The last day of repentance

All day yesterday I felt like it was Wednesday and couldn’t figure out why. On second thought, I suppose it has something to do with the spirit of Holy Week which is in an ever state of anticipation. The evening services we serve in the mornings and the morning services in the evening as if we can’t wait to start the next day. On the one hand we thank God who has “led us to these holy days for purification of souls and bodies, for restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection,” as we say at the end of Presanctified,  but on the other hand we are also anxious to “worship the Resurrection.”  Our rushing from one day to the next, in anticipation of the great feast of Pascha could only signify, I can only guess, our readiness for it.  Being ready, after all, is one of the themes of this week as we not only begin the week with Bridegroom Matins but also the bitter lesson of the foolish virgins.

And ready we better be since, as Bulgakov writes in his Handbook for Church Servers (here), “Great Wednesday is the last day of lent and repentance.” He continues:

“….and with it (Wednesday) the order of the Great Lenten services comes to an end. This is also expressed in some of the features of the church services of Great Wednesday namely: at the dismissal of Hours the prayer “O Master, great in mercy” which is normally read in Great Compline is read over the people who have bowed to the ground…at the Presanctified liturgy the great prostration is done after “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” for the last time, “and if the prostrations are completed in practice in the church, they will continue to be done in the cells even up to Great Friday”, i.e. the great prostrations, but not the small, is dropped in church, as is evident, for example, in the Order of Compline where it is said: “let us do three prostrations, all equally slowly.”

And having come to the end we return to the beginning, before we set off on this journey, to that sacred rite of forgiveness on the very eve of the fast. Bulgakov mentions a tradition in the Moscow Dormition Cathedral of performing the “Forgiveness Rite” on this day in the same way it was done on Forgiveness Sunday. We ask for forgiveness not so that we might be able to enter in the holy days of Lent, but so that just as we appear to be ready to celebrate the holy feast of Pascha on these days of Passion Week, our entire lives be converted to a state of readiness.  The readiness and preparedness  of which we speak is not something which comes quickly. It takes time but in that time it turns into a routine, something we begin doing on a regular basis. Saying that Lent is a time of prayer is fine but it hardly implies that other times of the year are not a time of prayer.  Instead, we continue our prayer life, our faith and hope in the Resurrection. During these Lenten day, therefore, we have done nothing other than intensify our prayers, the battle against our vices, and so on.

The prayer most characteristic of these days we leave behind is that of St. Ephrem: “O Lord and Master of my life….”. It is the intensity of this prayer we are to carry with us throughout all the days of the year – that we not be slothful, given to despair, have no lust of power, that we have humility and patience. But above all, that we “see our own transgressions and not judge our neighbors.”  It is here, once we have achieved this last petition of the prayer that we can say we are ready to celebrate the feast. It is this forgiveness and seeing our own mistakes which begins, ends and makes up the very substance of the days of fasting.

It’s taken us all of Lent to battle it and now having come to the end of the journey we shan’t only feel as if we’re ready for the feast, even though after all these weeks of services and fasting and more services and more fasting, we rightfully feel that we are. But regardless of how we should feel or not the feeling of readiness during these days of Holy Week is unmistakeably there. The question is: Is it for the feast?

No, we are ready to be ready.

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Who will condemn the wicked?

Received a newsletter from St. Michael’s Skete yesterday which, among other things, had an excerpt from a letter sent by St. Cyprian of Carthage to a friend named Donatus (St. Cyprian’s Epistle to Donatus). The letter, as they note, “has been paraphrased, put into contemporary letter-writing form….to underline that St. Cyprian’s world 1,750 years ago and ours today, in many ways are not worlds apart.”

Interesting as we make our way through Holy Week.

Carthage, North Africa

Dear Donatus,

Have you noticed how often these days…those who are innocently accused perish, while the very man who sits to convict their alleged crimes often commits them himself – the judge becomes the culprit. Crimes are common everywhere…. One man forges a will, another fraudulently makes a false deposition… The prosecutor makes his accusation, the false accuser attacks, the witness defames, and on all sides…hired witnesses produce false accusations… There is no concern about laws, investigators and judges, because any sentence can be bought off for money… The laws have come to terms with crimes, and whatever goes on has begun to be allowed. What integrity can there be when there is no one to condemn the wicked, and often the very people one meets ought to be condemned?…

Sleep and Mortality

H/T: Fr. Ted’s blog here:

