Fr Gregory, Sermon for Lenten Vespers (Sunday, 2023 March 19), Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison, WI
Thou Hast Filled All With Joy
On the first Sunday of Great Lent when we sing:
We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One;
and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ our God.
Of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh
and deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the Enemy.
Therefore with thankfulness we cry aloud to Thee:
“Thou hast filled all with joy, O our Savior,
by coming to save the world.”
Let’s think for a minute about the last line of the hymn: through His Cross, Christ has filled all creation with joy.
About joy, Fr Alexander Schmemann writes, “One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice.”
He goes on to say,
Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt: They are all temptations, traps – very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow “religious” people often look on joy with suspicion.
From one point of view, it is easy it is for me to lose my joy. How easy it for me is to be scrupulous in my theology and my worship, my daily prayers and fasting, to say nothing of attention to the myriad failures of the Church and the surrounding culture. The demons don’t lack opportunities to distort the Gospel, to tempt me to embrace fear rather than love, to embrace pride rather than humility, to embrace guilt rather than repentance.
To see why this is, we need to go back even further; we need to go to the beginning.
In the Beginning
After our fall, in the quiet of the late afternoon, God is strolling in the Garden “in the cool of the day” and, noticing the absence of our First Parents, calls out “Where are you?” (Genesis 3: 8,10).
Commenting on these first moments St John Chrysostom says that God “was not unaware of the truth when He asked them.” Instead, the saint goes on to say, God “knew, and knew very well.” God asks our First Parents not to condemn them but to remind them of his “loving-kindness” and to invite them “to make admission of their faults.”
What happens next is so well-known that we almost don’t need to repeat it.
To God’s offer of forgiveness, the First Adam “instead of confessing what he had done, which would have helped him” and us, he plays the victim, complaining about “what had been done to him, which did not help him [or us] at all….Adam … failed to confess his folly and blamed the woman.”
And not only her: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (v. 12). The Man doesn’t accept responsibility for his sin; he doesn’t simply blame the Woman. He blames God and “cunningly tried to attribute his sinning to God Himself.” There is “nothing,” St Augustine says, “as characteristic of sinners as to want to attribute to God everything for which they are accused.” And the source of this? Pride, “for man wishing to be like God, that is, to be freed from His dominion, as God is free from all dominion, since He is Lord of all,”
Now, betrayed by her husband and the bond of conjugal charity broken, the Woman nevertheless follows the example of the Man: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (v. 13).
“Eve too, instead of making supplication with her tears and bearing the fault herself so that mercy might take hold of both her and her husband,” St Ephrem the Syrian says, she blamed the serpent, and so both she and her husband are “found wanting in remorse.”
Looking to our last moments in the Garden, St Dorotheus of Gaza says Adam “has not the guts to accuse himself” and Eve refuses to “humble [her] soul and be forgiven.” He then speaks to both and asks
What are you doing you, wretches? Kneel in repentance. Acknowledge your fault, take pity on your nakedness. But neither one nor the other stooped to self-accusation, no trace of humility was found in either of them.
Dorotheus then turns to himself and all of us and say
…look now and consider how this was only an anticipation of our own state! See how many and great evils it has brought on us–this self-justification, this holding fast to our own will, this obstinacy in being our own guide.
Events unfold quickly from here.
The serpent is condemned and our First Parents are expelled from Paradise. But all is not lost.
The Promise of a Redeemer
God promises a Redeemer, a Child of Adam and Eve.
So the Lord God said to the serpent:
“Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel” (vv. 14-15)
The promised Redeemer is, of course, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. And this brings us to our veneration this past two days of the Cross.
It is in our worship that we find not only what we believe but how we are to live: lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, a Latin phrase that means the Church’s worship (lex orandi) determines what we are to believe (lex credendi) and how we are to live (lex vivendi).
For us, as we heard last night at Vespers, the “Cross of the Lord” is a light that illumines our “hearts” and is the source of “hope” that wipes away “our tears,” releases us from “the snares of death,” and is the road to “everlasting joy.”
Say “YES!” to Joy
One last thing.
Think back to the encounter between God and our First Parents. Fallen–and more importantly, unrepentant–they hide from God. And when they could no longer hide from Him, they lied to God, blamed first each other and then, finally, God Himself.
And when on that first, dreadful Great and Holy Friday, our willingness to blame God reaches its final and terrible conclusion: for their own transgressions, creatures crucify the Creator. When finally we have God in our hands we don’t hide from Him, we don’t lie to Him or blame Him; we murder Him.
