In this Lenten MiniCast Fr. Peter discusses how all of humanity is created in the Image and Likeness of God.
The last of the preparatory Sundays in the Orthodox Church is the Sunday of Forgiveness. This is the Sunday that we call to mind the expulsion of our first parents from paradise and the Icon of this day depicts Adam and Eve sitting outside of the closed doors of paradise weeping for what they have lost. This is a stark reminder to us, as we begin this holy period of Lent, just how important forgiveness is in our lives.
The Gospel for this Sunday is taken from the 6th chapter of St. Matthew and begins with these words, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus is reminding those who are listening that if we hold back forgiveness our Heavenly Father will also withhold forgiveness. As we say in the Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. These are not just words but a reminder of the necessity of forgiveness.
A few years ago, I received a letter in the mail from a classmate from junior high school asking for forgiveness. During those years, he was kind of a bully not only to me but others in my class. He had fallen on some difficult times and was progressing through the steps of treatment for substance abuse. One of the steps is to make amends with people that you have harmed in the past, so he was reaching out to ask forgiveness. I was moved by this letter, and I wrote him back right away to thank him for writing and to give him my forgiveness. I had all but forgotten what had been done, but it would have been wrong of me to withhold the forgiveness he was seeking.
I have said that forgiveness is necessary for our spiritual life. The granting of forgiveness is less about the person that we are forgiving and more about us and our spiritual lives. When we withhold forgiveness we do more harm to ourselves than we do to the one who has harmed us, in fact by withholding forgiveness we are actually giving the power over to the one who has hurt us. Withholding forgiveness harms our spiritual life and in a way separates us from God.
Holding back forgiveness harms us in a spiritual way by keeping the hurt alive in our minds and our spirits. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened, but it is the start of the healing process for us. Whether the person accepts the forgiveness or even if they admit they were wrong, we have to forgive.
I was recently asked a question about justice and forgiveness. Spiritually forgiveness one, our part, has nothing to do with justice. The healing process may be tied to the meeting out of justice if that is what the law requires, but forgiveness needs to be given for healing to begin.
Last week, the news brought us a report of twenty-one Christians in Libya being martyred by radical Islam. They were martyred for no other reason than they were Christians. They were all members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church has canonized them as martyrs of the faith and in a statement one of the bishops of the Coptic Church said that he has forgiven those who have done this because he is a Christian and has no other option, and neither do we!
At the start of every Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, we say, “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” We are seeking peace with God but also with humanity. It has been said that if we come to Liturgy, holding anything against another, we should leave, go make amends and return so that our sacrifice will be pure. If we are not reconciled to our fellow man, we cannot hope to be able to pray without distractions.
We have begun the forty-day period of preparation for the great feast of the Resurrection. This time has been set aside for us to work on our spirituality. This is the time for us to be intentional about getting our spiritual life back on track if we need to but even if we don’t we need to remember that forgiveness is essential and if we have been holding it back we need to give it.
When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, “the Feast of Feasts.” It is the preparation for the “fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation.” We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.
Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. On Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us to joyfully affirm: “Death is no more!” Oh, death is still there, to be sure, and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage — a “passover,” a “Pascha” — into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory.
Such is that faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? We simply forget all this — so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations — and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again — petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless — a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins,” yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. And yet the “old” life, that of sin and pettiness, is not easily overcome and changed. The Gospel expects and requires from man an effort of which, in his present state, he is virtually incapable. This is where Great Lent comes in. This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the “old” in us, as our entrance into the “new.” For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man!” Glory be to God!
In the Orthodox Church, the first day of Great Lent falls on a Monday and is called Clean Monday. This is the day that the fast begins in earnest, and the journey towards Pascha has begun. On Sunday night, we serve the Forgiveness Vespers and at the conclusion of the service we ask each other for forgiveness as we start Great Lent.
Over the past week, many people have been signing off of social media for the duration of Great Lent and do not necessarily agree with this especially for clergy. The one question I ask is, do you give up other forms of communication? Do you give up talking to people and answering the phone? Do you give up answering questions from seekers? These are just some of things that take place in the social medial realm.
Whether we want to admit it, social media is here to stay and is the avenue that many young people use to communicate and find answers to their questions. A millennial is more likely to come to Facebook looking for an answer they would be walking into a church. Say what you will but that is the reality and if we wish to meet them where they are then we need to be where they are.
Cutting off communication, during the holiest time of the church year, to me seems counterproductive. It’s like closing the doors of the Church! In the past, I have had many fruitful conversations with seekers, who have come to social media specifically during the time of Lent. If no one is there who will answer their questions? There will always be someone willing to answer a question but are we sure of the truthfulness of the answer?
If used appropriately social media is a powerful tool for evangelism and the season of Lent is a time when many people’s minds turn to spiritual things and start to ask questions and seek answers. Stay connected during this time is extremely important especially for clergy. There is a lot of good information out there, but there is also a lot of junk and helping people navigate the minefield is an important task.
Lent is a time for us to focus more intently on the spiritual life and how we are living that life in the world today. As Christians, we are a witness to the world by the way we live our lives. I wrote previously about my reaction to seeing people on the streets of Boston wish ashes on their heads, the witness is needed in all walks of life and especially in social media. We have the potential of reaching more people with the click of a mouse then we could ever hope or imagine.
Jesus told His Apostles to go into the entire world, and that includes social media. I would urge you to reconsider, especially if you are clergy, your desire to stop communicating during Lent. This is not the time to be silent but the time for us to be shouting from the rooftops!
