Melkite Greek Catholic Church
FROM ITS BEGINNING on Lazarus Saturday until the cracking of the last red egg of Pascha, our Great Week and Bright Week services immerse us in a wealth of images, both verbal and visual, of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. In the midst of this sensory overload, there are some evocative symbols whose voices may not be heard. Yet they bring us to the heart of the Paschal Mystery.

The Newly-Illumined On Pascha our regular Saturday evening Vespers is combined with the first Divine Liturgy of the Feast. Since the Matins and Divine Liturgy during the night are so popular in our parishes, it became common to serve the Vesper-Liturgy earlier in the day. As a result many people never see this extraordinary service.

The Vesper-Liturgy includes fifteen Old Testament readings instead of the usual three. Since the catechumens are taken out at this point in the service to be baptized, these additional Scripture passages would be read until the baptisms were completed. Then the newly-baptized would be brought into the congregation during the singing of “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, Alleluia.” Their first full participation in the Liturgy would be on this blessed night of their baptism.

Laurel Is for Victory

The Epistle reading at this Liturgy is not followed by the usual Alleluia. Instead Psalm 81/82 is chanted with verse 8 as its refrain: “Arise, O God and judge the earth, and You shall inherit all the nations.”

In the liturgical symbolism of our Church, Holy Saturday recalls the time Christ’s body lay in the tomb while His spirit was among the dead in what the Greeks called Hades. In singing this Psalm, the Church is calling on Christ to rise from the dead and destroy the power of death, freeing people of every race and nation from its control. As we sing in one of the hymns at this service: “Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: ‘My power is destroyed! I received a mortal as if He were merely one of the dead, but I was powerless to hold Him; and, along with Him I shall lose those over whom I ruled, I held the dead from all ages; but behold, He is raising them all!’”

In the Greek tradition the priest strews bay laurel leaves and flower petals throughout the church during this Psalm. In the ancient world laurel was a symbol of victory or achievement. Wreaths of laurel were awarded to the victors in athletic games; that practice continues at the Grand Prix races to this day. In our liturgy the laurel leaves represent Christ’s victory over death, the fruit of His death and resurrection.

It is a custom in Cyprus that, while the chanters are singing and the priest is strewing the leaves, people stamp their feet, bang on the pews with sticks, even clang pots and pans as a sign of the “harrowing of hell.” The noise graphically portrays the shaking of the foundations of the earth which preceded the Resurrection (see Matthew 28:2) as Christ smashes the locks and gates of Hades and destroys death.

In the silence that speaks volumes when the psalm is finished, we see the church floor covered with the “shattered gates and broken chains of Hades.” Then the Gospel of the Resurrection is proclaimed: “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6).

“Have You Any Food?”

At the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the priest blesses a special commemorative bread called the Artos. Unlike the bread offered for the Divine Liturgy, this festive bread is baked with herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, mahleb, fennel, grains of paradise and anise. Depending on local custom, lemon zest, almond extract, honey, olive oil, eggs, or rose water and even red wine may be added to the dough as well. The loaf may be stamped with a cross or an icon of the Resurrection. In many places an actual icon is placed on top of the loaf for the people to venerate at the end of the service.

The Artos is carried in procession and venerated at every service during Bright Week. It is consumed only after this week of Paschal celebration is concluded. How can we explain the unique role this bread plays in our liturgy?

When Christ rose from the dead, the first reaction of those who saw Him was disbelief. As St Luke describes it, “…they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit” (Luke 24:37). The risen Lord’s response was “Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:37). Even that was not enough to convince them all. Luke continues: “But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, ‘Have you any food here?’ So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb and He took it and ate in their presence” (Luke 24:41-43).

The disciples believed in the reality of the Resurrection when they saw Christ eating. In St John’s Gospel, we see that the disciples were out fishing when “Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Then Jesus said to them, “Children, have you any food?” (John 21:5) Similarly, when the Risen Christ appeared to the disciples traveling to Emmaus, He ate with them and “He was known to them in the breaking of bread” (Luke 24:35).

The Artos, then, represents the true, physical nature of the risen Christ, demonstrated when He ate and drank with His disciples, although He had no need of food. Eating what was offered to Him showed that He had not abandoned His humanity when He rose from the dead. As St Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Epistle to the Smyrneans, 3:3, “After the Resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although spiritually united with the Father.” His body that rose from among the dead is the same one that suffered and died. Now this body shares in the life of glory.”

Stichera of Holy Saturday Vesper-Liturgy

Today Hades sighs and cries aloud: “Better that I had never received the One whom Mary bore, for when He came to me, He undid my power. He trampled the brazen gates, and, being God, He raised up the souls which once I held.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

Today, Hades sighs and cries aloud: “My power has been swallowed up! The shepherd has been crucified and has raised Adam up. I am deprived of those over whom I used to rule. I have vomited up all those whom I devoured in my strength. He who was crucified has emptied the graves. Death’s power has lost its strength.” O Lord, glory to Your cross and to Your resurrection.

The great Moses mystically prefigured this present day when he said: “God blessed the seventh day.” For this is the blessed Sabbath! This is the day of rest on which the only–begotten Son of God kept the Sabbath in the flesh by resting in death from all His works according to the plan of salvation. Returning again to what He was through the Resurrection, He granted us eternal life. He alone is good and the Lover of mankind.
FROM ARMENIA TO EVERY CORNER of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they were indignant and said to Him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, Yes – have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16).

Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century, the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near... all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders’ all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led... From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there though the entire city... everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since.

While today the procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour” (our five PM). This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, He went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents.

Still others say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults.

Russian Orthodox Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whether we should teach children, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes: “Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church.

“Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they are of course acquainted with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday Schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith “upon the sand” (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ.

“How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel?

“When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”

“If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them –have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves.”

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, she was chiefly responsible for two great churches, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. She also took part in the excavations at the site of the Lord’s death and burial outside Jerusalem, where the Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were being observed. It was at thee shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted.

In time, local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s Passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the bestowal of union with Christ and the forgiveness of sins through the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community.

In the same spirit, Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on the Wednesday before Pascha. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting them with Christ, in the power of His death and resurrection.

On Celebrating This Feast

“In His humility, Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake: glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heaven – the proof, surely of His power and godhead –His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven.

“So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that are spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms, but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel!
St Andrew of Crete
AS THE GREAT FAST DRAWS TO A CLOSE we are presented with the story of St Mary of Egypt. Her Life, by St Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is read on the Thursday of Repentance, along with the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete. On the fifth and last Sunday in the Great Fast, Mary herself is commemorated. The story of her early dissolute life, her remarkable conversion, and the asceticism which characterized the rest of her days made her the classic model of repentance in both East and West.

The second figure in St Sophronios’ Life stands in complete contrast to his principal subject. St Zossima (April 4) is described as a devout monk in an unnamed Palestinian monastery. While Mary lived a free-wheeling and undisciplined life before her conversion, Zossima had been raised in the monastery since his infancy. This practice was not uncommon before the modern age.

We are told in the Life that Zossima "…had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors concerning spiritual labors. He had even added much himself in his efforts to subject his flesh to the will of the spirit.” Thus, while Mary was indulging her every carnal desire, satisfying her “insatiable desires and irrepressible passions” (as she described it), Zossima was learning to subject his passions to the spirit.

The Life insists that “he had not failed in his aim. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar.” Zossima, we are told, “never ceased studying the Divine Scriptures… his sole aim being to sing of God and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures.”

Zossima’s Dilemma

When Zossima, by then a heiromonk, had spent some fifty years in the monastery, he came to think that he had attained a certain level in the ascetic life beyond his fellows. He knew that he had not exhausted the spiritual life, but did not know where to go from here. “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there any man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

Was Zossima displaying pride? He was not self-satisfied with his achievements nor was he condescending to others less advanced that himself. He more resembled the young man whom Christ told to keep the commandments and who replied, “I have kept all these things since my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matthew 19:20) Zossima wanted to deepen his spiritual life but was frustrated that he could not find a spiritual mentor who could help him progress.

By way of response, an angel appeared to him and counseled him that there are always unknown struggles in the spiritual life greater than the challenges he had already faced. “That you may know how many other ways led to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan. There he would eventually encounter, not a monk or even another man, but a woman whose witness renewed his spiritual life as well as the lives of countless believers ever since. Zossima remained in his monastery and lived to be over 100. It would be his obedience to tell Mary’s story to the world.

Zossima was not told to imitate Mary’s radical asceticism but to recognize “how many other ways led to salvation.” In this his story resembles that attributed to St Anthony the Great who lived in solitude in Egypt. “It was revealed to Father Anthony in the desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Trisagion with the angels.”

Ways Leading to Salvation Today

As the Great Fast draws to a close, we may feel that we have lived its call to prayer and almsgiving to the full. Yet there are in our midst others who, like St Mary of Egypt, call us by their example to examine the possibilities of stretching our spiritual muscles further than we imagine possible.

Los Angeles attorney Tony Tolbert recalls how there was always room in his family home for someone down on their luck. This memory prompted him to move back into his parents’ house and offer the use of his own fully furnished home for one year so a homeless family could regroup and move on with their lives. “You don’t have to be Bill Gates or Warren Buffet or Oprah,” Tolbert said. “We can do it wherever we are, with whatever we have, and for me, I have a home that I can make available.”

When Palm Beach physician Richard Lewis died, friends and colleagues gathered at a local mortuary to pay their respects. They were astonished when the doors opened to admit a group of physically and mentally disabled people who came in to join them. Unknown to anyone – including his own twin brother – Dr Lewis had been supporting several group homes in the area caring for the disabled.

Swedish tourists Annis Lindkvist and her sister Emma were visiting Edinburgh, Scotland when a chance meeting changed their lives. Jimmy Fraser, unemployed and homeless after his marriage failed, was begging in the street when the women asked him for directions. They struck up an acquaintance and, ultimately, a friendship. The women obtained a passport for Fraser and paid for his flights so that he could join their family for Christmas. The women took him sightseeing and to a hockey match as well as to Midnight Mass “People promise you things all the time on the street,” Fraser reflected, “but they never materialize… Being homeless is cold, lonely and depressing, and you get a lot of abuse from people. This was an incredible act of kindness!” The women are arranging a similar visit for Easter.

The extraordinary acts of these secular “Marys” bring to life the following words by the nineteenth century Russian saint, John of Kronstadt: “And God reveals his hidden saints so that some may emulate them and others have no excuse for not doing so. Provided they live a worthy life, both those who choose to live in the midst of noise and hubbub and those who dwell in monasteries, mountains and caves can achieve salvation. Solely because of their faith in Him, God bestows great blessings on them. Hence those who, because of their laziness, have failed to attain salvation will have no excuse to offer on the Day of Judgment.

“If you love your neighbor, then all of heaven will love you. If you are united in spirit with your fellow creatures, then you will be united with God and all the company of heaven; if you are merciful to your neighbor, then God and all the angels and saints will be merciful to you. If you pray for others, then all of heaven will intercede for you. The Lord our God is holy; be holy yourself also.”

