In the Beginning…

Genesis 1:1-13

Today, on the first day of Great Lent, we hear the first words of the Bible, which tell of the very origins of the world: “In the beginning…” This beginning is not simply a particular point in time, for creation is about more than what we can clarify by history or science. Creation is not only about what happened, but, more importantly, about who was involved, and why.

The very first verse tells us that it is God who created the heavens and the earth. Creation does not just exist, and our lives are not just arbitrary. Rather, it is God who creates, and He creates out of love. Saint Basil the Great writes,

If then the world has a beginning, and if it has been created, enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was the Creator …  In the beginning God created— It is He, beneficent Nature, Goodness without measure, a worthy object of love for all beings endowed with reason, the beauty the most to be desired, the origin of all that exists, the source of life, intellectual light, impenetrable wisdom, it is He who in the beginning created heaven and earth.

Moreover, we are told repeatedly that God found this world that He had created “good.” God is depicted as the Supreme Artist who delights in His work. And this work of the Creator also points us back to Him. It is His gift to us, but it is intended to lead us back to Him. Saint Basil continues,

May God … grant you the intelligence of His truth, so that you may raise yourselves from visible things to the invisible Being, and that the grandeur and beauty of creatures may give you a just idea of the Creator. For the visible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, and His power and divinity are eternal. Thus earth, air, sky, water, day, night, all visible things, remind us of who is our Benefactor.

*****

A Reading from the Book of Genesis 1:1-13:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

Forgiveness Sunday

Matthew 6:14-21

Today, on the eve of Great Lent, we find an interesting juxtaposition of fasting and forgiveness. Jesus gives us instructions on fasting, admonishing us to focus on our inner life rather than on outward displays of piety, warning us of the dangers of riches, and pointing to the need to guard our hearts, for “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Yet these remarks are prefaced by His teaching on the importance of forgiveness, and we are told that our forgiveness by the Father depends on our willingness to forgive others.

Lent is a time for repentance and for returning to God. In today’s liturgical texts we hear of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, which reflects our own alienation from God. Like Adam, we are called to return to the Father, and Jesus Christ provides us with the way for doing so. We are called to identify ourselves with Adam in realizing and seeking to overcome our separation from God.

However, this journey back to God is not simply an individual affair. We are not saved as isolated individuals, but as members of Christ’s Body. As Saint Anthony the Great tells us,

Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.

This is why the Church calls us to forgiveness at the very beginning of Great Lent. We start this journey back to God by being reconciled with our brothers and sisters, for in the words of the Apostle John,

If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:14-21:
The Lord said, “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.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay 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 will your heart be also.”

The Danger of Hypocrisy

Matthew 6:1-13

Today Jesus warns us of the danger of hypocrisy. Both good works and prayer can be occasions for deceiving both ourselves and our fellow human beings. The tendency to pride is deeply rooted within us, and we almost instinctively want to show ourselves to be better than we are.

The problem of such pride is not necessarily that we consciously think too much of ourselves, but rather that we are too concerned with what others think of us and that we unconsciously compare ourselves to them. And the answer to hypocrisy and pride is not so much to pull ourselves down (which can just be an inverted form of pride) as to stop being so concerned with ourselves.

That is not so simple, but occurs as part of our growth in faith. In this Gospel Jesus gives us the key, which is prayer in secret, in the inner chamber of our hearts. For it is only by growing in faith in God, by focusing on Him and seeing ourselves in the light of His love, that we learn to be freed of our preoccupation with ourselves.

Outside the inner chamber are all things in time and space, which knock on the door. Through our bodily senses they clamour to interrupt our prayer, so that prayer is invaded with a crowd of vain phantoms. This is why you must shut the door. The senses of the body are resisted, that the spirit of prayer may be directed to the Father. This occurs in the inmost heart, where prayer is offered to the Father in secret. There ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ This is a fitting conclusion to good counsel, not merely calling us to prayer but also showing us how, not merely calling us to give alms but also showing the right spirit for doing so. The instruction is to cleanse the heart. Nothing cleanses the heart but the undivided and single-minded striving after eternal life from the pure love of wisdom alone.

Saint Augustine

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:1-13:
The Lord said, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to 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 in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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 in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

Our Father who are in heaven,
Hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever.
Amen.”

A Life of Integrity

First & Second Finding of the Venerable Head of John the Baptist
Matthew 11:2-15

Today the Church commemorates Saint John the Baptist and Forerunner, who prepared the way for Jesus Christ. Like the Old Testament prophets, he spoke of One who was to come. But, unlike the prophets, he was to live to hear the actual accounts of Jesus’ ministry although he did not witness it himself.

This forerunner is a bridge figure who stands between two worlds and does not totally belong to either. He dwells in the wilderness, having separated himself from human society and is therefore often seen as a precursor of the monastic movement. His distance from society gives him an integrity, which means that his opinions and support cannot be bought by the highest bidder. He avoids the “fine raiment” of “kings’ houses,” which means that he is not dependent on being in their good books.  As Saint John Chrysostom writes,

John was a man not easily swayed and fickle but steadfast and sure. He was far from being such as to betray the things committed to him.

Or, as Saint Gregory Dialogus writes,

John was no reed, shaken by the wind. No one’s pleasant attitude made him agreeable, and no one’s anger made him bitter.

In a world of materialism and consumerism, of advertising and constant media manipulation, Saint John the Baptist reminds that we need a firm place to stand where we will not be easily swayed by changing opinions and fashions. While we do not live in the desert or feed on locusts, we too need to develop an inner integrity that can withstand the pressures of the world around us.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 11:2-15:
At that time, when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities. Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way before you.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been coming violently and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Confounding Our Expectations

Luke 23:1-31, 33, 44-56

Today we once more follow Jesus Christ towards His passion and are witnesses as He is condemned and crucified. We see how He is accused of being a king, a charge that He does not deny. Yet the King who is revealed in the Gospel account is a very different type of king: He is apparently powerless and seemingly unable to save Himself – indeed, the term king is used as a term of mockery.

