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 TALK ON

 PREPARATION FOR LENT

22nd February 2007

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We have now entered Great lent but very few people understand it full meaning. For most it is a time to follow a few rules on fasting or an abstention from dancing and certain other activities, but the purpose of Lent is not to deprive us of certain foods or to force upon us certain obligations, but to soften our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit. It is an atmosphere into which one enters and which for seven weeks penetrates and saturates our entire life and revealing within us a yearning and hunger for communion with God.
The whole period of lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, the Feasts of Feasts. It is the preparation for the fulfilment of Pascha. For the actual Feast of Pascha we will talk at a later date. For now let us see what this preparation involves and how the Church takes us into this journey. The Orthodox liturgical tradition always announces in advance and prepares for every major feast or season and lent is no exception.
Preparation for lent began five Sundays ago with the Sunday of Zacchaeus. During the Gospel reading for that day, we hear about the Chief publican called Zacchaeus. Publicans were people who bought from the Romans, the rights to collect the taxes from the people, but instead of collecting the proper taxes that the Romans asked for, they burdened the people with double or triple amounts and were therefore very much hated as despicable men. Now Zacchaeus was a short man who couldn’t see Jesus because of his height, but his desire was so strong that he climbed up a sycamore tree to see him. Jesus responded to his desire and went with him to his house. From that moment, Zacchaeus’ life changed drastically. Half of all that he had he gave to the poor and to those he cheated by overcharging on the taxes he gave back fourfold. So the Church teaches us that the first thing we need to begin our journey is desire to see Christ. Zacchaeus desired the right thing, he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, because repentance begins with the desire for God, his righteousness and for true life. Zacchaeus made that first move, in his desire to see Christ he climbed that tree. If our desire is as strong as Zacchaeus’ then Christ will also respond to our desire and come to our house, he will come to live in our hearts and then our lives will also change as drastically as Zacchaeus’ and Christ will give us the strength and grace to climb even higher.
The next Sunday of preparation is called the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Gospel for the day tells us about these two men who come to the temple to pray. 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, and as we have already seen, Publicans were hated and held in contempt as being the lowest of all men. The Pharisee cannot see his own wretched condition; he cannot see his own sins, but only the sins of other men. He keeps to the letter of the law by fasting twice a week and contributes to the temple according to what the law tells him to contribute. In contrast to the Pharisee, the Publican, stood afar off, and because he recognized his sins and felt his unworthiness before God, couldn’t lift his eyes up to heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. The Publicans humility justifies him before God. So 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. Many times in confession people try to justify their sins by blaming other. They will say things like – I said this but the other person first said that to me or, I did this, but it wasn’t my fault I was forced to do it. In other words we try to justify our actions by loading them on to others. It takes us back to the original sin of Adam who blamed God for giving him the woman.
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. When he had wasted everything away, a great famine arose in that land and he started to be in need and was starving. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that land who put him to herd the swine. But his hunger was so great that he wanted to fill his belly with the husks that the pigs ate, but no one would give him to eat. [In the Greek text, the word for husks is κερατίων which was in fact something we have a great deal of in Cyprus. Κερατίων were the carobs from the carob trees.] At some point, he came to his senses and said to himself “how many of my father’s servants have more than enough to spare and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best [first] robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And kill the fatted calf, let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. Now when his elder son came to the house, he heard music and dancing and having learnt that his brother had returned was angry, and would not go in: Therefore his father came out, and entreated him. And he answering said to his father, All these many years I have serve you, and kept your commandment to the letter: and you never once gave me a kid, that I might have a party with my friends: But as soon as this you son was come, who wasted everything you gave him with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf. And the father said to him, Son, you are forever with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. In the parable the father is God himself and the two sons represent people similar to the Publican and the Pharisee. 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. Notice in the parable that the son said that he will go to his father and say: I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. But the father doesn’t allow him to say: make me as one of thy hired servants. He stops him because he accepts him back again as a son and orders the servants to bring forth the best robe, a ring and shoes. The best robe is in fact a wrong translation. In Greek it is (την πρώτη στολή) the first robe, which properly interpreted means the first body that Adam had before the fall and together with the ring and the shoes signify the return of the Spiritual graces of Baptism. The ring also signifies his reinstatement as a son and heir because rings were worn by free men, by lords and masters, by someone with authority and power and not by servants. The shoes again represent wealth and power because servants had to go barefooted. The fatted calf is Christ himself who is sacrificed for us and by whom we are nourished through Holy Communion. St John Chrysostom in his Easter Sermon, describing the joy of Holy Communion says: “The table is fully laden; all of you delight in it. The calf is plenteous, let no one depart hungry. Let everyone enjoy this banquet of faith. Let everyone take pleasure in the wealth of goodness”. Now the older son represents all those who have always been close to God, who have always been close to the Church and who have never transgressed at any time the commandments. 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. They believe that they are righteous and better than other people, but their true self, hidden until now, appears when they see a sinner, who they know has led a wicked life, return to the bosom of the Church and be accepted on an equal level as themselves. They see the grace of the Holy Spirit shine brighter in them than in themselves and are overcome with envy. They cannot understand why after all those years of devoting themselves to the Church with prayer and fastings, they shouldn’t shine brighter.

