The Lenten Spring by Fr. Thomas Hopko

The Lenten Spring: Readings for Great Lent by Fr. Thomas Hopko, 
St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1983. Print.

1: The Lenten Spring Shines Forth

The Church welcomes the lenten spring with a spirit of exultation. She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience. The tone of the church services is one of brightness and light. The words are a clarion call to a spiritual contest, the invitation to a spiritual adventure, the summons to a spiritual feat. There is nothing gloomy here, nothing dark or remorseful, masochistic or morbid, anxious or hysterical, pietistic or sentimental (9).

The lenten spirit in the Church is one of splendour and delight. It breathes with the exhilaration of those girding up to “fight the good fight” for the One who loves them and has given Himself to them for the sake of their salvation (9).

How sad that people misunderstand the significance of the lenten spring. How distressing that so many take this time “given by our God, the crucified Christ” as a season for sentimental devotions, anxious introspections and pietistic pseudo-sufferings “together with Jesus.” And how depressing that others naturalize and rationalize the time with tepid explanations about the psychosomatic benefits of abstinence with arguments drawn from one or another therapeutic theory (10).

And how totally tragic that still others reject the whole affair, often with good reason because of its distortion, as a barbarious hangover from the dark ages to be radically rejected in these liberated and enlightened modern times (11).

The lenten spring is welcomed by Christians in the Church not as the time for self-inflicted agony or self-improving therapy. It is greeted as the sanctified season consecrated to the correction, purification and enlightenment of the total person through the fulfillment of the commandments of the crucified God. It is received as the time for battling with evil spirit and blossoming with the fruits of the Holy Spirit… set apart for complete and total dedication to the things of God (11).

2: Let us Begin with Joy

Joy is at the heart of everything in the Christian life, and Great Lent is no exception. Jesus commands all those who fast to be joyful. He condemns sadness and grief, especially the outward appearance of fasting before men… He directs them to hide their acts of penitence, to keep their mortifications secret, to appear shining and bright in the world (12-13).

Sadness for Christians is a sin to be repented of – not a virtue to be cultivated. Blessed mourning over the tragedies of this fallen world is possible. And godly grief over sins for the sake of leading us to conversion and repentance is possible (cf. 2 Cor 7:9-10).

Godly-grief is a “blessed joy-grief of holy compunction, which inspires spiritual laughter in the soul” ~ St. John Climacus

Repentance and joy, compunction and consolation, godly grief and spiritual rejoicing are joined together in perfect union in the person who fights for the Lord (15).

3: Sanctify a Fast, Gather the People

The lenten season is inaugurated in the Church with the words of the prophet Joel: “sanctify a fast… gather the people” (2:15).

It is before the merciful and gracious Lord that all are called to mourn and weep for their sins. It is before the Lord who abounds with steadfast love that we are called to “rend our hearts,” and not simply our garments. It is to Him, whose steadfast love is better than life, that we are commanded to return. He is the Father in Christ’s parable of the prodigal son. He stands waiting in the opened door of His house with robes in His hands, music playing, the table abundantly laid. He runs to meet His children who return home. He takes them in His arms and returns them to the joy and gladness of their proper inheritance. He pours out upon them all the riches of His fatherly goodness (18).

4: Return to the Father

From the beginning to end the lenten services of the Church call us to return to God our Father. The theme of the prodigal son runs through the entire season.

Why are we unhappy? feel uneasy? confused? frustrated? alienated? estranged? empty? dissatisfied? Because, the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick.

The lenten season is the time for our conscious return to our true home. It is the time set aside for us to come to ourselves and to get up and go to the divine reality to which we truly belong (22).

5: If I Forget You, O Jerusalem

The theme of man’s exile from God, his estrangement from the true spirituality reality to which he belongs, is constantly repeated in the lenten services.

Spiritually we are all by the waters of Babylon. Our true home is Jerusalem; not a place on a map but a spiritual reality (24).