From the Triodion

The One who dwelled in Egypt as a little Child, the One whom the universe cannot contain, the Lord who knows all has revealed you as a star, shining forth from Egypt. In you we have a model of repentance. Implore Christ, O Mary, that in this time of the Fast we may praise you in faith and love.
AT THE FOOT OF MOUNT SINAI, in the Egyptian peninsula of the same name, sits the monastery of St Catherine. It has been inhabited continuously for over 1700 years, making it one of the oldest such places in the world. Its unique climate has preserved icons and manuscripts from the first millennium ad that look as if they were just made. The greatest treasures it has produced, however, are its spiritual riches: over 170 saints honored in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, chief among them being St John Climacos. A native of the region, St John lived in the sixth century. At 16 he became a monk and spent the rest of his life as an ascetic. For most of his life he lived in a hermitage at the foot of the mountain. When he was 75, he was chosen as abbot of St Catherine’s monastery but ended his life in solitude, as a desert-dwelling ascetic. In the early seventh century another John, abbot of the Raithu monastery on the shores of the Red Sea, asked our John to write a guide to the spiritual life for the monks of Raithu. The result was the klimax or Ladder by which John of Sinai has been known ever since. Using the imagery of Jacob’s ladder (cf., Genesis 28:10-19), he portrays the ascetic life as a climb to heaven with each rung on the ladder being a virtue to be acquired. A twelfth-century icon preserved at the monastery shows monks climbing this ladder. Some acquire all the virtues and complete the ascent to God; others fall off, pulled down by the passions, unable to endure the ascetic life to the end. It has long been the custom in monasteries to read The Ladder each year during the Great Fast. This is turn gave rise to the commemoration of St John on the Fourth Sunday of the Fast.

The Rungs of the Ladder

The first seven rungs portray the most basic virtues necessary for an ascetic life: renunciation of the world, detachment from what was left behind, exile from all we have known, obedience (which is voluntary death of the ego), repentance, the remembrance of death, and cultivating a spirit of mourning. The remaining rungs detail steps needed to make progress on this way of life, such as freedom from anger and irritability, forgetting of wrongs suffered, avoiding gossip and slander, and conquering despondency. Battling gluttony, lust and greed through fasting from food, drink and sleep are depicted as the daily work of the monk. “The farmer’s wealth is gathered on the threshing floor and in the wine-press, but the wealth and knowledge of monks is gathered during the evening and the night hours while standing in prayer and engaging in spiritual activity” (Step 20). On subsequent rings the monk confronts more dangerous enemies – pride and vanity – through humility and the revealing of one’s inmost thoughts. Only through the acquisition of these virtues can the monk attain to prayer, love, and heaven on earth: the state of communion with God.

Some Excerpts from The Ladder

“Blessed is he who, though maligned and disparaged every day for the Lord’s sake, constrains himself to be patient. He will join the chorus of the martyrs and boldly converse with the angels. “Blessed is the monk who regards himself as hourly deserving every dishonor and disparagement. Blessed is he who mortifies his own will to the end, and leaves the care of himself to his director in the Lord; for he will be placed at the right hand of the Crucified. He who will not accept a reproof, just or unjust, renounces his own salvation. But he who accepts it with an effort, or even without an effort, will soon receive the remission of his sins.” From the Fourth Rung “Greater than baptism itself is the fountain of tears after baptism, even though it is somewhat audacious to say so. For baptism is the washing away of evils that were in us before, but sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. As baptism is received in infancy, we have all defiled it, but we cleanse it anew with tears. And if God, in His love for mankind, had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed.” From the Seventh Rung “Forgetting of wrongs we have suffered is a sign of true repentance. But he who dwells on them and thinks that he is repenting is like a man who thinks he is running while he is really asleep.” From the Ninth Rung “He who has become aware of his sins has controlled his tongue, but a talkative person has not yet come to know himself as he should.” From the Eleventh Rung “He who has tasted the things on high easily despises what is below; but he who has not tasted the things above finds joy in possessions.” From the Seventeenth Rung “It is not darkness or the desolateness of place that gives the demons power against us, but barrenness of soul. Through God’s providence this sometimes happens in order that we may learn by it.” From the Twenty-First Rung “Blasphemous thoughts, this deceiver and corrupter of souls, has often driven many out of their mind. No other thought is so difficult to tell in confession as this. That is why it often remains with many to the very end of their lives. For nothing gives the demons and bad thoughts such power over us as nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed.” From the Twenty-third Rung “The natural property of the lemon tree is such than it lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit; but the more the branches bend down, the more fruit they bear. Those who have the mind to understand will grasp the meaning of this.” From the Twenty-Fifth Rung “Before all else let us first list sincere thanksgiving on the scroll of our prayer. On the second line we should put confession and heartfelt contrition of soul. Then let us present our petition to the King of all. This is the best way of prayer, as it was shown to one of the brethren by an angel of the Lord.” “If you feel sweetness or compunction at some word of your prayer, dwell on it; for then our guardian angel is praying with us.” “Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the mirror of the monk.” From the Twenty-Eighth Rung And if You Are Not a Monk… “Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ “I replied to them, ‘Do all the good you can. Do not speak evil of anyone. Do not steal from anyone. Do not lie to anyone. Do not be arrogant towards anyone. Do not hate anyone. Do not be absent from the divine services. Be compassionate to the needy. Do not offend anyone. Do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven.” From the First Rung
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN THE GREAT FAST is highlighted in the Byzantine Churches by the veneration of the holy cross. We adorn it with flowers, carry it in procession and prostrate ourselves before it. The Fast is preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ; halfway through the Fast the cross is venerated to encourage us to persevere in our efforts for this season.

