To the Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, the Venerable Monastics, and the Christ-loving Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America.
Beloved in Christ:
“Enter again into Paradise!” So the Holy Church sings in the kontakion at Lent’s mid-point. At a time of year that coincides with college students’ “spring break” – an occasion for riotous and prodigal indulgence in the pigpen of the passions – the Church offers us a very different image of paradise. Fasting, vigil, silence and prayer, denial of self and generosity to others: these are the labors by which we are invited and commanded to regain our true, paradisal home.
In the three weeks that have led us to this great and solemn first day of the Fast, the Church has set before our spiritual eyes themes of exile. When our ancestors in the faith were led to captivity in Babylon, they wept; they hung up their lyres and said, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Psalm 136:4–5). The Prodigal Son, at the eleventh hour, was given the grace not to forget his father’s house, and so he set his feet on the path of return. Our father Adam and our mother Eve chose exile and hardship for themselves and all their descendants through their disobedience, and yet they – and we with them – are shown the way home: we see the doors of repentance thrown open, and our loving Father in heaven keeping watch for our return with open arms.
In Holy Scripture, Jerusalem, the heart of the Promised Land and seat of the Temple, typifies the dwelling place of God among men. When the time came for our Savior to be received up, “He set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Making his way to the earthly Jerusalem, He was advancing toward suffering and ignominious death. Yet, “for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Cast out of the city, suffering outside the gate, He sanctified the people through His own blood. Therefore, the Apostle tells us, we also must “go forth to him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:12–14).
The exiles in Babylon refused to forget Jerusalem. Yearning to return to the land given by God to Abraham, they would not make themselves at home in Babylon. The holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Youths obeyed the dictates of their conscience, even in the face of harsh recrimination from a legal system hostile to righteousness. When opportunity arose, they did not shrink from speaking the truth to those who opposed it and, against all odds, God rewarded their faithful witness (v. Daniel 3 and 6).
If we wish to return home to our Father’s house, we first must face the fact that, no matter where we live, we are exiles. This means that if we strive to follow Christ, if we endeavor to pray and fast, to avoid idle talk, to silence our thoughts and find stillness in our hearts, to love our neighbors and our enemies, and to speak the truth without judgment to a crooked and perverse generation, then we must expect to suffer the same mockery and hatred from the powerful of this world that Christ suffered when He walked the earth. For He is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and He gives us the grace we need to prepare for the abuse that awaits us, whether at the hands of men or from the devil and his angels. We must ready ourselves for the fight by laying aside “every weight and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1). Great Lent is a strenuous period of training that makes us fit to persevere in a long and arduous trek home.
But the ascetic struggle of Lent is truly a foretaste of Paradise! The world pretends to offer happiness, but this is deception; in reality it gives us only a foretaste of hell. For too many Christians, though, the spiritual senses have grown so dull that the hellish pleasures of the world are more attractive than the Edenic delights of the Church and the Kingdom. We have lost the memory of Paradise; we have forgotten the spiritual Jerusalem; we have made for ourselves a comfortable home in this foreign land. So how then can we make a commitment to follow Christ to Jerusalem? What will motivate us to continue walking along the hard and narrow path to our true home?
“Do you want to be made well?” Our Savior addressed this question to the man who was paralyzed thirty-eight years (John 5:6). A similar question could be asked of us: “Do you want to go home?” The answer is not a foregone conclusion. “Do you want to return to your Father’s house? Do you want to leave the pigpen of the passions? Do you want to be washed clean, filled with light, robed in dignity, and transformed with the glory of God?” Whether we know it or not, we respond yes or no to these questions every day of our lives, every hour, every minute. One moment we may set our face toward Jerusalem – to the cross that awaits us there, and to the joy and glory that come only through the cross – but the next moment we go running back to our comfortable passions and delusions. We waffle and vacillate, reassuring ourselves that before time has run out we will surely have made an irrevocable commitment to Christ.
And we hardly spare a thought for the alternative – it is too fearful to face. The captives in Babylon, the Prodigal, even Adam himself – for all of them, exile came to an end; they returned home; they entered again into Paradise. But last Sunday we were warned of the perilous alternative to repentance: unending exile from God and those who love Him. For no one, neither man nor angel, nor even God Himself, can force us to return from the foreign country against our will. God’s arms are opened wide to embrace us – but He gives us the freedom to turn away. His face is warm with love and mercy – but we may close our eyes. Then nothing will be left for us but darkness, confusion, and never-ending despair.
