Κυριακή, 10 Μαρτίου 2019

A CLOSER INSPECTION OF EXCUSES - A Sermon for Judgment Sunday

By Fr. Haralambos Giokas
Translation by A.N.
Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries
The real reason God exiled the first-fashioned humans from Paradise can be determined with accuracy. As strange as it may sound, it was not because of their disobedience -per se- to God’s commandment. The first-fashioned humans did not leave Paradise immediately after their disobedience; after committing that sin, Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, they became ashamed, they felt fear and they hid themselves, BUT they did not yet leave Paradise. God gave them a time margin for repentance.

After leaving them all day to reap the consequences of their actions (fear, cowardice, confusion), God descended that evening to find them and make one last attempt to save them: “And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his woman hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God, among the trees of the garden. “ (Gen.3:8)

But God is not a material being, so how come He was “walking”? God is omnipresent; How come He “descended to find” Adam? God is omniscient; Why is He questioning Adam, as if He didn’t already know? God became similar in behaviour to Adam, because Adam had failed to be in “the likeness” of God.

The moment that God appeared before Adam and conversed with him is both critical and shocking. It is reminiscent of God’s Day of Judgment.

According to the Bible:

“The Lord God called to Adam, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ And He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree, of which I commanded you that you should not eat?’ And the man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’ And the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this, that you have done? And the woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’.” (Gen 3:9-13)

It is very clear, that the reason God is “questioning” Adam is to exhort him to repentance and confession, and not because He “doesn’t know” what they had done. It was His last attempt to keep Adam near Him. But Adam and Eve made the wrong move. While they did in fact admit that they had disobeyed – because they couldn’t hide what they had done – they resorted to an unprecedented invention, that is, excuses: “‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.’ ... The serpent deceived me, and I ate’

They resort to excuses, and in fact in an accusative manner. Their replies imply that God was responsible: “The woman whom You gave to be with me... ” YOU gave her to me, so it’s YOUR fault!”

THAT was the red line Adam should not have crossed: he should NOT have given an excuse; he accused both Eve AND God, instead of accusing himself. After that day end of his soul’s life, all the ensuing generations after Adam were condemned to wallow in the darkness of excuses.

A commonly observed phenomenon: if you scold a little child who has only just learnt to utter its first words, it will “instinctively” defend itself, with an excuse. THIS is the legacy of the Fall that should preoccupy us and scare us: how does an innocent little child formulate an excuse? Who taught it? The sickness of self-justification has been planted deep inside our soul, since the Fall of our forefather Adam, as a defence mechanism, as a need to hide our fear and shame.

Excuses removed us from Paradise, and the habit of giving excuses is what keeps us steadfastly out of Paradise. Because by resorting to excuses, we are simply keeping our sins to ourselves. It’s like saying “I am not dirty; I only appear that way – I don’t need cleaning”. But Christ had stressed that He had come to save sinners, and not those who have vindicated themselves with excuses. In John’s Gospel, we hear the Lord saying: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.” Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, “Are we blind also?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see’, therefore your sin remains.” (John 9:39-41). In other words: because you are vindicating yourselves and claiming that ‘you can see’ - instead of admitting you are blind – that’s why you will remain blind, and your sin will remain with you.

Elsewhere, the Lord says “...’You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God’...” (Luke 16:15).

An Abba was once asked, what is the worst thing about people that God despises? The Abba replied: “Excuses”.

Everyone has sinned: Adam, the Pharisees, and all people. Do we sin incessantly, with thoughts, words and actions? Well, repentance is right next to us and it can purge us. Excuses hinder us from being benefited by repentance. In the long run, there is no excuse for excuses. Saint John the Chrysostom wrote that “To fall is human, to persist is diabolical, to repent is divine”.

As we noted in today’s Gospel reading, during the Final Judgment, and after placing the people to His left and His right, Christ will have two brief conversations with each group separately. The two dialogues reveal the virtues of the righteous and the wiliness of the unrighteous; these become evident, in the replies that are given respectively:

“...and the righteous reply to Him, saying: ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and fed You, or thirsting and gave You to drink?’ And the King shall say to them: ‘Verily I say to you, if you have done so to even one of my lesser brethren, then you have done so to Me’...”

The reply of the righteous ones does not contain wile; on the contrary, it reveals that everything they had done was with their heart and unobtrusively, never seeking any reciprocation. But the response of the unrighteous ones does not reveal an innocent ignorance. We note here an intentionally wily response:

“...Then they (the unrighteous ones) replied to Him, saying: ‘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 shall reply to them, saying: ‘Verily I say to you, if you have not done so to even one of my lesser brethren, then you have not done so to Me’...” (Matth. 25:34-45)

And where is their wile here? They ask Him, “when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and DID NOT minister to You?” They pose a question to which they already know the answer! They are not genuinely asking Him to find out, but are intentionally pretending to be ignorant, as an excuse. Hadn’t they noticed that the Lord had just explained to the righteous during His conversation with them, that: “if you had done so to even one of My lesser brethren, you have done so to Me”?