“Christ weeps at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus – what a powerful witness!  He does not say, ‘Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.’  Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console.  In fact he says nothing—he weeps.  And then, according to the Gospels, he raises his friend, that is, he restores him into that life from which we are supposedly to find liberation toward a higher good.”   (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?, p 25)

There was a belief in Jewish Rabbinic tradition that “sleep” defines human mortality and impermanence (My thanks to Dr. Silviu Bunta of the University of Dayton from whom I learned this fact).  The fact that God could put Adam to sleep before fashioning Eve, is the sign that Adam is not divine.  God’s threat to Adam that should he eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was simply another sign of Adam’s created rather than divine nature.  Sleep in the scriptures is used as a euphemism for being mortal:  “slept with his ancestors” means the person died.  “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death…”  (Psalms 13:3)    Thus while sleep is a sign of human mortality, meaning humans are not divine by nature, death is imaged as sleep.  Humans cannot prevent their own death, and neither can they raise themselves from the sleep of death.

With these thoughts in mind, the Gospel Lesson of the Raising of Lazarus, shows itself to be very significant for who Jesus is, what He accomplished in His life, and also what the true meaning of being human is.

After saying this, Jesus told disciples, “’Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’  The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’  Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him’”  (John 11:11-15).

Jesus in speaking of Lazarus having fallen asleep, speaks of Lazarus’ death, but also of his (fallen) human nature.  Jesus weeps for His friend, the fallen human, created in God’s image, and yet mortal – asleep and incapable of waking up.  Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, and calls to him, as a man might call to awaken his friend:

“When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’”  (John 11:43-44).

In awaking Lazarus from the dead, Jesus not only reveals His own divinity, but He also reveals again the nature of humans created in God’s image and likeness.

“Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”?  If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled—  can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”’?”   (John 10:34-36)The fact that Lazarus sleeps reveals the created and human nature of Jesus’ dear friend.  That fact that Jesus is able to wake Lazarus from the sleep of death reveals Jesus’ divinity, but also,  not only Lazarus being in God’s image but the fact that humanity was created by God to share in the divine life.  Death is the fiction which separates us from God.  Jesus overcomes death, that usurping jailor who held humankind captive.   As a text from the Matin’s Canon for Lazarus Saturday reads:

“The deeps are afraid at Your presence, O Lord.  All the waters serve You, O Source of life.  The gatekeepers of Hades tremble before You, O Christ.  The bars of death are broken by Your power.  Lazarus rises from the grave at Your command, O almighty Savior and Lover of mankind.”

Death has something to fear – the deception is over.  Death is not the final power over each human being, but rather death is merely the final enemy for God to defeat.  Death and Satan are shocked to see that humans in fact have God’s image permanently imprinted on them, and that they do share in the divine life and so can break his chains and escape imprisonment in his impermanent hell.  Death is trampled down by Christ’s own death, giving life to all those in the graves.

“A Changing Society”

H/T: FOXNews. There’s a first time for everything I suppose:

Ireland to Have Pubs Open for First Time on Good Friday

DUBLIN — As long as Ireland has had pubs, Good Friday has been off-limits as a “dry” holy day — until now.

A Limerick judge ruled Thursday that the city’s 110 pubs can open April 2 because the city is hosting a major Irish rugby match attracting tens of thousands of visitors. This will be the first time in the history of the Republic of Ireland that pubs anywhere in the country will open on Good Friday.

Such a judgment would have been unthinkable in the Ireland of old, where the Catholic Church enjoyed unquestioned authority from the public and deference from the government. Commentators were quick to suggest that Thursday’s judgment represented a watershed in the shifting relations between church and state in this rapidly secularizing land.

“This could be the beginning of the end of Good Friday, because now legislation will have to be changed,” said a jubilant David Hickey, one of the Limerick pub owners who successfully sued the state for the right to do business like any other Friday. “The option should be given to let publicans open if they want to and close if they want to. Today was a huge decision in that direction.”

His side argued that keeping pubs shut for the match between hometown favorites Munster versus Dublin-based rivals Leinster would represent an economic sin in Limerick, a city suffering from exceptionally high unemployment following the shock closure of its major employer, a Dell Computers plant. Accountants testified that keeping the bars closed could cost the city an estimated $10 million in lost income.

District Court Judge Tom O’Donnell agreed, ruling that it also would encourage the estimated 26,000 rugby fans attending to disperse peacefully and rapidly after the match — straight into the watering holes of Limerick.

While the Limerick public appeared overwhelmingly behind the move, the city’s Roman Catholic priests expressed sadness that only one of two “dry” holy days on the Irish calendar — the other being Christmas — was being turned into another long boozy weekend.

