Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN MANY PARISHES, the Great Fast means an increase in activity: added services, Lenten Dinners, missions and other programs. It is ironic that we celebrate today a saint identified with the spirituality of stillness. St Gregory Palamas’ main contribution to the life of the Church is his articulate and definitive presentation of Hesychasm, what he called “Sacred Quietude,” the monastic ideal of withdrawal and silence in order to focus on union with God.

Who Is St Gregory Palamas?

This future saint was born in Constantinople in 1296 into a family of some standing at the imperial court. Despite the emperor’s attempt to groom him for imperial service, Gregory went to Mount Athos and became a monk. After spending ten years on the Holy Mountain, Gregory and the other monks of his skete withdrew to Thessaloniki, because of the threat of Turkish invasion. He continued in his monastic calling there and in Berea before returning to Athos in the 1330s.

It was upon his return to Mount Athos that Gregory first encountered Barlaam of Calabria, an Italo-Greek monk and humanist who was head of the Monastery of Our Savior in Constantinople. Barlaam was involved in several diplomatic missions for the emperor as well as in discussions with the legates of Pope John XXII aimed at the reunion of the Greek and Latin Churches. Barlaam had written 21 treatises critical of Latin theology, particularly the Filioque and the doctrine of papal primacy which came to the attention of Gregory Palamas. While Barlaam had upheld the traditional Byzantine thinking on these issues, Palamas criticized him for teaching that the Filioque was wrong because it is impossible to determine from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds, since God is ultimately unknowable. Thus began a rivalry that would affect the Church in both East and West until our own day.

What Is Hesychasm?

The Filioque controversy was simply the preliminary. The “Main Event” concerned the practice of Hesychasm, a style of contemplative prayer observed in many Greek monasteries of the day. Inspired by the Lord’s words, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6), Eastern monastics had long seen the heart as the “inner chamber” to which we must go for prayer. Communion with God becomes possible when the mind, with its memories, concerns and plans for the future, is subjected to the heart that loves God above all. The Jesus Prayer had become the means for silencing the mind and thus entering this inner chamber of the heart. To this the Hesychasts added certain psycho-physical techniques such as rhythmic breathing and a particular way of sitting. Barlaam objected to these methods, calling the Hesychast monks he met “navel gazers.”

The heads of the Athonite monasteries asked Gregory Palamas to respond to Barlaam’s critique, which he did in a series of treatises. The controversy soon centered on the theological basis of Hesychasm, the possibility of experiencing the Uncreated Light of God as the apostles did at the Holy Transfiguration of Christ. Hesychasts believed that through ever deepening prayer the monk could experience this Light which they believed to be a divine energy. Barlaam, an intellectual trained in Aristotelian scholasticism, attacked this teaching as heretical and the entire Hesychast method as anti-intellectual, holding that philosophy was the true means of attaining the knowledge of God.

The controversy so affected the Byzantine Church that several local councils were held in Constantinople between 1341 and 1351 to discuss the issues raised by Barlaam and Gregory. They ultimately affirmed the teachings of St Gregory Palamas, namely that:

1. The light which shone at Tabor, during the Transfiguration of the Savior, is declared to be neither a creature nor the essence of God, but His energy: the uncreated and natural grace springing eternally from the divine essence itself;

2. There are in God two inseparable things: His essence and the natural and substantial energies flowing from His essence in line with the relationship of cause and effect. We cannot enter into His essence but we can participate in His energies. Both the one and the other are uncreated and eternal;

3. This real distinction between essence and energies or operations does not destroy the simplicity of God…;

4.The word θεότης (godly) does not apply solely to the divine essence, but is said also of its operation…;

5.The light of Tabor is the ineffable and eternal glory of the Son of God, the kingdom of heaven promised to the saints, the splendor in which He shall appear on the last day to judge all mankind.

After the Councils

The patriarchs of Constantinople spent the rest of the fourteenth century sharing this teaching with the other patriarchs and local Churches, securing their assent. Gregory Palamas became archbishop of Thessalonika where he died in 1359. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 by Patriarch Philotheos of Constantinople, who composed the service for his feast. Barlaam left Constantinople in 1341 after the council which condemned his teaching. He was received by the Pope of Rome at Avignon and was consecrated bishop of Gerace, a Greek diocese in Calabria. He died in 1348.

Hesychasm and the West

Palamas’ teaching was long considered suspect, if not heretical, in the West, which had embraced Aristotelian scholasticism as adapted by St Thomas Aquinas as its official theology. It was only in the twentieth century that St Gregory’s teaching was seen positively by Western Catholic theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. In the 1930s Danielou wrote how excited he was to read of Palamas’ “vision of humanity transfigured by the divine energies”.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II commented positively about the underlying doctrine behind Hesychasm: the possibility of theosis. He wrote, “In the East, hesychasm means a method of prayer characterized by a deep tranquility of the spirit, which is engaged in constant contemplation of God by invoking the name of Jesus. There was no lack of tension with the Catholic viewpoint on certain aspects of this practice. However, we should acknowledge the good intentions which guided the defense of this spiritual method, that is, to emphasize the concrete possibility that man is given to unite himself with the Triune God in the intimacy of his heart, in that deep union of grace which Eastern theology likes to describe with the particularly powerful term of ‘theosis’ (‘divinization’).

“Precisely in this regard Eastern spirituality has amassed a very rich experience which was vigorously presented in the famous collection of texts significantly entitled Philokalia (‘love of beauty’) and gathered by Nicodemus the Hagiorite at the end of the 18th century. …

“How many things we have in common! It is time for Catholics and Orthodox to make an extra effort to understand each other better and to recognize with the renewed wonder of brotherhood what the Spirit is accomplishing in their respective traditions towards a new Christian springtime” (John Paul II, Eastern Theology Has Enriched the Whole Church).
 
WE HAVE COMPLETED THE FIRST WEEK of the Great Fast. Hopefully, we have met the goals which have set for ourselves: the degree of fasting and almsgiving appropriate to our station in life, or the participation in the services which our schedule of responsibilities allows. Whether we did or did not do so, we should realize that taking part in such practices is not the ultimate purpose of the fasting season. The final goal of the Great Fast – and of our entire life as Christians – is our ultimate transfiguration in Christ.

St Paul – who had seen the transfigured glory of the risen Christ appear to him on the road to Damascus – insisted that we will share in this transformation and that this change is already taking place: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). He daringly asserts that we are being transformed to be the mirror image of the risen Christ. Our human nature, he proclaims, is being renewed after the model who is Christ. This is what our later tradition calls theosis (deification), being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): given a share through Christ in the very life of God.

