On Tuesday, March 9, 2010, the Feast of the First and Second Findings of the Honorable Head of St. John the Baptist, His Grace Bishop Longin served the Hierarchical Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with His Grace Peter, Bishop of Cleveland of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in their Cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God in Des Plaines, Illinois. Fifteen priests and four deacons served with the Bishops. At the Small Entrance, Bishop Peter awarded several priests. Following Liturgy, there was a Lenten luncheon in the church hall.
It is obviously impossible for us to go to Church every day. And since we cannot keep the Lent liturgically, the question arises: what is our participation in Lent, how can we spiritually profit by it? The Church calls us to deepen our religious conscience, to increase and strengthen the spiritual contents of our life, to follow her in her pilgrimage towards renewal and rededication to God.
The first universal precept is that of fasting. The Orthodox teaching concerning fasting is different from the Roman Catholic doctrine and it is essential to understand it. Roman Catholics identify fasting with a “good deed”, see in it a sacrifice which earns us a “merit”. “What shall I give up for Lent?” -• this question is very typical of such an attitude toward fasting. Fasting thus is a formal obligation, an act of obedience to the Church, and its value comes precisely from obedience. The Orthodox idea of fasting is first of all that of an ascetical effort. It is the effort to subdue the physical, the fleshly man to the spiritual one, the “natural” to the “supernatural”. Limitations in food are instrumental, they are not ends in themselves. Fasting thus is but a means of reaching a spiritual goal and, therefore, an integral part of a wider spiritual effort. Fasting, in the Orthodox understanding, includes more than abstinence from certain types of food. It implies prayer, silence, an internal disposition of mind, an attempt to be charitable, kind, and – in one word – spiritual. “Brethren, while tasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually…”
And because of this the Orthodox doctrine of fasting excludes the evaluation of fasting in terms of a “maximum” or “minimum.” Every one must find his maximum, weigh his conscience and find in it his “pattern of fasting.” But the pattern must necessarily include the spiritual as well as the “bodily” elements. The Typicon and the canons of the Church give the description of an ideal fast: no dairy products, total abstinence on certain days. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matt. 19:12). But, whatever is our measure — our fasting must be a total effort of our total being…
According to the rules of the Church the fast cannot be broken for the entire Lenten period of forty days: Saturdays and Sundays are no exception.
We must always pray. But Lent is the time of an increase of prayer and also of its deepening. The simplest way is, first, to add the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian to our private morning and evening prayers. Then, it is good and profitable to set certain hours of the day for a short prayer: this can be done “internally” – at the office, in the car, everywhere. The important thing here is to remember constantly that we are in Lent, to be spiritually “referred” to its final goal: renewal, penitence, closer contact with God.
3. Spirtual Reading
We cannot be in church daily, but it is still possible for us to follow the Church’s progress in Lent by reading those lessons and books which the Church reads in her worship. A chapter of the Book of Genesis, some passages from Proverbs and Isaiah do not take much time, and yet they help us in understanding the spirit of Lent and its various dimensions. It is also good to read a few Psalms – in connection with prayer or separately. Nowhere else can we find such concentration of true repentance, of thirst for communion with God, of desire to permeate the whole of life with religion… Finally, a religious book: Lives of the Saints, History of the Church, Orthodox Spirituality etc. is a “must” while we are in Lent. It takes us from our daily life to a higher level of interests, it ideas and facts which are usually absent from our “practical” and “efficient” world.
4. Change of Life
And, last but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, social gatherings – all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something more important to do, and it is impossible to do without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of our faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a narrow path leads to the Kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts against these limitations. He wants his usual “easy life” with all its pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual effort, once we have made by it one step, that cannot be compared to any other joy. We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to understand what St. Paul meant by “the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” God Himself enters our soul: and it is this wonderful coming that constitutes the ultimate end of Len: “If a man love me, he will keep mu words: and my father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” (Jn. 14, 23).
Let us make this Lent a real Lent!
For the attainment of the Kingdom, that is, man’s salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ rather clearly taught as essential two things: faith and works. Passages of the New Testament that emphasize one or the other have often been quoted to show that it is exclusively by faith or by works that one is saved. Yet the Lord Himself never excluded either in His teaching.
The essence of the “law of faith” Jesus expressed in these words: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16) The disciples also taught after Him that faith is necessary in order to have eternal life: “These things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.” (Jn. 20:31)
To the question directed to Paul and Silas by the keeper of the prison, “What must I do to be saved?” they answered: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:30,31)
St. Paul points out that it is by God’s grace that we are saved: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9) He refers to the “works of the Law,” by which it was believed among the Jews that men were justified and by which they were identified with the chosen people of God in the Old Testament. These included circumcision and ritual sacrifices. He makes this reference clear in several places, for example in the third chapter of Romans.
There is no contradiction to this in what James the Apostle says in his epistle: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” He then goes on to show what kind of works are the natural consequence of belief in Christ’s teachings: “If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body…Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?” (Jas. 2:14-24)
The kind of works necessary for salvation, the “law of works,” is expressed by the Lord in two principal commandments, that of self-denial and that of loving God and one’s neighbor.