The Rev. Tony Mullins, administrator of the Limerick Diocese, said the judge’s decision reflected “a changing society, where religious beliefs and the practice of one’s faith is becoming more a matter for the individual.”

He appealed to the Catholic faithful among locals and rugby tourists alike to choose to attend afternoon Masses in the city and avoid the drinking dens. “The challenge in this new emerging Ireland is for Catholics to give even stronger witness to their faith and belief,” he said.

Several Franciscan friars who live in an impoverished housing project beside Limerick’s rugby stadium said they might pray, protest and erect the Stations of the Cross — church artworks that illustrate the stages of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter — outside the gates as 26,000 rugby fans arrive.

Munster and Leinster are the two perennial powerhouses of Irish rugby with rabid fan bases.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Are Christians called to greatness?

This question comes to mind upon hearing this morning’s gospel reading. Our Lord tells His disciples about how they will not only go to Jerusalem but all the things which will happen in Jerusalem. That is, that He will be betrayed, condemned to death, spat upon, mocked and, ultimately, killed. But, He continues, He will rise on the third day. And so two brothers, James and John, moved by this account given by our Lord go to Him and say, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” And they ask Him if they could sit, one on His right hand and the other on His left, when He is in His glory. To this the Lord simply replies, “You do not know what you ask.”

In reality the problem that the two brothers pose in this morning’s gospel reading is not their desire for greatness as much as it is their thirst for power.  It’s a human thirst; a part of our fallen, sinful human state. Yet the fundamental problem with all the sinful thirsts and desires and yearnings and aspirations that men have – is they are insatiable.  Meaning, no matter how hard one runs after, no matter how much one pursues riches and power and glory of this world, it’ll never be enough. We read at one place in the gospel how our Lord met a Samaritan woman at a well and told her: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The answer, in other words, to man’s constant thirst for satisfaction is God. He is the only one who will quench that thirst inside of us.

But the problem we are faced with specifically in this morning’s gospel reading is, as we stated, the thirst for power. The holy and venerable Serbian Father Justin Popovic of blessed repose wrote concerning this exchange between Jesus and the two brothers noting that it was our Lord who was the only one that had ever, in the history of mankind, solved this problem of power, or the thirst for it. “The problem of power” Fr. Justin writes, “is a problem of existence, a problem of a hierarchy of living things and powers, a  problem of heavenly and earthly volume. For the same principle and the same order belongs in heaven as it does on earth. In heaven: all things which are greater serve the smaller; all lesser things receives everything they need for their existence from the greater; and all together – from the Highest. And so in the spiritual  and material worlds, in nature: the sun, the most important and largest light, serves the other smaller lights giving of itself, warmth, light; it serves the tiny earth and everything in it. Throughout all of nature God serves all creatures and creation. An exception to this has been made by man through his egocentric, self-sufficient and prideful selfishness. Man manages things by commanding and not serving. The God-man has come to repair this: managing people by serving them. This is the way of the New Testament, the gospel, the God-man of managing and ruling over men. In this is the newness of the evangelical ruling and evangelical ruling = the Church; in it the highest and greatest humbly serve the smallest and lowest. The very light-filled Angels of the Lord were made by the Church to be servants to the spirits of men, to serve them for their salvation (Heb. 1:14).”

Therefore to answer the question: Are Christians called to greatest? We can answer with a most emphatic, Yes! After all, the Bible is filled with great men and women: Moses and Abraham and Jacob and King David, the prophet Isaiah and Elijah just to name a few. Then of course we have more in the New Testament, the greatest being the Holy Theotokos, the Most Holy Mother of God. And there are so many, many more. Yet all of these great Biblical figures had one thing in common, a holy virtue which made them great. And that was the virtue of humility. What’s important to remember, however, is that this characteristic shared by all of these great men and women is also a characteristic of God. Our God, above all, is a humble God. And so St. Paul writes of Christ, “He humbled himself being obedient to death, even on a cross. That is why God exalted him and gave him the Name that outshines all names, so that at the name of Jesus all knees should bend” (Phi. 2:8-10)

All of this is to say that although we have been called to greatness it doesn’t mean we need to pursue it at all costs. Our greatness is in serving and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Moreover, it lies solely in leading a God-pleasing life and being Christ-like in everything we do. For the God we believe in and place our hope in isn’t a mean and hateful God who rules over us with a tight fist. He is, on the other hand, one who has so much love for us that He sent His only begotten Son not so that His Son would “be served,” but as He says in this morning’s gospel “to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many”  so that “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Amen.