As you can imagine, I get involved in many conversations relating to religion, life, and death. More often than not the conversation turns to how we will be judged in the end. The final Sunday of preparation before the start of Great Lent focuses on this topic of the last judgment. Not to scare us or anything of the kind but to make us think about how we are living our lives.
For the last few weeks in the Orthodox Church, we have been preparing for the season of Great Lent with themes such as humility, repentance, and forgiveness. All of these themes should be remembered all during the year but most especially during the time of Great Lent.
The story comes to us from the Gospel of St. Matthew the twenty-fifth chapter and is the most direct that Jesus has ever talked to his followers. He tells them that the time is near, and when the “Son of Man” returns He will sit on a throne and will separate all of humanity as a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats. The sheep at the right hand and the goats at the left hand. To those on his right He will say to them, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Jesus then goes on to give us the criteria for which we will be judged by the following words, “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
The righteous ones, those on the left, will respond and ask when did we see you like this? They are thinking that He is speaking in the present tense and about Himself. His response is clear, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” We will not be judged by how we treat Jesus but how we treat each other. In the end, the essence of the spiritual life is Love your neighbor!
We show love to our neighbor not only in the big things but the small things. How many times have we walked past someone and not uttered a word or even given a smile? Most of the time we walk around with our heads turned toward the ground, so lost in our own world, that we walk past hundreds of people who long for a smile or a kind word for another human being, and it costs us nothing.
I am often asked why we focus so much on this theme of the end of our lives. Well, we spend so little time on our souls, and that needs to be a priority. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on diets and gym memberships to get our outward body in shape and to keep it that way. We run, walk, diet, paint our nails, get our hair done, spend hours concerned about what we are going to wear, but when it comes to the care of our souls we are quick to dismiss it and not necessary.
The care of the souls is most important aspect of our lives! In the end it will not matter if we are wearing the latest fashion or have our hair just right, what will matter is how we treated each other. There is so much hate in this world, this world of absolute darkness, which it has become acceptable. Each one of us can enact change in this world, the world right around us, but following the words of Scripture. We need to forgive, we need to be humble in our dealings with others, and we need to love everyone, even if they are trying to kill us. This is not easy but is essential to our spiritual lives and the health of our bodies.
We are approaching the holiest season of the Church year culminating with the great celebration of Pascha (Easter). This is a time of preparation, a time of slowing down and reflecting on our lives where we have been and where we are going. Make the most of these approaching days to work on your spiritual life. If you need some guidance, reach out, and I will try and guide you. Find a Church community where you feel at home and welcome, we cannot do this alone.
I had to travel to Boston on Ash Wednesday to conduct some business, and while I was walking around the snowbound city I noticed all of the people with ashes on their foreheads. I grew up Roman Catholic and used to make the annual journey at the start of Lent to receive the ashes. “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou will return” or similar words. The ashes are a reminder of our mortality, and this reminder of our death is a good way to start Lent.
But I believe the ashes serve another purpose and one that is missing from Orthodoxy, and that is an outward sign of our faith. We live in a world that is almost void of religious symbols and in my belief this is what the world needs most at this moment in time so for one day, people wear their faith on their foreheads.
Now with that said, I am reminded of the Gospel reading for this day:
Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Jesus reminds us not to boast about our faith and our works but just to do them without recognition, and I believe this is important for us to remember at all points of our spiritual life. Ash Wednesday is the day when we share our faith in an outward way. As I was walking along the streets of Boston, and seeing those with ashes on their foreheads, it was a constant reminder of my faith and the start of Lent for me.
I have often said that the best tool we have for evangelism is our lives and how we act. If we are living our Christian faith, then people will notice that. The downside of that is that if we proclaim our Christianity, but then do not live up to what that means, that will also shine like the light in the darkness. Wearing those ashes on our foreheads is fine, but does our life live up to what that means?
So as I was walking around Boston yesterday I was becoming nostalgic for ashes on my forehead and thinking back of my childhood and early adult years and was happy. I miss Ash Wednesday; I miss having the outward reminder of my mortality. I know it is silly but for me it was a happy reminder.
Whether you received ashes yesterday or not, I hope you take the time during this Holy Season to make your life different and get your spiritual life back on track.
I will be leading a retreat at St. Andrew Ukranian Orthodox Church in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts on Saturday, March 14th starting with the Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am. All are welcome.
The weeks prior to the start of Great Lent are all about preparing us for what is to come. I always like to say that in the Orthodox Church we prepare to prepare, and then we prepare, and then we celebrate and this is what we are witnessing in these preparation weeks. Each week has a theme such as humility, repentance, forgiveness and last Sunday’s theme, Judgment. The Gospel pericope comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Mark. Jesus is telling those listening of what will happen on the last day as people are separated out from sheep and goats and the criteria for the separation.
‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’
In the story, there is a question about when we saw you this way and did not help and Jesus’ response is that we should do this to everyone. In the end, he says this as a judgment:
‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
During the season of Great Lent, we tend to focus on the superficial. I am going to give up this, or I am going to give up that. We give up nothing of consequence and as soon as the season is complete return to that behavior. Why not give up being critical of others, or why not adopt a prayer routine or a Scripture reading habit.
In the Orthodox Church, we focus on the abstinence from certain food items, and it consumes us to the point that we miss the point entirely. Why not fast with our eyes, with our ears, and with our tongues?
One of my favorite saints of the Church is Mother Maria of Paris. I have written about her life before, so I will not go into that here. There is one quote from her that has stuck with me, and I believe is the essence of the spiritual life of a Christian and I will end with the quote.
“At the last judgment I shall not be asked if I was successful in my ascetic exercises or how many prostrations I made in the course of my prayers. I shall be asked one thing – did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners – that is all I shall be asked.”