In our Father’s house are many dwellings, and Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. He will come again and take us to Himself, that where He is, we may be also. We know the narrow way He has trod. He Himself is the way, and the truth, and the life (cf. John 14: 2–4). If we are with Him, we have nothing to fear! At the last and great Day, at the end of the age, we will behold the New Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride for her husband (cf. Revelation 21). With joy we will enter in to celebrate an eternal Pascha – God with us and we with Him. He shall wipe away every tear from our eyes, and at long last we shall be home.
With every blessing for a peaceful and holy Fast, and with love in Christ,
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
by St. Theodore the Studite
Given On the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.
“Brethren and fathers, because winter has passed and spring has arrived, we see creation flourishing again; the plants are flowering, the earth is growing green, the birds are singing and everything else is being renewed; and we take pleasure in all this and we glorify God the master craftsman who transforms and changes creation year by year, and it is reasonable to do so. “Ever since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made” [Rom. 1:20].
It is our duty not just to stay where we are, but to advance further and to examine carefully for ourselves the logic of creation. How? Because this renewal has winter as its cause. It would not have reached its prime had it not first undergone snows and rains and winds. And so it is with the soul; unless it is first snowed on by afflictions, troubles and difficulties, it will not flower, it will not fruit; but by enduring, it bears fruit and partakes in a blessing from God, as it is written: “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, partakes in a blessing from God” [Heb. 6:7].
Therefore, brethren, let us also endure every affliction, every trouble, every trial which assails us both visibly and invisibly. The fast we are drawing out as we hunger and thirst and are otherwise made wretched, so that we may bear fruit and partake of God’s blessing; and not only that, but that we may nourish and welcome Jesus as our guest. For just as we enjoy the sight of creation, so He too enjoys the ripe beauty of our souls. What are the fruits? “Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-mastery” [Gal. 5:22]. By these He is nourished, by these He is entertained. And blest the one who nourishes Him, because he will be nourished by Him with eternal good things; and blest the one who receives Him as his guest, because he will be received by Him as his guest in the kingdom of heaven! Indeed! So if someone is to receive a king as his house guest, he rejoices and is extremely glad; how much more then someone who receives the King of kings and Lord of lords as his house guest. That he is received is clear from what He himself has said: “I and my Father will come and make our abode with him” [John 14:23]. And again: “One who has My commandments and keeps them, is the one who loves Me; the one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I shall love him and manifest Myself to him” [John 14:21].
Therefore, since such are the promises, let us not only bear, but let us endure with joy all things, both those that are present, those that are whispered about, and those that are expected, as we listen to the Apostle when he says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the Church” [Col. 1:24]. And again Saint James who says: “My brethren, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” [James 1:2-4]. Do you see then that in trials there is joy, and in tribulations gladness? For these are the things that are exchanged where God is concerned; and this is how the saints led their lives; this too how we, by doing violence to ourselves and yet greater violence, and by living our life in their footsteps, shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.
1. The Greek has literally ‘the hour of our souls’, but the word can also connote ‘beauty‘, ‘ripeness’, ‘the bloom of youth’, ‘spring-time’. Hence, for example, the derivatives ‘beautiful’ and ‘ripe’.”
