lord Jesus Christ chose His disciples not from the wise, not from the noble, not from the rich or the famous, but from among fishermen and tentmakers and poor and illiterate men. This was to make clear to all that neither poverty, nor lack of learning, nor lowly origins, nor anything else of that sort is an impediment to acquiring virtue and understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of the Spirit. But even the poorest and lowliest and least educated person, if he gives proof of eagerness and an appropriate inclination towards what is good, can not only come to know the divine teaching but also become a teacher himself through God’s grace.
And the things that hinder us from understanding and grasping the meaning of spiritual teachings are our own indifference and the fact that we cling with all our might to the fleeting concerns of this life. As a result, we do not allow space or time for listening and studying and recalling to mind what we have heard, nor do we care about the things which are to come and things eternal.
“The Cross is the Weapon of Peace, we sing. Yet, despite the militaristic overtones, the Cross is not simply a more mighty or powerful weapon in some kind of divine arms race! No, it is the weapon of peace, it is a weapon which doesn’t resort to greater fire-power to blow apart our enemies in a cycle of violence, but rather brings that cycle of violence to an end, ushering in the peace of God for those who are prepared to live by it.
When someone strikes or offends us, Christ does not direct us to hit back or retaliate, but to turn the other cheek, to bear one another’s weaknesses, not so that we can be beaten some more for the sake of it, but to take upon ourselves the anger that is in the other person, to neutralize it, to put an end to it, as Christ himself did, the blameless lamb led to the slaughter, or rather going willingly, taking upon himself the sin of the world.
This is not simply a matter of being passive, but rather being passive actively, creatively, and being creative in the most divine way possible–for it allows God to work in and through us, rather than just doing whatever it is we ourselves can come up with.
But God can only work through us if we ourselves take up the Cross and live by it, for if we do so–dead to the world–we will already, now, be in the peace of God, untroubled by anything the world throws at us, and the peace that we will know will spread through us to all those around us.
St. Maximos the Confessor(d. 662AD) says there are two very different but equally acceptable ways to do a sincere and proper confession. Though the two ways are very different, they both result in the same desired goal: one is humble before God. Usually, today we think of confession as consisting of enumerating the sins we have committed. St. Maximos says the other way is to list all the things in our lives for which we are thankful.
“Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.
Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”
All of the 2017 posts from my blog for the Pre-Lenten season are now gathered together into one PDF, for those who prefer to read one document rather than navigate through the blog. You can find the document at 2017 Pre-Lent Posts.
You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.
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.