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email: pater@christopherklitou.com 

TALK ON GREAT LENT

OUR PREPARATION FOR

THE KINGDOM?

11th FEBRUARY 2010

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At our last meeting we saw how in the ancient Church the Baptismal service was closely linked to the Pascal service and how both the Baptismal service and that of Pascha have retained elements that testify to this close connection. From this Sunday evening we enter the period in the Church’s cycle known as Great Lent which is closely associated with both Pascha and also our Baptism. Above all Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Pascha. It is our preparation that we may enter into the Feast of all Feasts spiritually ready to understand the meaning of the great and unique joy of the Resurrection and its significance and meaning to our own life. The Paschal celebration is not only a commemoration of the new life that shone forth from the grave two thousand years ago, it is also the celebration of the new life given to each of us who believe in Christ and this new life was given to us on the day of our Baptism. St. Paul says: “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Thus the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is something that happened to us on the day of our baptism and continues to be renewed every year at Pascha.

To each of us at our baptism was given the gift of the new life from the grave which gave a new meaning to the general attitude of life and death understood by the average man. For the Christian “death is no more” and as St. John Chrysostom says in his Easter Sermon “Where, O death, is your sting? Where, O Hades is your victory? Christ is risen, and thou art cast down. Christ is risen, and the demons have fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life is liberated. Christ is risen, and no one remains dead in a tomb”. Of course death is still there and it is something that each of us will one day come face to face with: it is something we cannot escape and it will come to take us, but through faith we believe that Christ has changed the very nature of death and has made it a passage – a Passover, a Pascha into the Kingdom of God.
It is this very faith that Great Lent comes to strengthen and revitalise. Human nature is weak and we constantly betray the “new life” we received as a gift. We are consumed with our daily preoccupations and the cares of this world. We fill our time with so many things that we must do that we forget the true meaning of life and sink into a life void of Christ, living as though he didn’t rise from the dead. Our life becomes a meaningless journey and as we sink further and further into sin and in the midst of our enjoying life we even forget that death looms over us and might all of a sudden take us by surprise. Our new life we received at baptism becomes buried under the mud of our various sins that the light of the resurrection no longer shines in our hearts: it becomes so dimmed that our life again resembles the “old life in darkness”. But how do we overcome the pulling magnet of this world and the media which constantly teaches us that life means to be successful, to seek wealth, fame and glory, a social status which is identified by our home, our car and the brand names of our clothes and accessories? These according to the world are the things that will give us fulfilment and happiness in life and a sense of security and pleasure. This according to the Gospel is the broad way, but Christ tells us to choose the narrow way, the difficult and often painful road of suffering which leads to genuine and eternal happiness. It is not an easy choice especially in our age where the world at large considers suffering for Christ as something foolish and illogical. It needs a certain amount of faith to begin this journey of return and only if someone has experienced at sometime in his life the “new man” in him can he understand that there is at the end of the road a genuine happiness that has nothing to do with this material world.