In summary the theme of the parable is again repentance and our desire to return from exile, to return to paradise. During the Mattins service for the day we sing a psalm which expresses our exile from paradise and was sung by the Jews when they were held captive in Babylon as they thought of the homeland Jerusalem. You all know the psalm because it was made famous many years ago by a group called Boney M. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion... How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.(Psalm 136 [137])
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), the Sunday that just passed is called Forgiveness Sunday was the last Sunday in 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. And when we fast let us 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. And if that is how you fast, don’t expect any reward from God because you’ve already received your reward through the praises of men. In other words let us not tell people that we fast so that they can say “oh well done! how do you manage it?” Contrary to this, 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. And he tells us also of one more thing to beware of: not to collect earthly treasures which from one moment to the next can be ruined by moths or rust or can be stolen, but to store up treasures in heaven where we will have them for all eternity.
Thus our preparation for Lent is complete, and we are ready to begin our journey to Pascha to that Feast of Feasts. Lent actually begins on the evening of the last Sunday of preparation during the Vespers service of Forgiveness. About half way through the service the Priest announces the Great Prokhimenon. This is the starting point of Lent and while this is being sung he will take off his bright vestments and wear dark ones. Towards the end of the service the priest will say for the first time the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim, which we will analyze in a moment, and then at the very end of the service, we have what we could call the ceremony of mutual forgiveness. The faithful come one by one to the Priest, kiss the Cross and his hand and exchange a mutual forgiveness. Having done this the faithful also asks forgiveness of one another. Thus we begin Lent by asking forgiveness from everyone and not only from those who we know have wronged us, because many times we upset our fellow men without realizing. Sometimes an innocent comment, o joking word might cause reason for misunderstandings because the other person was going through a difficult patch that we weren’t aware of. Others might have bitter feelings towards us because at some time they needed our help or our companionship, but we were totally consumed with our own problems let alone have time for others. At other times we might be estranged from someone we love, and although both want to make up, pride doesn’t allow us to make that first move, which very often is all it takes.
Now let us take a look at the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. It is called the Lenten Prayer because it is said at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday. It has three verses and at each we make a prostration. This is followed by twelve bows saying: O God be merciful unto me a sinner and then again the last verse of the Prayer.


The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian.
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.
Then 12 prostrations saying:
O God be merciful unto me a sinner
And again
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.

