Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
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.”
 
MANY PEOPLE TODAY TEND TO EQUATE “SPIRITUALITY” with one’s personal inner life. Spiritual seekers are advised to “listen to their heart” to find peace and clarity, often without any reference to God – or at least to the God revealed in the Scriptures – or to a community such as the Church. Their approach is more individual rather than communal, more mind-centered than encompassing one’s entire being, and often more concerned with self-help than with living in union with God.

As Eastern Christians we stand in a tradition that first of all understands spirituality as mankind’s relationship to God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. At its root this relationship is based on an event which joins the material and the spiritual: the Incarnation of Christ. The Word of God took flesh, became human in order to unite us with God. Because He is truly and perfectly man, the risen Christ is now glorified in His body, seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Body in Eastern Thought

The body as well as the spirit is important in Christian life. As St Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). We are not meant to ignore or belittle the body because we are Christians. The body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul in the work of our sanctification. The body, as well as the spirit, is meant to be transfigured in Christ and so we are called to glorify God in it.

Purifying the Body

The first way in which we glorify God in the body is by accepting and affirming its freedom from the control of sin and death. United to Christ in baptism, we have already been given a share in that freedom, which will be completely realized in the life of the world to come. As long as we are in this life, however, we must work along with Christ-in-us to maintain the body’s freedom from the influence of sin.

And so, one way in which we glorify God in the body is by the Church’s ascetic tradition, which focuses on freeing the mind and the heart from attachment to the things of the senses. Christian asceticism is not anti-physical but seeks to liberate the body from the lure of the sensual so that the physical may be sanctified.

The Church Fathers considered that the most basic ascetic practices focus on controlling the passions or cravings of the body for food and drink and for sexual release. This is not because they are our greatest inner enemies - pride and vanity have that dubious distinction – but because it is easier to conquer our physical cravings than our spiritual impulses. This is why St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, singles out the power of gluttony and lust as the enemy’s first line of attack on the believer. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15). How can you surrender to the first assault the enemy mounts against you? If we cannot put aside fatty foods on Wednesdays and Fridays, much less during the Fasts, how can we even begin to deal with things like spiritual laziness (sloth) or pride that afflict us in our innermost hearts?

Worshipping in the Body

We live our life in Christ in our bodies as well as in our spirits, and so the Eastern Churches have insisted that the body join the spirit in worshipping the One who created us as both physical and spiritual. We bow, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross, we prostrate, we kiss, we eat and we drink. We glorify God in the body by entering body, soul, and spirit in the worship of the Church.

One way we glorify God in our bodies at worship is by standing for prayer. In some churches people are directed to stand or sit at different times during the service. Sitting, however, is the stance taken by an audience rather than a participant, whether it be at the theater or at worship. Worshippers are an “audience” during readings or a sermon; during prayers and litanies they are participants and more fittingly stand rather than sit. Two bodily gestures in Eastern worship not common in the churches of the West are the metany and the prostration (great metany). In the metany we make the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, extending our right hand until our fingers touch the ground. In the prostration we kneel on both knees and bow until our forehead touches the ground. Both gestures indicate our complete sub-mission to the King of all.

Making metanies and prostrations requires a certain amount of free space around the worshipper. In older churches abroad, any seating (benches or stalls) was located around the church walls leaving the center of the church free for worshippers. In churches with Western-style pews, worship-pers often move out into the aisles to make prostrations.

The Great Fast

During the Church’ fasts, we have ample opportunities to glorify God in the body through more frequent church services and through fasting. Eastern Christian fasting incorporates two ways of using our bodies in worship. In ascetic or total fasting we do not eat or drink anything. Period. This kind of fasting is in the spirit of Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Christ to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Traditionally people fast this way before receiving Holy Communion. Clergy who will serve the Liturgy – and in some Churches whoever will receive the Eucharist – are expected to fast from sexual activity as well. It is also customary to fast totally for a certain period on all fast days. Thus, many fast this way until noon during these seasons.

The second type of fasting, also called abstinence, is fasting from certain foods (typically meat or dairy products). In many Eastern Churches, people fast totally until noon, and then, when they do eat, they abstain from meat and dairy. Since fish is considered “meat without feet” it is not generally consumed on the stricter fast days.

In this kind of fasting, we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In the Genesis story of creation, humans were created to be vegetarians. God is depicted as telling Adam and Eve: “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” (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the flood that God told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). By restricting ourselves to the food of paradise we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

Look upon my afflicted heart, O Christ. Behold how I turn back in repentance. See my tears, O Savior, and reject me not. Em-brace me once again in Your compassion and number me with those who are saved, that I may thank and praise Your mercy.

Like the Thief, I cry to You, “Remember me!” Like the Publican, with downcast eyes I beat my breast and say, “Have mercy!” Like the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O compassionate King, that I may praise Your boundless mercy.
 
MANY PEOPLE TODAY EQUATE "SPIRITUALITY" with one’s personal inner life. Spiritual seekers are advised to “listen to their heart” to find peace and clarity, often without any reference to God – or at least to the God revealed in the Scriptures – or to a community such as the Church. Their approach is more individual rather than communal, more mind-centered than encompassing one’s entire being, and often more concerned with self-help than with living in union with God.

As Eastern Christians we stand in a tradition that first of all understands spirituality as mankind’s relationship to God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. At its root this relationship is based on an event which joins the material and the spiritual: the Incarnation of Christ. The Word of God took flesh, became human in order to unite us with God. Because He is truly and perfectly man, the risen Christ is now glorified in His body, seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Body in Eastern Thought

The body as well as the spirit is important in Christian life. As St Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). We are not meant to ignore or belittle the body because we are Christians. The body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul in the work of our sanctification. The body, as well as the spirit, is meant to be transfigured in Christ and so we are called to glorify God in it.

Purifying the Body

The first way in which we glorify God in the body is by accepting and affirming its freedom from the control of sin and death. United to Christ in baptism, we have already been given a share in that freedom, which will be completely realized in the life of the world to come. As long as we are in this life, however, we must work along with Christ-in-us to maintain the body’s freedom from the influence of sin.

And so, one way in which we glorify God in the body is by the Church’s ascetic tradition, which focuses on freeing the mind and the heart from attachment to the things of the senses. Christian asceticism is not anti-physical but seeks to liberate the body from the lure of the sensual so that the physical may be sanctified.

The Church Fathers considered that the most basic ascetic practices focus on controlling the passions or cravings of the body for food and drink and for sexual release. This is not because they are our greatest inner enemies - pride and vanity have that dubious distinction – but because it is easier to conquer our physical cravings than our spiritual impulses. This is why St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, singles out the power of gluttony and lust as the enemy’s first line of attack on the believer. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15). How can you surrender to the first assault the enemy mounts against you? If we cannot put aside fatty foods on Wednesdays and Fridays, much less during the Fasts, how can we even begin to deal with things like spiritual laziness (sloth) or pride that afflict us in our innermost hearts?

Worshipping in the Body

We live our life in Christ in our bodies as well as in our spirits and so the Eastern Churches have insisted that the body join the spirit in worshipping the One who created us as both physical and spiritual. We bow, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross, we prostrate, we kiss, we eat and we drink. We glorify God in the body by entering body, soul and spirit in the worship of the Church.

One way we glorify God in our bodies at worship is by standing for prayer. In some churches people are directed to stand or sit at different times during the service. Sitting, however, is the stance taken by an audience rather than a participant, whether it be at the theater or at worship. Worshippers are an “audience” during readings or a sermon; during prayers and litanies they are participants and more fittingly stand rather than sit.

Two bodily gestures in Eastern worship not common in the churches of the West are the metany and the prostration. In the metany, we make the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, extending our right hand until our fingers touch the ground. In the prostration we kneel on both knees and bow until our forehead touches the ground. Both gestures indicate our complete submission to the King of all.

Making metanies and prostrations requires a certain amount of free space around the worshipper. In older churches abroad any seating (benches or stalls) was located around the church walls leaving the center of the church free for worshippers. In churches with Western-style pews, worshippers often move out into the aisles to make prostrations.

The Great Fast

During the Church’ fasts we have ample opportunities to glorify God in the body through more frequent church services and through fasting. Eastern Christian fasting incorporates two ways of using our bodies in worship. In ascetic or total fasting, we do not eat or drink anything. Period. This kind of fasting is in the spirit of Deuteronomy 8:3, quoted by Christ to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Traditionally people fast this way before receiving Holy Communion. Clergy who will serve the Liturgy – and in some Churches whoever will receive the Eucharist – are expected to fast from sexual activity as well. It is also customary to fast totally for a certain period on all fast days. Thus, many fast this way until noon during these seasons.

The second type of fasting, also called abstinence, is fasting from certain foods (typically meat or dairy products). In many Eastern Churches, people fast totally until noon and then, when they do eat, they abstain from meat and dairy. Since fish is considered “meat without feet” it is not generally consumed on the stricter fast days.

In this kind of fasting, we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In the Genesis story of creation, humans were created to be vegetarians. God is depicted as telling Adam and Eve: “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” (Genesis 1:29). It was only after the flood that God told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Genesis 9:3). By restricting ourselves to the food of paradise, we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

Look upon my afflicted heart, O Christ. Behold how I turn back in repentance. See my tears, O Savior, and reject me not. Embrace me once again in Your compassion and number me with those who are saved, that I may thank and praise Your mercy.

Like the Thief, I cry to You, “Remember me!” Like the Publican, with downcast eyes I beat my breast and say, “Have mercy!” Like the Prodigal, deliver me from every evil, O compassionate King, that I may praise Your boundless mercy. Canon of the Prodigal, Ode 9
 
EVERY YEAR ON THE SECOND SUNDAY of the Triodion we hear the Lord’s story which we call the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In fact there are three important characters in this parable, recorded in Luke 15: 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 Second Brother

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).

Are We Scribes and Pharisees?

The brothers in this parable represent two types found in our society today. There are independent individualists who are determined to “fulfill themselves,” to make their own way according to their own lights. There are also people who conform to the expectations of their family or society, seeking to earn the approval of their peers or the powers-that-be. In the Church there are always people who equate being a good Christian with doing all the “right” things. Consciously or unconsciously, they use their acts of external righteousness to mask their unrighteous hearts. In the words of Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus (the “Father Maximos” of The Mountain of Silence), “…we went to the shrines, we venerated, we took out our money and placed it in a box, we left our candles, our oil, our prayers, our names, our prosphoron, everything… But our hearts did not change at all. Having completed our duties, we are the same as we were before. We are ready to attack one another, ready to testify against each other, ready to be sour just as we were before. Our hearts do not change… I confess to you from my own experience that I have not seen worse enemies of the Church than ‘religious’ people” (from Therapy for the Sickness of Pharasaism). As the Lord said, “these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

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.” The approaching Great Fast gives us an opportunity to care for the salvation of others. People attend the Liturgy or Lenten services who are not worshippers during the rest of the year. Do we invite our less fervent fellow-parishioners to worship with us during this season? Do we welcome them as returning brethren with love? Or do we say things like, “Oh, look who’s back – so you remembered how to get here!” A better approach might begin by reflecting on the attitude of the loving Father in today’s parable, an icon of Christ Himself.

From St Cyril of Alexandria

“What is the object of this parable? Let us examine the occasion which led to it; in this way we shall learn the truth. The blessed Luke said a little before concerning Christ, the Savior of us all, “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.’” Since the Pharisees and scribes were making an outcry on account of His gentleness and love for mankind, wickedly and impiously blaming Him for receiving and teaching people whose lives were impure, Christ set before them this present parable to show them clearly that the God of all requires even the person who is thoroughly steadfast and firm, who knows how to live in a holy manner, and has attained the highest praise for his sober conduct to be earnest in following His will, that when any are called to repentance – even if they are the most blameworthy – he must rejoice and not give way to a loveless irritation on their account.” (Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke, Sermon 107)
 
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). Coincidentally it is precisely these psalms, so familiar to the faithful of our Church, which Pope Francis cited in the letter opening his “Year of Mercy.” 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
 
Religious people are often accused of having a negative morality. Faithful believers are not to do this or that and there are “temple police” to make sure that they toe the line. Dietary regulations, which are prominent in both Judaism and Islam, are often cited as examples of this “negative morality.” People are not to eat this or that because God has forbidden it. Obeying these rules is seen as a way of glorifying God. The apostolic Church did not adopt the idea that certain foods were “unclean,” based in part on St Peter’s vision in Joppa (cf., Acts 10:9-16). “What God has cleansed,” Peter was told, “you must not call common” (v. 15). In the same way it did not adopt the idea taught by some sects at the time that marriage and sexuality were ungodly. Rather the Church espoused the principle stated by St Paul, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

Being “Under the Power” of Things

No authentically Christian exercise of asceticism, such as fasting, is done to avoid something evil but to keep us free from inappropriate control by anything. Fasting is one strategy for minimizing the power of food or drink (gluttony), material possessions (greed) or sex (lust) over us. It is often noted that many people in our society do not have a healthy relationship with food, drink or sex. Many rely on these things to fix emotional problems they were never designed to address. The resulting addictions are simply the most harmful examples of our disordered passions having power over us. As people today say, “What you own, owns you.” The apostolic Church’s teaching that nothing is “unclean” was perhaps too subtle for some early believers. They felt that, if everything was allowed, unlimited consumption was in order. Paul had to remind them that “Nothing is forbidden” does not mean “consume everything you can.” Rather, he insisted, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). The believer’s goal in life is to be united to God; unlimited consumption does not help us achieve that goal. St Paul would likely have agreed with Pope Francis’ criticisms of modern prosperity as leading to a “culture of waste.” We are prodded by film, TV and advertising into continually buying more and throwing away what we tire of. “Consumerism has led us to become so used to an excess” of food and other material goods, the pope says, that we no longer value our humanity, much less our relationship to God. The Church’s answer to consumerism – ancient or modern – is fasting.

How Do We Fast?

Most people see fasting as an act of self-denial, but often mistake just what we seek to deny in this observance. Fasting is not so much a denial of food as it is a denial of the ego. In our prosperous society we are used to having whatever we want whenever we want it. Fasting is a means of challenging this impulse to self-satisfaction. When we observe the Church’s fast days we are allowing others to determine what we may eat and when we may eat it. We fast when the Church fasts and in the manner that the Church prescribes. There are, of course, always exceptions for health and other reasons but in such cases the tradition would have us seek a blessing from one’s spiritual father before mitigating the fast. In that way we would not be determining our own version of the fast; we would still be following the Church, in the person of our confessor.

Sexual Morality a Kind of Fasting?

Our age has become known for the sexual revolution in which any form of sexual expression between consenting adults is ok. Some people even promote sexual activity with children and try to encourage its legalization. The Church, while recognizing that sexuality is, after all, God’s idea, seeks to free us from lust as it does from gluttony and greed. It proclaims sexuality as proper to marriage with an openness to conceiving children as integral to marital relations. Even married couples, however, are subject to the passions. And so refraining from marital relations has been a part of fasting, particularly before receiving the Eucharist or, in the case of married clergy, before celebrating the Liturgy. Thus older editions of the Divine Liturgy begin with these words: “The priest who desires to celebrate the Divine Mysteries must … be continent from the evening before, and be vigilant until the time of divine service.”

Tired of Fasting?

In 1 Corinthians 6 St Paul evokes three basic principles of the Gospel which underpin any Christian ascetical effort. They are timely reminders for us of why we fast, or live the Christian life at all. The blood of Christ is the “price” of our redemption – “For you were bought at a price” (v. 20): The ultimate reason for any ascetical effort is the union we have with Christ in His saving death and resurrection. We live in the light of Christ’s death on the cross which freed us from the rule of sin and death. As the priest prays when beginning the prothesis at the Divine Liturgy, “You redeemed us from the curse of the Law by Your precious blood.” We are united as members of one body in Christ – “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v. 15): When our bodies are immersed in the water of baptism we are organically united to Christ. We do not simply admire Him as an inspired teacher; in the Eucharist we are physically one with Him. Therefore our bodies have as important a role in worship as our hearts and minds. Like bows and prostrations, fasting is a form of physically glorifying God. We have received the Holy Spirit – Our baptism was sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in chrismation, making us Spirit-bearers: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God” (v. 19). Our bodies are sanctified vessels set apart for the worship of God as much as any holy chalice. Worship God by the way you use your body – “... therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (v. 20): Our liturgical life includes a number of ways in which we glorify God in out bodies. Among the ways we can do so in our daily life are by striving to lessen the power which food and drink, sexuality or entertainment have over us by regularly fasting on Wednesday and Friday, recalling Christ’s betrayal and His passion, and during the Church’s fasting seasons, particularly the Great Fast.
With St. Paul, we urge all to leave the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. We all are sinners in need of metanoia (repentance) in order to be rid of sin, the passions, and everything that enslaves us with regard to food and drink, clothing, pleasure, jealousy, anger, hatred, pride, obstinacy, calumny, amusements, and superficiality. He who commits sin is not free, but is the slave of sin. Great Lent is a time of purity, holiness, prayer, and liberation from sin, evil and corruption: a time very pleasing to God, a time of salvation, and a spiritual springtime preparing us to shine with the light of the glorious Resurrection. We exhort the faithful to take on the discipline of fasting and abstinence that our fathers and ancestors always practiced. My brothers and sisters, “repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Bishop Nicholas Samra
 
FOR THE NEXT FEW SUNDAYS Psalm 136 (LXX) is chanted before the Gospel at Orthros. Describing the plight of Jewish exiles in the seventh century BC, it begins with this verse: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC they deported the defeated Jewish king along with nobles and important craftsmen to Babylon. In response to successive revolts the Babylonians destroyed the temple and deported even more people. The forced exile ended in 538 BC after the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, who gave the Jews permission to return to Judea and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. This theme of exile comes to the fore today as the Church asks us to consider that we too are exiles, not from the Kingdom of Judah but from the Kingdom of God. The difference is that, while the deported Jews knew that they were exiles, we are largely unaware of it or unconcerned about it. We are doing reasonably well, our lives are satisfying and we are confident that things are getting better and better every day. But the Church holds up before us this image of exile so that we may realize that we are far from home, we are not where we are meant to be. This realization is the first step in the Lenten journey to find our way back to God.

We Are the Prodigal Son

When the son in Christ’s parable took his inheritance, he went off to “a far country” to live the good life. He succeeded in doing so, as long as his money held out. Then things changed for the worse. At the end even the pigs ate better than he did. Only then did he realize how far he had fallen. First, the Prodigal saw his situation for what it was. He came to realize that he was at the bottom and things couldn’t get much worse. Secondly he thought about the home he had forsaken. Finally he made the decision and acted upon it: “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). Like the deported Jews the Prodigal came to see himself as exiled. But while the Jews had been forcibly deported to Babylon and could not return home, the Prodigal had exiled himself from his true home. He was therefore able to pick himself up and embark on the journey back. He rightly saw his need to admit his wrongdoing and express his sorrow. “I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants’” (Luke 15: 18-19). Many people addicted to alcohol, drugs or other self-destructive behavior come to the same realization when they "bottom out". Their recovery process begins when they accept responsibility for their condition and seek to make amends. We may recognize the similarity of an addict to the Prodigal, but fail to see the comparison with ourselves. All of us are far from home, perhaps not because of addiction but because of sin. The sin of Adam – seeking to live independently of God – is replicated in the lives of each of us in one way or another. Mankind wants the inheritance – all that we receive from God - but does not value a relationship with the Father. The difference is that while a recovering addict, like the Prodigal, has a clear sense of his addiction, we may be unaware of our loss because we have not "hit bottom". We may not realize that being away from the Father’s house is in fact to be in exile.

Repentance: the Way Home

During this pre-Fast period and during the Great Fast itself this hymn is sing 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 has 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 recognizes the intentions of our heart. He is and always will be our loving Father.

Brethren, our purpose is to know the power of God’s goodness: how when the Prodigal Son gave up sin and hastened to his father’s house, his kindly father welcomed him and kissed him and marked him with signs of honor. He manifested his mystical joy to the inhabitants of Heaven by killing the fatted calf in order that we too may do what is right before the Sacificer, the Father and the Lover of Mankind, and the Victim, the glorious Savior of our souls. (Stikheron at Vespers)

O Christ, open Your arms to me, and in Your great mercy accept me as I return from the distance country of sin and passion. (Canon, Ode 3)

 
MANY PEOPLE TODAY EQUATE “SPIRITUALITY” with one’s personal inner life. Spiritual seekers are advised to “listen to their heart” to find peace and clarity, often without any reference to God – or at least to the God revealed in the Scriptures – or to a community such as the Church. Their approach is more individual rather than communal, more mind-centered than encompassing one’s entire being, and often more concerned with self-help than with living in union with God. As Eastern Christians we stand in a tradition that first of all understands spirituality as mankind’s relationship to God through the operation of the Holy Spirit. At its root this relationship is based on an event which joins the material and the spiritual: the Incarnation of Christ. The Word of God took flesh, became human in order to unite us with God. Because He is truly and perfectly man, the risen Christ is now glorified in His body, seated at the right hand of the Father.

The Body in Eastern Thought

The body as well as the spirit is important in Christian life. As St Paul says, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6: 19-20). We are not meant to ignore or belittle the body because we are Christians. The body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul in the work of our sanctification. The body, as well as the spirit, is meant to be transfigured in Christ and so we are called to glorify God in it.

Purifying the Body

The first way in which we glorify God in the body is by accepting and affirming its freedom from the control of sin and death. United to Christ in baptism, we have already been given a share in that freedom, which will be completely realized in the life of the world to come. As long as we are in this life, however, we must work along with Christ-in-us to maintain the body’s freedom from the influence of sin. And so one way in which we glorify God in the body is by the Church’s ascetic tradition, which focuses on freeing the mind and the heart from attachment to the things of the senses. Christian asceticism is not anti-physical but seeks to liberate the body from the lure of the sensual so that the physical may be sanctified. The Church Fathers considered that the most basic ascetic practices focus on controlling the passions or cravings of the body for food and drink and for sexual release. This is not because they are our greatest inner enemies - pride and vanity have that dubious distinction – but because it is easier to conquer our physical cravings than our spiritual impulses. This is why St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, singles out the power of gluttony and lust as the enemy’s first line of attack on the believer. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v.15). How can you surrender to the first assault the enemy mounts against you? If we cannot put aside fatty foods on Wednesdays and Fridays, much less during the Fasts, how can we even begin to deal with things like spiritual laziness (sloth) or pride that afflict us in our innermost hearts?

Worshipping in the Body

We live our life in Christ in our bodies as well as in our spirits and so the Eastern Churches have insisted that the body join the spirit in worshipping the One who created us as both physical and spiritual. We bow, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross, we prostrate, we kiss, we eat and we drink. We glorify God in the body by entering body, soul and spirit in the worship of the Church. One way we glorify God in our bodies at worship is by standing for prayer. In some churches people are directed to stand or sit at different times during the service. Sitting, however, is the stance taken by an audience rather than a participant, whether it be at the theater or at worship. Worshippers are an “audience” during readings or a sermon; during prayers and litanies they are participants and more fittingly stand rather than sit. Two bodily gestures in Eastern worship not common in the churches of the West are the metany and the prostration. In the metany we make the sign of the cross and bow from the waist, extending our right hand until our fingers touch the ground. In the prostration we kneel on both knees and bow until our forehead touches the ground. Both gestures indicate our complete submission to the King of all. Making metanies and prostrations requires a certain amount of free space around the worshipper. In older churches abroad any seating (benches or stalls) was located around the church walls leaving the center of the church free for worshippers. In churches with Western-style pews worshippers often move out into the aisles to make prostrations.

The Great Fast

During the Church’ fasts we have ample opportunities to glorify God in the body through more frequent church services and through fasting. Eastern Christian fasting incorporates two ways of using our bodies in worship. In ascetic or total fasting we do not eat or drink anything. Period. This kind of fasting is in the spirit of Deutronomy 8:3, quoted by Christ to the tempter, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Traditionally people fast this way before receiving Holy Communion. Clergy who will serve the Liturgy – and in some Churches whoever will receive the Eucharist – are expected to fast from sexual activity as well. It is also customary to fast totally for a certain period on all fast days. Thus many fast this way until noon during these seasons. The second type of fasting, also called abstinence, is fasting from certain foods (typically meat or dairy products). In many Eastern Churches people fast totally until noon and then, when they do eat, they abstain from meat and dairy. Since fish is considered “meat without feet” it is not generally consumed on the stricter fast days. In this kind of fasting we glorify God in the body by limiting ourselves to what has been called the “food of paradise.” In the Genesis story of creation humans were created to be vegetarians. God is depicted as telling Adam and Eve: “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” (Gen 1:29). It was only after the flood that God told Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs” (Gen 9:3). By restricting ourselves to the food of paradise we are saying that we value above all things the communion with God that our first parents had.

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