The Church fully understands human weakness and knows that the individual cannot undertake this difficult journey of return on his own and is ready to give to each the strength and support that will help them safely reach the desired destination. This is where Great Lent comes in: it is the help extended to us by the Church. It is a period of repentance with prayer and fasting, which if followed with obedience, will permit us to experience Pascha not as a day where we celebrate just the historical event of the Lord’s Resurrection and an excuse to eat drink and be merry, but as the renewal of our Baptism with the reburying of the “old man” in us and the rebirth of the “new man” bathed once more with the light of the Resurrection.
We saw in our last meeting how the catechumens of old were prepared during Lent for their Baptism at Easter and this was in fact the main purpose of Lent. But even when infant baptisms prevailed and pre-baptismal instructions were replaced with post-baptismal instructions, Lent still retained its basic catechetical and baptismal character, but adapted itself to the spiritual preparation of those already baptized. Thus Lent helps us to regain that which we received at baptism and which we constantly lose due to worldly distractions and careless living. Thus Pascha is our return every year to our own Baptism, to our own death and resurrection and Lent is the way that prepares us for that return.
But this return will not happen if we do not take Lent seriously. The help the Church gives during this period is not a set of negative rules and obligations that she imposes on us. If we see Lent in this way then we have lost the meaning before we even begin. Lent is much much more and needs a state of mind where the person acknowledges his alienation from God and hungers to re-establish the lost relationship and communion with him. But this state of mind does not happen overnight: it needs its own preparation. So long before the actual beginning of Lent the Church announces its approach and invites us to enter into the period of pre-lenten preparation. The Church knows how we humans cannot change abruptly from one spiritual state of mind to another and need time to adjust and prepare. This preparation is basically in the Gospel readings of the five Sundays before Lent and in the Liturgical hymns. We have spoken before in depth on the meaning of these five Sundays, but it will not harm us to do a quick recap on how the Church teaches and prepares us for the frame of mind we must have as we enter Great Lent.
The first Sunday is know as the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the Gospel reading is about the short tax collector Zacchaeus who desired so much to see Jesus that he climbed up a tree. His desire was noticed by Jesus and in response went with him to his house. Thus the theme of the first announcement is desire. This is the first thing we need to begin our journey – a strong desire to see Christ. It is the first act of repentance, because repentance begins with the desire for God, his righteousness and for true life. In short the Church is telling us that if we have the desire to want to approach and see God then Christ will respond and come into our house and into our hearts.
The next Sunday is called the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Gospel reading is about two men who went up to the temple to pray but with different attitudes. The Pharisee is self-assured and proud of himself and justifies himself before God that he is righteous, and not like other men, and especially not like the Publican who he saw standing nearby. In general the Pharisees which mean “the Separated” were the puritans of the faith and strived to keep themselves pure from any spiritual, moral or bodily contamination. They considered themselves above all other men because they considered that their knowledge of the Law and their external religious observances placed them above the common person and prided themselves in self righteousness. The Publicans or tax collectors on the other hand were despised and held in contempt by the people as being the lowest of all men. But in contrast to the Pharisee, the Publican recognized that he was a sinner and so much did he feel his unworthiness before God that he stood afar off and smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
Thus the Church teaches us that the next step on our journey is to learn humility, something which is extremely difficult since our society, our whole way of life teaches men that humility is a weakness, a sign of a loser. But God himself is humble and if we want to follow in Christ’s footsteps we must also learn to be humble as Christ said ‘Learn from me for I am meek and humble in heart’. It takes a strong man to be humble. It is not just turning the other cheek; it means to have Christ-like love, to love all people and to be able to forgive them deep down in one’s heart, to be able to truly say, ‘forgive them for they know not what they do’. Humility means not to blame others for our own errors, not to look around and judge at what others do.
On the third Sunday of preparation we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is probably one of the most touching stories which properly understood should bring us to the brink of tears. It tells us of a man who had two sons and the younger of the two asked his father to give him his share of the inheritance that belonged to him. When he received his share he left and went into a far country and there wasted all his inheritance by leading a wasteful and reckless life. While he had money he was popular and everyone wanted to know him, but now having wasted everything away he was alone, homeless and starving. At some point, he came to his senses and realized how comfortable he had been while still living with his father and so decided to return. But he realized that he had greatly sinned against his father and felt that he couldn’t return to the status he had before and was willing to be a servant if his father would have him. As he was approaching, but still a long way off, his father sees him and so overwhelmed with joy that his son was still alive, runs and embraces him. The Father reinstates him to his former glory and orders a feast to celebrate his return.

