Monday, March 12, 2018

The Mid-Point, The Turning Point... The One Thing Needful

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Twenty Second Day

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (I COR. 2:2)

There is a definite shift in focus once we reach the Third Sunday of Great Lent and the veneration of the Cross. For the first three weeks of the Fast, the hymnography of the Triodion concentrates our attention on the over-all lenten effort of repentance, and all that repentance entails: overcoming temptation and sin, struggling against the passions, intensifying our prayer, almsgiving and fasting, reconciliation with our neighbor, etc. 
This is not a pious form of spiritual solipsism. It is a way to force us to look at our own lives and relationship with God and to "expose" our own weaknesses and failings, so we can humbly acknowledge our sinfulness and "do something about it." That is one of the main purposes behind Great Lent: "Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved," according to St. Seraphim of Sarov. If we could possibly cleanse our own minds and hearts, then each one of us can become a genuine Christian who worthily proclaims the Gospel by a particular way of life that embodies the precepts of the Gospel. That includes the self-denial of taking up one's cross in imitation of the Lord.

However, with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the Scriptures and the Triodion will concentrate on the Cross of Christ - the goal of our lenten journey. Our lenten effort must be understood and experienced within the context of the Lord's Cross, without which all of our ascetical and charitable efforts do not transcend their immediate application and do indeed devolve into a series of questionable "spiritual exercises" performed more or less for their own sake. The Cross is the source, ground, and goal of Great Lent and of our personal journey through it. We now begin to anticipate its salvific power in our midst. 
At the same time, we never lose sight of the fact that we are moving toward Pascha and the glorious Resurrection of Christ. The profound "connection" between the Cross and Resurrection is always affirmed. This is perfectly expressed in the well-known that we sing and chant as we venerate the Cross:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify.

And, there is the remarkable prayer said after Communion: 

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One ... For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world.

Yet, if we anticipate once again the joyous ecstasy of beholding the empty tomb, we must first stand at the foot of the Cross on Golgotha: "looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before hi, endured the cross." (Heb 12:2) 

At the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evening, we began with a series of transitional hymns, that in addition to reminding us that we have reached the midpoint of the Fast, combine our own ascetical effort - and the need for its continuation for the remainder of the Fast - with clear reference to the Lord and Cross that is the culmination of His earthly ministry:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings bring forth even greater achievements.
While pleasing Christ, the giver of blessings, we cry:
O Lord, who fasted and endured the cross for our sake,
make us worthy to share blamelessly in Your paschal victory,
by living in peace and rightly giving glory to You
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

O Cross, boast of the apostles,
surrounded by archangels, powers and principalities;
Save us from all harm who bow down before you.
Enable us to fulfill the divine course of abstinence
and to reach the day of salvation, by which we are saved.

And there are hymns that are something of an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross' meaning on a cosmic and personal level:

Today, as we bow before the cross of the Lord, we cry:
Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!
O invincible weapon, confirmation of the faithful:
Protect and sanctify those who kiss you!

The Cross is the culmination of our journey through Holy Week. Practically speaking, that must in turn be the culmination of our lenten effort, or else the sacred forty days and Holy Week will be reduced to empty forms devoid of spiritual power. 
"Lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week. Try and plan your schedules so as to maximize your time in church for the services that will bring us to the Cross and Resurrection. Even when unable to be in church, let it be a time of greater silence and concentration, so that empty distractions are kept to a minimum. 
If possible, use a "vacation day" from work and make Holy Friday a time to immerse yourselves into the Mystery of the Cross. If your children are home on Holy Friday, direct them toward the Church and the "solemnity" of that unique day. 
In a world that offers us an abundance of the superficially attractive, resist such temptation by focusing on the essential - "the one thing needful" - Jesus Christ.

Friday, March 9, 2018

'You will love Him alone...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Nineteenth Day

"You will love Him alone, and to him alone you will offer worship with all your mind, heart, and strength, and His words and commandments will be in your heart, so that you practice and study them, and speak about them with others."

- St. Gregory Palamas

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

St Gregory Palamas: On God's providence

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Seventeenth Day
"We can free ourselves more easily from passions that are a matter of our own volition than from those rooted in nature. It is disbelief in God's providence that makes it difficult for us to eradicate the passions that arise from our love of possessions, for such disbelief leads us to put our trust in material riches. ...
"Yet when wealth comes, it proves itself to be nothing, since its possessors, unless they are brought to their senses by experience, still thirst after it as though they lacked it. This love that is no love does not come from need; rather the need arises from the love. The love itself arises from folly, the same folly that led Christ, the Master of all, justly to describe as foolish the man who pulled down his barns and built greater ones (Lk. 12:18-20). ...
"The truth is that people are frightened of being poor because they have no faith in Him who promised to provide all things needful to those who seek the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33)."
- St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

'The most excellent of God's acts...'

Dear Parish Faithful,
GREAT LENT - The Sixteenth Day
"When the Lord became man, the most excellent of God's acts was completed indeed. For although every prior act that God providentially accomplished on our behalf was fine and good, and straining towards this end, the most excellent act of all, or rather the only one that is excellent beyond compare, is the act of our Lord Jesus Christ becoming man, an act whose end was the saving Passion and Resurrection."
- St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)

Monday, March 5, 2018

Victory over the Passions

Dear Parish Faithful,
GREAT LENT - The fifteenth day
"For us, the beginning of this imitation (of Christ) is Holy Baptism, a type of the Lord's Burial and Resurrection. The mean is the life of virtue according to the Gospel. The end is the victory over the passions through spiritual struggles, a victory that introduces us to the painless, imperishable and heavenly life."
St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)
Who is St. Gregory Palamas? - Yesterday, on the Second Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the "towering figure" of St. Gregory Palamas. And yet, the question remains: just how many of today's Orthodox faithful are aware of St. Gregory? Trying to help make him a "household name" - in least in Orthodox homes - I focused on St. Gregory in the homily and post-Liturgy discussion. That was at best an introduction.To further that effort, I am providing a link to a good summary of his life that includes some of the major theological issues that he responded so brilliantly to. Please make the effort to read about this great saint who is one of our great teachers about prayer and life in Christ:
We commemorated St. Gregory on  the same day that the Academy Awards were taking place, and Oscars were being handed out. If we happen to know some of those "stars" who entertain us so well, perhaps we can also know this saint who initiates us into the mysteries of Christ so well.

Friday, March 2, 2018

'The person I love the least...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twelfth Day

"I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least."

- Dorothy Day, journalist and activist

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Ninth Day: On Sin and Destiny

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Ninth Day

"The sin that reigns in man through the power of the devil and of death arouses fear, anguish and in general the instinct of self-preservation. Thus through fear and self-interest Satan produces sin in man... and brings about his failure to fulfill his destiny."
- John Romanides