The sin is when we become comfortable in Babylon, pampering the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul to destroy it (25, cf. 1 Peter 2:11).

To forget God is the cause of all sin.

To settle down in this fallen world, which is not God’s good creation but rather the Babylon which the wicked have made, is death to the soul (25).

“He shall seize and shall dash your children on the rock” (Ps 137) –> the “little ones” must be killed. The small temptations, the petty demons, the little sins, seemingly so innocent, insignificant and harmless, must be dashed upon the Rock of Christ. Otherwise they grow big and become strong and destroy the heedless and negligent with their lethal power (25).

6: Outside the Gates of Paradise

The story of the Fall of Adam and Eve is the most tragic event in human experience: the rebellion of the creature against the Creator and the transformation of the world as paradise with God into a garbage heap of dead men’s bones. It describes this death-bound, demon-riddled, rat-racing world that we call human civilization, which is the result of the futile strivings of self-centred creatures (26).

Eating of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” means experiencing wickedness. It means committing sin. It means tasting iniquity (28).

7: The Sin of Adam and Eve

All people inherit and imitate the sin of Adam and Eve.

In every sin there is always self-love. Life is a clash of loves. A person either loves God, and so, with God, everyone and everything… or a person loves himself.

“Adam, where are you?” (Gen 3:9)

Where is your heart? What do you live for? What do you love? (32).

8: Forgive, and You Will Be Forgiven

Forgiveness is the singular expression of love in this fallen world (36).

The lenten season exists for this purpose: to express the love of God for one another through mutual forgiveness (36).

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sins. Love man even in his sins, for that is the semblance of divine love and is the highest love on earth… combat it through humble love” ~ Elder Zossima, The Brothers Karamazov

9: Open to Me the Doors of Repentance

We need to repent. And repentance means change. It means a turning of one’s mind and heart to God. It means the recognition of one’s errors and faults and the firm desire to do something about it. It means violent action in the deepest and most hidden parts of the human spirit. It means self-knowledge. It means open confession. It is an exacting affair involving one’s total person and life (40-41).

10: More Than All Have I Sinned

“this saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first” ~ 1 Timothy 1:15

Every person stands alone before God. Standing before God, one does not look at others. One looks only at God. But in this mystical moment, this instant of lucid insight concerning the meaning of all things in the perspective of the unique soul before its Master, the spirit can only cry out, in all integrity and conviction: I have sinned as no other! In my unique personality, in the life which my Maker has given to me, with what I have received from my bountiful Lord, I have truly surpassed all in my sins! Each person will feel this. Each soul will be convinced of it. No rational analysis or logical deduction that is patently absurd will make any difference. A hundred people at the very same service – and thousands, even millions, across time and space – will be fully convinced that this is true for them alone. And it is (44).

11: A Contrite and Humble Heart

God accepts a broken and humble heart before all sacrifices and offerings. To our contrition He replies with forgiveness (cf. Ps 51).

The lenten season is the time for direct confrontation with God. It is the time for consciously presenting oneself before the face of the Lord for judgment. There is nothing to be offered, and no sacrifice is acceptable. There is only the broken spirit and the contrite heart of repentance which God will not despise (48).

12: Planting the Word of God in the Heart

The grace of God is a divine power in our life. Without it we can do nothing. We are saved by grace, and grace alone.

In order to accept the grace of God’s Word and Spirit within us, we must prepare the soil. It must be tilled and cultivated. It must be made loose and open, ready to receive what God showers upon it. If the soil is not ready, it cannot accept God’s gracious actions. But if it is worked over and over, and the gracious Word is never received and implanted, it remains barren and fruitless (50)

Only a servant of Christ during his life on earth feeds on heavenly bread in the sweat of his brow by constantly struggling with the carnal mind, by constantly labouring at the cultivation of virtues… Bodily discipline is essential in order to make the ground of the heart fit to receive the spiritual seeds and to bear the spiritual fruits…. Excess in this direction and putting one’s trust in it is just as harmful, or even more so, than to neglect it… Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals who give free rein and scope to their bodily passions. But excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride and the constant recurring of other passions in the soul ~ The Arena, ch. 35

13: If We Confess Our Sins

It is not enough for us to know our sins and to hate them. We must also confess them before God and man. We must acknowledge them before heaven and earth. We must expose them to the whole of creation in order to be rid of them from within our secret hearts. Confession is part of the spiritual life. Indeed, it is part of life itself (53).