The story then turns to the elder son who was out working in the fields and on returning to the house is informed that his father had ordered a celebration because of his brother’s return. He was infuriated with the news and his envy clouded his sense of judgement. He would have preferred that his father had punished his brother and sent him away for ever. How could he receive him back as a son and on top off this to kill the fatted calf to celebrate his return? He felt this was a great injustice done to him because he had never transgressed his father’s commandments and yet not once did his father give him a baby goat to have a party with his friends. The Parable has great spiritual depth and many symbolic meanings which if we were to analyze each one we would need a separate talk just on this Parable as we have done in the past, but lets see the general meaning and how it identifies to us. The Parable is in fact our return to our Baptism, our return journey to God, the journey that Great Lent wants us to embark on to reach Pascha our homeland. In the parable the father is God himself and the two sons represent members of the Church – those who are active members and those who have distanced themselves through careless living. The inheritance that God gives them are the spiritual graces of the Holy Spirit which we receive at Baptism. The far country is our self-imposed exile far from God and the Church, and the younger son represents those who waste the spiritual graces of the Holy Spirit living a reckless and sinful life. The point when the Prodigal son comes to his senses is the time we realize our wretched condition, when we realize that we are spiritually starved, it is the beginning of our repentance and our desire to return to God. And we begin our small effort to return to God with prayer and fasting and God seeing our desire, doesn’t wait for us to reach home, but sees us while we are still a long way away and runs to us and embraces us and kisses us.

In the Parable it says that the father orders the servants to dress the Prodigal Son with the best robe, to put a ring on his finger and shoes for his feet. What do these represent? They are the spiritual gifts that we received at Baptism. The robe has a double meaning. It is the robe of righteousness that we are dressed with immediately after our Baptism: the spiritual garment of incorruption which we were to preserve spotless and undefiled. The second meaning is a body of immortality. The best robe in the English translations is not totally correct. In Greek it is (την πρώτη στολή) the first robe, which properly interpreted means the first body that Adam had before the fall: an immortal body which is what we will have on our return to Paradise after the Second Coming. The fatted calf is of course a reference to Christ himself who is sacrificed for us and by whom we are nourished through Holy Communion and the celebration is the heavenly banquet we will enjoy for all eternity.