Honoring a cross in any way would seem ridiculous to a first-century citizen of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a humiliating disgrace and an extraordinarily painful method of execution reserved for slaves and other non-citizens, people who did not matter in Roman eyes. Yet St Paul found the cross of Christ a source of pride. “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

The cross had become the sole source of his boasting, knowledge of Christ his sole treasure. “Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

The Ultimate Sign

For the apostles the cross represented the depth of the mystery of Christ. His passion showed the extent of His love for His people. “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It represents the totality of His incarnation. He became man in every way, accepting suffering, abandonment, and a painful death to be one with His creatures who endure such things every day. We can never portray our Savior as a “distant God” – He has shared the totality of humanity with us while remaining one with the Father.

The profundity of His descent in order to share our humanity is expressed in the term kenosis. St Paul uses it in what has become a well-beloved synopsis of the Christian’s faith in the incarnation and its meaning for us. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”
(Philippians 2:5-11).

In this passage St Paul describes the condescension of the Word of God to us. The only-begotten Son and Word of God “made Himself of no reputation” by taking our nature, and then by accepting the degrading death of a convict, the cross.

This self-abasement or kenosis, however, resulted in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ in glory, proclaimed as Lord by “every tongue.

St Paul saw the power of the cross uniting all peoples, even the Jews and Gentiles, separated by the barrier imposed by the Law. By His death Christ “…abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,  and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Philippians 2:15, 16).

Not only all peoples but all creation was affected by the cross. “… it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19, 20). Through the cross Christ overcomes all the divisions and separations in creation, bringing everything to the fullness and unity which was designed at the original creation and then lost.

The Sign Rejected

Not everyone had the insight of St Paul concerning the power of the cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … For Jews demand a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24). 

The idea of God emptying Himself and being crucified appeals to no human logic. The Jews expected the Messiah to be manifested with signs of divine power: “glorious things which have never been,” according to one ancient text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the signs Jews looked for were the ingathering of all Jews into the land of Israel and an era of world peace in which there would be no hatred, oppression, suffering or disease. They generally saw the picture of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:3-7 as referring to the people of Israel, not to the Messiah.

The philosophically-minded Greeks “seek after wisdom.” There were a host of rival philosophical schools among first-century Greeks: Epicureans, Neo-Platonists, Sophists, Stoics and a host of others, all based on reason and logic. Thus when St Paul spoke about the resurrection in Athens (see Acts 17:16-34) some mocked him, others brushed him off. The Lord was not a philosopher; curiously many Gnostics sought to make Him one, which is why many of their writings (apocryphal gospels) were rejected by the early Church.

Imitating the Cross

  As a rule, Jews today reject the notion that the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah. Muslims teach that He only appeared to die on the cross and that God “took Him.” There are members of both groups who have a thinly disguised contempt for our display of the cross. When the president of Israel visited Pope Francis in 2015 his ultra-Orthodox assistant refused to shake the pope’s hand (he was a man) or greet him with a bow (he was wearing a cross). The pope responded by covering the cross and bowing to her.

Some other ultra-Orthodox Jews were triumphant, while some traditionalist Roman Catholics were ashamed of the pope. Others saw his action as an imitation of the kenosis of Christ who humbled himself. He venerated the cross, not by displaying it, but by living it.

Describing the kenosis of Christ, St Paul urged us, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). He would, no doubt, be pleased to see us reverence the cross today; he would be even more pleased to see us imitate the kenosis which brought Christ to that cross.

A Program for the Rest of the Fast

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12: 1,2).
THERE ARE MANY DESCRIPTIVE TITLES ascribed to Christ in Scripture and in the Tradition of the ancient Churches. He is portrayed as the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, the Great High Priest, the Bread of life and so much more. Perhaps the most frequently heard of these depictions is the one which ends most of our liturgical services: “He is gracious and the Lover of mankind.”

Possibly the most important characteristic in Christ’s love for mankind is portrayed in St Mark’s description of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). He assures the sick man, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). The reaction of the scribes was unspoken but clear: “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v.7)

Feeding the hungry or helping the downtrodden are acts of love which anyone can perform, believer or unbeliever. God, however, has the monopoly on forgiving sins! That Christ proclaims the forgiveness of sins seems to equate Him with God, which the Jewish leaders saw as blasphemy.

Not only does Christ proclaim the forgiveness of sin: He does so by His word alone! In Jewish practice, one had to submit to some sort of ritual in order to convey the need to be cleansed of sin. Before the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed in ad 70, the Jews had a complex system of sacrifices expressing repentance and atonement for anything which they saw as rendering them unfit to stand in worship before the Lord. Depending on their status or ability, people would offer unblemished animals or birds to be killed and burned upon the altar, at least in part, their blood sprinkled before the holy place as a plea for mercy. On the annual Day of Atonement, a bull and a goat would be sacrificed by the High Priest for his sins and the offences of the entire nation.

John the Forerunner also practiced a rite to express repentance. As he described it, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance” (Matthew 3:11). Christ stands in stark contrast to the priests and prophets of Israel: by His word alone He forgives sin. Nothing is needed other than faith in Him!

With His Own Blood

The forgiveness which Christ accorded to the paralytic, to the sinful woman who wept at His feet (see Luke 7:36-50) and to others during His earthly ministry is made available to the whole world by His death and resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we see the imagery of the temple sacrifices used to explain Christ as the One who forgives. St John the Forerunner proclaims Him to his own followers as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). St Paul calls Christ’s death “propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son,” Paul teaches (Romans 5:10). God, Paul tells us, “…made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The most developed expression of Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There, after a lengthy description of the temple and its priesthood, we read, “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having attained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12). He is both the High Priest and the sacrifice who, once for all, restores mankind as fitting priests of God on earth.