The reason why people now confess to their pastors in private is because of the weakness of the body of Christians as a whole (54).

Study the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), 1st letter of John, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12-14. Focus sharply on what is expected of Christians in their daily behaviour.

It begins with a “searching of the heart.” It moves to a sincere “contrition of the heart.” It expresses itself in the “oral confession of sins.” It is fulfilled in the resolution never to sin again. It is sealed by our subsequent sufferings to remain steadfast in our struggle against sin.

14: Pray for Us, O You Saints!

If Christians ask each other’s prayers while all are still on earth, how much more should those who are still living in the flesh beg the prayers of their brothers and sisters who have already departed to be with Christ at the Father’s right hand? And especially of those whose sanctity has been revealed to the Church by the Lord Himself (58).

15: Lord, Have Mercy

“Lord, have mercy” may as well be translated as “Lord, be merciful, gracious, kind, generous, compassionate, bountiful, loving.” According to His self-revelation, God is all of these things, whether we pray to Him or not. So when we pray, “Lord, have mercy,” we are simply saying to God: Lord, be to us as You are! Lord, act toward us as You do! Lord, we want You to be with us and to do with us as You Yourself are and actually do! (62)

16: Lord, Teach Us to Pray

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, the Lord did not tell them to use their imaginations and express their feelings. He did not tell them that it really did not matter how they prayed, as long as they were sincere. And He certainly did not tell them to talk to God in their own words (65).

Prayer is at the heart of the Christian life. And the Lord’s Prayer is at the heart of Christian prayer. The fact that the Lord’s Prayer is given in the scriptures in two forms proves that it is not the words of the prayer, even the Lord’s Prayer, but the content of it that of essential importance (66).

The saints of the Church warn against praying in ways which contradict the Lord’s Prayer. They say that people who pray for things which are not specifically in the Lord’s Prayer insult their Master (67).

17: Seek First His Kingdom

During Great Lent we try to do what we should be doing all the time. The lenten season, therefore, is most particularly the time for seeking the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 6).

A faithful follower of Christ will never come to Him looking for the good things of this life. He seeks first the Kingdom. He knows that he will get whatever else he needs as well. But he leaves that up to the Lord.

18: O Lord and Master of My Life

The lenten prayer par excellence in the Orthodox Church is the prayer of St. Ephraim of Syria. For many people, the spirit of Lent, the very breath of the lenten spring, is contained in this brief prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life,

take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk,

but grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen

~ St. Ephraim

The real translation does not say “take from me” but rather “do not give to me” –> it reminds us that everything is from God, good things and bad. It underscores the critical fact that even the evil spirits, and not only the good, are in God’s hands.

God tempts no one. But when a person is tempted by the devil and his own desire, God allows it. And in a real sense, He does more than allow it. He causes it. He gives it. He brings it about.

The teaching seems to be this: If we want evil spirits, God gives them. If we want to be tempted by our own passionate lusts and desires, God will give us over to them and surrender us to their defiling and destructive power (75).

19: The Wiles of the Devil

The lenten season is especially the time for waging the spiritual battle against the devil and his armies of evil spirits.

“The temptations of the devil are like a cobweb. You only need to blow at it, and it will be destroyed. It is the same with our enemy, the devil. You only need to shield yourself with the sign of the Holy Cross, and all his wiles will vanish completely” ~ St. Seraphim of Sarov, 79

20: My Soul, My Soul – Arise!