Yet there is also more going on than meets the eye. After He is unjustly condemned, Jesus continues to turn people’s expectations on their heads. He tells the women not to weep, for the event that is about to take place is not a defeat, but a victory. The whole of creation is involved in what is occurring, with the sun going dark and the curtain of the temple being torn in two. For what is occurring is the very victory of God in the flesh. Saint Athanasius writes,

The Lord over death set out to abolish death. Being Lord, He accomplished His aim. We therefore have passed from death to life. The concept of the Jews and those who think like them held about the Lord was wrong. Things did not turn out at all according to their expectations, because the opposite was true. In fact, ‘He who sits in heaven shall laugh at them: the Lord shall have them in derision.’

By conquering death, Jesus Christ destroys the power of death and turns around the sin of Adam that was corrupting our human nature. In the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria,

By becoming like us and bearing our sufferings for our sakes, Christ restores human nature to how it was in the beginning. The first man was certainly in the Paradise of delight in the beginning. The absence of suffering and of corruption exalted him. He despised the commandment given to him and fell under a curse, condemnation, and the snare of death by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. By the very same thing, Christ restores him to his original condition. He became the fruit of the tree by enduring the precious Cross for our sakes, that he might destroy death, which by means of the tree [of Adam] had invaded the bodies of humankind.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 23:1-31, 33, 44-56:
At that time, the chief priests, the scribes, and elders of the people brought Jesus before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, “I find no crime in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length; but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then, arraying him in gorgeous apparel, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him.”

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” — a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus; but they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no crime deserving death; I will therefore chastise him and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave sentence that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, whom they asked for; but Jesus he delivered up to their will.

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance and saw these things.

Now there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

The Way to the Heart

Joel 2:12-26

Today we realise that Lent is at hand, for, as on the weekdays of Great Lent, there is no Gospel reading. This is because the Liturgy is not celebrated on the weekdays of the fast, but instead there are readings from the Old Testament at Vespers or at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (and these reflections will focus on one of these readings during this time). And, as Great Lent approaches, today’s readings convey a sense of urgency, but also of expectation.

The Prophet Joel’s words that we hear today will be echoed throughout the fast. We are told that God is gracious and merciful, and wants us to return to Him. We are called to fasting, weeping, and mourning, but are reminded that what we are really called to is compunction of heart – we are to rend our hearts rather than our garments. Our journey during Great Lent is a journey into our own hearts as we discover and acknowledge who we truly are before God.

In the biblical and patristic tradition the heart is not simply something emotional, but is a symbol for the whole person. It has to do with who we truly are in the depths of our being. Yet, for many of us, entering into the depths of the heart is not easy, for we have become adept at covering over our weaknesses and avoiding our vulnerabilities. And so the Lenten disciplines are given to us as tools that can help us get in touch with who we really are. For, as Saint Macarius the Great writes,

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace – there are all things.

*****

A Reading from the Prophet Joel 2:12-26:

“Yet even now,” says the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”

Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil.

Who knows whether he will not turn and repent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a cereal offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber.

Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare thy people, O Lord,
and make not thy heritage a reproach,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”

Then the Lord became jealous for his land,
and had pity on his people.
The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations.

“I will remove the northerner far from you,
and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his front into the eastern sea,
and his rear into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
for he has done great things.

“Fear not, O land;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Fear not, you beasts of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

“Be glad, O sons of Zion,
and rejoice in the Lord, your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the latter rain, as before.

“The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will restore to you the years
which the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Confronting Our Weakness

Luke 22:39-42, 45-71; 23:1

In today’s Gospel we follow Jesus Christ as He moves closer to His passion. We see Him wrestling with His calling in prayer, and then being betrayed, arrested, and accused. And we also see the disciples who followed Him. They could not stay awake to pray with Him, misunderstood Him and tried to defend Him only to be rebuked, and the Apostle Peter denied Him three times. In short, they show themselves to be weak, misunderstanding, and fearful – hardly the sort of people God would choose to change the world.

As we approach Great Lent, we will also be confronted by our own weaknesses and by the dividedness of our own hearts. It is relatively easy to commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ when our lives are comfortable. But one of the aims of fasting and the extra Lenten services is to bring us up against our own limitations and weaknesses. We may have an image of ourselves as strong and committed, and think that we will do anything for God. But when we start to feel the fasting in our bodies, or become tired during the long services, then we start to discover new things about ourselves and our reactions.

And this is precisely the intention of the fast. Its purpose is not for us to show how strong we are, but rather for us to learn our own weakness and our need of God. It is to bring us to a place of repentance so that, like the Apostle Peter, we may truly weep before God, knowing that our salvation does not come from ourselves but from Him.

Peter grieved and wept because he went astray as a man. I do not learn why he spoke, but I learn that he wept. I read of his tears, but I do not read of his explanation. What cannot be defended can be purged. Tears may wash away the offense that is a shame to confess aloud. Tears deal with pardon and shame. Tears speak of guilt without fear and confess sin without the obstacle of shame. Tears do not demand pardon and deserve it. I learn why Peter was silent, lest a swift petition for pardon might offend even more. First he must weep, then he must pray.

Saint Ambrose of Milan

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 22:39-42, 45-71; 23:1:
At that time, when Jesus came out, he went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.” And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”

Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance; and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they spoke many other words against him, reviling him.

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council, and they said, “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” And they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” And they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”

Then the whole company of them arose, and brought him before Pilate.