How Can This Be?

We may try to imitate Christ, to pattern our actions on the way of life which Christ has proposed to us; but the change described in the Scripture demands more than our striving to make it so. It demands an ontological change, something that affects us at the heart of our being and turns the water of our human nature in the wine of God. This transformation is what St Paul calls “the mystery decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

The first transformation in this mystery is the incarnation of the Word of God Himself. He assumes our human nature without putting aside His divinity. His glory was concealed – except for the moment of His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor – but He did not cease being the eternal Son of God. His incarnation was complete: “in all things He had to be made like His brethren” (Hebrews 2:17) so that He would transform our entire human nature. St Gregory the Theologian expressed it concisely, “That which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is thereby saved.” In other words, if there is an aspect of our being which the Son did not assume in the incarnation, then that aspect of our humanity would be beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming work.

The second transformation is ours: we are incorporated into Christ. When we are baptized into Christ we experience an ontological change, we have “put on Christ.” We have been taken into His family, and His divine Father by nature is now ours, as we are “adopted as sons by Jesus Christ in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). Body and soul, we have become the dwelling place of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colosians 1:27) and “the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

This ontological change working in our baptism is not abolished when we take off our baptismal garment. Our deification is reaffirmed whenever we partake of the Eucharist. Christ’s body mystically becomes one with ours, confirming our incorporation into Him. Our entire life becomes a matter of “becoming what you are.” We are called to become consciously and actively what we are mystically through our baptism: to strive for a loving awareness – and even perhaps vision – of the indwelling glory of Christ in the Spirit. In words attributed to St Gregory of Sinai, “Become what you already are, find Him who is already yours, listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you, own Him who already owns you.”

What Will It Be Like?

For most of us, our deification, begun sacramentally, blossoms in our spirits when we live with a conscious awareness of God’s life in us. Rarely is it manifested in our bodies before the life of the age to come. At the end of this age, however, our bodies will share in our transformation, according to the Scriptures.

With all the drama of apocalyptic literature, 1 Corinthians describes the destiny of our bodies: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

St Paul describes this change as the corruptible putting on incorruption. The physical decay of death, is destined to be reversed, as it were, and the body given a share in the eternal life of grace. The biblical authors themselves could not describe concretely how this will happen. St Paul resorted to imagery: “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38).

In one of the last books of the New Testament to be written, even imagery is abandoned. In 1 Jn the apostolic author professes his faith despite his ignorance of details: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:2, 3). Somehow, the vision of God will penetrate our bodily nature.

The Icon and Our Transfiguration

The Church’s faith in the transformation of our mortal bodies by the vision of God is at the heart of our concept of the icon. The bodies of Christ and of the saints are shown as physical, but transfigured. They are of this world, but other-worldly. They may be shown in an earthly setting – a city or a countryside – but even nature is depicted as not of this world. Individual saints are shown on a golden background, representing heavenly glory.

With the rediscovery of classical art in the Renaissance, Western painters moved away from the tradition of iconography, depicting Christ and the saints as naturalistically as possible. In the Eastern Churches, the rules of iconography remain, giving us an image of the transfigured body of the age to come.

By a happy coincidence, it was on the First Sunday of the Great Fast, in the year 843 that iconoclasm was decisively defeated and icons formally restored in Constantinople. As we celebrate this Triumph of Orthodoxy, we cannot fail to see the transfigured bodies in our icons as a reminder that the glory of Christ and the Spirit sacramentally within the believer will one day become physically visible, in the very limbs of the transformed body.

The mystery of our salvation was once announced by the divinely-inspired prophets. They foretold this illumination for us who have arrived at the last days. By it, we receive knowledge of God, the one God and Lord, glorified in Three Persons; and we serve Him alone. Having one faith and one baptism, we have put on Christ. Wherefore, we confess our salvation in word and in deed, and we restore our likeness to God.

Sticheron at Vespers
 
TOMORROW IS THE FIRST DAY of the Great Fast. As a reminder, we hear once more these words of St Paul: “You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). Each year the Church calls us to four fasting periods – four wake-up calls to focus more intently on the spiritual life in connection with one of its most important feasts. Since the Great Fast prepares us for Pascha, the “Feast of Feasts,” it is naturally more intense than the other fasting periods. Accordingly, the Church sees St Paul’s admonition as especially appropriate today.

How do we observe this Fast? Again, we take our cue from St Paul: “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:12-14).

In calling the people of his time to take up the challenges of the Gospel the apostle also gives us an outline of how to keep the Fast that is upon us. We are first of all to cast off the Works of Darkness, specifically the two examples which St Paul mentions.

Not in Reveling and Drunkenness

Abstaining from entertainment is the first of St Paul’s examples which has become part of the Church’s Lenten fast. There is a hold on Church parties and celebrations (including marriages) for these forty days. Instead many parishes hold Lenten Dinners with proceeds devoted to charity. In second-millennium Europe it was customary that theaters and all places of entertainment would be shuttered during the Fast. Religious plays and music on Biblical themes would be offered instead. Perhaps the most famous composition of this type, Handel’s Messiah, was premiered at a charity concert in Holy Week, April 1742.

In the past entertainment was, for most people, a relatively rare respite from work. Today it often seems that work is a respite from entertainment, which is available to us day and night at the click of a button. Many people cannot imagine doing without their TV or computer for forty days. Are we called to fast from these devices at least for part of the time during the Fast?

Abstinence from rich food and drink is the signature exercise of spiritual discipline during this period. The specific way this activity is practiced varies from eparchy to eparchy and even from individual to individual. These general principles are universal:

Fasting, the abstinence from all food and drink, is observed prior to receiving the Eucharist and on every weekday (Monday through Friday) during the Great Fast, usually until noon.

Abstinence is the avoidance of specific foods. During the Great Fast abstinence from “meat” (i.e. all animal products, including poultry, fish, eggs, dairy) as well as wine and, in some traditions, oil is practiced daily for the forty days in most Eastern Churches. This is also the root of the Western practice of “giving up something for Lent.”

The Fast is a time for simplifying our physical life, but should it be seen as a time of “giving-up”? The Prodigal did not feel that he was giving something up when he set out for his father because he saw the reality of the life he was living. If we see fasting as “giving-up,” we may have forgotten the first lesson we learned in Sunday school: that the real aim of our life is communion with God.