The lenten season is a time for labour and effort. It is a season when we strive to energize ourselves, to wake ourselves up, to motivate ourselves to spiritual feats. It is a time when we declare a conscious struggle against sloth, and beg the Lord not to give us this evil spirit, but to take it from us when we are caught in its snares (81).

A person who loves the Lord and lives with Him will never be idle. He will always be working. He will never be spiritually weary in well-doing, for he does not labour by his own efforts and powers but by the grace and strength of his Master. Thus, a person who is spiritually exhausted is the gravest of sinners (82).

During Lent we work to wake up and overcome our weariness. We labour to come alive and to conquer our laziness. We strive to come to our senses and to displace the spirit of sloth with the uncreated energies of God which are given through His Spirit to those who love Him (83).

21: Men of Violence Take It by Force

The spirit of despondency and despair does not mean simply to be without hope, but to be timid, weak, without courage, without spiritual strength, without motivation. It means, in modern slang, to be a “blah” person, incapable of courageous action and daring spiritual exploits (84).

The vicious disease of insensitive despondency is healed, according to the scriptures and the saints, only when one really wills to be cured and is ready to do what is necessary for healing. First of all he must realize the violence of the effort is needed, for “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,” Jesus says,” and men of violence take it by force” (Mt 11:12). (85)

The struggle is real. It is violent. It is not for cowards or weaklings. One must stand in the struggle, and do everything to stand, by the grace and power of God which comes to us through hope and hope which are received and strengthened through prayer and abstinence and fasting, wakefulness and vigil. It is a struggle unto death for eternal life with God (86).

22: Not to Be Served, but to Serve

The lenten prayer of St. Ephraim petitions the Lord against the spirit of lust of power. Why should we pray against the lust of power? The fact is that we exercise authority and wield power all the time… to lusting after the ability to get our own way, to do what we want, to impose our own ideas, to enact our own programs, to manipulate others, and to have them in our control. We do this all the time, and we are usually not even aware of it (87).

We are called to imitate Jesus, who revealed what power and authority really are in their divine content and perfect expression by serving His Father and His people, and by loving them “to the end” (Jn 13:1).

23: The Tongue is a Fire

The lenten prayer of St. Ephraim begs God to free His servants from the sin of idle talk. This evil is also called vain babbling and idle chatter. It is the wickedness of the noise pollution of words devoid of meaning and purpose; words which cannot comfort, encourage, edify, instruct, inspire or inform. The point here is clear. It is not only evil and wicked words which are sinful. It is idle and empty words as well; words which may well be true, but need not be spoken. Jesus says that we shall answer at the last judgment for our words (see Mt 12:33-37). (91).

24: To the Pure All Things Are Pure

The first petition in the lenten prayer of St. Ephraim is for the spirit of chastity. This basically is what chastity is: soundness and wholeness, completeness and sanity. It is not something physical or biological. It is not something negative, the indication of “something not happening.” It is the positive quality of “having it all together” and “keeping it intact.” It is a spiritual condition. It is the healthy integration and soundness of body, heart, mind and spirit. It is a fundamental and essential necessity for authentic life (95).

The sexual aspect of human existence, together with all bodily activities, finds its significance when it is wisely and properly integrated into the wholeness of a person’s life and behaviour. Chastity is the word for this wholeness and wisdom. Chaste persons see reality as it is. They see themselves and others, and indeed all of creation, with a sound and penetrating insight. They are blessed to see even God in the purity of their hearts (Mt 5:8).

The time of Lent is the time of total purification. It is the season for the conscious striving for the purity of heart by which a person becomes wise and sound, sane and balanced; through which a person comes to see God and to glorify Him by his deeds. It is the time for the recovery, indeed rediscovery, of chastity (97).

25: Thrice-Holy Humility

Humility, in the Christian tradition, is called the mother of all virtues. It is the soil out of which grow faith, hope, love and all positive qualities of the spirit. The word humility comes from the Latin humus, which means “soil” or “earth.” A humble person, therefore, “has his feet on the ground” and is “down to earth.” (98)

Humility is the most mysterious virtue. It is the most difficult to define and the most elusive to explain.