Forgiveness in the Body of Christ

When the disciples marveled at the healings and miracles wrought by Christ during His earthly ministry, He promised them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in 
Me the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to my Father” (John 14:12). Among other things, Christ has empowered the Church as His Body to continue proclaiming the remission of sins in His name. This ministry is executed in a number of expressions by which we can experience God’s forgiveness in our life. To the degree that we enter into them, we will find our lives centering on God to a greater degree. In our Tradition the following are emphasized:

Daily Prayer for Repentance, particularly the Jesus Prayer – The morning and evening prayers prescribed by the Church includes prayers of repentance. The most basic of these is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” God surely hears these prayers when offered from a contrite heart.

Regular Self-Reflection – Periodic, even daily, self-examination helps us to see the direction of our lives. Our entire existence should be lived in the light of the Holy Spirit. Honest self-examination helps us see the degree in which our lives are conformed to Christ’s.

A Relationship with a Confessor/Spiritual Father – Each person is in a different place in his or her journey. We may on occasion find thoughts in the Scriptures or Fathers that touch our hearts, but finding someone who knows you and knows the ways of Holy Tradition is like taking a giant step in the Christian life. The fullest dimension of spiritual guidance involves sharing our thoughts and yearnings, not just our sins, with this spiritual guide.

The Eucharist and the Remission of Sins – Several times during the Divine Liturgy we are reminded that the Eucharist is given to us “for the remission of sins.” To receive this gift we must approach “discerning the body,” as St Paul says: sensing the depths of this mystery and our unworthiness to take part in it. And so before receiving we say the prayer “I believe, Lord and profess,” specifically asking for the pardon of our offences, the deliberate and the indeliberate, whether committed knowingly or inadvertently – so that we may receive the remission of sins and eternal life in this mystery.

Observing the Church’s Fasts – The Fasts are another liturgical expression of repentance. Rearranging our lives in obedience to the Church’s weekly and seasonal Fasts is a most practical way of affirming our commitment to life in Christ, a daily reminder that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).

Confession: The Mystery of Repentance – This is the sacramental expression of repentance. This mystery appeared in Christian history when people first realized that they had reneged on their baptismal commitment in a serious way. Confession was this considered a “second baptism,” a starting over in the Christian life. Over the centuries, it became more widely used and is considered appropriate today whenever a person feels the need of it, particularly: When serious sin has been committed; When a habitual sin has overwhelmed the Christian; When a Christian has stopped growing spiritually and needs a reorientation of priorities.

Forgive Others to be Forgiven

Perhaps the most difficult part of seeking forgiveness is the one mandated by the Lord: “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him,that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25). God’s forgiveness is for all; but it is only possible to those who forgive others in turn.
AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY during the Great Fast we read from the Holy Gospel according to Mark – except for today. Why is John 1:43-51 read on this Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy?

The brief answer is that both the Gospel reading and the triumph of Orthodoxy, which we commemorate today, are about seeing God. In the Gospel story we hear how Philip invites Nathaniel to see Jesus (physically); when they meet, Nathaniel sees (spiritually) that Jesus is the Messiah. In the Church, we (physically) see icons; then see (spiritually) that they reflect the reality of Christ’s incarnation.

Nathaniel Sees God

The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel is a brief and almost cryptic tale which many have tried to explain. Nathaniel and his friend Philip were both disciples of St John the Forerunner. They had responded to John’s announcement that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen” (John 1:27). The Lord Jesus had gone to the Jordan where John was baptizing, and it is there that John identifies Jesus as the Awaited One. “Again the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’” (vv. 35, 36). Philip may have been one of those who heard John’s testimony, so that when Jesus invited Philip to follow Him, he responded positively. In turn, Philip goes to his friend Nathaniel with the news, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). Nathaniel replies laconically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (v. 46)

Modern commentators generally see this remark of Nathaniel as a somewhat snide dismissal of Jesus because He was a Nazarene. The Fathers approached this passage differently, saying that Nathaniel meant the exact opposite: that, if Jesus was the Awaited One, then He could not have come from Nazareth. St John Chrysostom, for example, suggested that Nathaniel “thought within himself that Philip was probably mistaken about the place” and that Jesus was not from Nazareth” (Homily 20 on John).

In any case, Philip responds with the same words that Jesus earlier said to Andrew, “Come and see.” When Nathaniel finally meets Jesus, the Lord utters another cryptic remark, “’Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit! Nathaniel said to Him, ‘How do you know me?’Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (vv. 47, 48) ’

What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? Again, many suggestions have been offered; none of them are attested in the Scripture, so we cannot know for sure. One possibility upheld by many in our Tradition is that Nathaniel was praying at that time: O God of our fathers, send us the One whom You have promised. Send us the Messiah, the Savior. Faith in the promise of a Savior is what marks out a true Israelite. The Lord, they say, saw him at prayer and He saw Nathaniel’s heat. Nathaniel’s response marks him as one of the first disciples of Christ, whom He called before His ministry in Galilee.

You are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (v. 49) Nathaniel sees that Jesus is the Messiah and acclaims Him with the traditional titles of a royal Messiah: “son of God” and “king of Israel.”

At the end of His public ministry, Jesus’ followers would affirm their faith in His heavenly origin: “See, now You are speaking plainly, and using no figure of speech! Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16: 29, 30). But it would only be after His resurrection, when the risen Christ was manifested to the disciples, that the full force of Jesus’ words to Nathaniel would be realized: “Most assuredly I say to you: hereafter you shall see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51) Nathaniel, like the rest of the apostles, would grow to see Jesus – not as the earthly conqueror whom devout Jews were awaiting, but as a King not of this world and, ultimately, the eternal Word of God incarnate.