Just before He underwent the saving passion and death on the cross, Jesus said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mk. 8:34) This commandment has as its purpose the rooting out of us the very foundation of all sin: pride and self-love (Sir. 10:15), and consequently our purification from “all filthiness of the flesh and spirit,” (II Cor. 7:1). It is to put off from us the old man according to our former life, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. (Eph. 4:22) It is this “old man” which can never enter into the Kingdom of heaven. (Jn. 3:5)
Self-denial, according to the teaching of our Lord, must manifest itself 1) by leaving our former life of sin and by a profound turning away or repentance of all sins, (Mt. 3:2); 2) by a voluntary renunciation of all the things of this world, however dear they may be to us, as for example, our eye or our arm, if we come to see that they seduce us and lead us to sin (Mt. 5:29,30), 3) by abandoning even a father or mother, or a family, if we perceive that otherwise it is impossible for us to withdraw from iniquity and attain salvation (Mk. 10: 22; Lk. 14:26); and 4) by constant efforts not to sin, not only in deed, but even in word and in thought (Mt. 5:28; 12:36).
The commandment to love God and our neighbor (Mt. 22:37-39) has as its purpose the implanting in us of the beginning of a new life, holy and pleasing to God, instead of the former life of sin (Jn. 13:34), of putting in us the bond of moral perfection (Col. 3:14), and of leading us, truly pure and renewed, to be one with God (Jn. 17:21).
Describing the characteristics of love for God, Jesus taught that it must 1) be sincere, whole, and perfect (Lk. 10:27-28); 2) manifest itself by submission to divine will in the observance of His commandments (Jn. 14:15,21); 3) constantly glorify God (Mt. 5:16); and 4) be so strong in us that we might be ready, in the name of God, to lose ourselves (Mk. 8:35).
Love of our neighbor is similar, for He taught that we 1) love all men, not just our friends, but even our enemies (Mt. 5:44-48); 2) not offend our neighbor in deed, or in word or in thought (Mt. 5:22; 7:1,2,12); 3) endure magnanimously all offences and forgive trespasses, not only seven times, but even seventy times seven times (Mt. 5:38,39; 6:14; 18:22); 4) always show mercy toward our neighbor, to help him in his needs (Mt. 5:7,42; Lk. 6:35); and 5) be ready, if it is necessary, to give our life for our friends (Jn. 15:13).
On the third Sunday of the preparation for the Great Fast, Meat-fare Sunday, we read from the Gospel of St. Matthew (25:31-46) of the Last Judgment. There we see how men shall be judged on that day, that it will be on the basis of how men have received and fulfilled both the law of faith and that of works. The Lord shows how intimately related are the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (v. 40) The consequences of not doing those works of charity that He enumerated, feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison are just as serious. In the Incarnation of the Word of God, His taking upon Himself human nature, He identified Himself with the whole human race, and literally when we do good or when we do evil to one human being, all men and even the God who became one with us, are affected.
We see how the Lord’s work of salvation has spared us the inevitable consequences of sin. His grace, His gift to us is this salvation. Yet it is also clear from what He teaches that man has the freedom of will to reject His gift to us, and, will deserve the results of sin and corruption. That is, Christ teaches the will suffer eternal torments should we choose to reject His grace.
Around the sixth century, a certain great ascetic who was living cloistered on the Mt. of Olives was undergoing fierce carnal warfare. One day, discouraged by the persistence of the enemy, the ascetic said to the demon of fornication, “Once and for all, leave me be! You’ve been warring against me for so many years now;” At that moment, the demon appeared before the ascetic’s eyes and responded, “Swear to me that you will not tell anyone what I’m going to tell you, and I will stop warring against you.” When the Abba swore the oath, the demon went on to say, “Do not worship this icon, and I will no longer war against you.” And the demon pointed to an icon of the Theotokos holding the Divine Infant which was in the ascetic’s cell. “Let me think about it,” the hermit said, and the next day he narrated everything that took place to a certain Elder who was blessed with the gift of spiritual discernment and who was waging the spiritual struggle in the Lavra of Faran. “You were tricked by the demon, Abba,” answered the Elder, “because he got you to swear an oath. But you did well to confess everything. It were better for your soul for you to enter every house of prostitution in this whole land than ever to give up worshipping our Lord and the Theotokos.” (PG 87, 2900.)
This example of the ascetic yet again brings to mind the wise assurance that morals have no value if they are not the fruit of the Faith. It was better for Abba to be sinful but faithful, than to be moral but a denier of Christ. Today, there are many moral “Christians” (so-called) against whom the devil does not wage war because they reject the veneration of icons. They go so far as to accuse the Orthodox Christians of worshipping idols, boards of wood, and walls.
We Orthodox Christians are not defensive about our sins. We are aware of our sins, and we beseech God to enlighten us to see even those of which we are unaware. We do defend the Faith, however, because our salvation depends on it, and we reply to the iconoclasts (icon breakers) of today (the Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others) with the same words that the Most Holy Patriarch of Constantinople Gennanos II (thirteenth century) directed toward the heretics of his day: “One of these demon-faced Bogomils (followers of a heresy led by a Bulgarian priest named Bogomil in the tenth century) asked me, ‘why do you worship walls, and boards of wood and plaster and different colors?’