God-given humility is the ability to live by the fact that everything is from God, and through this heartfelt conviction to become “an organ of divine powers who performs the inscrutable works of God” ~ St Gregory of Sinai

St. John Climacus says that those who have obtained this “thrice-holy humility” have “won the fight” and are the only ones which the demons cannot fake.

“Humility is a nameless grace in the soul, its name known only to those who have learned it by experience” ~ St. John Climacus

Jesus is humble. And we learn from Him.

26: Bring Forth Fruit with Patience

Jesus said that His disciples prove themselves by bringing forth much fruit (Jn 15). These are the fruits produced by those who are united with Him by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22-3).

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.

The lenten season is the time for bearing fruits worthy of repentance, the fruits of the Spirit. In a sense, this is what Lent, like life itself, is all about. To produce these holy fruits is not an easy task. It does not just happen. It requires much work. And most of all, it takes patience (see Lk. 8:15) (103).

The word “patience” means “to endure.” To watch and wait, not to hurry and rush (103).

If the lenten spring is to blossom with fruits worthy of repentance, it will do so only with patience (104).

27: As I Have Loved You

If chastity is the heart of every virtue, and humility its mother, and patience its means of attainment, its perfection is certainly love (105).

The new thing about Jesus’ teaching is not the doctrine of love. It is rather the revelation of love’s true meaning and the “new commandment” that His disciples are to love one another as He has loved them. The new thing is the revelation that God Himself is Love… and that God manifests Himself as Love by dying in human flesh on the Cross for the life of the world (106).

There is a lot of talk these days about love… But how many would see Love as incarnate in the form of a slave, dying in the flesh on the Cross?

28: By Prayer and Fasting

The lenten spring is consecrated to prayer and fasting. The practice of abstinence is at the very heart of the effort. The Church has declared a solemn fast. All are commanded to join in the action, making their prayers and prostrations with the “persecution of the stomach” (St. John Climacus) (109).

Jesus Christ fasted and He taught His followers to fast.

“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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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 (Mt 6:16-18).

Jesus did not say, if you fast. He said, when you fast. Fasting is part of the spiritual life without which the soul perishes, suffocated by the flesh and choked by carnal pleasures. A human being must fast. The effort enlightens the mind, strengthens the spirit, controls the emotions and tames the passions. If you do not kill the flesh, the flesh kills you. Yet it is not the body as such that is to be mortified, it is carnal lusts and desires (110).

We have not been taught to kill our bodies, but to kill our passions ~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 184.

The devil is cast out and evil spirits are conquered by prayer and fasting. Not by prayer alone, but by prayer and fasting (see Mk. 9:14-29).

Only after fasting forty days and forty nights and emerging victorious over the temptations of the devil, did Jesus begin His messianic work.

The apostles also fasted as they accomplished their ministries by the power of the Holy Spirit and prayer (see Acts 13:1-3, 14:21-23).

God’s work is done by prayer and fasting. There is no other way. Some people deny this, or alter the teaching to suit them own opinions and purposes. They say that God’s people need not fast since we are saved by grace and not by works, and that fasting can easily become hypocritical, done merely for show and for the condemnation of others. These people know, like the devil himself, how to quote the scriptures to their advantage (see Mt 15:10-20). The point in this passage is not about fasting. Fasting is necessary. But not as an end in itself. It is necessary, like prayer, as a means and a tool. The service of God is the goal, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and the attainment of His fruits.

Prayer, fasting, watching, and all other Christian acts, however good they may be, do not alone constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this aim. The true aim of our Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God ~ St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation with N.A. Motovilov

The church services for the lenten spring make this very point. They warn the faithful not to boast in their fasting, not to flaunt it in public, not to compare themselves with others, not to condemn those who eat. They teach clearly that if one fasts from food while not fasting from sins, one’s fasting is in vain. And they constantly remind us, while exhorting us to abstinence, that the devil never eats (112).