Icons Reveal Christ as God’s Image

In the eighth and ninth centuries ad, some Byzantine emperors and churchmen waged a struggle against the use of icons. This conflict was ultimately ended in 843 with the restoration of icons, called in the Church the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” Today’s observance celebrates this act.

Iconoclasm formally began in the 720s, when certain bishops began questioning the excessive way in which some people were revering icons. In 730 Emperor Leo III took up their cause and issued a decree forbidding the veneration of religious images, “the evil art of painters,” as a later iconoclast council called it. While iconoclasts saw images as a departure from the practice of the early Church, those who supported the veneration of icons did so precisely on the basis of Tradition: the Church had done so for years and was not in error.

It was St John of Damascus (676-749) who gave the Church the insight that the use of icons was the logical consequence of the incarnation of Christ. As he wrote in his Treatise on the Divine Images, “In former times, God who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh, conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake.” St John’s teaching became normative in the Byzantine Church which, since the Triumph of Orthodoxy, has in the minds of many become identified as “the Church of Icons.”

“But I Can’t Fast”

“If there are some gathered here who are hindered by sickness and cannot remain without food, I advise them to reverse their ailment and not to deprive themselves from the Fast, but to care for it even more.

“For there exist – there really exist ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. Then our physical illness is not a hindrance to our spirit. Let him become reconciled with his enemies. Let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has done the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else.

“It is for this reason that He asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of His commandments, by curbing its impetuousness … If we eat with moderation, we should never be ashamed, because the Creator gave us such a body which cannot be supported in any other way except by receiving food. Let us only stop excessive food; that in itself contributes a great deal to the health and well-being of the body.”
Abridged from St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Fasting
EACH YEAR, AS WE PREPARE to embark upon the Great Fast, we hear the Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) read at the Divine Liturgy. Some commentators have said that the story might better be called the Parable of the Forgiving Father as he is the most important character in the story. Actually the parable speaks about the character of God, (the father) and the human condition (both his sons). It thus sets the stage for our Lenten journey of repentance.

The Prodigal Son and Our Human Condition

We are not told the exact age of the young man when he decides to set off on his own, but countless commentators have depicted him as an adolescent. His behavior certainly bears this out. He has the selfish impatience of youth: he wants his inheritance now, even though his father is still alive. He is more interested in what the man’s money can buy than in the man himself.

In that, the young man repeats the choice made by our first parents who preferred the appetizing but forbidden fruit to continued fellowship with the One who provided it. He also images the choices we all make when we focus our attention on the fruits of creation rather than on the Creator who offers us a relationship with Himself. In any such choice we become the petulant adolescent whose first stabs at maturity always seem to require resentment of the parent if not outright rebellion.

On his own the Prodigal’s newfound independence seems to lead him into slavery rather quickly. He begins living what various translations call a “wild,” “reckless,” “loose” “riotous” “foolish,” “notorious,” “dissolute,” “wasteful,” or “prodigal” way of life. We are left to imagine what that might have involved; we certainly know what the result was. He spent everything he had and ended up with nothing. He wanted to be independent but did not understand that being independent does not free a person from being responsible.

No well-balanced person in our world wants to be dependent on another. We often forget, however, that our desire for human self-determination cannot lead us away from God without disastrous results. We inevitably end up spiritually bankrupt and living on the pig’s fodder of a Godless world.

Unlike many people, however, the Prodigal does something about his condition: he returns to his father. He repents. Still thinking of himself and his own needs, he plans to plead for the lowest place in his father’s household. The young man does not know with whom he is dealing.

The Forgiving Father and the Mercy of God

The father does not wait for his son to apologize or beg for forgiveness. He welcomes him home with open arms and calls for a celebration. He is the image of our heavenly Father who knows when one of His children seeks forgiveness and grants it at once, without demanding any form of penance or satisfaction.

Note that the father does not go in search of his son when the lad is enjoying the wasteful life he has chosen or when he is miserable, but not yet resolved to return home. His mercy would bear fruit only when the son had come to truly desire it and so the father waits for his son to make the first move. But when the son does return, the father does not make him work for forgiveness; he gives it freely.

In this the father is unlike many of us who would want the ungrateful son to squirm before accepting him back home. We might feel justified in “teaching him a lesson,” but this is apparently not God’s way. When repentance truly touches the heart, the “lesson” has already been learned.

The Father’s extraordinary mercy is no excuse for taking advantage of Him: seeking the blessing of His house while not repenting in action as well as in words. As St Isaac the Syrian taught, “But the fact that repentance furnishes hope should not be taken by us as a means to rob ourselves of the feeling of fear, so that one might more freely and fearlessly commit sin” (Isaac the Syrian, First Collection: Homily Ten).

Proclaiming the Mercy of God

Our liturgy continually emphasizes the mercy of God. The beloved Polyeleos psalm sung so frequently in our churches at the most solemn occasions has as its refrain, “For His mercy endures forever, alleluia” The Typica psalms each proclaim the depths of God’s mercy to His People: “He forgives all your iniquity, he heals all your diseases, he redeems your life from the pit, he crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” (Psalms 102:3, 4).

The second psalm is even more specific: “He brings about justice for the oppressed; he gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalms 146:7-9).