In response to our crime–to my crime–the sun turns dark and all creation is silent.
The silence of Good Friday brings to mind the silence of Annunciation when all creation held its breath as it waited to see if Mary would consent to receive the Son of God in her womb. This hopefully silence reveals our true dignity–we can say “Yes!” to the God Who has first said “Yes!” to us.
And the silence of Good Friday? It reveals the depth to which we can sink–that we can say “No!” to Him Who never says “No!” to us.
On the Cross, at that moment when each of us in our every sin says “No!” to God (see Hebrews 6:6), He once again says “Yes!” to us. And so we only a moment ago turned away from God now sing:
Come, O Adam and Eve, our first father and mother,
who fell from divine glory
through the envy of the murderer of man!
Bitter was the pleasure of the Tree of old;
but see, the honored Tree of the Cross draws near!
Run with haste and embrace it in joy,
crying out with faith:
“Thou art our help, O most-precious Cross!
We eat thy fruit and gain incorruption!
We are restored again to Eden, having received great mercy!”
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
As we begin the second half of the Great Fast, let us like Adam and Eve, come and “run with haste” to embrace the joy of the Cross and go to Holy Confession! Let us say “Yes!” to God Who in each Yes!” to us in Holy Communion. Let us enter into the joy of our Lord (Matthew 25:23).
Here’s the prayer I said at the recent rally here in Madison commemorating the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Almighty Lord, hear the prayers of Your children and look down on our ancestral and spiritual homeland, Ukraine, in this time of great tribulation.
Bless and strengthen her soldiers, all civil authorities, the government, and all her people, who are confronting the Russian aggressor on land, at sea, and in the air.
Bring to nothing the unrighteous and brazen aspirations of those who wage war against Ukraine.
We pray to You, O Master of peace and of our tranquility, that as smoke vanishes, so may our enemies vanish, and as ashes are scattered by the wind, so may their evil thoughts to destroy the Ukrainian state be scattered.
O Lord, pacify those who oppose Your commandments and decrees. Restore to them the memory of Your word: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” and make them remember that they also call themselves Christians.
Help us, O God, our Saviour, and deliver us, for the glory of Your name, and may the words spoken by Moses be fulfilled in Ukraine: “Be of good courage, stand firm, and see salvation from the Lord, for the Lord fights for us.”
Send the formidable leader of Your heavenly army, the Archangel Michael, to help our courageous defenders, so that they may destroy the diabolical plans of the aggressor and save Ukraine.
Great God, God Almighty! We, your sinful children, come to You with humility in our hearts and bow our heads.
Father we ask You, forgive us our sins and hear our prayers, accept the supplications of our hearts, and, grant Your mercy to all who come to You in their need.
We beseech You, O God, on behalf of the soldiers and defenders, for our brothers and sisters, for widows, orphans, those disabled and the infirm, for those under occupation and in captivity, for those in difficult living conditions, for refugees — and for all those who need Your mercy and help.
Truth-loving Lord, do not let her enemies destroy Ukraine, her people, her cities, towns, villages, or holy places. We beseech You to grant her victory in Your name and bring about a just and lasting peace.
And so once again, Almighty Lord, we ask You to hear the prayers of Your children and look down on our ancestral and spiritual homeland, Ukraine, in this time of great tribulation.
Once again we ask You to bless and strengthen her soldiers, all civil authorities, the government, and all her people, who are confronting the Russian aggressor on land, at sea, and in the air.
Once again, we ask You to bring to nothing the unrighteous and brazen aspirations of those who wage war against Ukraine.
For You are the defense of the defenseless and the hope of the hopeless, the victory of those under attack, and the salvation of all who trust in You, and to You be the glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.
CATECHETICAL HOMILY at the Opening of Holy and Great Lent
By God’s mercy Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church
May the Grace and Peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Together with our Prayer, Blessing and Forgiveness Be with All
Most honorable brother Hierarchs and blessed children in the Lord,
By the goodwill and grace of the all-merciful and all-benevolent God, already living in the blessed and reverent period of the Triodion, tomorrow we enter Holy and Great Lent, the arena of fasting and “venerable abstinence” that eliminate the passions, during which the depth and wealth of our Orthodox Tradition and the vigilant care of the Church for the spiritual progress of its children are revealed. As we are reminded by the Holy and Great Council of Crete (June, 2016), “the Orthodox Church, in strict conformity with the apostolic precepts, the synodal canons, and the patristic tradition as a whole, has always proclaimed the great significance of fasting for our spiritual life and salvation” (The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today, para. 1).