Not in Quarreling and Jealousy

As long as there has been a Great Fast there have been voices warning against misusing the experience. When we simply equate food fasting as the purpose of the season, St John Chrysostom tells us, we belittle the very season we seek to observe: “Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: ‘If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves … “You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrust bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading dishonor, causing inestimable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.’”

The Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian (“O Lord and Master of my life…”), which we recite so often during this season, leads us to see the purpose of the season as the acquisition of virtue, particularly in relation to others. We pray to avoid sloth, ambition, inquisitiveness, and vain talking as well the habit of judging others. We ask that we attain patience, love, and humility – virtues that define our relations with others as being in Christ.

Another Lenten experience which seeks to put relationships at the center of our focus during the Fast is the rite of forgiveness held at the end of vespers or the Liturgy on this day. We are enjoined to ask forgiveness and prayers from every other person in the community. In some Churches it is the custom to sing the Paschalia during this rite, pointing toward the kiss we will exchange with everyone in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.

Put On the Lord Jesus Christ

St Paul’s admonition – and the spirit of the Great Fast – does not exalt deprivation, or giving something up for its own sake. Both see abstinence as a way of making room for something greater: living a life of Christian love. Again, Paul is echoed by Chrysostom who writes, “Whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.” Thus almsgiving is as integral a part of this season as is fasting from food and drink.

St John Chrysostom offers us other helps in understanding the true purpose of this season when he writes: “If you cannot go without eating all day because of an ailment of the body, beloved one, no logical man will be able to criticize you for that. Besides, we have a Lord who is meek and loving (philanthropic) and who does not ask for anything beyond our power. Because he neither requires the abstinence from foods, neither that the Fast take place for the simple sake of fasting, neither is its aim that we remain with empty stomachs, but that we fast to offer our entire selves to the dedication of spiritual things, having distanced ourselves from secular things.

“If we regulated our life with a sober mind and directed all of our interest toward spiritual things, and if we ate as much as we needed to satisfy our necessary needs and offered our entire lives to good works, we would not have any need of the help rendered by the fast. But because human nature is indifferent and gives itself over mostly to comforts and gratifications, for this reason the philanthropic Lord, like a loving and caring father, devised the therapy of the fast for us, so that our gratifications would be completely stopped and that our worldly cares be transferred to spiritual works.”
 
SAY GOODBYE TO MEAT. In the fasting practice common to all Byzantine Churches Meatfare Sunday is the last day on which meat would be eaten until Pascha. This is the first step towards the fuller discipline of the Great Fast when dairy products would not be eaten as well. This is why next Sunday is called Cheesefare Sunday (good-bye to dairy products).

For the third week in a row the Church, through its selection of the Scriptures read at the Divine Liturgy, warns us against a false subjectivism or individualism in the coming Fast. First, in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we were warned to avoid self-righteous judging of others. In the story of the Prodigal Son we were confronted by the elder brother, whose faithfulness to his father was marred by his refusal to imitate the father’s forgiving heart. We are faced with an attitude which, although the opposite in spirit to the view of the elder brother, has the same effect: casting a pall over others’ attempts at repentance.

Fasting from Meat

Why is meat targeted in the Fast? Certainly in most places meat is a special festive dish. We think of the fatted calf which the father ordered slain to welcome his prodigal son back home. In some disciplines other festive items like wine and oil are avoided as well. As Christ said when pressed by the Pharisees about His disciples’ behavior, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).

In many cultures to this very day meat is a luxury. Numerous people regularly get their protein from beans or pulses, not meat. It’s too expensive. One of the reasons why American fast food has become so popular throughout the world is that it makes meat affordable to more people than ever before.

The Food of Paradise

There is another reason why we avoid meat on fast days. During the Lenten season we seek to focus on restoring the likeness to God within us, to stress the quality bestowed on us at the beginning and lost at the fall. During the Fast we seek to return to the Garden of Eden, as it were, to return to Paradise, and no one ate meat in the Garden.

According to the Book of Genesis, “God said, ‘See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food’; and it was so” (Genesis 1:29-30). In Genesis the consumption of animal products and wine are described as arising later in human history; we were all vegetarians in Eden. By avoiding meat we are symbolizing our desire to return to Eden, to recover our nature as God meant it to be.

The Book of Genesis paints a picture of human history in a downward spiral to the time of Noah and the flood. According to Genesis, after that catastrophe, God began restoring humanity on the earth. Part of that restoration included the addition of meat to our diet. God said to Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as [I gave] the green herbs”(Genesis 9:15). Our fasting from meat, then, is not to avoid something bad but to express our desire for something better. In this kind of fasting we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In this way we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

As the Jewish people developed, the meat of certain animals, fish and other sea creatures was considered as “unclean,” unfit for God’s Chosen People. This served in part to stress their particular relationship to God and distinguish them from others. In the New Testament we see that this distinction is abolished; there would be no separation between Jews and Gentiles and no unclean foods. This is expressed in the Acts of the Apostles which records St. Peter’s vision of a sheet lowered from the heavens containing all kinds of animals. Peter was told to eat but he refuses on the ground that these animals were unclean. Then a voice from heaven told him, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). Gentiles and all foods were acceptable to the Creator and were to be received by the followers of Christ.

In our Tradition there is room for customizing the practice of fasting for each believer, under the guidance of his or her spiritual father. According to her physical strength and spiritual growth, a person may be able to fast from all foods until noon; another may be able and led to fast until evening. The individual believer who does not have a spiritual father should follow the guidelines of their own eparchy without adapting them to personal taste.

People who envision a one-size-fits-all rule of fasting may be put off by seeing someone fast differently from them. This brings us back to the principle which St Paul taught the Corinthians: “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Our fasting should be informed by love. This may mean fasting the way my neighbor is fasting when in his company, whether this is more or less than my own rule prescribes. Needless to say, we should not seek out such circumstances which would lessen our practice of fasting with that end in mind.

Fasting from Sin

Sad to say, our fasting and other religious practices often mask our inner feelings of self-righteousness and superiority. St Paul would probably endorse these words of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol in Cyprus (the “Father Maximos” of The Mountain of Silence and its sequels): “How is it possible to pray and still be full of bile against another person? How is it possible for you to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? ... What’s the point if I eat oil today and don’t eat oil tomorrow? Though I may not eat oil, I still eat my brother day and night! They would say on Mount Athos not to ask whether someone eats fish. Eat the fish, but don’t eat the fisherman. Have a tablespoon of oil, but don’t eat the man who draws oil. To eat one another with your tongue is much worse than eating a tablespoon of oil” (from Therapy from the Sickness of Pharisaism). Fasting, like feasting, should be a communal celebration of the love of God.