Is it unreasonable to think that we, who continually sing of God’s mercy in our services, should not be encouraging one another to return to the Father by attending the Church’s Lenten services, by approaching the Mystery of Confession and by embracing the ideas in “The Great Fast in the Home,” available on our eparchy’s web site,

As the Lord said in the parables which precede the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance… Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7, 10).

St. Cyril of Alexandria on the Parable

“What then is the object of the parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; for so we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke therefore had himself said a little before of Christ the Savior of us all, ‘And all the publicans and sinners drew near unto Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ As therefore the Pharisees and Scribes made this outcry at His gentleness and love to man, and wickedly and impiously blamed Him for receiving and teaching men whose lives were impure, Christ very necessarily set before them the present parable, to show them clearly this very thing: that …when any are called to repentance, even if they be men highly blamable, he must rejoice, and not give way to an unloving vexation on their account….

“For sometimes people are indignant at this, and even say, 'This man, who has been guilty of such and such actions… has been inscribed among the sons of God, and honored with the glory of the saints!’' Such complaints come from an empty narrowness of mind, not conforming to the purpose of the universal Father. For He greatly rejoices when He sees those who were lost obtaining salvation, and raises them up again to that which they were in the beginning, giving them the garment of freedom...

“It is our duty, therefore, to conform ourselves to that which God wills: for He heals those who are sick… He seeks those who were lost; He raises as from the dead those who had suffered spiritual death. Let us also rejoice and, together with the holy angels, praise Him who is good, and the Lover of mankind.”
     Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke, 107
THIS WEEKEND OUR CHURCH opens the pages of the Triodion, the book containing the texts for all the services leading up to Pascha. This Lenten journey may be viewed on two levels, chronologically and spiritually. Both are important as we look ahead to our celebration of Pascha.

Chronologically, the period of the Triodion consists in three distinct sections: the pre-Lenten period, the Great Fast itself, and the Great and Holy Week. The first, the pre-Lenten period, progressively leads us to the coming Great Fast. It begins with two Sundays which introduce us to thoughts of repentance. Next we have a weekend of observances reminding us of our mortality: the Saturday of the Dead and the Sunday of the final Judgment. Finally, in Meat-fare Week, we are eased into the Fast by beginning to abstain from meat. The last pre-Lenten observance takes place on Cheese-Fare Sunday with the ceremony of forgiveness, in which we ritually ask the entire community to forgive us our offences so that we may begin the Great Fast with pure hearts.

The Publican and the Pharisee

On this first Sunday of the Triodion’s pre-Lenten period, we are presented with the Lord’s parable of the Publican or tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. As we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded how the prayer of the Pharisee did not reach God while the Publican’s prayer was heard. The Pharisee’s devotions were “correct,” but, the Lord teaches, it is not enough to say the right words when the heart is not correct as well.

The basic attitude of the heart for which the Pharisee is faulted is pride: “I fast twice a week,” he boasts; “I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:12)… and that makes me better than that tax collector. The Pharisee is right in one sense: it is good to fast and to give tithes, but his good deeds are made void through his pride.

Reflecting on this parable in its hymnody, our Church describes the Pharisee’s prayer as “ungrateful.” He says, “I thank you, God,” but thankfulness to God is not revealed in his underlying attitude. His inner spirit is not focused on God’s gifts, but on his own perceived accomplishments. He does the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

A consequence of the Pharisee’s self-centered parody of religion is the judgmental way he regards his fellow man: “I am not like other men” (v.11): my devotions make me superior, more worthy in the sight of God. Christ takes the opposite view: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14)..

Keeping a Proper Perspective

The Scriptures often return to the place of formal religious practices in our spiritual life. Some people – we might call them iconoclasts – reject such practices outright as hypocrisy. The Lord is not one of them. He affirms the value of devotional practices, when kept in a suitable way. He condemns the Pharisees for their attitudes, not their actions. He tells His followers, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, … all their works they do to be seen by men” (Matthew 23:2, 5).

Our fasting should not be a matter of public display. “Moreover, when you fast,” the Lord says, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16, 17).

In Matthew 23, Christ specifies the place of devotional practices in a mature spiritual life. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Devotional practices are commendable, but not as a replacement for mutual love.

During the coming Fast we may become so concerned with its devotional aspects, such as attending special services or avoiding meat and dairy products, that we become irritable with others and make void our striving to keep the Fast. The mature approach is that outlined by Christ in the verse above: observe the devotional practices, but do not ignore or abuse others in the process. As the Greek saying puts it, it is better to eat the fish than to eat the fisherman!

Isn’t Fasting Obsolete?

In the first century ad, some Christians coming from a Jewish background were concerned with keeping the ritual precepts of the Old Testament in addition to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. In the traditional Jewish view, it was keeping the precepts of the Law which makes a person righteous before God. St Paul repeatedly insisted that this was no longer the case. It is putting our faith in Christ, not the devotions we observe, which justifies us. The Law of Moses, the Apostle taught, was “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ” (Colossians 2:17).

For us, observing the precepts of the Fast are meant to lead us to Christ, not substitute for a relationship with Him. We cannot earn ourselves a place in heaven by fasting, or by any other practice we might undertake. We can fast and pray, however, to express our gratitude for the gifts of God who has united us to Himself in Christ. We fast, not to improve our standing with God, but to respond with gratitude to what He has done for us.

The Canon from the Triodion

Every good deed can be made void through foolish pride, while every sin can be cleansed by humility. Let us then embrace humility in faith and completely turn away from the path of pride.                                    From Ode 1 God the Word humbled Himself and took the form of a servant, showing that humility is the best means to exaltation. All those who follow the Lord’s example, humbling themselves, will be exalted on high.