In the life of the Church, all matters have a solid theological foundation and soteriological reference. Orthodox Christians share the “common struggle” of ascesis and fasting “giving thanks in everything” (Thess. 5.18). The Church invites its children to run the race of ascetic exercises as a journey toward Holy Pascha. It is a central experience of the life in Christ that genuine asceticism is never despondent, since it is imbued with the expectation of resurrectional delight. Our hymnology speaks of the “spring of fasting.”
In this sense, far from the trappings of Neoplatonist dualism and the alienating efforts to “mortify the body,” genuine asceticism cannot conceivably aim at the eradication of an “evil body” for the sake of the spirit or the liberation of the soul from the torment of its shackles. As emphasized, “in its authentic expression, ascesis is not directed against the body but against the passions, whose root is spiritual because the intellect is the first to fall to passion. Thus, the body is hardly the great opponent of the ascetic.”
The ascetic endeavor pursues the transcendence of egocentrism, for the sake of love that “does not seek its own” and without which we remain enslaved within ourselves, in the “insatiable ego” and its unquenchable desires. Being self-centred, we shrink and lose our creativity, as has been said: “Whatever we give is multiplied; and whatever we retain for ourselves is lost.” For this reason, the wisdom of the Fathers and the experience of the Church associate the period of fasting with the “showering of mercy,” with good deeds and philanthropy, which are the evidence of surpassing self-love and acquiring existential fullness.
Such wholeness is at all times the characteristic of life in the Church. The liturgical life, ascesis and spirituality, pastoral care and good witness in the world, are expressions of the truth of our faith, interconnected and mutually complementary elements of our Christian identity, which share the eschatological Kingdom as a point of reference and orientation, as well as the completeness and fulfilment of the divine Economy. While church life in all its expressions reflects and depicts the coming Kingdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is the mystery of the Divine Eucharist that above all, as underlined by the late Metropolitan John of Pergamon, recently of blessed memory, “expresses the Church in its fullness” (The Image of the Heavenly Kingdom, Megara 2013, p. 59). “Pure communion,” the rendering of our existence into that of the church, as participation in the Holy Eucharist,’ is the “end” of fasting, the “crown” and “prize” of ascetical struggles (see John Chrysostom, Homilies on Isaiah VI: On the Seraphim, PG 56.139).
Today, in an age of desacralization of life, when humankind “attributes great importance to entirely insignificant things,” our Christian mission is the practical elevation of the existential depth of our Orthodox “triptych of spirituality,” as the inseparable unity of liturgical life, ascetic ethos and solidarity, the essence of the revolution of values in the fields of ethos and civilization constituted by faith in Christ and the divinely-granted freedom of the children of God. We consider it of paramount importance that we should live Holy and Great Lent as a revelation and experience of the true meaning of freedom “for which Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5.1).
With these thoughts and sentiments of love and honor, we wish you, our most honorable brothers in Christ and spiritual children of our Mother Church throughout the world, a smooth course in the arena of fasting, invoking on all of you the grace and mercy of Christ our God, who always delights in the ascetic struggles of His people. To Him belongs the blessed and glorified power of the Kingdom, now and always, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Holy and Great Lent 2023
+ BARTHOLOMEW of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant for all before God
To be read in churches on Cheesefare Sunday, February 26, 2023, immediately after the Holy Gospel.
To the Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America, our Eparchy of Western Europe, of our Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand, and our Eparchy in South America
Dearly beloved Spiritual Fathers, Sisters and Brothers of the FAITH,
CHRIST IS AMONGST US! IS AND ALWAYS SHALL BE!
(UOC-USA) As we enter the blessed Great Lenten journey in preparation for the celebration of the FEAST of ALL FEASTS – PASCHA or the RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD – it behooves us to contemplate the necessary temporal and spiritual conditions for the successful completion of that journey and the fullness of Joy, Peace and Love of PASCHA. What are these preparations? Through the five weeks in anticipation before Great Lent we are provided with Scriptural lessons that manifest them clearly.
