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.

A New Passover

Luke 19:29-40; 22:7-39

Today, as we come closer to Great Lent, we hear once more the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We are entering a process of descent, as it were, into the very depths of reality in which Jesus Christ hands over His own life for the life of the world. And an important moment in this descent is His sharing of the Passover meal with the apostles, in which He gives us the memorial of His death and resurrection, and the assurance of His continued presence in His Church.

This yearly Passover was the Jewish ritual event that narrated and celebrated the Exodus of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It involved the sacrifice of a Passover lamb, whose blood was sprinkled on the doorposts as protection against the might of the Egyptians. However, in celebrating the Passover with His disciples, Jesus Christ shows them that this symbolism of Passover is really a foreshadowing of His own death and resurrection. He is the true Passover Lamb, who is to be sacrificed to free us from the slavery of sin. As Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes:

He says, ‘I will no longer come near to such a Pascha as this,’ one that consisted in the typical eating. A lamb of the flock was killed to be the type of the true Lamb until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, that is, until the time has appeared in which the Kingdom of Heaven is preached. This is fulfilled in us who honour the worship that is superior to the law, even the true Pascha. A lamb of the flock does not sanctify those who are in Christ. Christ sanctifies us. He was made a holy sacrifice for us, by the offering of bloodless offerings and the mystical giving of thanks, in which we are blessed and enlivened. He became for us the living bread that came down from heaven, and He gives life to the world.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 19:29-40; 22:7-39:
At that time, when Jesus drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.'” So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying; “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house which he enters, and tell the householder, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I am to eat the passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; there make ready.” And they went, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover.

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.

You are those who have continued with me in my trials; and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.”

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him.

The Final Judgment

Judgment Sunday (Meatfare Sunday)
Matthew 25:31-46

Today, as we draw closer to Great Lent, we are reminded of the awesome reality of the coming judgment, in which Jesus Christ comes in glory, together with all His angels. And He comes for the final judgment. Judgment is not only something that will happen at the end of time, for we are being judged at each moment of our lives. But there is a certain finality to the judgment that we hear of today, for it comes at the end of history and has a definitive character.

This judgment has a frightening quality, and we should not domesticate it too easily. It reminds us that life is serious and that what we do has consequences. But what we are judged on is not simply a list of actions that we may or may not have done, or rules that we may or may not have kept. Rather, the judgment involved here is directly concerned with our relationship with God and with one another. We will be judged on whether or not we recognised Jesus Christ in our neighbours, and especially in those in need.

Saint John Chrysostom notes that the rewards that await the blessed are those that the Father has prepared for them, while the curses that await the damned are not prepared for them by God, but rather by their own actions. God longs for us to be among the blessed, which is why He constantly reaches out to us, seeking to draw us to Himself. And what we will be judged on – or rather, what we judge ourselves on, for it is our own actions that judge us – is whether we respond to this love by recognising Him in those around us.

How easy are the things the Savior requires at our hands! He will not say on the Day of Judgment: ‘I was in prison, and you delivered me. I was sick, and you healed me’; but only this: that you visited me, that you came to me.

Saint John Chrysostom

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew 25:31-46:
The Lord said, “When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The Final Transformation

Saturday of Souls
Luke 21:8-9,25-27,33-36

Today we hear of the alarming signs that will accompany the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We may also become alarmed when we hear of wars and rumours of war. Moreover, while people have been anxious about the end of the world since biblical times, recent scientific advances and environmental destruction have made the destruction of all life on our planet a very real possibility.

Yet Jesus Christ warns us that we should not be alarmed, nor allow ourselves to be taken in by false messiahs. For, while His Second Coming in glory is an awesome and terrifying event, it is ultimately also a joyful event. Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes:

He says that they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Christ will not come secretly or obscurely but as God and Lord in glory suitable for deity. He will transform all things for the better. He will renew creation and refashion the nature of people to what it was at the beginning. He said, ‘When these things come to pass, lift up your heads and look upward, for your redemption is near.’ The dead will rise. This earthly and infirm body will put off incorruption and will clothe itself with incorruption by Christ’s gift. He grants those that believe in Him to be conformed to the likeness of His glorious body.

We are called to be awake and ready for this coming. Indeed, our life on earth is given to us to prepare ourselves so that we may be ready to meet Him when He comes.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 21:8-9,25-27,33-36:
The Lord said, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once. And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”

True Devotion

Theodore the Tyro, Great Martyr
Luke 20:46-47; 21:1-4

Today we see a rather striking contrast between the affectation of the scribes and the humble but quite straightforward generosity of the widow. While the former make a great outward show of their religion, the widow quietly gives all she has. And she is the one who Jesus holds up as an example of true devotion. Saint John Chrysostom writes:

When the widow put into the collection box only two small coins, the Master did not give her a recompense worth only two coins. Why was that? Because He paid no attention to the amount of the money. What He did heed was the wealth of her soul. If you calculate by the value of her money, her poverty is great. If you bring her intention into the light, you will see that her store of generosity defies description.

Religion can be a rather ambiguous thing and the scribes show us the dangers associated with it. While we may not all go about in long robes, none of us are immune to the subtle dangers of pride that can accompany religious observances. Jesus praises this woman not simply for what she did, but for her sincerity in doing it. And, in doing so, He calls us to cultivate the same purity of her heart that lies at the foundation of true generosity.

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke 20:46-47; 21:1-4:
The Lord said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.” Having said this, he proclaimed, “He who has ears let him hear.”

The Silence of the Lord

Mark 15:1-15

Today we see how Jesus Christ continues to show His authority by His silence when interrogated by Pilate. He does not need to defend Himself, but instead turns things around, so that it is really His accusers who are on trial. Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes:

The Lord became the defender of truth, and came in silence before Pilate on behalf of truth which had been oppressed. Others gain victory through making defenses, but our Lord gained victory through His silence, because the recompense of His death through divine silence was the victory of true teaching. He spoke in order to teach, but kept silent in the tribunal.

This silence of the Lord is in stark contrast to the noise of the crowd, whose emotions were easily aroused, leading them to call for the death of an innocent man. We see here how fickle and how dangerous human speech can be, and Saint James warns us about the destructive power of the tongue (3:1-10). Our thoughts, emotions, and speech can easily deceive us, which is why we need to learn from the silence of Jesus Christ. For it is only by entering into His silence, by remaining close to Him and getting beyond our own thoughts and ideas, that we can discover and remain in the truth.

Indeed, it is better to keep quiet and be, than to make fluent professions and not be. No doubt it is a fine thing to instruct others, but only if the speaker practices what he preaches. One such Teacher there is: He who spake the word, and it was done; and what He achieved even by his silences was well worthy of the Father. A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech. Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our most secret thoughts are ever present to Him. Whatever we do, then, let it be done as though He Himself were dwelling within us, we being as it were His temples and He within us as their God. For in fact, that is literally the case; and in proportion as we rightly love Him, so it will become clear to our eyes.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch

*****

The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark 15:1-15:
At that time, the chief priests, with the elders, and scribes and the whole council held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate wondered. Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he was wont to do for them. And he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.