To lead us to exaltation with God, the Savior and Master revealed in His deeds the humility which can lift us up on high. With His own hands, He washed the feet of His Apostles.                                    From Ode 4

Let us hasten to follow the example of the Pharisee in his virtues and to imitate the Publican in his humility. Let us flee what is wrong in each of them: foolish pride and the defilement of transgressions.                                    From Ode 5

O faithful, let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! Let us never claim, ‘We are pure,’ as he did. Let us rightly follow the Publican in his humility and gain the mercy of our God.                                    From Ode 8

Like the Publican, let us pray to the Lord, entreating His mercy and flee from the Pharisee’s ungrateful prayer and the proud words with which he judged his neighbor, that we may gain God’s forgiveness and light.                                    From Ode 9

THE LORD JESUS SAID to the rich young ruler, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22). This young man declined, but others through the centuries have left all and followed Him. In times of persecution they followed Him to the cross (or the sword, the wild beasts, or the flames) as martyrs. But what if there is no persecution – how can one follow Christ?

A number of early Christians sought to follow Him into the wilderness. Ascetics, both men and women, left their homes and withdrew from society to follow the One who had said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). The first to do so, like St Takla, the first woman martyr, left their homes to dwell outside their town or village in relative seclusion. Two others, whom the Church remembers this week, went further than that.

The first, St Paul of Thebes (January 15), is revered as the first hermit in Egypt. During the persecution of Decius, Paul fled to the Theban desert where he lived in a cave for almost 100 years before his death in 342.

We know more about the second, St Anthony the Great (January 17), the “father of monks” whose life was written by his contemporary, St Athanasius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria. This work was soon translated into numerous languages and spread the fame of St Anthony and of the ascetic life throughout the Churches of East and West.

“Sell all that you have…”

Anthony (c. 251-356) was the son of landowners from the village of Coma on the Nile, south of Alexandria. When he was 18 years old, his parents died, leaving his unmarried sister in his care. A few months later he had what we might call a “Conversion Experience” while attending the Liturgy in the village church. He heard the Gospel passage quoted at the start of this article and, as St Athanasius tells it, “As though God had put him in mind of the  Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, Anthony went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres, productive and very fair— that they should be no more an obstruction to himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake.”

Soon after he felt called to a more ascetic way of life. Placing his sister in the care of “known and faithful virgins,” Anthony began living in solitude outside his village, visiting any nearby ascetics and studying their way of life. When he was about 35, he settled among the tombs at the edge of the Western Desert, giving himself over to prayer and fasting. A friend bringing him bread one day found him collapsed outside the tomb and brought him back to the village. St Athanasius says that Anthony had a divine visitation in which he was told, “since you have endured, and have not been overcome, I will always help you, and will make your name known everywhere.' Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly.” 

20 Years at Deir al-Meimun

As soon as Anthony recovered he headed further into the desert, settling in the ruins of an abandoned fort in the mountains on the other side of the Nile. Friends would come to bring him food but he would not leave the fort, speaking to them through a slit in the wall. St Athanasius says that these friends often heard him beset by demons and that they “used often to come expecting to find him dead, and would hear him singing, ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, let them that hate Him flee before His face. As smoke vanishes, let them vanish; as wax melts before the face of fire, so let the sinners perish from the face of God;’ and again, ‘All nations compassed me about, and in the name of the Lord I requited them.’”

Anthony’s reputation spread over the years and people increasingly came to see him, hoping to imitate his way of life. After twenty years “Anthony came forth, as from a shrine, initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God. Then for the first time he was seen outside the fort by those who came to see him. And they, when they saw him, wondered at the sight, for he looked as he had years before. He was neither fat, like a man without exercise, nor lean from fasting and striving with the demons. He was just the same as they had known him before his retirement.”

Anthony now encouraged others to settle nearby and adopt his way of life. The numbers so increased that, as Athanasius says, “cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonized by monks.” 

Forays to Alexandria

Although other monks leaved nearby, Anthony still lived in seclusion for most of the time, coming together with them for occasional worship and instruction. He first left this place of solitude in 311, during the persecution of Maximinus when Christians were being rounded up and taken to Alexandria. He presented himself publicly in the city but no one dared touch him. He spent some time ministering to the suffering Christians there. When the persecution ceased, he then returned to his cell.

Anthony now resolved to return to solitude. He settled further into the mountains and allowed other monks to bring him food once a month. He would descend to the other monks from time to time to instruct and encourge them in their monastic life.

Anthony returned to Alexandria to refute the rumor that he sided with the Arians. He publicly denounced the Arian teaching, calling it the forerunner of the antichrist. During his stay there he healed many and freed others from demons.

As the years progressed more and more people came to live the monastic life in Anthony’s shadow. His fame even reached Emperor Constantine and his sons who wrote to him seeking guidance. Anthony lived to be 105. His body was placed in an unmarked grave, as he directed.

Asceticism and Us

What does the witness of St Anthony – and of the ascetic life in general – say to people in the world? We are all called to follow Christ, if not to a martyr’s death or to a foreign mission, but where is He leading us? St Paul gives us this answer: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:1, 2).

Asceticism is essentially a refocusing of our hearts away from “things on the earth” to enable us to develop our relationship to Christ where He is now. While people in the world have important family and career responsibilities, we also have a great deal of free time which we devote to recreation or entertainment of one sort or another. In our society we are increasingly addicted to non-stop music, TV or Internet, with their increasingly godless atmosphere. What time do we have left for prayer, Scripture reading or service? What spirit do we have left for relishing fellowship with God? Asceticism for us might well involve turning from such pursuits at least in part to set our minds “on things above, where Christ is.

Holy Father Anthony, pray to God for us!

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