“Before the dawn Mary and the women came and found the stone rolled away from the tomb. They heard the angelic voice: ‘Why do you seek among the dead as a man the one who is everlasting light? Behold the clothes in the grave! Go and proclaim to the world: The Lord is risen! He has slain death, as He is the Son of God, saving the race of men.” (Hours of Pascha)
The myrrhbearing women do not find Christ or Christ’s body in the tomb – the tomb is empty. By itself it proves nothing – the women assume grave robbers have stolen the corpse of Jesus.
The women are not told to return to the tomb and make it a shrine – there are no relics there. They are to tell the disciples to find Jesus, but not at the tomb, but rather in Gallilee. The Apostles are told to go into all the world with the message of the resurrection – they aren’t told that meditating at the tomb of Jesus will make them holy. They weren’t to turn the resurrection into religion, rather they were to show the world how they were transformed by the news of Christ’s resurrection. Christ is eternal light not a resuscitated corpse that we can parade about in religious ceremony. Our goal as Christians is not to make a pilgrimage to the holy sepulcher – we are given no such commandment. Nor is the goal set annually to Pascha night. Our goal is to live the resurrection so that everyone will come to embrace Christ our Savior. The myrrhbearing women may have had to go to the tomb to learn of the resurrection, but they are told they’ve come to the wrong place if they are looking for Christ. He is not at the holy sepulcher, He is Lord of the Sabbath and of the universe. He is known in the proclamation of the Scriptures and in the eating of the Eucharist. He is Lord of the Sabbath and the universe.
“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. ”
“Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints.
…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.
When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.
A man who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility and proves himself a skillful builder’ (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Directions on Spiritual teaching).”
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.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
As we begin Great Lent, we know the goal of any self denial, fasting, asceticism is to allow ourselves to set aside our own will so that we can come to recognize and do the will of God. It is not so much that fasting is doing the will of God, but in practicing control over our own desires, we can come to realize there is in the universe another will essential to our existence – the will of God. We can actually know the will of God and do it. But that happens only when we dial down the volume of our own verbose will so that we can become aware of God’s will, and then pursue it.
“But is the human ego (or self) something other than the human soul? In fact, the ego is nothing other than the soul. Here, two states are possible. First, the soul might be totally subject to God, and the human ego would then not be independent, that is it would not have an existence independent of God – the ego’s will would then be God’s will and its desire his desire. In this case, the human ego would be well prepared for perpetual existence with God and in God. It would be dead to itself and alive to God.
Or, the soul might not be subject to God, choosing freely to be independent of his will, following its own passions and desires. In this case the human ego would be alive to itself and dead to God. It becomes a being independent of him, but in fact it cannot exist except in evil, based on materialistic delusion. This independence from God, this existence in sin, is only transient. So the ego that is dependent of God becomes a perishable ego.
However, departure of the ego from God’s will is only induced by the deception of the devil, like the deception of the serpent to Eve in paradise: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).
Is there any means, then, by which we can mortify the human ego to itself that it may live to God? Yes. But the only means is total submission to the will of God…
Take heed then and open your ears: Either count yourself as nothing in word and deed and make up your mind to surrender yourself to God with all your might–and you will then gladly be released from your ego by the grace of God; or, you will be delivered to discipline until you are set free from our ego in spite of yourself. So if you wish to opt for the easier way, take that of voluntary submission. Count yourself from now on as nothing, and follow the path of grace wherever the Spirit may wish to lead you.
Know for certain that submission to God and total surrender to his will and divine plan are a free gift of grace. It thus demands, besides prayer and supplication, a trusting faith to receive this gift. This should be coupled with a longing springing from one’s heart that God may not deliver us to discipline for our folly, nor abandon us to our own wisdom. For this reason, we should have an extremely resolute will to renounce our own self at all times, and in all works. This should not be done ostentatiously before people but within our conscience. Blessed is the man who can discover his own weakness and ignorance and confess them before God to the last day of his life.
St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart. What is feeding this illness? The happiness and good fortune of others! The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received. Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues. That turns a negative passion into a good. I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own. This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life. One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.
“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing. How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness? And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”
If you are at home, pray at the third hour [i.e., 9:00 a.m.] and bless God. But, if you are elsewhere then, pray to God in your heart. For at that hour Christ was seen fixed to the wood. Hence even in the Old Testament the law ordered that the bread of proposition should be offered at the third hour as a type of the body and blood of Christ; and the immolation of the irrational lamb is a type of the perfect Lamb. For Christ is the shepherd, and he is also the bread that came down from heaven [see John 6:41].
Pray likewise at the sixth hour [i.e., noon]. For when Christ was fixed to the wood of the cross the day was broken and there was a great darkness [see Matthew 27:45]. So let a powerful prayer be offered at that hour in imitation of the voice of him who prayed and caused darkness to overshadow all creation because of the unbelieving Jews.
Let a great prayer and a great blessing be offered also at the ninth hour [i,e., 3:00 p.m] to imitate the manner in which the soul of the righteous praises God, who does not lie, who remembers his holy ones and has sent his Word to glorify them. At that hour Christ, pierced in his side, poured forth blood and water [see John 19:34] and, illuminating the rest of the day, brought it to evening. And so, when he began to fall asleep, while causing the following day to begin, he imaged the resurrection.
Pray as well before your body rests on its bed. But toward midnight, rise up, wash your hands and pray…It is necessary to pray at that hour. For the ancients who have recounted the tradition to us told us that at that hour the entire creation rests for a moment in order to praise the Lord: the stars, the trees, the waters stop for a short space of time, and the whole army of angels who serve him praises God at that hour along with the souls of the righteous. That is why those who believe should hasten to pray then. And the Savior bears witness to this when he says, “Behold, a cry is heard in the middle of the might of one saying, Behold, the bridegroom is coming; rise up to meet him” [Matthew 25:6]. And he continues, “Watch,therefore, for you do not know the hour when he is coming” [Matthew 25:13].
And at cockcrow rise up and pray once more. For at that hour, at cockcrow, the children of Israel denied Christ [see Matthew 26:74-75 par.], whom we know by faith. In the hope of eternal light at the resurrection of the dead,our eyes are turned toward that day.
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as it comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits… (James 3:13-17).
To be meek means to be gentle and kind, to be empty of all selfishness and earthly ambition. It means, in a word, never to return evil for evil but to overcome evil by good (Romans 12:14-21).
Meekness means to distrust and reject every thought and action of external coercion and violence, which in any case can never produce fruitful, genuine and lasting results.
Meekness is to have the firm and calm conviction that the good is more powerful than evil, and that the good ultimately is always victorious.
Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind which remains the same in honor and dishonor. Meekness is the rock overlooking the sea of irritability which breaks all the waves that dash against it, remaining itself unmoved. Meekness is the buttress of patience,the mother of love and the foundation of wisdom, for it is said, “The Lord will teach the meek His way” (Psalm 24:9). It prepares the forgiveness of sins; it is boldness in prayer, an abode of the Holy Spirit. “But to whom shall I look,” says the Lord, “to him who is meek and quiet and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a turbulent soul is the seat of the devil. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 24).”
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.
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?
“St. Ambrose emphasizes that we must learn from St. Peter to confess our own unworthiness to be in the presence of the Lord. ‘You must also say, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,’ so that the Lord may respond to you, ‘Fear not.’ Confess your sins to the Lord, for He forgives. Do not be afraid of giving the Lord what is yours, since He granted to you what is His.’ In becoming man, the Son of God has given to men the power to become the sons of God (John 1:12) and to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), in the divine life.”