29: The Good of His Neighbour

The holy fathers not only fed those who came to them, even on fasting days, but they ate with them as well. Some of the greatest ascetics would even eat and drink more than those whom they were feeding so that their guests would not feel badly, and so that they themselves would not appear to men to be fasting.

It was said of St. Macarius the Great and St. Sisoes, two of the very great monastic saints, that people were warned that they should not visit them often, and when they did visit for some good purpose, that they should eat and drink very little. For it was the practice of these holy men to fast at least twice as much in secret as they had eaten with their brothers in public. For every piece of bread taken in company, they denied themselves two pieces in private. And for every cup of wine drunk in charity with others, they deprived themselves of two cups of water in private ~ The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great, 10: Sisoes, 15. 

Mark 2:18-20 was an often quoted passage to explain why these men did this practice. These saints were convinced that every person who came to them was Christ. They fulfilled literally the teaching that whatever was done to the least of the brethren was done to the Lord Himself (Mt 25:31-46). They believed that every guest was the Bridegroom, and when the Bridegroom is present one cannot fast. But when the Bridegroom is taken away, then the people fast. And they do so in secret (Mt 6:18).

We Christians nowadays often do the exact opposite of the saints who ate in public and fasted in secret. We tend to fast in public and eat in private… And we generally fabricate good reasons for ourselves to justify our actions.

The point here is not that Christians as a rule should consciously break the fast in public. It is not that we should urge churches to avoid hypocrisy by serving meat at their lenten dinners. It is certainly not that we should invite our pastors to our homes during Lent and then humbly serve them steak dinners! The point is rather that we should rejoice in our brothers and sisters at all times. That we should see Christ the Bridegroom in their person and presence. That we should celebrate with them as the occasion demands. That we should always practice hospitality, even if we ourselves are keeping a fast. That if people are eating and drinking, we should eat and drink with them, whatever the season, if our actions will not scandalize them, or if they are not simply tempting us by their feigned generosity. That we must never appear “holier than thou.” And, most important of all, that we ourselves should fast in secret, hiding our efforts of abstinence from the eyes of our neighbours (115).

St. Paul makes this very point in another way and in another context in 1 Cor. 10:23-29 and in Romans 14:19 – 15:2.

If your eating leads your neighbour into temptation, scandal and sin, do not eat.

The same holy fathers, for example, who would eat with their guests who came in good will would refuse to eat with others who visited them without good will (116).

The teaching here is delicate and subtle. But it should be clear to those willing to understand in purity of heart. The good of one’s neighbour is the only absolute law. The expression of love is the rule in every instance. Sometimes we are called to eat with our neighbours in love. And sometimes the same love demands, for their sake and not ours, that we abstain.

The Apostle Paul captures this well when he writes:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved ~ 1 Cor 10:31–33

30: Why Have We Fasted?

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?

Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,

and oppress all your workers.

4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight

and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today

will not make your voice heard on high.

5 Is such the fast that I choose,

a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,

and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

~ Isaiah 58:3–5

All prayers and fasting, temple worship and sacrifice, offerings and incense must be directed to keeping God’s commandments. If it is not, it not only is accomplished in vain, it is done unto condemnation and judgment.

Only those who do the will of the Father enter God’s kingdom (Mt 7:21).

31: St. John Chrysostom on Fasting

The Christian teaching about fasting is well summed up by St. John Chrysostom.

So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest.

Sharpen your sickle, which you have blunted through gluttony— sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how may thou be able to do these things? By subduing your body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and you have become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.

I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practise it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. For the wrestler, it is said, is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.2 Timothy 2:5 To the end then, that when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, Luke 18:12 but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that you may learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it.

Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskilfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as various other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.

I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see in enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Do you not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evilspeakings and calumnies. You shall not receive a false report, it says.