When intelligence and smartness are used for evil ends and for excuses, it is called wile and hypocrisy. They secretly strive to exonerate themselves, because they (supposedly) “didn’t understand” and actually accused Christ of “hiding from them” – which was a wrong move: “We didn’t recognize You... We didn’t realize it was You... It’s Your fault...” They dare to accuse the Judge – and during the very Hour of the Great and Final Judgment!

They use excuses, because that is their way of hiding their obduracy. They give excuses, because that was their means of “winning” in the world. That was what they had learnt, in order to always “win”. Just how foolish are these “clever ones”? If excuses had removed us from Paradise, how is it ever possible for us to use them as an instrument for re-entry into Paradise?

My beloved brothers and sisters,

In His infinite mercy, the Son and Logos of God assumed flesh and became man. He walked alongside us in our place of exile, just like He did that evening in the Garden of Paradise. He came to our evening also, to seek out His lost and scared sheep, to give us one more chance. He was, is, and will be, the only Righteous and innocent one. And yet, from His Birth inside a cave for livestock, up until His Crucifixional Sacrifice, He lived utterly wronged, compared to what He really deserved. He never complained for Himself. When on trial, He could have provided excuses to the court which would have proved His innocence, with the power of His words or with the powers of His divinity, but He didn’t. He submitted Himself to even that horrific death penalty, and went patiently, despite His immense suffering and all the injustice, without saying anything, like a lamb to slaughter...

This was His way of giving us a resonating lesson: “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. [...] I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done ...” (John 13:13-15).

If He – to Whom the Father gave Judgment and He is indeed the Judge – did not use excuses, but left everything up to the Father, then we, who want to be called Christ's disciples, should stay clear and be afraid of giving excuses, the way we fear and stay clear of fire, so that we may hope for “a good defense before the dread Judgment Seat of Christ”. Amen.

Beginning of Great Lent - The forgiveness at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life

—Father Alexander Schmemann
Orthodox Church in America (photo from here)

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent—the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated—is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses...” (Mark 6:14-15).

Then after Vespers—after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child, for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!”, after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special melodies, with the prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations—we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin the Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:

“In vain do you rejoice in not eating, O soul!
For you abstain from food,
But from passions you are not purified.
If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast!”

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, whom He sends to us so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for, the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no “enemies?” Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them—in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize—be it only for one minute—that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual “recognition” which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.

On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As I advance towards the other, as the other comes to me—we begin to realize that it is Christ who brings us together by His love for both of us.

And because we make this discovery—and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists—we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year “opens to us the doors of Paradise.” We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage.

Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting—true fasting; our effort—true effort; our reconciliation with God—true reconciliation.

Τετάρτη, 6 Μαρτίου 2019

The parable of the prodigal son is a mystagogic parable

Translation K.N.

The parable of the prodigal son is a mystically educational parable. It clearly refers to the sacrament of baptism, of repentance and of the Holy Eucharist. Salvation is on the table of the Church. The Father, the calf, the glory garment, as well as the other elements of glory. God could not have spoken more clearly. It was not about a moral path towards vindication, but a mystagogic ecclesiastic procedure; it is about the return and the rejoicing.

Saint Simeon tells us how, in the parable of the prodigal son is hidden and foreshadowed the great mystery of Repentance-Confession in its three stages: confession, contrition and satisfaction. Confession is found in the words "Father, I have sinned unto heaven and before you». In the words “I am not worthy of being called your son” we discern contrition. In the words “Do with me, as one of your wage-earners” is contained satisfaction; that is, the need for a certain spiritual penance that satisfies the crushed human state.

The older son did not covet the celebratory garment, the ring, the sandals and the fatherly embrace. He coveted the fattened calf and complained about the rejoicing and the celebration. The holy Fathers tell us that this stance refers to those of us who receive Holy Communion (=the sacrificial calf) and yet, judge the worth or the unworthiness of others. Poor, deluded fools!

When the father slaughtered the calf and prepared the banquet, were you not invited to participate in that celebration? Didn’t the sinner brother also have a right to be at the celebration and the banquet? Isn’t the Holy Chalice common to all? Did the father invite him and not you? And anyway, who, my dear fellow, made you a jurist and judge on My affairs? - as the Lord had said.

Whatever I give to him and to you, I give the same to both! Don’t I have the right to oversee those things that belong to me? Your brother was lost and was found; he was dead and lived again – Shouldn’t we therefore rejoice? He abandoned his past life, and I judged him worthy of rejoicing. Why are you still harboring inside you that foreign Past, which is no concern of yours at all? I evaluate his Present and act accordingly! Are you perhaps the guardian of my property? Do you perhaps covet my Love, o you tiny-souled, sick person!?!