As said earlier the two sons represent the members of the Church. The younger of the two represents the repentance sinner, but who is the older son? He represents all those people who we see coming to Church every week, who strive to live a life close to the Church and God. They keep the fasts and everything the Church requires of them, in other words they appear externally as good Christians, very much like the Pharisee who appeared as a good Jew. But are they true Christians? Do they have the love and compassion and forgiving nature of Christ for this is what it means to be a Christian? Their true nature remains hidden and only comes to the surface when they are faced with putting what they preach into practice. Can they accept someone who they know has lived sinfully all his life: can they accept a murderer, a whore or a thief on an equal level as themselves? They have devoted all their lives to the Church - surely they deserve to receive greater honour from God than these people who have lived distant from God all their lives and now suddenly they decide they want to know God. Is that justice? This attitude is something that we must guard against: it is all too easy to full into the trap of pride and self-righteousness. I have seen even monks full into this same trap. It is a fact that when someone who has never known God suddenly becomes enlightened and in a sense is “reborn” that God gives them a special grace to help them stabilise and find strength to continue. Most people who have grown up within the Church have never experienced this grace because basically they didn’t have need of it, but when they see someone who has only just found God shine with the grace of the Holy Spirit they are overcome with envy and cannot understand how God has favoured them above themselves who have devoted all their lives to prayer and fasting.
On the fourth Sunday of preparation [Meatfare Sunday] we hear Christ’s parable of the Last Judgement. In the parable Christ tells us what to expect at the Last Judgement. At that time he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the goats from the sheep, and some he will put to his right and others to his left. But the criterion with which he will judge us will not be whether we fasted, neither our prayers or how good a Christian we might appear to be, but our attitude towards our fellow men. Christ said that whatever help we offer even to the lowest man it is as though we offered that help to him, and whatever help we didn’t offer to someone who was in need it is as though we didn’t help him. In other words love is the criterion by which we shall be judged. If we cannot love our fellow men then in truth we don’t love Christ, because he has created each man in his own image and likeness. Christian love transcends above someone’s physical appearance, social standing, ethnic origin, intellectual capacity and reaches the soul, the unique personal root of a human being where the image of God is.
The next Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday), which is this coming Sunday is called Forgiveness Sunday and the last Sunday of preparation for Great Lent. It has two themes: The first we hear in the hymns during Vespers and Mattins, which is the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of bliss. Man was created for Paradise, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Man’s sin has deprived him of that blessed life and his existence on earth is in exile. Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, opens the door of Paradise to everyone who follows him, and the Church revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, makes our life a pilgrimage towards our heavenly fatherland. Thus just before we begin our journey through Lent we are reminded of how great a loss Paradise was for mankind and how much Adam must have wept bitterly knowing what he had lost. A hymn from Vespers for the day says: “Adam sat before Paradise and lamenting his nakedness, he wept: Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and led astray, and now I am an exile from glory. Woe is me! In my simplicity I was stripped naked, and now I am in want. O Paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in thy joy; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken. O merciful and compassionate Lord, to thee I cry aloud; I am fallen, have mercy on me”.
The second theme of ‘fasting and forgiveness’ is taken from the Gospel for the day. All the Gospels we heard in the previous weeks taught us how our inner self should be to be saved. We must first have the desire of Zacchaeus, the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal Son and the love of Christ. But to accomplish all these things is by no means an easy task and each man needs a great deal of help to be able to reach home to the Father. The help comes from Christ himself, but we must first take that first step. Great lent is that period when the Church gives us the opportunity to make these first and very essential steps and gives us the means through fasting and the daily Lenten services. But the Gospel for this Sunday of Forgiveness warns us to beware how we use these means at our disposal. It tells us firstly that if we are to ask of our heavenly Father to forgive our sins, we must also forgive those who have sinned against us, and if we have not the love and humility to forgive them then neither will our heavenly Father forgive us. Then reading then warns us that when we fast to not be as the hypocrites who make themselves look dismal, who disfigure their faces, so that they may appear to men that they keep to a strict fast. This kind of fasting will have no reward from God because it seeks it own reward from the praises of men. We should not broadcast our fasting and other spiritual efforts; they are personal and involve no one except ourselves and God. If we tell people of our spiritual efforts we are either seeking for their praise or praising ourselves in self righteousness by considering that we are good and dutiful Christians far better than the average man who doesn’t pray or fast. Thus Christ tells us to keep our fast a secret that only the heavenly Father who knows the secrets of men can see and who will reward us openly.
With these five weeks our preparation for Lent is complete, and we are ready to begin our journey to Pascha to that Feast of Feasts.
Lent in most people’s minds means fasting but as mentioned earlier Lent is a period of repentance with prayer and fasting: we cannot do one without the other. Both are of equal importance if we are to enter into want can be described as the “Lenten Atmosphere”. This atmosphere is brought about mainly by the various daily Lenten services in the Liturgical life of the Church. Thus to live and absorb this atmosphere we should attend these services, but this is not practical or possible for the majority of people. When all these services, hymns and canon were composed life was very different and people lived in small rural communities where the rhythm of life was shaped by the Church. Today we live in urban industrial and technological societies where our lives are shaped by our occupation and other obligations which to not allow us the luxury of taking time off to attend Church. So attending the daily Lenten services is for most people out of the question. Of course one can attend the Sunday services in Lent but these do not actually reflect the Lenten worship and they do not allow the person to enter into that special feeling of Lent.

For those of you who do not understand Greek the situation is even worse because even if you found time to attend the daily services you cannot benefit from the many readings and the contrite and sorrowful hymns. You are in a sense deprived of the special help the Church gives to help us get a feeling of repentance and which will give us strength and support through the 7 long weeks of the Lenten struggle. So what do you do? Do you just keep the fast and leave it at that and say never mind? Well no: not if you want to get the most benefit out of Lent. There are things you can do for yourselves. The first thing we need to do is to change our lifestyle. Living the Orthodox life begins from the home and it is important to apply certain principles into the family unit that every member will identify that Lent is not just a period of fasting but a period of change.

In general most of us have become armchair vegetables glued to the TV and passively accepting anything coming from it. If we are not watching TV then the radio or CD is playing in the background. In the age of computers our children are fast becoming computer addicts and spend all their time playing computer games of surfing the internet. Many have never even read a book other than the books they are obliged to read for school work. Thus with a little effort Lent can be introduced into the family unit as a time where these activities are drastically reduced. But if these are negative elements then they must be replaced with positive elements. For example, conversation within the family is something that needs to be seen as positive and essential as is also reading a book in total silence.

Mealtimes are important family occasions and special attention should be given that the family eat as a unit whatever has been prepared. Very often mothers prepare two meals - one for those who want to fast and one for the family members who insist they cannot. But the meaning of fasting is not to fulfil our desires for deliciously tasting meals, but rather to eat simple meals and just enough to nourish the body. A good way to prepare children for Lent is to talk to them beforehand that the whole family will be fasting and ask them to make that special effort. Prayer at mealtimes is also important and is not something that should be done only during Lent but at every meal throughout the year. In general we say the Lord ’s Prayer before the midday meal. If you have young children you do not have to be as strict with their fasting. They will not as yet understand the meaning of fasting so the objective is to get them to become accustomed to fasting and hopefully when they grow up they will continue fasting of their own free will.

With my own children when they were younger, we would insist that they keep the fast strictly for the first and sometimes the second week. We would then allow them to introduce milk, into their diet and by the end of the third week we would give them a treat for their efforts by taking them to McDonalds. The next three weeks we would allow them the occasional meal with cheese or fish and Holy Week would then be observed by a strict fast. Each child is different with different levels of self control and girls more than boys are more likely to willingly keep the fast even outside of the home. Overall, children should not view fasting as a burden imposed on them by the Church or their parents. It should not be portrayed to them as a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God or as a form of punishment imposed on them because they were naughty. These are all negative thoughts which instil a fear of God in their hearts rather than love for God. Explaining to children the true meaning of fasting is difficult because it is beyond the reach of their understanding. Probably the only thing they might apprehend is that fasting is a tool that will help them develop self-discipline, a self control over their bodies and that because we love the Lord we fast following his example who fasted for forty days in the wilderness. It would also be good for them to develop a sense of thanksgiving by being reminded of the starving millions who would consider their fasting food as a great feast. As they become adults they can find material to help them understand the deeper spiritual meanings of fasting and how it can be used as a tool to help them overcome the many passions that keep us earthbound and do not allow us to experience the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us at our Baptism. In this sense fasting can be seen as a joyful experience.
Having made changes to our family environment how else can we help ourselves to enter the atmosphere of Lent? Whether we like it or not, computers have become a part of our lives so why not put them to good use. Those of you who have internet can read online or download all the Lenten services and even if you don’t attend Church you can devote some special time to read them at home. You do not have to read everything, but read as much as your strength allows you. There is also a excellent translation of the Lenten Triodion in English by Bishop Kallistos Ware which you can buy online and if you don’t have a computer then maybe a friend can order it for you. Another way is to give more time to your daily prayers and time for reading from Holy Scripture. The Psalms are a excellent source of prayer especially the penitential Psalm 50 (51 in the KJV). There is also the special Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian which is said at the end of all the Lenten Services. This short and simple prayer occupies such an important position in the entire Lenten worship, because it contains all the negative and positive elements of repentance and continually reminds us of the things we should be aiming for with our Lenten effort. The prayer consists of three verses and after each one we make a prostration. We then make 12 more prostrations saying “O God be merciful unto me a sinner” and then repeat the last verse. The Prayer is as follows:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust for power, and vain words.
But the spirit of integrity, humility, patience and love, grant unto me Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me awareness of my own sins and let me not judge my brother: for blessed art Thou for ever and ever. Amen.”
We do not have time for me to give you a detailed analysis of the prayer, but I have printed out for you what I said on the prayer in one of our early talks. Those of you with internet can again read it on the website. In short it consists of four negative elements which we ask God to take from us and replace them with four positive elements. This is then summarized by the concluding petition: Grant me awareness of my own sins and let me not judge my brother. In other words, let me see my own errors and not the errors of others.
I hope that what was said today was helpful in preparing you for Great Lent and your return journey to your Baptism and the expected joy of the Resurrection. If fact we have only seen a small part of the preparation for Lent and not Lent itself. Many books have been written on the subject, but books can only tell us what we should expect to feel and experience in Lent. What they cannot do is give us the actual feeling and atmosphere which in the final analysis can only be experienced by living Lent itself and the level of this experience according to the input of our effort.
I wish you all “Kalo Stadio” for your spiritual journey and as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, may God run out to meet you while you are still a long way off.