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. It begins by asking God to take from us the spirit of sloth. Sloth or laziness is a disease which pushes us into negative ways of thinking. It will appear during our Lenten effort telling us we are wasting our time with fasting. We cannot change our spiritual condition so why should we deprive ourselves of everything. Just because a few monks decided that they wanted to suffer by fasting and these long masochistic services, doesn’t mean that I have to as well. And so this spirit of laziness poisons the spiritual energy at its very source. Next we ask to be delivered from the spirit of despondency. Now despondency follows on from sloth. And it is the state which the fathers consider the greatest danger for the soul. Someone in this state cannot see anything good or positive and his thoughts become negative and pessimistic. It is in fact a demonic temptation trying to fill his mind with lies about God and the world. And if accepted it leads to disbelief in God and brings about a spiritual suicide, a death to the soul. Lust for power is a result of both sloth and despondency because now God is no longer the Lord and Master of my life. I am now master of my own life, from now I will evaluate everything according to my own needs, my ideas, my desires and my Judgment. Without the belief in God, life inevitable becomes self-centered and it seeks satisfaction by having power and dominion over others. Which brings us to the last of the negative petitions ‘Vain words’ or idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. The fathers see in it the seal of the Divine image in man because God himself is revealed as Word as St. John says in the beginning of his Gospel “In the beginning was the Word”. But words can be used positively or negatively. They can do good or they can harm, they can speak the truth or they can lie, the word can save but it can also kill. When the word is used in its negative power then it becomes idle or vain. The fathers liken it to a darkening of the mind. St. Isaac the Syrian in his Ascetical Homilies says this of the tongue: "He who guards his tongue will never be plundered by it unto the ages. A silent mouth interprets God’s mysteries, but the talkative man is distant from his creator.[hom. 15] The more a man’s tongue flees talkativeness, the more his intellect is illumined so as to be able to discern deep thoughts; for the rational intellect is bemuddled by talkativeness.[hom. 15] If you love truth, love silence. This will make you illumined in God like the sun and will deliver you from the illusions of ignorance. Silence unites you to God himself".[hom 64]. So these are the four negative objects of repentance which must first be removed and because we cannot remove them on our own, we beseech God to remove them and ask that he replace them with the positive objects which again are four. Integrity, humility, patience and love.
In translation of the Greek word Sofrosini, I have used the word Integrity which more properly translated should be whole-mindedness. Others used the word Chastity but this leads the mind to think to sexual purity. Integrity I think comes close to the meaning because it means honesty and goodness but also completeness and wholesomeness. And this is want we are now asking of God. A wholesomeness of the mind: the complete opposite to sloth which is the brokenness of our vision and energy. The gift of integrity restores our vision to be able to see what is good for us. It allows God to illumine our minds taking away all traces of darkness. Humility we have already spoken of in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Humility is the Queen of virtues and when it makes progress in our souls by spiritual growth, we regard all the good deeds accomplished by us as nothing. He who has been united with humility as his bride is above all gentle, kind, easily moved to compunction, sympathetic, calm, bright, compliant, inoffensive, vigilant and free from passion. Repentance raises the fallen, mourning knocks at the gate of heaven, and holy humility opens it. If the pride of some of the angels made them demons, no doubt humility can make angels out of demons. [Ladder step 25]. Patience is truly a divine virtue and is the fruit of humility. But to have patience with others we must first have patience with ourselves. Many begin leading a spiritual life and after a small effort expect to see in themselves the virtues that many monks have not acquired even after many years of struggling with the passions. Others become angry and fainthearted and grieved, thinking that the heavenly Father is slow in answering their prayers: They want their request to be fulfilled like lightning. But this is not how things are. God hears us immediately when we cry out to Him, He hears us even before we ask and knows what we have need of. God always helps. He always comes in time, but not in accordance with our own way of thinking. So patience is necessary. The Lord wants patience. He wants us to show our faith. We cannot just pray like a parrot. It is necessary also to work towards whatever we are praying for, it takes prayer with all our soul, and then to learn to wait. It will definitely happen and when we have forgotten our request and have ceased asking for it, it will come to us as a reward for our patience and endurance. And finally we ask God to grant us the virtue of Love. Love is the crowning of all virtues. It is the result of all our efforts and as we said earlier 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. All this is summarized in 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. Let me see the wooden beam that is in my eye before I try to remove the speck that is in my brother’s eye. And we repeat this petition because with all our spiritual struggles there is always the greatest danger that we will be overcome with the passion that is the source of all evil: that we will be blinded by pride and all our efforts will then have been in vain. The fathers are forever warning us of this evil which conceals itself in a false piety, in a false humility. We think that because we have kept the fast, because we went to church more often, because we prayed at very opportunity, because we fulfilled everything the Church required of us that it makes us a good Christian, or at least better than that person standing in front of me as we approach for Holy Communion on this Easter night and who I know didn’t even fast one day.