Second Sunday of the Triodion
The sacramental dimension of the Triodion

The first Sunday of the Triodion - the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee – among other points was an introduction of ours to the Orthodox ethos, because the Triodion period is an opportunity for us to be re-baptised in the faith of Jesus Christ and in our substantial relationship with Him. So far, we have seen that the key to the Kingdom is humility, also the immense value of self-deprecation and the absolute dependence on divine mercy. We learned how to emulate the external virtues of the Pharisee but avoiding his haughty bragging, and also how to avoid the publican's life style but being zealous of his deep and saintly repentance.

This Sunday, of the son who returns and father who opens his embrace, has a prominently sacramental character. If the first Sunday pertains to the ethos, this one reveals to us the value of the Mysteries and our need to partake in them, in order to hereafter live as choice and genuine children of God. Patristic interpretation tells us what is declared by all these acts of love and honor that the merciful father is bestowing on the prodigal son: the embrace signifies the inclusion in the Kingdom and the acceptance of the son’s repentance. The father’s warm welcome is also an expression of unconditional, unique love.

The ring, the sandals and the new garment are the cloak of elation, which signifies the glory and the restoration by the Baptism, while the sacrifice of the fatted calf and the delight at a celebratory banquet clearly denotes the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist and Paschal participation.

And before all the above, there is the return of the son, his open admission, his humiliation in front of the father and the final absolution, which surpasses the absolution and penances and becomes joy and honour; that is, the mystery of repentance and confession - a prerequisite for the return to life, to the actual life. The life in the paternal home, which is the life near God. Outside that home there is no life; only famine and swine and servitude to a master of prostitutes, prodigals and swineherds, who reigns in the land of hunger and death.

Thus, the period of the Triodion is, above all, a period of liturgical splendour and Eucharistic opportunities. A period that not only has to do with our emotional load and psychological priorities and our ascetic ethos, but with our return to the genuine ecclesiastic way of life. And the ecclesiastic way of life signifies our participation in the sacraments. And our participation in the sacraments signifies a substantiation of man, the return to being, and an existence near God.

That is when the genuine traveler of the Triodion can say that he was lost and then found, dead and lived again; by having received true light and becoming true light, he can proceed without stumbling to the Paschal joy of the Resurrection, which rises at the end of the Triodion’s course.

“Having squandered the paternal gift of wealth,
I, the wretch, was grazing with senseless beasts,
and by longing for their food, I was starving,
not sated by it; but, on returning to the merciful Father,
I cry out with tears: “Accept me as a wage-earner
beseeching Your philanthropy, and save me”

Satan, as the "eldest son" in the parable of the prodigal son

I think the older son of the parable resembles Lucifer, as opposed to the younger son, who is clearly man, Adam.

God is father to both, because He is the creator of both. And of course, given the temporal precedence of his creation, the devil is considered an “elder son” (as a creation within Time).

The younger son Adam apostatizes and leaves the paternal home. But when he returns to Paradise - and each time he returns to Paradise - to the paternal home and embrace, he becomes an object of envy, by the older son.

The older son is portrayed in the parable as already outside the paternal home, just like the devil, who had apostatized and had remained “outside”, prior to the fall of Adam. He feigns ignorance, and seeks to learn the cause of rejoicing from a servant (an Angel, a priest, a Christian) – obviously to make him a co-partaker of his indignation and his own situation. By envying his co-creation (man), he calumniates him to the Father (“your son squandered your wealth with prostitutes, etc...”).

Furthermore, bedimmed as he was, he managed to overlook his own fall and blindness, accusing his father of thanklessness and ungratefulness, and, presenting himself as a wronged Prometheus, he complained that his Father never provided even a young goat for his friends (demons) to celebrate a banquet together with them (the joy of paradise is hell for the un-communed and unclean), and he holds the Father responsible for his personal self-destruction, for God’s supposed bias and injustice – all because he had attained a perverted sense of justice and a blackened self-government.

His Father reminds him of the glory that he used to have previously, near Him, but also the potential to be like an Archangel (regardless of his persistence in remaining perverted with his self-government) and attempts to put him in Paradise as well, to co-rejoice with his fellow-man (because God invites even Satan to repentance). But the older son refuses, he becomes possessed (enraged), does not enter (“did not wish to enter”) and remains forever away from the rejoicing of the Father (non-communion, “hell”) – whereas the servants of the Father (benevolent Angels) co-rejoice and concelebrate for the return of Adam to the paternal home (There is great joy "in heaven, for even one repented sinner" - Luke 15:7).

Let us also remember how man was invited to replace the tenth angelic order of Lucifer and his angels who had lapsed, as well as the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd (God) leaves the nine sheep (the nine orders of Angels) and seeks to find the one lost sheep. He then finds it, and numbers it among the nine others, who co-rejoice for the return of that sheep.