By saying this he meant the holy icons. And I said to him, ‘when did you ever see one of those nourished by our Church, traveling on the highways and byways—where there can be found plaster, and ruins, and piles of stones and paint supplies-worshipping these things and doing homage to them? For if we were paying homage to stones and colors, then we would have to worship them wherever and whenever we saw a stone or a plank. Now this is not the case, and even you who are the enemy of the truth will not dare to say this, for we simply do not render worship to the materials but to the figure depicted on the materials; and, indeed, not to every figure but only to the image of Christ, the Theotokos, and the other holy ones. For the honor rendered to the icon passes on to the person depicted (prototype).” (PG 140,664.)
The wrath of the iconoclasts of olden times and today is not directed against pictorial depictions, however. They, themselves—in their own homes—have pictures of loved ones or of memorable occasions, and do not consider them idols. Such was the case with the iconoclasts of the eighth century also. They burned and destroyed the icons of the saints whenever they found them, while as regards depictions “of trees, or birds, or dumb animals—indeed even of fictitious satanic charist races, hunts, theatrical performances and horse races—these they permitted to remain in honored places and to be displayed.” (From the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen the New, PG 100, 1113A.)
Their wrath is against the saints who are depicted on icons and against the grace and power the faithful reap from their worship of the icons. For even as the handkerchiefs and aprons of the Holy Apostles (Acts 19:12) were means of grace and well-springs of miracles; even as the relics of the holy ones “shine forth every day in signs and miracles” (St. Gregory the Dialogos, Evergetinos I, vii, 8); as even the soil on which the martyrs were sacrificed “is an agent of grace” (St. Theodore the Studite, PG 99, 768 D); as when we worship and kiss the cross, we draw there-from abundant blessing” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily XI, 62), so, too, the icons. Without being deified, they are used by God as a means of adoration, for the salvation and sanctification of those who draw near with faith. “For the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit even while they were living, and after their repose the grace of the Holy Spirit continues to dwell in their souls, and in their bodies in the graves, and in their depictions, and in their holy icons, not in essence but by grace and power.” (St. John of Damascus, PG 94, 1249 CD.)
Icons are a piece of our life. In the arches of the churches, the domes and the narthex, the compunctionate souls of the humble iconographers who worked there in prayer and fasting managed to vividly imprint the whole way of life of the people of God. The Saints dwell and move among us. The Church Militant communes even from now with the Church Triumphant.
Here, we behold St. Pachomios receiving the monastic schema from an angel. There, we see the repose of St. Ephraim, and a bit further on stand the anchorites of the desert. Still further down, Abba Sisoes is bending over the skeletal remains of the once glorious king of the Greeks, Alexander, and we read in the inscription. “Oh, death; Who can escape thee?” And then there are the lamentations at the Burial of Christ; the resurrection of St. Lazarus; the holy Prophet Elias and the manna from Heaven; the military saints; the hierarchs; the blessed ascetics; the martyrs; the Theotokos; the Passion of the Lord; and on and on—open books for both the educated and the illiterate.
In essence, we have before us the future blessedness depicted by the perishable hands of our iconographers, who had nothing in common with the secular spirit, who were strangers and aliens to
this world, and who, “being contrite and humble, fasted, wept on account of their sins and ‘all the day long…went with downcast face,’ (PS 37:6) possessing the gladdening power of faith.” (Photios Kontoglou)
Art is assimilated and sanctified by and within the Church. The icon, the hymnography, the wood engravings, the vestments, the chanting, the decoration, the sacred vessels, the whole architectural arrangement of the temple, the manuscripts, the collections of lives of the saints, the liturgical texts are all one and the same with our Faith and the holy dogmas. They are the types or figures of Heavenly things. They comprise the spiritual ark wherein our salvation is accomplished. They are a whole daily way of life, “from the morning watch until night”. They are sanctification and living tradition. They are not heady intellectual abstractions and scholastic knowledge, but a tangible salvation and doxology (glorification), of the very materials of this earth, of the very dust of our bodies, which themselves will be either glorified or dammed unto eternity.
Let the lips of those who do not worship the holy icons be rendered speechless; оr rather, let the eyes of their souls be opened so that they may behold the wonders which God works by means of the icons and the power which the faithful obtain from them not only by worshipping them, but also by merely gazing upon the faces of the saints and thereby “being filled with all blessing by the mere sight of them,” as St. John Chrysostom wrote some 1600 years ago. (PG 50,518.) Then the iconoclasts will see their error in confusing the idol with the icon. Then they will comprehend the true value of the sacrifice of myriads of confessors and martyrs for these “pieces of wood.”
Icons are the gates of Heaven. Whoever keeps the gates closed remains in darkness, “for the icon is called a door which opens up the mind fashioned according to God to the inward-dwelling image and likeness of the prototype (i.e.. God).” (PG 100, 1113A.)
May the Lord, the Theotokos, and all the Saints open the gates of the Kingdom of the Heavens unto us who worship the precious icons.
St. Mark of Ephesus Church