We hear St Paul’s teaching today to remind us that our fasting is not about right and wrong food so much as it is about supporting the faith of our fellow believers. The Church’s fasting days and seasons are shared experiences, actions that we are meant to do together. There are times when a person may fast privately and this fasting should be done in secret. Fasting seasons, however, are common activities and if I denigrate them or excuse myself from them I am weakening the resolve of others. In addition, I am missing out on an experience that will heighten the joy of Pascha, when the Bridegroom is with us again.

O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves with the Queen of virtues. She has arrived, bringing us a wealth of blessings, quenching the rebellious fire of the passions and reconciling sinners to the Master. Let us welcome her joyfully, therefore, and cry aloud to Christ our God: “You are risen from the dead! Keep us uncondemned as we glorify You who alone are without sin!” (Meatfare Sunday evening vespers)
 
DURING THIS PRE-FAST PERIOD and during the Great Fast itself this hymn is sung at Sunday Orthros: “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of life, for my soul comes early to Your Holy Temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled; but since You are merciful, cleanse me in Your compassionate mercy.” What are these doors of repentance? They are in fact the first steps indicated in the parable of the Prodigal and they constitute our program for this pre-fast period.

We can begin with a realistic assessment of our life, our inventory, to use a popular term. What are the things we live for? Are they things of the earth or are they “those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God” as St Paul describes them (Colossians 3:1)? Do we give only lip service to the Scriptures, to the Eucharist, or to Christ’s poor or do they have a central place in our lives? We should take time to reflect on the signs of God’s love for us, the blessings of eternal life which we have received. Finally we should commit ourselves to action, to arise and go to the Father.

Our Welcoming Father

In 1884 the French impressionist composer Claude Debussy published a cantata called The Prodigal Son. His work was loosely based on the Gospel parable, but Debussy did not include its real meaning in his composition. In his cantata the main character is neither the son nor his father, rather it is the mother, not mentioned in the Gospel at all. When the father learns that his son had returned, he does not welcome him although he kneels at the older man’s feet asking forgiveness. In Debussy’s version it is only in response to the pleadings of the boy’s mother that the father takes his son back.

While Debussy may have given us an accurate picture of a nineteenth century bourgeois French father, the Gospel is presenting a picture of God and it is very different. In Luke the father does not wait for his son to come and kneel before him; he runs to welcome the young man home even before he can say his little apology. When the older brother objects, the father runs out to him. He is more concerned with his son than with the son’s hurtful actions.

The Gospel portrait of the father shows us that repentant children have nothing to fear from their Father when they return to Him. What about if we cannot carry out our good intentions to repent? If we forget our resolve, lose interest or fail? St Peter of Damascus offers this advice: “But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even if you don’t want to, show humility like the publican (Luke 18:13): this is enough to ensure your salvation.”

Thus we return to the prayer of the publican which will accompany us throughout the Great Fast: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” When we recognize our weakness and sinfulness, God sees the intentions of our heart. He is and always will be our loving Father.

The Older Brother

While the Father and the Prodigal are highlighted in this parable, in fact it contains three important characters: the Prodigal, the loving Father and the older brother. Some commentators feel that the older brother is the most important figure in the story because of the occasion on which the Lord told this parable.

To find this context we must look at the first verses of the chapter which precede it, which are not read this Sunday: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3). The Lord then tells not one but three parables about the joy over a repentant sinner: the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the story of the Prodigal.

The Lord’s aim in each of them is to confront the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes who saw themselves as properly observant Jews in contrast to those who collaborated with the Roman occupiers (the tax collectors) or those who ignored the precepts of the Law (the sinners). Thus each of the characters in the parable represents one of figures in the above three verses. We have the Rebel son, who represents the sinners, the Conformist son, who embodies the respect for the Law and tradition which characterizes the scribes and Pharisees, and the welcoming Father who is Christ Himself. The Rebel is truly a prodigal, disrespecting his father by demanding what would come to him at his father’s death – in effect, saying “I wish you were dead.” As we know, he goes off and eventually loses everything. Finally, he decides to return to his father, who receives him with love.

The focus of the tale now turns to the Conformist brother who has done everything by the book but is every bit as lost as his brother ever was. As Fr Henri Nouwen tells us in his reflection, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (1992, p. 71): “Outwardly the elder son was faultless. But when he confronted his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden.”

Without realizing it, the older brother has gone off to a “strange land” just like the Rebel. He was no longer the faithful son of his father everyone thought he was. As his father’s eldest son, his place would be at the center of the festive gathering, seeing that everyone was welcomed and cared for. Hospitality was – and remains to this day – one of the most important activities in a Middle Eastern household. Refusing to take part made the Conformist the exact opposite of what he appeared to be: the faithful image of his father. He had no cause to look down on his brother; he too had fallen victim to “the tyranny of the passions” (St. Maximos the Confessor) and publicly insulted his father by his actions. He not only refused to stand at his father’s side before the guests; he even caused his father to leave them in order to deal with his son’s feelings.

Like the Pharisee in last week’s Gospel parable, the Conformist brother represents the scribes and Pharisees who are outwardly faultless. They observe all the precepts of the Law but look down on those who do not. The Lord Jesus does not tell them to ignore the Law, but to complete it with mercy and compassion. Elsewhere we find Him berating the Pharisees for this very reason: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).

What Happens Next?

The parable ends without an ending. We are not told how the older brother responded to his father because the goal of the parable is that we examine what we would do. St John Chrysostom said, “Almost any noble person can weep with those who weep but very few of us can rejoice with those who rejoice.” Very few of us can really rejoice in the salvation of another… But how happy is the man who can rejoice in the salvation of his brother, who rejoices over his brother’s repentance more than his own well-being.”
 
BEGINNING TODAY, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the Church calls on us to start preparing for the Great Fast. And how does it tell us to ready ourselves? – by telling us not to fast!

Since the beginnings of the Church Christians have fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, remembering Judas’ betrayal and Christ’s passion. This coming week, however is one of the fast-free weeks of the Church year, when fasting is not prescribed. The other such weeks are part of a Great Feast – the Nativity, Pascha, and Pentecost. This is the only fast-free week not connected with a feast. What is the reason for not fasting this week?