The Christian, who looks upon the return of a repented brother with a “crooked” eye and a devilish disposition, and regards as unacceptable the pastoral concern of the Church for the misled brother, resembles that evil and perverted Satan himself. By having the illusion of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency, he considers God the Father responsible for his own wretched situation, obliged to justify him and to also minister to him; and yet, he does not in fact want to be ministered to or helped, but eventually proves himself to be a sinner and a prodigal.

The love and the righteousness of the Father is “hell” for him, and it reveals the misery of his existence – just as limitless sunlight is death to the gloomiest and most abysmal darknesses.

See also
Man and his Fall - Analysis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son
Orthodox Spiritual Legacy: A Guide to the Triodion and Lent, on the Road to Easter
Triodion resource page
Protestants ask: Why be Orthodox?   
During the time that Luther and Calvin were formulating the Reformation...
The ancient Christian Church - About Orthodox Church in the West World
Travelers on the way to light  



Photo from here

Translation K.N.

Most people – especially the young – do not care for mediocre situations, but rather the extreme and exceptional ones.  We usually live a mediocre life, one that generates routine, which is why we seek something that deviates from the narrow limits of our daily lives:  maybe just a few moments – or perhaps even a whole lifetime – beyond the limits!

This is only natural, if we (along with the Holy Bible and the holy, Christian teachers) accept that man is called upon by God to become similar to Him – something that would entirely deviate from the limits of life and man as we know them.  With a prospect like that, it is only logical to seek the transcending of every limit.

But the question is:  In which direction should I go, beyond the limits?  In which elements of my selfIn which areas of my life? Which sentiments, which acts?  If I exceed the limits of my temper and my anger tantrums, what will become of my life and my relations with those who love me? (Because there are those who actually love me).  Is that what I want in my life?

If I exceed the limits in cruelty, I will turn into a beast.  If I exceed the limits in my hunt for riches or my desire for a career, I will remove from my heart whoever doesn’t help me in my desires and I will end up alone.  Should I exceed the speed limits with a car or a motorbike, putting my own life and others’ at risk?  Should I indulge in the excesses of partying and entertainment?  In abuses and in the “gathering of experiences”?  Of course, I can choose whatever I like, but is that what I really want?

Exceeding the limits in my caring for others, in loving the others, is something that my heart tells me is beautiful.  Provided I love others sincerely, and not love only what I want from others, because then my love will become oppressive and selfish.  Should I exceed the limits in making sacrifices for others, in forgiving others?  Should I be humble, beyond the limits?  Everyone tells me that it would be extremely stupid:  “Others don’t love you – why should you love them? Love only those who love you, for as long as they love you.  Learn to not forgive, because they will exploit you.  And don’t be so sensitive, because it will cause you grief – mainly over others’ problems.”

But, you know, that is exactly what Christ tells me to do.  And it would be wonderful, if what Christ said could be done: for all of us to love each other.  However, is it possible?  Of course, not everyone loved Christ; so, if everyone didn’t love Him, just imagine my situation….  They flogged Him and the crucified Him.  And yet, while on the Cross, He said “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

NOW, THAT WAS TRULY AN ACT THAT WENT BEYOND THE LIMITS! It was a love that exceeded the limits!  A love worthy of a God.

If one of us – you, me – seriously attempted to go beyond the limits in that direction (my heart wants to, but my brain is terribly hesitant), what will be the outcome?
Well, here’s what will happen:  that person will become a saint.
He will open his heart and the most benevolent energy that exists in the universe will penetrate inside it – an energy older than the universe itself, and far brighter than the brightest sun! This energy (which the saints have received inside them) is referred to as “divine Grace”; it brings them an indescribable joy, and they all claim that it originates from that ancient Being Who is behind the creation of everything, and which we humans refer to (each in his own language) as “God”.

Thats what will happen.
I too desire divine Grace. But I am not able to love the entire world. I don’t even know if I want to love the entire world – does that include the murderer, the exploiter, the sadist?   Oh…. this matter  is so confusing….  It certainly is a life beyond the limits... But how far beyond?  It is way beyond the limits of straddling a racing bike and stepping on it…  I don’t know if I want to go THAT far!
So – are you now placing limits?  Alright, let me tell you what my thoughts are, and you can then choose for yourself if you want to look into the matter further.

