TALK ON THE READINGS FOR
26th FEBRUARY 2009
This week is called Cheesefare week and this coming Sunday is called Cheesefare Sunday. One can say that this Sunday is the borderline between the preparation period which began with our entrance into the Triodion on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the start of Great Lent which begins on Monday. It received it name from the custom that prevailed among the Christians to eat only dairy products like milk, cheese and eggs and also fish after last Sunday which was the last day of eating meat. This type of diet is therefore also called “white fasting”.
Both the Apostle and Gospel readings for this Sunday seek to help the faithful understand the importance of the sacred period of Great Lent to which they are about to enter and the correct way in which we should prepare to begin the fast.
The Apostle reading is taken from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans chapter 13, verse 11 through to chapter 14, verse 4.
“Brethren, now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.”
The reading can be divided into two clear distinguishable parts. The first includes some strong recommendations by the Apostle which refer to the Christian life of the faithful. Paul uses the excuse to express his concern on his conviction that the time for the Lord’s Second coming is close at hand: something which demands of Christians an intense struggle so that they will be found ready when the Lord comes.
In choosing this reading for this Sunday, the Church associates it to the period of Great Lent and without misinterpreting the meaning of the Apostle’s words; the Church applies them accordingly to this period. Thus before analysing the first verse of the reading, which is actually the second part of verse 11, we need to look at the first part of the verse which is not included in the reading, but will make clearer this connection with Great Lent. It begins saying: “And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep:” The time it refers to is Great lent and the “to awake out of sleep” or as it says in the next verse “The night is far spent,” the “Night” is the previous year of living with carelessness and slothfulness and “the day is at hand” is the period which opens up before us and which, with its intense spiritual struggle that it invites us to participate in, it wants to prepare us to venerate the Holy Passions and to celebrate the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The second part of the reading refers to the kind of conduct of those who are strong in faith should show to those who are weak in faith due to the distinction of certain foods which the latter held to. This part of the reading is again applied accordingly to this period of Great Lent. In other words everything that Paul pointed out to solve the problem of discerning certain foods that existed among the early Christians, the Church has now taken and used to explain the proper meaning of the Fast which the faithful begin on Monday and the prescribed way in which we are obliged to keep it. So let’s now see each verse at a time.
11) “Brethren, now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”
Salvation to which Paul says is much nearer than we actually believe it is, is referring to the Second Coming of our Lord. At time ticks by it brings us more and more closer to the end of the world and the last days of history. The glorious coming of our Lord and the judgement that will follow will signify for the faithful the hour of their complete participation in the mystery of salvation. It is already a fact that for a man that believes in Christ, salvation began on the day of his baptism when he was enjoined to the Church. But salvation with the meaning of inheriting the kingdom of God and our complete participation in the divine life, continues to be an eschatological expectation; an object of hope which presupposes the coming of the day of our Lord. It is clear that Paul’s words show the strong expectation the early Christians had for the Second Coming of the Lord, which they believed was imminent. But, Paul’s intention is not to designate a time for this coming, something which he denied to do on other occasions when he was asked to, but to inspire in his readers an increase of zeal and participation in the Christian life. As Christians we are obliged to live waiting for the Lord who will come suddenly, because we don’t know either the time of his Second Coming neither the hour of our death. Nevertheless, as each moment passes, it brings us closer to the first and to the second. We therefore owe it to ourselves to be prepared at all times.
12) “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.”
By using a double similarity, Paul again insists on the nearness of the future age. He likens the night with the present life because it is subject to the influence of sin which is symbolized by the darkness and also by the dreamlike fantasies and delusions that it brings. The “day” is the future life and is called day because of its brightness and because the brightness of the day will reveal “the hidden things of the darkness” in other words the hidden sinful actions of men.
This similarity that Paul has made, now allows him to say the following to his readers: “let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” The works of darkness are the works of sin. Sin is by nature “a darkness” because before sinning, the mind is taken over by the darkness of ignorance and deception: we commit sins in the dark, distant from the sight of others, but sin is also a darkness because it leads us into the darkness of hell. The casting off of the works of darkness should be followed with the putting on of the armour of light, which are the works of virtue. This double image is particularly vivid: we are obliged to cast from us the works of darkness like we would cast from our bodies dirty clothing and then dress ourselves with the Christian virtues in the same way that soldiers put on their war armour.
13) “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying.”
“Let us walk honestly, as in the day” a better translation would be “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly, as in the day” means the way of life which is discerned by an ethical order, a purity and decency which we should follow with the feeling that others are watching and judging us. The Christian life is genuine when it can stand up to the light of publicity. In continuance, Paul mentions three pairs of sins to which he urges us to avoid. Thus, in part at least, he defines “the works of darkness” which earlier he mentioned we should cast off and explains what he means with “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly, as in the day”.