Let the mouth too fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother, and bites the body of his neighbour. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you be not consumed one of another.Galatians 5:15 You have not fixed your teeth in the flesh, but you have fixed the slander in the soul, and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; you have harmed, in a thousand ways, yourself and him, and many others, for in slandering a neighbour you have made him who listens to the slander worse; for should he be a wicked man, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness; and should he be a just man, he is lifted to arrogance, and puffed up; being led on by the sin of others to imagine great things concerning himself. Besides, you have struck at the common welfare of the Church; for all those who hear not only accuse the supposed sinner, but the reproach is fastened on the Christian community…

And in the meanwhile I desire to fix three precepts in your mind, to the end that you may accomplish me these during the fast,— viz. to speak ill of no one; to hold no one for an enemy; and to expel from the mouth altogether the evil custom of oaths…

For as in a given field, the husbandman, digging it all up piecemeal, gradually comes to the end of his task; so we too if we make this rule for ourselves, in any wise to reduce to a correct practice these three precepts during the present Lent, and to commit them to the safe custody of good habit, we shall proceed with greater ease to the rest; and by this means arriving at the summit of spiritual wisdom, we shall both reap the fruit of a favourable hope in the present life; and in the life to come we shall stand before Christ with great confidence, and enjoy those unspeakable blessings; which, God grant, we may all be found worthy of, through the grace and loving kindness of Jesus Christ our Lord, with Whom be glory to the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

32: When You Give Alms

According to the scriptures, the giving of one’s possessions to satisfy the needs of others is the most concrete expression of faith and of love. A person who claims to believe in God but does not help the needy has no living faith (see James 2:14-17).

St. John Chrysostom is the most insistent on the necessity of almsgiving. He identifies alms with the oil in the lamps of the virgins in Christ’s parable. Without this oil of almsgiving, our lamps are not lit and we cannot enter into the bridal chamber of Christ. He calls generosity the treasure of the Church through which we are made godlike. For those who can give alms but do not, there is no salvation. Feed the needy now, Chrysostom proclaims, or be ready forever to feed the fires of hell (128).

Almsgiving is the mother of love, of that love which is characteristic of Christianity, which is greater than all miracles, by which the disciples of Christ are manifested (128).

The coat in your closet belongs to the naked. The shoes rotting in your basement belong to the barefoot. The silver hidden in your boxes belongs to the needy. ~ St. Basil

33: You Did It Unto Me

The lenten season is a preparation for God’s final judgment. Its entire effort is directed, as the Church prays daily, to a “good defence before the dread judgment seat of Christ.”

We must return to the parable of the last judgment again and again. We must contemplate it daily. It should never leave our attention. It should be engraved in our minds and embedded in our hearts. All our efforts of prayer and fasting, especially during Lent, are directed to its fulfillment. Our eternal life depends on its accomplishment.

Our treatment of the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick and imprisoned, therefore, is our treatment of Christ Himself. He is the “least of the brethren” for us.

St. Simeon the New Theologian, than whom none is more mystical in the Orthodox tradition, identified spiritual perfection with the fulfillment of Jesus’ parable of the last judgment. He saw in this parable not simply the commandment to perform certain specific acts of charity. He saw in it the entire meaning of the spiritual life (135).

34: Our Brother is Our Life

The purpose of all prayer and fasting, of all liturgy and sacraments, of all spiritual exercises and ascetic practices, is to come to know and love God in all people and things, especially our enemies and the “least of the brethren.” This is the purpose of the lenten spring and of life itself. It is the highest and greatest mystery, the deepest and most profound truth: God is seen, known and loved in everyone and everything (136).

Blessed is the soul that loves her brother, for our brother is our life ~ Elder Silvanus

Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ” ~ St. Anthony the Great

35: Tempted as We Are, Yet Without Sin

The Cross is the goal of the lenten spring. We fast and pray and worship and struggle to be made worthy to behold the passion of the Lord, and His holy resurrection. The lenten services repeat this over and again. The end is the Cross (140).

The entire lenten spring exists for us to become aware of Christ’s voluntary passion for our sake. The season specifically exists for us to strive to penetrate this mystery, and to be penetrated by it. It exists for us to be made perfect through our obedience to Him and our suffering in Him, with Him and for Him, the source of our salvation. It exists for us to be enabled to draw near to God’s throne of grace with confidence, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in all times of need within the wayward world in which we love (142).

36: Made Like His Brethren in Every Respect

The lenten spring is the time for contemplating the deepest mysteries of human existence, the most profound truths concerning God and man. These mysteries and truths are summed up and fulfilled in Christ on the Tree of the Cross (143).

Jesus’ temptations and sufferings, precisely because He is God’s eternal Son in real human flesh, are incomparably more terrifying and agonizing than those of any “mere man,” and of all “mere men” who ever were or will be. For Jesus is God, experiencing as God in His own human soul and body the rejections of His creatures, the betrayals of His brothers, and the abandonment of His own God and Father on the Cross, for the sake of reconciling all creation with Himself in perfect, unending communion and life. In this sense it is wholly accurate to say that no creaturely mind, of men or of angels, can even begin to imagine the magnitude of the temptations and sufferings of Jesus Christ for the sake of His beloved world. In Him all temptations and all sufferings that ever were or will be are experienced to the boundless infinity of His divine person. His, therefore, are temptations and sufferings which transcend creaturely comprehension. They literally cannot be fathomed. They can hardly be imagined. They can only be wondered at with speechless adoration and wordless praise: His silence in death can only be met by our silence in awe-inspired amazement! … This is the mystery of mysteries. It forms the very life of the lenten spring. It is the mystery that lies at the heart of life itself (144-145).

37: Let Him Take Up His Cross and Follow Me

The Cross of Christ is the “law of Lent.” It is the “tree of life” which blossoms in the lenten spring with the fruits of the Holy Spirit (149).

The Church is revealed as a second Paradise, possessing the Tree of Life as the first Paradise of old. By touching the Cross, O Lord, we share Your immortality ~ Third Sunday Matins

38: Without Temptations No One Can Be Saved

As long as we are in this world we will be tempted. And we will suffer. There is no avoiding it. We believe that the Son of God came to be tempted and to suffer with us, to help us in our trials and pains. But we ourselves must be tempted. And we must endure. Those who endure to the end are saved (Mt 24:13).

This is the great work of man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath… without temptations no one can be saved ~ St. Anthony

The closer you reach the Kingdom of God, the more difficulties you will find. God never gives a large gift and small temptations. So temptations are to be classed in accordance with gifts.

The lenten spring is the time for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, with all of the graces and gifts which come to us from God our Father through His Son Jesus. We receive them only if we suffer through our temptations and endure to the end (153).

39: Partaking of Christ’s Body

You would not presume to kiss a king with an unclean mouth, and do you kiss the King of Heaven with an unclean soul? It is an outrage! ~ St. John Chrysostom, On Ephesians, 3

He has invited us to heaven, to the table of the great king and wonderful King, and do we shrink and hesitate, instead of hastening and running to it? And what then is our hope of salvation? We cannot lay the blame on our weakness. We cannot blame our nature. It is indolence and nothing else that renders us unworthy ~ St. John Chrysostom, On Ephesians, 3

40: Going Up to Jerusalem

Whatever happens during the forty days of Great Lent, whether we think, according to our limited understanding, that we have done well, or whether we learn once more the bitter but most blessed lesson of our incapacity to accomplish even the smallest of our good intentions, the result – if we are yet the least bit alive – will be the same every year: we go up to Jerusalem with Jesus, like His very first disciples, amazed and afraid! We are filled with wonder and awe at what the Lord brings to pass for the sake of our salvation. If this be so (and may the Lord grant it!), the lenten spring will not have shone forth upon us in vain (160).

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