Saint Porphyrios – a contemporary man, who lived entirely BEYOND THE LIMITS. Worth meeting him, here.
In order to apply what Christ said (yes, He told us to love all the world, including our enemies – that is, those who hinder us from doing what we want, those who hate us or harm us), I must embark on a struggle to achieve it.  Do I get any help from anyone
Dont rush into replyingNo”. Let’s instead ask those who actually applied it in their lives: the saints. They claim that someone does help them: Christ Himself.  He helps me, by providing the potential to open up my heart through prayer and offering me the divine Grace that will give me the strength for that struggle, and eventually, a nest will be created within my heart, ready to receive entire waterfalls of divine Grace!
He helps me. By providing me with the potential for repentance, i.e., the ability to change my choices, to change my behaviour, to combat my faults, which are the hindrances that won’t allow me to open up to love. 
Yes, I have such faults; and if I cant discern that, I will, if I read the Gospel and check out how Christ lived, and what He taught... Repentance (the "very modern movement") is a great help indeed, because, if it didn’t exist, my heart would turn darker and darker and would never receive divine Grace. Now, He Who grants gift packages of divine Grace because I repented (which fortifies me and encourages me), helps me by giving me «a mystery that stalks us since childhood» that is worth discovering because it hides a mystical charm that has passed from generation to generation.

Fr. George Kaltsiou, who made friends of his expected murderers, thus loving beyond the limits...
Butyou may ask Did someone really do things like that?  Show me some who actually lived beyond the limits, and how they ended up!

Well, here’s one who lived beyond the limits:  Father George Kaltsiou, who wsa imprisoned for his Christian faith by the atheist regime of Rumania, and who, with his love and kindness converted into friends the murderers that the prison establishment had instructed to kill him!
Also beyond the limits was the philosopher and martyr of the Rumanian prisons, who lived, loved and believed - Constantin Oprisan
“Whenever we quarrelled (in the prison cell), he would pray.  His prayer was effective.  We were embarrassed, because we knew he wsa praying.  He didn’t pray out loud, but you could see it, in his altered features.  He was in a wretched condition, because he had been tortured at Pitesti for 3 years.  They beat him on the chest and the back; they had destroyed his lungs, but he prayed all day.  He never said a single bad word about his torturers; he only talked about Christ… Once, when we were taken outside, when he took off his shirt I noticed that his back was full of stripes, like a zebra…like he had been skinned alive, burnt or flogged… God only knows
Saint Constantin Oprisan
The same with the poet and martyr, Saint Valeriu Gafencu, whom you can meet in this analytical dedication in English.

Each and every ascetic has lived beyond the limits, when consciously denying his comfort, his well-being and consumerism in order to ennoble his heart and fill it with love for God, for fellow-man and all the creatures of the world.  Of course we are speaking here of people with a humble heart, filled with love, and not of harsh individuals who live ascetically and toughen themselves in order to “attain power”. They could alienate themselves entirely from God and go beyond the limits, into meanness and darkness.  That is not what I want.  I don’t wish to become a “sage” – that is, exceptionally educated but cruel at heart – and imagine myself to be “spiritually advanced”.  The humble yet uneducated saints of all peoples and ages who united themselves to God thanks to their kindness are far more advanced spiritually than me.

The poet and martyr, Saint Valeriu Gafencu
– a man with incredible experiences of Divine Light, inside the hell-hole of prison!
Also beyond the limits were the lives of all the martyrs who preferred torture and death rather than deny Christ and worship other “gods”.  Many of those martyrs were 15-year-old girls, or even younger!
What happened to them? Well, here’s how: The contemporary Elder Porphyrios could sense from Athens the pain of the people who were being killed in Rumania during the uprising of 1989. That is how great a love he had for all the world.
Saint Marina, who lived in the 3rd century, appeared as a doctor in Houston in 2000 and assisted in the surgery of young Andreas Vasiliou from Limassol, Cyprus…
Saint Efemia, who also lived in olden times, had told the Elder Paisios:  “If I had known what Paradise is like, I would have been able to tolerate even more tortures”.
Also beyond the limits lives Edna King’s family, an Orthodox family in the USA, whose 8-year-old daughter left for Heaven and, instead of shouting in anger against God, says “We praise the Lord for the eight years that He gave us Maria Evelina and we lived with her”.
Beyond the limits was the life of the physiotherapist Gavriilia Papayanni (a very important, contemporary teacher of the Orthodox spiritual legacy), who travelled as far as India and other poor countries in order to serve “the most tormented people on Earth”.
Saint Maria Skobtsova also lived beyond the limits, in Paris, where – after helping thousands of poor people but also persecuted Jews during World War II -  also took the place (it seems) of a condemned Jewish woman and died in her place, in the Ravensburg concentration camp.
Fr. Seraphim Rose who left behind the opportunity for a brilliant career in the University of California also lived beyond the limits and went to work as a waiter because he didn’t find in his university professors the same thirst that he had for the Truth!
Here also is one of the sexiest women of all the ages, who lived entirely beyond the limits!

The heroic King family in the USA. They are holding in their hands the icon of a contemporary saint, who lived entirely BEYOND THE LIMITS: he wandered the streets of Shanghai and gathered babies that were dumped in garbage and children from whore houses, to provide them with shelter at the orphanage he had established. What happened to him? He became a miracle-working saint. Read his life story, here.