“Not in rioting and drunkenness” rioting here means revelling: a feast or party with obscene songs and foul language. Now of course, God is not an obstacle neither does he forbid us to eat and drink wine. On the contrary he blesses and sanctifies their use. But when the reception of food leads to gluttony and the use of wine to drunkenness then we deviate from the will of God and become slaves to passions.
“Not in chambering and wantonness”. These are not words often heard and rather old fashion for them to be easily understood. The Greek is “μὴ κοίταις καὶ ἀσελγείαις,” which translated means “Not in beds and lechery”. Beds here mean the unlawful carnal relationship and lechery means the unrestrained and promiscuous sexuality which involves every kind of carnal sin. The fathers of the Church on interpreting this verse insist that there is a close relationship between the carnal passions and drunkenness and gluttony. St. John Chrysostom says that “Nothing else ignites the desire and nothing else excites the anger as much as does drunkenness and revelling.
The third pair of sins is “not in strife and envying”; strife meaning quarrelling and conflict and envying the passion of jealousy. These are two passions that refer to a disturbed part of the soul and lead the man who gives in to them to friction and brawling with others and from his heart is allowed to escape any love and tolerance he may have had.
14) “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”
No matter how great a thing it is to cast off from us the works of darkness, in other words to be freed from the passions that Paul has just mentioned, this is not enough in itself. The Christian life is achieved and fulfilled when we pursue the virtues: all those things which consist of the positive content of the gospel teaching to take their place. This is what Paul is now presenting to us with the wonderful image of putting on Jesus Christ as a garment. Christ is the garment of every believer from the hour of his baptism. It is the bright garment and the garment of incorruption. By telling his readers to put on Christ, Paul is not forgetting the fact that they have already put him on. What he means is to activate the baptismal grace which they have already received and to succeed with their sanctification in Christ. “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” means for Christ to come and dwell within us and for us to live united to him. Our will to coincide with the will of the Lord and as Paul says elsewhere: for us to acquire “the mind of Christ”.
In contrast to the passionate man who strives to satisfy the various needs of his body in a sensual way, the Christian, as Paul exhorts, should not take care of his body and how to satisfy his passionate desires. “And make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” Of course Paul is not denying the care and provision which covers the physical needs of the body. He is opposed to the kind of care that excites the carnal desires and causes inside us a sensuality to develop and grow.
1) “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.”
Here begins the second part of the reading which has as its main concern the conduct of Christians among themselves and their beliefs concerning certain foods. Paul mentions two groups of Christians – the weak in faith and the strong in faith who came into conflict with each other on matters concerning food. It seems that many Christians from Jewish descent and possibly some Christians from the gentiles who were influenced by Judaic traditions or because they entertained certain fanatical ascetical ideas continued even after believing in Christ to observe various Judaic ordinances which referred to certain kinds of foods. As with the case of the foods offered to idols which Paul mentions in other epistles, here also he judges that the matter is of secondary importance and recommends that everyone should act according to his own personal convictions and that both the weak and the strong should avoid making judgements among themselves. More and above any opinion on the matter they should have placed the mutual love for one another and safeguarded the unity of the Church. The brotherly love in Christ permits everyone – no matter what level of perfection their faith is – to live in peace and unity together.
The weak in faith according to St. Paul are those who had not yet come to the complete realization that man is saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but continued to rely their salvation on fasts that prohibited certain foods. The way in which Paul speaks allows us to conclude that these Christians were not very many. To these few, Paul advises us to show patience and bear with them: just as we would bear and not turn away from those who are ill; the strong in faith have an obligation to show compassion and care towards their brothers who are weak in faith. This is what is meant by “receive them or welcome them” Forbearance should also be accompanied with the avoidance of judgemental comment or remarks. This is what the words “but not to doubtful disputations” mean. A better translation would be “but not for disputes over opinions” in other words they should not welcome them just so that they could dispute the difference of opinions with them: something which would bring about arguments, hostilities, confusion and even shock to their already weak faith.
2) “For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.”
The one who believes that he may eat of all things is the person strong in faith. He understands that he is no longer required to observe the ordinances of the law and so he can eat freely of all things. In contrast, the weak in faith, that is the person who continues to believe that he is obliged to observe and discern between certain food, eats only herbs and vegetables which were the permitted foods. And he does this not as an admirable virtue, but out of a weakness in faith.
This verse can actually be applied to other things in the spiritual life for example we could say that the one who is strong in faith believes he is above the law and can do all things but the weak in faith observes all the canons of the Church. The person strong in faith, that is the spiritual person, doesn’t need the canons of the Church to tell him what to do. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t observe them: in fact he observes them more than anyone else because the Spirit within him guides him and instructs him in what he must do. The difference he has with the weak in faith is that the spiritual person is not enslaved to theses ordinances while the weak in faith observe them out of fear that if they break one of these rules they will be punished. The spiritual person is free to do what he wills and he observes the canons of the Church out of free choice and not out of fear of being punished. He becomes a law unto himself and his love for Christ and the Church will not allow him to jeopardise the spiritual joy he possesses by doing something contrary to the will of God. If you remember the Apostle reading two weeks ago Paul said that “all things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12) in other words the spiritual person is free to do what he wants but it is not always in his interest to do his own thing. He will observe the rules of the Church because he freely chooses to submit his will to the Church. Thus when it comes to fasting a spiritual person doesn’t need to fast because he has already reached a level of perfection, but he will fast to show his obedience to the Church and also so as not to scandalize someone who is weak in faith.
3) “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.”
Even though the matter is of secondary importance, St John Chrysostom says of the weak in faith that they created a situation that was worthy of great laughter, yet at the same time they caused great harm. Their opinions poisoned the good relationships between the Christians and undermined the unity of the Church. The strong in faith who unquestioningly ate of everything made fun and humiliated the weak in faith who didn’t eat. But also the weak in faith on their part judged the other party and accused them as transgressor of the law or as gluttonous.
The argument which Paul puts forth to stop this unchristian behaviour is that “God hath received him”. We could assume that Paul’s words refer to both parties, but it is more likely that he is referring to the strong in faith who came from the classes of the Gentiles and whom the Jewish Christians confronted with great distrust. But as God has received them also into the Church and has granted them the possibility of salvation, then nobody has the right to judge and accuse.
4) “Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.”
To show that it is not permissible to judge one’s brethren, Paul puts forth another argument, which in a form of a question he addresses to the weak in faith: “Who are you that you judge another man’s servant?” Both the strong in faith and the weak in faith are servants of the Lord and to him belongs judgement for all. All of us Christians, whether strong or weak, are brothers and at the same time servants of the Lord, who has purchased us with his precious blood. By judging and blaming one another it is like trying to take away the authority from the Lord, like trying to substitute him in a work that belongs exclusively to him alone. Truly we are servants of the Lord; we belong to him no matter what our spiritual condition is. Each one of us stands or falls to his own master says St. Paul who wants to put in check the judgement and accusations between the faithful and put a stop to the arguments. The meaning of standing and the falling mentioned here does not refer to the final condition of man at the hour of judgement, but to his faithfulness and inconsistency in the Christian way of life as long as his earthly life exists.
Paul closes the argument in this present reading with an optimistic comment: that he who has fallen will also stand because God is powerful and can correct him and make him stand. With this thought in mind Paul again is trying to put an end to the judgements among the Christians whom he has been preaching to. No one should judge another even if he has fallen, because his fall is not something permanent and unchangeable: there always exists the possibility of correction with the intervention of the almighty Lord.
With Great Lent and the fast almost at the door so to speak, the Apostle reading wants to prepare us to enter this period of ascetic struggle with the correct frame of mind. Firstly to cast from us the works of darkness that have entered into our life throughout the previous year because we have been slothful and careless on matters concerning our spiritual welfare and to put on the armour of Christ so that we might have the protection needed when we fight the many temptations that we will encounter on our journey to Pascha. As we begin the fast we should beware of judging others who do not have the strength to fast or are ignorant of spiritual matters. The Gospel reading for this Sunday warns us of three main things we should do if we what our fast to be of spiritual benefit otherwise our fasting will just be in vain and possibly even harmful for our spiritual wellbeing. The Reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 6, verses 14 through to 21.
“The Lord said: if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Based on this Gospel reading, this Sunday is also known as “Forgiveness Sunday”. And it also lends its name to the special Vespers service held in the evening called the Vespers of Forgiveness. This is in fact the very first service of Great Lent and at the end of the Service, 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.
But coming back to the Gospel reading, the first of the three warnings is for us to have the humility to forgive others for the wrongs they have done against us whether big and serious or small and trivial. Christ says that forgiveness for our own sins is achieved through our brother. He reveals to us the shortest route by which we can receive forgiveness from God. If we show charity and love for the wrongs of our brother we receive an audience before God when we pray and ask him to forgive our own sins. We could even tell him that as we have forgiven the wrongs of our brethren then forgive ours also. In fact this is what we pray every time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”. The fathers of the Church say that when our heart is bright with the light of reconciliation with our brethren, it receives the grace of the good things we pray for. This rule to forgive to be forgiven is probably one of the most difficult to put into practice because it is opposed by our fallen human nature which is governed by egocentricity, a self pride, a hardness of heart, the remembrance of evils and resentfulness, and a feeling of wanting justice and revenge, that is why forgiving is not an easy thing to do.
But these passions can be put to death with love, charity, compassion and the Cross of humility and then forgiveness will follow. Thus, by the Cross we pass over from the death of the passions to life and to the resurrection of love and partake of the Cross of the Lord. There where once ruled enmity, resentfulness and hatred now reigns love and brotherhood. The forgiveness of our brother also helps us in the work of prayer and especially the prayer of the heart which is intensified during this period as are also the increased services of the Church. A clear mind imitates the holy angels in the work of glorifying God; it sees the hidden mysteries in Holy Scripture. When we think on the evil that our brother has done us, our mind cannot rise to God, but continually remains fixed on those thoughts. That is why Christ advises us that before we bring our offering to the temple to be first reconciled with our brother.
The second warning in Sunday’s Gospel reading has to do with how we fast. Christ warns us that when we fast to not be “as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” Now because the man of sin, that is, fallen man, failed in that which he was called by God to be, in other words, because he failed to be the image and glory of God, he pursues glory from men as did the vainglorious Pharisees who fasted in front of the people so that they could receive praise and glory. This is vainglory, an empty glory, because it doesn’t join us with God: it is not a result of our relationship with him. Fasting with the intent of showing others how good a Christian we are is actually a diabolical trap, because it increases our pride, it seeks for human praises and becomes unprofitable and even harmful. Fasting is not an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. If our fast has the element of pride with the feeling that we want to be rewarded for our effort with praises from others, then we shouldn’t expect any reward from God: it is a false fast and we might just as well not fast at all. To avoid this diabolical trap it is essential to bear the Cross of humility, to observe an unseen fast, a fast that is kept in secret that only God can see. Only then is fasting pleasing to God.
The third warning is against our attachment to earthly and corruptible treasures. To be satisfied with what we have and to avoid trusting in material things that from one day to the next might be lost. The warning is for us to show that we are not only flesh, but also spiritual and to avoid a love for money and other material treasures that have nothing to do with eternal life. We should seek for the “Bread of Life” not only to live, but to live in God. Man departed from God and rejected the true treasure which is God and his Grace, and turned his attention to worldly treasures to take the place of the void he felt inside. but these worldly treasures don’t last forever and neither can we take them with us when we die. Thus the Lord tells us to not only to not collect such treasures but also not to love them, because they take over our heart and enslave us. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If we become slaves to such treasures we become alienated and strangers to the Cross of our Lord. For this reason, the Fathers advise us not to have such possessions, but to divide them among the poor and to achieve as much as possible a lack of possessions. In this way we will become servants of Christ and not slaves to gold. By giving to those in need it is like depositing our wealth in the heavenly bank where it will be kept in safety and be given back to us with interest. Thus, we will have treasure in heaven.
Our salvation is a case of changing our life from a life of passions to a new way of life and existence of the Church. This change or transformation is accompanied with internal suffering, a cross, which is a Passover from death to life and resurrection.
So from Monday we enter into the period of Great Lent. It is the most beautiful, the most touching and contrite period in the ecclesiastical year and we can say that it is the heart of the liturgical and devotional life of our Church. It comprises of a spiritual arena, an arena of virtues, as it is called in many hymns, where the faithful “fight the good fight of faith.” (1 Tim. 6:12) It is a time that we welcome, a time for repentance: where we cast of the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
The purpose of this holy period is our preparation to celebrate Pascha. What we seek, what we request, is to be found worthy to venerate the Holy Passions and Resurrection of our Lord. And this we achieve with the spiritual battle we undertake to fight. At all times the Christian is obliged to “fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12) and follow faithfully the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But Great Lent presupposes a greater struggle and a more organized attempt in this spiritual warfare.
One of the weapons with which we arm ourselves to do battle successfully in this battle is fasting. St. Basil calls fasting the “weapon against the army of demons” and the “medicine that takes away sin”. But it is not enough just to abstain from certain foods for our fasting to be worthy of praise. We need to keep a fast that is pleasing to God. True fasting is the departure from everything evil and inappropriate: In the words of St. John Chrysostom, fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
Before we finish there is one more thing that we must keep in mind when we are fasting which I have mentioned on other occasions: We must bear in mind another of St. Paul’s sayings which is appropriate for the season: that “we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6: 14), in other words we do not keep the fast like the Pharisees who obeyed the law out of a religious duty. We keep it by free choice because we want to be closer to God and the only way to do this is to cleanse ourselves of the passions that form a barrier cutting us off from God. If we keep the fast like the Pharisees, as an act of religiousness or out of fear because it is the law of the Church then this will do as great harm. As already mentioned, fasting is not at all an act of religiousness because we what to appear to others as religious. It is not a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a punishment, which is to be sorrowfully endured in payment for sins. On the contrary, fasting for a Christian should be a joyful experience, because fasting is a self-discipline, which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians with the hope of seeing God.
So with that I wish you all a Great Lent and as we say in Greek Kalo Stadio, meaning have a good fight in the spiritual arena.