A message from Bishop John Elya
DIOCESE OF NEWTON
Eparch’s Lenten Message, 2004
(To be read from the pulpit and/or to be distributed with the weekly bulletin)
My beloved clergy, laity and friends of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton:
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:3) Great Lent is an opportunity to reflect on the place the Cross holds in our lives. It is a time to work to integrate the reality and truth of the Cross into every aspect of our lives. Our faith as Christians is not something we put on and take off like a jacket. Rather it is like our skin which is so much a part of us that to loose it would be to loose a part of our very selves. So too with the Cross. If we are to be authentic disciples of Jesus we must embrace the self-denial of the Cross and all it entails in our daily lives.
During Great Lent the Church calls us to intensify our efforts to grow in Christian discipleship. Our goal to be faithful disciples leads us with our Blessed Lady to the foot of the Cross. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ put forth the challenge of discipleship to His earliest followers. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Self-denial is at the heart of Christian discipleship and at the core of our Lenten practice. Self-denial allows us to “put off” our old false self and to “put on” our true self in Christ. Self-denial helps us to die with Christ that we may rise with Him. (cf. Romans 6:8-18) The self-denial of fasting is an ancient discipline which has blessed the lives of many of the great saints throughout Church history. Indeed, our Lord Himself fasted for 40 days in the desert. The discipline of fasting is a remedy for overcoming the passions and an abundant source of grace.
We discover our true self only in Christ. This discovery is born in the struggle with our false self and its attachment to sin. Fasting is a potent medicine which helps to cure the fatal disease of sin in our souls and to heal the wounds sin leaves behind. It is precisely for this reason that fasting holds such a special place in the life of the Church. Saint John Climacus, in his classic work, Ladder of Divine Ascent, extols the benefits of fasting. “Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened soul, a watchful mind, a deliverance from blindness. Fasting is the door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, an end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of the gate, indeed, the delight of paradise.” “Fasting quenches the fires of the flesh… Fasting puts down the involuntary fires of the body.” (Step 14 On Gluttony)
I strongly encourage the Traditional Fast for our people with whatever modifications are needed to make it an attainable goal. Fasting consists in abstaining from food from midnight until 12:00 noon all the weekdays, Monday through Friday, during all the period of Lent. The traditional abstinence entails the giving up of meat and dairy products for the entire period of Great Lent including Saturdays and Sundays.
Relying on God’s mercy and taking in consideration the weakness of our human nature, the following minimum requirements are given in our Melkite Pastoral Handbook:
In our Melkite Eparchy, the faithful are encouraged to observe the ancient and venerable rules of fast and abstinence, as much as possible. They are especially urged as a strict minimum to observe the mandatory fast and abstinence on the first day of Lent, (this year: Monday, February 23), and on the last three days of the Holy and Great Week, (this year: April 8, 9 &10) and to abstain from meat on all the Fridays of Lent. These requirements are the minimum. The faithful are encouraged to do more.
Understood and lived correctly, fasting and other forms of self-denial unite us to Christ and bring us new life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Moreover, fasting is not only an action. It must be accompanied by a humble attitude. The motivation for our fasting must be our love of God. It must flow from our deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior. Otherwise, our fasting can produce judgment and rigidity. It can incite pride and vain glory. Fasting must be balanced. That is why the great spiritual master, Saint John Cassian reminds us of the need for other virtues to accompany our fasting like “humility, practiced through obedience” which he tells us “is a great help”. [On the Eight Vices] We are reminded on the first day of Lent: “Let us observe a Fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forebear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then our fasting is true and pleasing to God.” (Apostikha of Vespers on the first Monday of Lent)
Prayer and Good Works also must accompany our fasting to ensure its medicinal effects. Prayer is our life-line to God. Prayer has a transforming power. Prayer brings us into the presence of God. We change when we are in His presence. Through prayer we grow closer to God and become more aware of His divine presence. Therefore the faithful are urged to attend the Lenten devotions as prescribed in our parish churches. Fasting, prayers and good deeds are the tripod over which stand our good Lenten practice.
Father Beshara Abou Mourad, a Basilian Salvatorian priest from Holy Savior Monastery in Lebanon comes to my mind. He is being considered for sainthood in the Church. He was known for his holiness, great love, deep prayer, and spirit of sacrifice. He fasted regularly and shared his rations with the poor. He walked long distances to offer Divine Liturgy and to hear Confessions. Because of his proverbial zeal and devotion, those villages in the neighborhood of Deir-el-Kamar in the Shoof Region have been called “The Wadi (Valley) of the Saint.” Father Beshara visited prisoners seeing them as Christ. He was known by the faithful for his healing prayer and many other miracles. Father Beshara was loved by all. He died in 1830. More information about him can be obtained from your parish priests or by contacting Saint Basil Seminary in Methuen, Massachusetts.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, was a woman of fasting, prayer, and good works. She is a great model for us this Great Lent. Her love for silence in prayer is an affirmation of our hesychastic tradition in the East. “I always begin my prayer in silence, for it is in the silence of the heart that God speaks. God is the friend of silence.”
May we die to ourselves this Great Lent and grow in self-denial and fasting. May we love God and others more and pray better by praying more. May we live to make these words of Saint Paul our own. “Far be it from me to glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14-17) By our faithful observance of Great Lent, may Christ the Divine Physician bring the springtime of new life to our souls and abundant blessings upon all our families and friends.
+ John A. Elya
Eparch of Newton