Yes, all of them – and many more – have lived and continue to live beyond the limits.  And they fought hard to achieve it.  They weren’t under the illusion that they could do it on their own; they struggled with the help of Christ, in the manner that the holy teachers of Orthodoxy – old and contemporary – have indicated. And they were ecstatically happy when they succeeded.
Beyond those limits is Christ. Beyond those limits is Love. Beyond those limits are rivers and waterfalls of divine Grace, which awaits us to place it in our heart – which awaits you to place it in your heart.
That is where the Saints are, who await you to call upon them; that is where your Religious Teacher is, who awaits you to discuss all your queries; that is where your parish priest is, who awaits you to get started, through discussion or confession -that is the starting point. And of course He is there – the Crucified and Resurrected One (as much as you don’t dare to believe something like that) – Who says to you “Come as you are”… as mean as you might be, as pained as you may be, as angry as you may be,  regardless how you are dressed or how you have adorned your body… He awaits youCOME AS YOU ARE. If, of course, you want to. Your freedom is your most inviolable right. And your second inviolable right is to meet with Him.

Δευτέρα, 25 Φεβρουαρίου 2019

Man and his Fall - Analysis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. Entering the Orthodox Church 
Discerning Thoughts

The Word (Logos) is the Son of God according to Nature, whereas Men are Sons of God according to grace.

The Creation of the World.

Man in the Image and Likeness of God.

Original Paradise

The Fall of Man.

The Consequences of the Fall. 

After the analysis of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that is, following all what we have said, referring to the Father, we must now go on to make a man-centred analysis of this parable. It will show us the true value of man and what true life is.

The father in the parable had two sons. Both sons lived at home and enjoyed their father’s goods.

God is called Father both in relation to His only-begotten Son and in relation to man. However, there is a vast difference between the two. The Father gave birth to the Son before all ages, whereas He created man within time. Man is also a child of God, but by grace, whereas the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is a Son by nature.

We can use an example to make this more comprehensible. An artist constructs a painting, which is his own spiritual creation, his own work. In a way, you could call it ‘his child’, because it expresses his thoughts and his gifts. At the same time, he begets children. Thus, he makes the painting, but begets the child. The same thing, with appropriate analogy, happens with God the Father in relationship to the Logos and men.

God created the whole world. In the beginning, He created the angels, what is known as the noetic realm. He then went on, within the space of five days, to create all the sensible world, nature, birds, fish, animals, plants and so on. Then, on the sixth day He created man, who was both noetic and sensible [sensory], i.e. he had a soul and body. As the Fathers of the Church say, first He created the Kingdom, the palaces, and then He created the King, man. From his very creation, man was called to be king of the world.

The Holy Scriptures say that man was made by God in His Image and Likeness. The “Image” refers to the noetic faculty and his free-will, i.e., he has a nous and freedom. Whereas the “Likeness” refers to the fact that, he was created to become by grace what God is by nature. That is to say, he was created to become a God through grace. Of course, according to the Holy Fathers, the “Image” refers to the triune nature of the soul. Just as God is Nous, Logos and Spirit man also has a nous, logos and spirit. The nous is the centre of his personality. The logos or reason is the articulated and spoken word that is formulated with reason. Finally, the spirit, which is man’s noetic eros, his intense longing, the power he has within him to achieve theosis.

This means that the archetype of his creation, we could say the model of man’s creation is God, and more especially the Logos of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Man did not happen alone; he had a model. We can compare man to having a film and printing off many photographs. In this case, the film is Christ, and man is in the image of the Logos, a photograph of the Logos. This is why he should be like its original archetype. He must keep his photograph clean; otherwise it does not correspond to its original creation, and, therefore, loses its value completely.

The term “the image” demonstrates his ontology, that is, the reality of his nature. Whereas “the likeness” demonstrates where he should go and what his objective is. This means that man must always bear his noble lineage in mind. He is a prince and noble. He comes from an important and elevated family. He should also know that he ought to strive to live up to this great mission. Man’s objectives are not exhausted on himself. That is to say, he should not only consider his food, drink, clothing and recreation, instead he should have high targets. Nor yet is it man’s goal to study, work get married etc. He will do these things to provide for and serve his life here. Ultimately, however, the deeper aim of his life is to become God by grace. St. Gregory the Theologian would make an amazing definition of man’s purpose. Man, he said, is a “living creature sustained here, but transferred elsewhere, and, the completion of the mystery, is deification through its inclination towards God.” That is to say, man lives and is provided for in this earthly existence, but he is journeying to the other life. This journey from biological life to Spiritual life is called a mystery. Furthermore, the end of the mystery is to become deified, by God’s grace.