The answer is found in the verse introducing the parable of the publican and the Pharisee read today: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” (Luke 18.9). Religious people who are “confident of their own righteousness” are complacent, self-satisfied with their level of observance. That level may be minimal – attending church on Sundays or even the greatest observances – or it may be more. The fault is the same whatever the level of observance: the complacent person feels no need to change his or her outlook; and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The complacent person thinks that he has complied with all of the requirements of religion. What more can be asked of him?

By setting aside the regular fasts this week the Church is telling the complacent person that what we do is not as important as the spirit in which we do them. Do you take pride in your fasting? Then don’t fast lest it leave you like the Pharisee.

Challenging Our Religious Complacency

In addition, religious complacency invariably sets us against others. When we take pride in our level of religious observance our next thought is often “I come to church regularly, not like him…. They’re not here for every lenten service … She’s half my age – why does she have to sit down when everyone else is standing?” and the like. We may not make these comments aloud but we don’t have to. They have already sullied out heart. As St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us: “What profit is there in fasting twice in the week, if your so doing serves only as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and make you supercilious and haughty, and selfish?” (On the Gospel of Luke, Sermon 120)

Religious complacency also sets us against God, as odd as that may seem. When we see our acts of religion as our passport to heaven we are telling God we have no need of Him. We are saving ourselves. Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid, in his Explanation of the Gospel of St Luke, says that there are many offshoots of self-love. “Presumption, arrogance, and vainglory all stem from this root. But the most destructive of all these kinds of self-love is pride, for pride is contempt of God. When a man ascribes his accomplishments to himself, and not to God, this is nothing less than denial of God and opposition to Him.”

The error of the Pharisee is to confuse the means with the end. Acts of virtue or piety are meant to dispose our hearts towards communion with God, not turn us in on ourselves. As the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom wrote, “From the [Pharisee] learn his works, but by no means his pride; for the work by itself means nothing and does not save.” We may – and should – do good things as responses to God’s love for us. We should not think that fasting, churchgoing or Bible reading automatically bring us to communion with God, merely because they are outwardly observed. Even when we practice religious observances from the best of motives, we can find them emptied of virtue through pride. In the words of St Gregory Palamas, “The unseen patron of evil … can bring down the roof of good works after its construction, by means of pride and madness.”

Humility Transforms Us

The antidote to the boastfulness of the Pharisee is humility which is nothing less than a return to the genuine order of things, the restoration of a realistic view of ourselves and of God. Only He can transform us by granting us a share in His divine life. Of ourselves we can do nothing to earn God’s love or to share in His holiness. We can only respond to His eternal love for us by embarking on the path of repentance – that dying to self-love and egocentricity which leads us to life in the kingdom.

Humility – authentic self-understanding – doesn’t come easily at any time. It is deeply opposed to the values of the world. The late Father Alexander Schmemann saw how humility has no place in our secular culture. He wrote: “If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, self-glorification, and self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the one who all the time ‘gives credit’ for man's achievements and good deeds. Humility – be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national - is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. …”

Our culture also teaches us to feel superior when others fall. As a rule, the newspapers, TV and other media don’t tell us about the positive things people do – that doesn’t sell papers. A steady diet of looking at other people’s failings leads us to imitating the Pharisee’s “I’m not like that that.”

A more helpful approach comes from the nineteenth century Russian Saint, John of Kronstadt. He writes: “When the foolish thought of counting up any of your good works enters into your head, immediately correct your fault and rather count up your sins, your continual and innumerable offences against the All-Merciful and Righteous Master, and you will find that their number is as the sand of the sea, whilst your virtues in comparison with them are as nothing.”

In the vision of the Gospel, repentance and humility are more important and higher than all of the other virtues, continuing until the end of our life. Today’s kondakion sums up the Church’s prayer for all of us: “Let us shun the boastful words of the Pharisee and learn from the Publican humility with sighing; let us cry out to our Savior: ‘Have mercy on us, You who alone are merciful!’”

We Enter the Triodion Today is the first Sunday in the Triodion, the ten weeks leading up to Pascha. The term also refers to the book which contains the hymns, readings and prayers proper to this season. Triodion literally means “three odes” and refers to the canons at daily Orthros which contain three rather than the usual nine odes. The Triodion as we have it today was organized by Studite monks in ninth-century Constantinople. They drew chiefly on texts from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem by a number of outstanding hymnographers, including Andrew of Crete, Cosmas of Maiuma and John of Damascus – some twenty composers in all.

In general the prayers and services of the Triodion may be considered a great catechesis for the faithful, setting forth the entire scope of divine revelation through the reading of several books from the Old Testament and allusions to many others in the Great Canon and other hymns as well as patristic homilies and chants based on still other sacred texts. This catechesis is not about imparting information but about motivating us to embrace the great task of the season: repentance and the renewal of our life in Christ.
 
THE MIDDLE EAST TODAY is an ethnic and religious jumble: Mediterranean and European Jews rub shoulders with Eastern and Western Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and innumerable other variations on each of these themes. This is not merely a present-day phenomenon. This is the way things have been throughout the Christian era and even earlier. The Middle East and the entire Mediterranean region have always been home to a rich mix of peoples.

The Jews always lived surrounded by others. The coastal regions, including Caesarea, the regional capital, Haifa, Tyre and Sidon were at first controlled by the seafaring Phoenicians. Later it was the Greeks and Romans who dominated in these areas. By the time of Christ, archaeologists affirm that there were upwards of 30 Gentile towns in what we call the Holy Land. The area of Capernaum, where the Lord lived as an adult, was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15) since there was a great number of them there.

During their first years in the Holy Land, strict Jews sought to minimize their dealings with the Gentiles. God’s people were too young in their faith to withstand the cultural pressure of their idolatrous neighbors. When Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon married Ahab, the Samaritan king of Israel in the ninth century bc, she promoted the worship of the Phoenician gods and many, including the king, followed her lead. He “began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole [i.e. a shrine to the Phoenician fertility goddess] and did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:31-33).

Ahab so decimated the prophets of the God of Israel that the Prophet Elijah complained, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left” (1 Kings 17:23). Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal and convinced the people to destroy them and return to the Lord.

Centuries later, by the time of Christ, however, the Jews were much more secure in their conviction that the God of Israel was the only true God. They had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world and retained their faith. Furthermore, as contacts with the Jews increased, Gentiles had been drawn to the faith of Israel. Even Roman military officers – such as the one who begged Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:4-14) or Cornelius, who invited Peter to share his message (Acts 10) – had accepted the God of the Jews as the only true God.