We begin with the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) who was a tax collector/thief, who had such a desire to be with Christ that he faced ridicule by people for climbing a sycamore tree to come face to face with our Lord, Who responded by speaking directly to Zacchaeus, indicating that He knew Zacchaeus and would stay at his home. Zacchaeus responded to criticism that our Lord would stay at the home of a sinner, declaring that he would make amends to all who he had cheated and give half his wealth to the poor. The Lord responded that “salvation has come to this home today…because the Son of Man has come to see and to save that, which was lost.”
The lesson about the Publican (also a tax collector) and the Pharisee) (Luke 18:10-14) – a religious leader – depicts the Pharisee standing in the front of the Holy Altar proclaiming his “righteousness” and adherence to the Law and how great he was in comparison to the Publican. The Publican stood simply at the rear of the temple, head bowed low and beating his chest and beseeching: “God have mercy on me a sinner” and he alone, through his sincere humility returned to his home “justified”.
Next, we heard the lesson about the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who demanded what would be his inheritance from his father, received it and rapidly squandered it in a foreign land, finally ending up in the fields feeding swine. Finally, he “came to himself (схаменувся)” and returned to his father declaring: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”
The Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is the next lesson, presented by our Lord with a clarity that does not leave any room for us to misunderstand. The choices we make in relating to ALL our neighbors and ALL mankind will determine whether we will be judged to be lambs or goats. The way we respond to the two Great Commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it – You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
The final scripture lesson is about forgiveness, the manner of our fasting and storing up treasures in Heaven. (Matthew 6:14-21). Each time we pray the “Lord’s Prayer” we ask, “forgiveness of our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. These cannot be empty words but, rather a heartfelt petition with consequences determined completely by each of us as individuals. If we cannot forgive…neither will we be forgiven. The way we fast is between each of us and God and the way others fast if of no concern to any of us. Forgiveness and sincere fasting enable us to store up treasures in Heaven where we hope to find ourselves after the final judgment.
Having received and internalized all these lessons, we are prepared to enter into the fullness of Great Lent and to make a confession that arises from the depths of our hearts and souls – rather than from the often-confused intellect that can so easily succumb to all the temptations of the world, leading us away from, rather than to Christ. Throughout this Great Lent seek to come face to face with Christ, Who, you will discover, knows you intimately from the moment of your cleansing Baptism and the Seal of your Chrismation. Seek to make amends to those you have wronged; seeking forgiveness from those you have offended and offering forgiveness to those who have offended you; approach God with a humility that does not offer excuses or reasons for bad behavior and sinfulness; “come to yourself” in the recognition that you have squandered God’s gifts to you – your talents, your ability to love, your ability to share yourself and your treasures. Search for the ways that you can minister – to your neighbor, to the homeless, to the naked, to the thirsty, to the sick, to those imprisoned (physically, mentally or emotionally) and search for the ways you have failed to minister to all.
As we enter the Great Lenten Season, we, your hierarchs, successors to the Holy Apostles, humbly beseech your forgiveness for any way we may have hurt you, not been present to you, misled you or have been, in any way, responsible for spiritual confusion or even pain of any nature. We promise to strive for improvement in the future under the Grace and Guidance of the Holy Spirit. In turn, we express, from the depth of our hearts, minds and souls the same forgiveness to you on both the spiritual and temporal level. We love you all without reserve and assure you of our prayers for you daily, beseeching your prayers also for us.
Finally – as the one-year anniversary of the invasion approaches, we request that throughout this Great Lent and Paschal Seasons you dedicate your prayers, fasting and hope for the welfare of our brothers and sisters suffering through another genocide. This unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine is inspired by an all-consuming hatred in the minds and souls of those who would eradicate Ukraine and her ethnic distinction as a people. Pray fervently for an end to the suffering through deliberate targeting of civilians and non-military infrastructure. Further, pray fervently for the repose of the souls of all those who have perished during the aggressive insanity. May our Loving Lord hear our petitions and bring an end to this horror forever.
In our Lord’s All-Encompassing Joy, Peace and Love,
By the Grace of God, Metropolitan
By the Grace of God, Archbishop
By the Grace of God, Archbishop
GIVEN THIS 10TH DAY OF FEBRUARY 2023 – THE FEAST OF VENERABLE EPHRAIM THE SYRIAN AND VENERABLE EPHRIAM OF THE KYIVAN CAVES MONASTERY (PECHERSKA LAVRA) AT THE METROPOLIA CENTER OF THE UOC OF USA, SOUTH BOUND BROOK – SOMERSET, NJ