“As we are therefore beginning this sacred season, dedicated to the purification of the soul, let us be careful to fulfill the Apostolic command that we cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and of the spirit (IICor. 7:11), so that restraining the conflict that exists between the one and the other substance, the soul, which in the Providence of God is meant to be the ruler of the body, may regain the dignity of its rightful authority, so that, giving offense to no man, we may not incur the contumely of evil mongers. With just contempt shall we be tormented by those who have no faith, and from our wickedness evil tongues will draw weapons to wound religion, if the way of life of those who fast be not in accord with what is needed in true self-denial. For the sum total of our fasting does not consist in merely abstaining from food. In vain do we deny our body food if we do not withhold our heart from iniquity, and restrain our lips that they speak no evil.” - St. Leo the Great - ‘Lent the Season of Purification
“Blessed is the mind that passes the time of its pilgrimage in chaste sobriety, and loiters not in the things through which it has to walk, so that, as a stranger rather than the possessor of its earthly abode, it may not be wanting in human affections, and yet rest on the Divine promises.” - St. Leo the Great - ‘Homily 49: On Great Lent
“...We must then so moderate our rightful use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For this is also a time of peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil doing we strive after steadfastness in what is good. Now is the time when generous Christian souls forgive offences, pay no heed to insults, and wipe out the memory of past injuries. Now let the Christian soul exercise itself in the armour of justice, on the right hand and on the left, so that amid honour and dishonour, evil report and good, the praise of men will not make proud the virtue that is well rooted, the conscience that has peace, nor dishonour cast it down. The moderation of those who worship God is not melancholy, but blameless.” - St. Leo the Great - “Lent the Season of Purification (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers)
“When He had fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards was hungry, He gave an opportunity to the devil to draw near, so that He might teach us through this encounter how we are to overcome and defeat him. This a wrestler also does. For in order to teach his pupils how to win he himself engages in contests with others, demonstrating on the actual bodies of others that they may learn how to gain the mastery. This is what took place here. For, desiring to draw the devil into contest, He made His hunger known to him. He met him as he approached, and meeting him, with the skill which He alone possessed, He once, twice, and a third time, threw His enemy to the ground.” - St. John Chrysostom - The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers
“Special services, special foods, continence, not going to dances and events, all this awakes one to piety and reflection on our present purpose, on the past and on eternity. Seeing in ourselves a falling away from the commandments of God, we try to reconcile ourselves to God through repentance and communion of the most pure and life-giving Mysteries of Christ, which burn the thorns of our sins. You, when you have not fulfilled this duty during the year, of course will fulfill it during the Fast. The most merciful Lord loved us so much, that He gave us, through food and drink, His most pure Body and life-giving Blood, as a token of life eternal and the incorrupt future feast. Let us offer Him thanksgiving with pure hearts, lips and acts!” - St. Macarius of Optina (Letters...)
“And though every day a man lives may rightly be a day of repentance, yet is it in these days more becoming, more appropriate, to confess our sins, to fast, and to give alms to the poor; since in these days you may wash clean the sins of the whole year.” - St. John Chrysostom - “The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers”
“Brethren and Fathers, our good God who gives us life and brings us from year to year, has brought us also with love for mankind to this present time of fasting, in which each of the eager, as their choice directs, enters the contest; one devoting himself to self-mastery, eating only every two or three days, another to vigil, keeping vigil for so long or so long, another spending even longer in prostrations, and others in other ascetic actions. Quite simply during these holy days it is possible to see great zeal and attention. But the true subject behaves with obedience not at any particular time, but keeps up the struggle always. What is the struggle? Not to walk according to one’s own will, but to let oneself be ruled by the disposition of the superior. This is better than the other works of zeal and is a crown of martyrdom; except that for you there is also change of diet, multiplication of prostrations and increase of psalmody are in accord with the established tradition from of old. And so I ask, let us welcome gladly the gift of the fast, not making ourselves miserable, as we are taught, but let us advance with cheerfulness of heart, innocent, not slandering, not angry, not evil, not envying; rather peaceable towards each other, and loving, fair, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits; breathing in seasonable stillness, since hubbub is damaging in a community; speaking suitable words, since too unreasonable stillness is profitless; yet above all unsleepingly keeping watch over our thoughts, not opening the door to the passions, not giving place to the devil. If the spirit of the powerful one, it says, rise up against you, do not let it find your place. So that the enemy has power to suggest, but in no way to enter. We are lords of ourselves; let us not open our door to the devil; rather let us keep guard over our soul as a bride of Christ, not set about with tumult, unwounded by the arrows of the thoughts; for thus we are able to become a dwelling of God in Spirit. Thus we may be made worthy to hear, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Quite simply, Whatever is true, whatever noble, whatever just, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good report, if there is anything virtuous, if there is anything praiseworthy, to speak like the Apostle, do it; and the God of peace will be with you all, in Christ Jesus, our Lord, to whom be the glory and the might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.” - St. Theodore the Studite - Catechesis 53 “On fasting; and that the true fast of the obedient and the subject is the cutting off of one’s will. Given on Cheesefare Sunday.”