Still, strict Jews refrained as much as possible from contact with Gentiles. As Peter told Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation” (Acts 10:28). Yet we find Jesus going to the region of Tyre and Sidon or across the Jordan without hesitation. He was about to bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Christ’s encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking His aid showed that true faith in God was not the exclusive property of the Jews, and that Gentiles could have even greater faith than any in Israel. He works miracles among the Gentiles as He did among the Jews. At one time it had been necessary for God’s people to be separate from the Gentiles. Now it was time for God’s people to lead the Gentiles to the true God.

Separation in the Church

As communities of Gentile believers in Christ sprouted up in the Mediterranean world, we find their leaders, such as St. Paul, encouraging isolation from those around them. “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” he writes, quoting Isaiah and Ezekiel, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate,” (2 Corinthians 6:16, 17). These early Gentile believers, like the Jews of Elijah’s day a thousand years earlier, were too young in their faith to withstand the influences of the pagan culture in which they lived.

As the years passed, and many were martyred rather than deny their faith in Christ, the Christian community became stronger. Believers began to explain their faith to pagans on their own terms. Their “Apologies,” as they were called, showed that their understanding of the Gospel was more mature and that their commitment to Christ was firm. Christians would ultimately go out into completely alien cultures for the Lord. The faith of the Canaanite woman would be sought and found among Slavs and Franks and Saxons.

Where Are We in Our Faith Journey?

Like the Jews in the time of Elijah, we live in a pluralistic society surrounded by people of many religions and of none. There is an atmosphere of mutual respect but not everyone is able to make some important distinctions in maintaining the purity of their traditions. As a result many people find particular traditions unimportant because “we’re all worshipping the same God.” For some this even extends to basic doctrines like the Trinity and the unique role of Christ in the redeeming of the world. Their faith – and in some cases their morals – have been watered down because they were not mature enough to live in a pluralistic society without losing their own identity.

Like the first Gentile believers we live in a non-believing culture, increasingly secular and even aggressively opposing any public expression of biblical faith or morals. We are free to worship inside our churches, in what one bishop has called “our weekly Sabbath hobby.” But expressions of faith in the public sector are definitely discouraged. Woe to politicians or athletes who dare to speak about their faith, much less act in line with it. Is our faith today too immature to withstand these pressures?

Many feel, like the Jews and the first Christians, that we should isolate ourselves from outside influences in order to retain our traditional Christian identity. Many Eastern Christians have taken refuge in the foods, music, and dancing of their home country cultures to insulate their children from the wider society. If the church or ethnic community is sufficiently active, this may keep its children from dating “foreigners,” but will it keep them from aborting an unwanted pregnancy?

Our churches have, by and large, concentrated on building programs and social events rather than on faith building. In many parishes there are more parties and fundraisers than holy day services, much less instruction programs. What is there in our parish life to help us discern which elements in our popular culture are compatible with the Gospel and which are not? Does our church life assist us to mature in our faith or does it insure that we remain children?

If we or our children readily accept secular values merely because everyone else is saying or doing them, it may be because Christ is on only the fringes of our lives. If so we need to ask ourselves whether we have truly encountered Christ. Without truly knowing Him, how can we be prepared to prove our faith despite any pressure to the contrary? The Canaanite woman was not discouraged when even the apostles wanted her to be sent away. She persisted in her faith and was rewarded. She is thus a model of perseverance for us seeking to uphold our faith and traditions in the world.
 
EASTERN CHRISTIANS LOVE TO THINK in terms of forty days. The Great Fast and its echo, the forty days between the feasts of the Transfiguration and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the churching of an infant forty days after birth and the memorial service forty-days after death are the most obvious examples. This pattern is ultimately drawn from the Scriptures where significant events are regularly placed in this time frame. In the Old Testament, the great flood lasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7). Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24). In Deuteronomy 9 we read that Moses interceded on Israel’s behalf for 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelite spies took 40 days to spy out Canaan (Numbers 13). Goliath taunted Saul’s army for 40 days before David arrived to slay him (1 Samuel 17). When Elijah fled from Jezebel, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19). It was after a 40-day fast that the Tempter came to test Jesus (Matthew 4: 1-11).

There is another 40-day period mentioned in the New Testament, and also observed in the life of our Church: the 40 days between Christ’s nativity and the day when His parents brought Him to the temple, “to do for Him according to the custom of the Law” (Luke 2:27). While there the Lord encountered the elderly Simeon and Anna, who recognized God’s decisive presence in this Child. Through them Christ encounters for the first time those who were awaiting the Messiah’s coming. We celebrate this event on February 2 (the 40th day after Christmas) as the Hypapante, or Encounter, of the Messiah with His people, personified by Simeon and Anna.

What Did the Law Prescribe?

Jewish custom at the birth of a child was that a mother must be purified after 40 days. “She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over”” (Leviticus 12:4).

In Jewish law any participation in the intimate experiences of life and death, including the spilling of blood – the carrier of life – makes a person ritually unclean, that is, incapable of performing ceremonial act such as temple worship. Ceremonial uncleanness is not a question of moral impurity but a recognition that the worship of God transcends the earth and its ways. Someone touched by childbirth or death required purification in specified ways.

There was an additional prescription according to the Torah: the redemption of the firstborn son. “Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem” (Exodus 13:13). The first of everything (crops, animals, etc.) was to be offered to God in sacrifice: an acknowledgement that everything comes from Him and is His. Children could be “redeemed” by offering a gift to the temple in exchange for the child. Orthodox Jews still observe this rite today, exchanging five silver shekels (or their equivalent in local currency) for the child.

The encounter with Simeon and Anna takes us beyond the practices of the Torah to the mystery of God’s saving plan. As St. Luke tells it, “it had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). He takes the Christ child in his arms and prays what we call the Canticle of Simeon: “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). We repeat this canticle at the end of every day (vespers) and on completing the Divine Liturgy as well as when any child is presented in church 40 days after its birth. Simeon is then joined by Anna who thanks God that she has seen this moment “and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

This Encounter celebrated the coming of the One for whom the Jews longed, the Messiah, and recognized that the Gentiles too would be enlightened through Him.