In the parable that we studied the two sons are shown living in their Father’s house. According to the interpretation of the Holy Fathers, this shows that immediately following his creation man lived in the house of God, i.e. in Paradise, and he had true communion with God. Paradise was both sensible and noetic. That is to say, it was a special place, but also a personal relationship with God. In the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis, in particular, we see that Adam had grace from God immediately following the Creation. This is why both he and Eve lived just like the angels in heaven.

The younger son in the parable sought his own share of his inheritance:

“‘Give me the portion of goods that falls to me.” So he divided them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:12-16)

At this point, the parable is fully compatible with the Fall of man and his detachment from God. We will look at its more central points.

According to St. Gregory Palamas, the younger son sought his corresponding property from his father, which means that sin comes later, whereas virtue is first-born. God created man pure, with the capacity to attain deification (theosis). Whereas, sin is ‘younger’, a “discovery born later”. It is the result of man’s bad choice. Man used his freedom to choose abandonment of God and his detachment from Him. Man’s sin was that he sought to appropriate God’s work and he attempted to continue his life according to his own will, and not according to the will of God. As can be seen in the Old Testament, man wanted to be obedient to himself and his own reason, and not to the will of God. He made himself and his desires the centre of everything, instead of God. This is the essence of the tragedy of ancestral sin, and, indeed, of all sin.

In reading the parable of the prodigal son, we observe the stages of the Fall, as well as the tragic figure of the younger son. We can delineate it as follows: appropriation of the property, emigration, squandering of the essentials, deprivation and subjugation. Within this framework, we can see the tragedy of the sin of the forefathers, as well as the tragedy of every other sin that man commits.

When one tries to expend all his life within the bounds of his biological life, interpreting it rationally, this constitutes a departure from God. Man emigrates to a far country. He loses his communion and unity with God. From the moment of his creation man has a body and soul inseparably joined together. The soul is the life of the body, whereas the life of the soul is the Holy Spirit. Thus, without the Holy Spirit, man is Spiritually dead. It is characteristic that, when his son returns, the father in the parable says, “for this my son was dead and is alive again” (Luke 15:24). This means that departure from God creates this death. Indeed, without God, man is Spiritually dead. He may move, work, have a high place in society, yet, without God, everything is dead and life is insipid.

St. John the Damascene, in mentioning the Fall of Adam and Eve, says through sin man lost divine grace, his image was darkened and he [willingly through beguilement] was stripped of divine grace, resulting in the feeling of nakedness in the body, too. The consequences were horrific. Having lost divine grace, death came. First, Spiritual death and then bodily death, i.e. sicknesses, mortality and finally, later, the separation of the soul from the body.

The life of a man without the God Who created him is true deprivation. In that case, nothing has meaning in his life. He is completely discontented, because he has lost his archetype, God. He loses true love; he is even deprived of real freedom. This means that he is subjugated to the citizens of that country, faraway from his father’s house. These citizens of Hell are, in fact, the devil. He becomes the devil’s minion. This is true deprivation and subjugation of man. He was made to be a prince, to live in the royal palace and he preferred to be naked, in rags, a swineherd. That is to say, he preferred to expend himself solely on his biological strengths and the indulgence of his senses.

We said, previously, that without the Holy Spirit, man is Spiritually dead. St. Makarios the Egyptian uses two images to make this reality comprehensible. The first image is of unsalted meat. In this case, it quickly goes off and gives off a terrible stench. The other image is of a coin that does not have the King’s image upon it. Such a coin would be a counterfeit and would be completely worthless. The same thing is true of a man who does not have the energy of the All-Holy Spirit within him. He is not a natural man, and he does not have the true life.

St. Gregory of Nyssa would say something quite characteristic: “The person who does not live truly, does not have a true life; the life of sinners is not a life, as such, it is merely labelled as one.” This means that God is man’s life. Besides, Christ Himself said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). Whoever lives apart from God does not have actual life. This is why the life of sinners is simply called life, in name only, but in actual fact, it is not a life at all. This means that it is tragic. He is locked up within the prison of his senses, of mortality and of corruption. He cannot reach out to the clear skies of freedom. He is tormented by all life’s tragic problems. He can find no escape. He is exiled to a desert island and there is no hope of salvation, unless he returns to God, through his own free-will.

Far from God, man is a prodigal. He loses his beauty and his worth. He has no father. He has no house. He does not have love. He has no friends. Everybody takes advantage of him. This is why, sometimes, from within his bitterness and tragedy, he seeks for God. The desire for Baptism can be seen in precisely this perspective. He wants to obtain life, which is God, and he wants to have a personal relationship with God, who is his archetype. The quest for Baptism does not have a social character; it should not be inspired by external, human questions. Rather, it must be placed within this perspective. Someone wants to be baptised so that they can return from death to life, from that far country to his father’s house, from deprivation to abundance, from being an orphan to having a father.