Our Celebration of This Feast

As might be expected, this feast originated in Jerusalem where the event it remembers took place. It likely began in the era of St Constantine the Great who sponsored the development of Jerusalem as a Christian site. Sermons on this Feast by the bishops Methodius of Patara (+ 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (+ 360), Gregory the Theologian (+ 389), Amphilokios of Iconium (+ 394), Gregory of Nyssa (+ 400), and John Chrysostom (+ 407) have come down to us.

Egeria, a Spanish nun who visited the Holy Land in 381-384, described what she saw: “The fortieth day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on that day there is a procession, in which all take part, in the Anastasis, and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests, and after them the bishop, preach, always taking for their subject that part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the fortieth day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, saw him, treating of the words which they spoke when they saw the Lord, and of that offering which his parents made. When everything that is customary has been done in order, the sacrament is celebrated, and the dismissal takes place.”

The feast soon spread to Antioch and then, to Constantinople and the whole empire. It became particularly important in the capital during the sixth century when a plague threatened the city. After a solemn procession on this feast, the plague ceased. When this feast was instituted, the birth of Christ and His baptism at the Jordan were observed on the same day, January 6. The Hypapante was kept 40 days later, on February 14. When a separate feast of the Nativity on December 25 became common, the Hypapante was moved accordingly.

Light to the Gentiles

In the Western Church candles are blessed on this feast and a candlelight procession held in honor of the “Light to enlighten the Gentiles.” This practice actually began in Jerusalem, as Egeria attests. When the feast was instituted in Constantinople, the procession was introduced there as well. Today some Slavic Churches bless candles on this day, but the procession has disappeared from the Byzantine feast.

St Sophronios of Jerusalem (c. 636 ad)

In honor of the divine mystery that we celebrate today, let us all hasten to meet Christ. Everyone should be eager to join the procession and to carry a light. Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant wit

h the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright out souls should be when we go to meet Christ.

The most-pure Virgin Theotokos carried the True Light in her arms and brought Him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the True Light as we hasten to meet Him.

The Light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the Light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through Him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God.

Let all of us, my brethren, be enlightened and made radiant by this Light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness.
 
PHYSICAL FITNESS IS BIG BUSINESS TODAY. People run to gyms and exercise programs, or they just run. St. Paul sees the value of keeping one’s body in shape, but puts it in a perspective of his own. “Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise for the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

We may readily grasp that spiritual exercise may bear fruit in the life to come, but what promise does it have “for the life that now is”?

A great part of spiritual training is concerned with the control of the passions. We strive to free ourselves from the compulsion to pursue pleasure so that we can pursue a relationship with the living God. If we follow this training, the result in our life now is that we are no longer driven to acquire or possess. We are content.

When a person is beset by greed he is never satisfied with what he has. There is always more, there is always something better to be acquired. While he seems content with his latest acquisition it is only for a moment, because nothing he has truly satisfies. The same is true of people governed by gluttony, lust, popular acclaim or pride. They never have enough.

A person who has learned to control the passions, on the other hand, is content knowing that all he is and all he has is the gift of God. He has learned that material wealth, physical pleasure, or the good opinion of others are all passing and insignificant when compared with the possibility of knowing and serving God. He is happy to devote energy and resources to others as much as possible because he controls them; they do not control him. Controlling the passions makes us free here and now.

Someone who undertakes spiritual discipline devotes himself to developing spiritual strengths or virtues just as an athlete strengthens physical muscles. These strengths, or virtues, enable spiritual athletes to remain faithful in the face of persecution or hardship. How could the martyrs and confessors have endured the torments they suffered without the fortitude which spiritual discipline produces? How could people like Father Damien in a leper colony, Mother Teresa on the streets of Calcutta, or Dorothy Day in the tenements of New York have served day after day in such atrocious conditions without the patience and dedication of a spiritual athlete? Without the endurance which spiritual discipline produces believers would quickly fall away from their commitment and collapse on the sidelines. Spiritual discipline develops the endurance to live for God in the here and now.

Another aspect of spiritual discipline is concerned with fidelity to prayer. Many people pray – or say prayers – from a sense of duty. Praying, they feel, is something we “ought to do.” A person of prayer is rather one who senses an authentic relationship with God and who prays out of love rather than a sense of obligation. Such a person reaps the fruits of a commitment to prayer in this life, becoming someone who experiences the presence of God in his life on earth.

The presence of God may be experienced in many ways. There are saints who have experienced God directly in visions or in charismatic gifts. But the presence of God may also be experienced in consolations or in the assurance of blessing from God without any exterior manifestation. In either case to experience the presence of God in one’s “life that now is” is clear evidence of the truth of St. Paul’s statement: godliness profits a person in this life as well as in the life to come.

Repentance: Warm-up to the Spiritual Life

We have all seen runners stretching their leg muscles before beginning a run. Their stretches are a warm-up in anticipation of the effort ahead. Similarly there is a warm up necessary at the start of a spiritual effort. Repentance is the necessary prerequisite to any effective spiritual effort, whether it is the encounter with Christ in the Liturgy or any of the mysteries, the Great Fast, or any spiritual work which we pray may be fruitful. Ignoring our personal spiritual state before undertaking any of these practices borders on presumption. Even world-class athletes, whether physical or spiritual, always begin each contest at the beginning, with a warm-up.

The Gospel story of Zacchaeus’ conversion (Luke 19:1-10) offers some valuable insights into repentance. His spiritual journey begins with an encounter with Christ. At first Zacchaeus is moved by a kind of curiosity to climb the tree and see who this Jesus is. Then Christ calls him personally and they go off to Zacchaeus’ house. True repentance always involves both our work and the Lord’s. If He calls and we are not even curious, nothing will happen. If we seek Him in an inappropriate way – such as only coming to Him when we want something – He may remain silent.

Zacchaeus’ repentance is not mere sentiment; it has concrete exterior manifestations. One is the desire to repair any wrongs he may have done to others. “…if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore it fourfold” (v. 8). We cannot move ahead unless we correct what we can of our past sins. When material things are at the heart of our sin it is relatively easy to make restitution. But how does anyone restore a broken relationship, heal a damaged childhood or re-establish another’s reputation which we have smeared? The one we have harmed may demand something from us or our spiritual guide may offer alternative acts of reparation. But something concrete must be done.

Zacchaeus does not only look back, he also looks ahead. “I give half of my goods to the poor…” (v.8) Zacchaeus actually does something to fulfill the Lord’s precept to love in a concrete way. This dynamic was explained most clearly by St Diadochos, the fifth-century Bishop of Photiki in northern Greece: “When a man begins to perceive the love of God in all its richness, he begins also to love his neighbor with spiritual percep-tion. This is the love of which all the Scriptures speak.” (On Spiritual Knowledge and Discernment, 15).

In the Church calendar the story of Zacchaeus is read as a “herald of the Triodion,” before we open that guide to repentance and the Great Fast. As we recall the movements of Zacchaeus’ repentance we should be led to ask ourselves about the quality of our love for God. To what concrete action are we being led to perform during the coming Fast? What tangible form will love take in our lives as we look to the celebration of Pascha? And what past offenses to others which have yet to be righted hang over us and taint our intentions for this season? Like Zacchaeus we are called to begin our spiritual exercise with the “warm-up” of repentance in deed as well as in thought.

On this day, before the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, we commemorate the repentance of the tax-collector, the Holy Apostle Zacchaeus, who desired to behold Christ.

The Holy Fathers placed today's comme-moration here to prepare us, little by little, for dawning season of the Great Fast. Knowing that we are basically slow to exhibit a desire for repentance, the Holy Fathers, by Zacchaeus' example, teach us in these preliminary weeks the need to recog-nize our sins and our need to turn away from them. From the Synxarion
 
CHRIST'S ENCOUNTER WITH THE TEN LEPERS offers several points on which we can reflect. We see that Christ heals, that He heals foreigners as well as Israelites, and that the only one who glorifies God is that foreigner, a Samaritan. Christ’s response to the Samaritan, however, is a bit more complicated and merits our attention.

According to St Luke, when the Samaritan returns glorifying God, Christ responds, “Arise, go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19 New King James Version). Is Christ referring to the original healing in which all ten lepers were cleansed or does the Samaritan receive something else because he came back glorifying God?

Some popular English versions offer interesting alternative translations which suggest an answer. “Thy faith hath made thee whole” says the original King James Version. The New American Bible and the Jerusalem Bible translate this phrase “Your faith has saved you.”

The Greek verb in this sentence is sesoken, a form of the word soson which we regularly translate in our prayers as “save.” It may be translated as “heal,” “make whole” or “save” depending on the context. In such a case it is wise to consult the Tradition for the best interpretation. Early Church commentators on this passage suggest that the Samaritan received more that the physical healing of his disease: he found salvation. As St Athanasius wrote, “This one was given much more than the rest. Besides being healed of his leprosy, he was told by the Lord, ‘Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you’” (Festal Letter 6).

In his Explanation of the Gospel of St. Luke Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria writes that “This miracle also signifies the common salvation that came to the whole human race. For the ten lepers represent all of human nature – it was leprous with wickedness, carrying about with it the ugliness of sin, passing its life outside the heavenly city on account of its uncleanness, and standing afar off from God.” The complete healing of mankind is, in fact, what we refer to as “salvation.”

It is not uncommon for people to be asked by some Christians (usually Evangelicals or Pentecostals), “Are you saved?” By this they generally mean something like, “Have you personally appropriated the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ?” Their point is similar to that made by Blessed Theophylact. The ten lepers all were cleansed but only one personally appropriated what Christ had done by returning and glorifying God.

What Does It Mean to Be Saved?

When Western Christians talk about salvation they often think of it as described in the fourth-fifth centuries by St Augustine and in the eleventh century by Anselm of Canterbury. In their view all mankind was unrighteous and unclean through the original sin of Adam. It was necessary that mankind make atonement through a well-pleasing sacrifice. That sacrifice was made on the cross, by which Christ offered Himself for the sins of Adam and of the entire human race.

As this view was developed, the West focused increasingly on the cross. Christ’s death was the sacrifice offered to atone for sin and ransom mankind. Some saw the cross as an instrument of the Father’s wrath originally meant for us, now taken out on His Son! Others thought of Christ’s death as a ransom paid to the devil in whose power mankind had fallen. These views took Western Christians further and further from the thinking of the early Church.

The Eastern Fathers had a different view of sin and salvation. Instead of atonement and sacrifice they stressed the loss and restoration of relationship with God as the heart of the question of sin and redemption. The original sin, the sin of Adam, was a break in relationship with God. Adam declines to heed God’s warning and eats of the tree, determining for himself what is good rather than heeding God. Going it alone, Adam no longer “walked with God” but hid from Him (Genesis 2).

In Christ, God enters the world to become one with mankind once more and, through this complete and eternal union with Him, to deliver it from eternal death. The Son of God becomes like us in all things except sin and in Him God and man are perfectly united. Once again God is fully in communion with a Man, the Lord Jesus, and through Him with all mankind Since being human means to endure suffering and death, Christ shared in those things as well. What was unique about Christ is that He did not remain in death but, once He had experienced it, He triumphed over it.

And so Christ’s death on the cross is not emphasized in the Christian East as a sacrifice to atone for original sin; rather it is as the inevitable consequence of His desire to become one of us. Christ’s death on the cross is an unavoidable result of His being fully human because all humans die.

The Lepers: an Icon of Salvation

As Blessed Theophilact observed, the lepers represent all humanity, scarred by their common affliction but still dear to Christ. “He healed the whole leprous nature of man, when, for every man’s sake, He took flesh and tasted of death.”

Without a doubt all ten welcomed their cleansing from leprosy; they accepted the gift but ignored the Giver. Only one retuned to Christ, glorifying God. He not only received the blessing of health, he also enjoyed a relationship with the Healer. He welcomed, not only the cleansing from leprosy, but also the presence of the One who brings wholeness and salvation to all who accept Him in their lives. His physical healing is the prelude to his communion with Christ, in which is his – and our –salvation.

To Whom Was the “Ransom” Paid?

St Gregory the Theologian asks this question to demolish what he felt were false ideas about our salvation.

“To whom and why is this blood poured out for us and shed – the great and most previous blood of God, the High Priest and Victim? We were in the power of the Evil One, sold to sin, and had brought this harm on themselves by sensuality. … If the price of ransom is given to none other than him in whose power we are held, then I ask, to whom and for what reason is such a price paid?

“If it is to the Evil One, then how insulting is this! The thief received the price of ransom; he not only receives it from God, but even receives God Himself. He receives so large a price for his tyranny that it was only right to have mercy on us. “If to the Father, then, first, in what way? Were we in captivity under Him?... And secondly, for what reason? For what reason was the blood of the Only Begotten pleasing to the Father, who did not accept even Isaac, when offered by his father, but exchanged the offering, giving a lamb instead of the reasonable victim?

45th Oration on Holy Pascha

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