See also

Orthodox Spiritual Legacy: A Guide to the Triodion and Lent, on the Road to Easter

Triodion resource page

Κυριακή, 24 Φεβρουαρίου 2019

Orthodox Spiritual Legacy: A Guide to the Triodion and Lent, on the Road to Easter

The Lenten Triodion, starting point for Easter - warnings against pride and hypocrisy

Written for the devout Christian, the Triodion is full of warnings against pride and hypocrisy - the ultimate spiritual sins to which religious folk are so susceptible. Its hymns teach us the true nature and purpose of fasting and of Lent itself.
(from here)
Parable of the Publican & Pharisee
The Lenten Triodion is the service book of the Orthodox Church that provides the texts for the divine services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation, Great Lent, and Holy Week. The Lenten Triodion is the title of a classic and popular English book translated with an extensive and helpful introduction by Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary; it provides many (but not all) of the texts necessary to observe the great fast. In Greek and Slavonic it is simply called the triodion. It is called the triodion because the canons appointed for Matins during this period are composed of three odes each. The weeks of preparation, and especially the Sunday gospel readings, serve to exercise the mind, whereas the fasting of Great Lent focuses on the body, and Holy Week's services exercise the spirit. 
Weeks of preparation 

The three weeks that commence on the fourth Sunday prior to Great Lent constitute the weeks of preparation. Each has its own distinct theme which is expressed in the Gospels readings appointed for the Divine Liturgies on these days:
Sunday of the Prodigal Son
1. Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14),
2. Sunday of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), and
3. Sunday of the Last Judgment (also called Meatfare Sunday; Matt 25:31-46).
4. Sunday of Forgiveness (also called Cheesefare Sunday; the expulsion of Adam from Eden is also a theme of this day); Matt 6:14-21.
The Church eases us into the Lenten fasting discipline during this period. The week following the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is fast-free. The week following the Prodigal Son is a normal week -- we fast as usual on Wednesday and Friday. In the week following Meatfare Sunday, no meat is eaten; eggs, fish, and dairy are permitted on any day. Forgiveness Sunday brings the period of preparation to an end. The next day, Clean Monday, begins Great Lent. The Vespers service served on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday includes the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness and is the first service of Great Lent. 
Great Lent 
Jesus Christ the Bridegroom (Holy Week)
Great Lent begins on the Monday following Forgiveness Sunday (also called Cheesefare Sunday) with each Sunday highlighted as follows:
1. Sunday of Orthodoxy (John 1:43-51),
2. Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas,
3. Sunday of the Holy Cross,
4. Sunday of St. John Climacus, and
5. Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt.

Holy Week 
Great Lent is followed by Holy Week, the week beginning with Palm Sunday and preceding Pascha (Easter). 
oodegr, omhksea.org
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the "bright sadness" of Lent, we see- far, far away - the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent's sadness bright and our lenten effort a "spiritual spring." The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. "Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man! [ Fr. Alexander Schmemann (†) ] 
There is more to Lent than Fasting, and there is more to fasting than food. This principle lies at the heart of the Lenten Triodion, the main hymnbook of Orthodox Lent. For the Orthodox Church, Lent is without doubt the richest and most distinctive season of the ecclesiastical year. The Lenten services, the spiritual lessons of the Triodion, and the biblical readings for the season invite us to simplify our lives and to immerse ourselves in the “bright sadness” of repentance. 

Orthodox Lent begins on Clean Monday, seven weeks before Pascha, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection. But before Lent begins, it is announced in advance. This preparation for Lent is made above all through the Lenten Triodion, which makes its appearance in the liturgical life of the Church three weeks prior to Lent, on the Sunday of the Tax-Collector (or Publican) and the Pharisee. The Triodion remains a regular feature of the Church’s liturgical life until the end of Holy Week. 

Written for the devout Christian, the Triodion is full of warnings against pride and hypocrisy - the ultimate spiritual sins to which religious folk are so susceptible. Its hymns teach us the true nature and purpose of fasting and of Lent itself.
General Rules of the Lenten Fast 
1. First Sunday of Triodion - Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee 
2. Second Sunday of Triodion - Sunday of the Prodigal Son 
3. The Saturday of Souls 
4. Third Sunday of Triodion - Sunday of the Last Judgment 
5. Fourth Sunday of Triodion - Forgiveness Sunday 
6. Clean Monday 
7. First Sunday of Great Lent - Sunday of Orthodoxy 
8. Second Sunday of Great Lent - Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas 
9. Third Sunday of Great Lent - Sunday of the Holy Cross 
10. Fourth Sunday of Great Lent - Sunday of Saint John Climacus 
11. Fifth Sunday of Great Lent - Saint Mary of Egypt 
12. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete 
13. The Akathist Hymn 
14. The Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts