Yet again this year, through the God-inspired words, the holy Psalmist ushers the Orthodox faithful into the “mystery” of Holy and Great Lent, pointing out the benevolence of the Lord and the workings thereof as he cries out, the Lord works mercy and righteousness for all the oppressed (Psalm 102,6). For the Lord satisfies our desire with good things so that our youth is renewed like that of the eagle (c.f. .5).
As we all know, each person, created in the image and the likeness of God, constitutes a temple of the Lord. All the more, those of us who have been baptized in Christ, anointed with Holy Chrism, and grafted onto the olive tree of the Orthodox Church, are temples of the Holy Spirit Who resides in us. This is the case even as we distance ourselves from the Lord by committing sin—voluntary or involuntary—for if we are faithless, He remains faithful (2 Tim 2:13).
Unfortunately, the stain of sin hinders the Grace of the Holy Spirit to work in us. For this reason, our Holy Orthodox Church established the forthcoming period of fasting during Holy and Great Lent to allow us to cleanse ourselves through repentance, and thereby becoming worthy to receive the life-giving Passion and the glorious Resurrection from the dead of our Lord Jesus Christ. The poet of the Great Canon, Saint Andreas of Crete, urges: Come, my wretched soul, and confess your sins in the flesh to the Creator of all. From this moment forsake your former foolishness and offer to God tears of repentance (Great Canon, Monday Ode 1).
The Church, always concerned about our salvation and spiritual perfection, initiates her members into this period of repentance, urging them all to struggle against the materialistic and covetous way of life, which, as a “heavy yoke,” grounds the soul and drags it upon the earth, hindering its ability to spread its wings toward heaven and the kingdom of God.
In this way, through repentance and purifying tears, we are clothed again with our original beauty and our God-spun shroud that we lost after the fall, covering ourselves, instead, with the coat of shame similar to the fig leaves worn by Adam.
The fast and abstinence from food, idle talk, and deceitful thought represent the start of the correct, restrained, and temperate use of material goods, with the common good as its goal. In this way, we eliminate the negative impact that irrational use of goods may have upon society and the natural environment. This, therefore, allows for the prevailing of the philanthropic fast, which should not render judgment over the oppressed, but offer mercy, grace and comfort for them and for us on our journey toward the likeness of God (St. Basil Great).
In this way, a temperate use of goods sanctifies both matter and our lives since perishable matter is not the goal per se of sanctification, but rather, its means. Therefore, according to the evangelical periscope, the fast should constitute a motive for restraint, with a final goal to abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13), according to the word of the Great Apostle of the Nations Paul. This holds true even for today’s poor “Lazarus” and for those seeking refuge.
Furthermore, the true spirit of the fast and of abstinence should not be forgotten, since this is what renders them acceptable to the Lord, as James the Apostles teaches: religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1, 27). For we shall not obtain grace—offered to us in abundance through the fast and through abstinence—simply by refusing and abstaining from food. The Prophet Isaiah wonders: Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists; is this the kind of fast I have chosen? (Isaiah 58: 4). The Lord declares, through the Prophet, I have not chosen such a fast, but one that asks you to share your food with the hungry, that encourages you to invite the homeless into your home, and to clothe the naked when you see them (Isaiah 58, 5-7).
Especially in our times, the financial and refugee crises, as well as the multitude of hardships that plague the world today offer to us Orthodox Christians the possibility to cultivate the authentic spirit of the fast, linking abstinence from food with acts of charity and solidarity toward our brethren most in need—those who suffer, the poor, the homeless, the refugees, those who have no place to rest their head (Math. 8: 20), and those who are forced by the harsh conditions of war, challenges, and grief to abandon their paternal homes and to travel amid countless risks, dangers, and sorrows.
When our fast is accompanied by an increase in philanthropy and love toward the least of our brethren in the Lord, regardless of their race, religion, language and origin, then the fast shall ascend to the throne of God as a fragrant incense, and angels shall stand by us while we fast, in the same way they ministered to the Lord in the desert.
We offer our heartfelt fraternal and paternal prayers to all, that the imminent phase the Holy Fast will prove fruitful and sanctifying, replete of grace and holiness, and that God will render us worthy and without tribulation to enter into the eternal and life-giving Chalice—the life-bearing Side of the Lord—from which sprang as the fountain of deliverance and wisdom (Great Canon, Wednesday, Ode 4)
May the Divine Grace and the abundant Mercy of the Lord be with you all, bretheren and children, so that you may receive, through the evangelical ethos, the Gift of the Feast of feasts and the Celebration of celebrations—the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all glory, dominion, honor, and thanksgiving now and to the endless ages. Amen.
Holy and Great Lend, 2016
Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant to God
* * *
—Matins of the First Week of Great Lent
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three “pillars” of our spiritual lives are inseparable. They stand at the heart of everything we, as the People of God, attempt to accomplish for the sake of our all-merciful Savior in church, in our homes, and in our places of study and work. So central are these three ascetic practices that Christ challenges us, in the Sermon on the Mount, to approach them not as the Pharisees, who sought the praise of others, but in silence and humility and with vigilance.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ makes it clear that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not “optional.” He did not say, “if you fast” or “if you give alms.” Rather, He said “when you fast … when you give alms.” He assumes that those who desire to follow Him will do these things, not by “choice,” but by conviction—and as a means of personal conversion. How often have we been remiss, failing in our daily lives to pray, fast or give to those in genuine need, seeking to excuse ourselves due to a lack of time or resources? And how often have we forgotten that prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not limited to penitential seasons, such as that which we are about to begin, but are central in our lives and witness every day, 365 days of the year?
During Great Lent, we are called to “come to our senses,” even as the prodigal son recognized the error of his ways and sought his father’s forgiveness. We are challenged to flee from the pride of the pharisee and embrace the publican’s tears. We are urged to make an essential change in the quality and pace of our otherwise hectic lives while turning our attention to those matters that are “needful” in working out our salvation. And, as we are afforded yet one more opportunity to return to our heavenly Father and seek His unconditional love, mercy and forgiveness, “repositioning” Him at the very center of our lives, second to none. Enrolling as we are in the “School of Repentance,” we pray, fast and give alms as a means of grasping anew the need to prepare for the great and glorious Pascha which, in turn, offers us a foretaste of the Kingdom yet to be fully revealed, but already fully present in our midst in the life of the Body and Bride of Christ, the Church.
May our Lenten efforts not be seen as a burden—our Lord takes on our burdens and lightens our yokes—but as an opportunity to “come to our senses” by imitating the One Who Himself prayed, fasted and gave alms—or rather, gave His very life—for us. Certainly, we cannot do less during the impending season of “bright sadness” as we embrace “the Light never overcome by darkness” Who leads us “from death to live, from earth to heaven.” May all that we do and experience during this most holy time of preparation serve to glorify Him, that through us “God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ” [1 Peter 4:11].
Humbly asking your forgiveness and assuring you of my prayers for the Lenten journey, I remain
With love in Christ,
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
* * *
To the Most Reverend Hierarchs, the Reverend Priests and Deacons, the Monks and Nuns, the Presidents and Members of the Parish Councils of the Greek Orthodox Communities, the Distinguished Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Day, Afternoon, and Church Schools, the Philoptochos Sisterhoods, the Youth, the Hellenic Organizations, and the entire Greek Orthodox Family in America
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we begin our solemn journey through this holy time of Great Lent, we are guided by the beautiful services and traditions of our Orthodox faith to dedicate ourselves to prayer and fasting, to gather more frequently in worship, to contemplate the direction of our lives in repentance, and to strengthen our faith in the hope of the light and life to come.
The spiritual impact of this sacred time of year is tremendous if we dedicate our full being—heart, body, soul and mind—to God. This transformation in our lives and the witness of life and faith we offer others through Great Lent is affirmed in the opening of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In giving thanks to God for the Christians in Philippi and their partnership in the Gospel, Paul writes, It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with all knowledge and discernment (Phil. 1:9). From their faith in and experience of the love of God and their love for one another, they were growing in spiritual wisdom.
When we come before God in repentance, we too experience His great love for us. His abundant and saving grace is revealed and acknowledged throughout this season of Lent as we are guided to the complete and ultimate act of love in the Passion of our Lord. As we receive His love and our lives are renewed in it, we are blessed with a deeper knowledge of truth and His will. Blessed by His grace and presence, we gain a higher level of discernment to see what is pure and holy.
This is affirmed by the Apostle Paul as he continues his letter: So that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Phil. 1:10). In these words we can see how Great Lent is a preparation to receive the Risen Lord; but we also see how this sacred time should influence our lives in our preparation for eternity. Through repentance and the forgiveness of God we are able to see the way to salvation. Through grace and faith we become a new person in Christ, knowing and seeking the abundant blessings that He offers to us.
The Apostle Paul refers to these blessings as the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:11). During Great Lent and through our prayer, worship and fasting we experience these blessings, and we see the great spiritual fruit that comes. We see how this journey is the journey of our entire life, culminating in the blessings of eternal life and communion with God. We see the blessings through our witness and ministry to others during this holy season, as we prayerfully anticipate the light and joy of Pascha.
As we look to the days and weeks ahead, I prayerfully ask that you commit your time to the spiritual opportunities offered in Great Lent. Be faithful in prayer and worship. Keep the fast. Offer your time and resources to help those in need. Above all, seek the grace of God that your love may abound for Him and each other, and from the abundant blessings and spiritual fruit we receive, we will offer thanksgiving, glory, and praise to Him!
With paternal love in Christ,
Archbishop of America
* * *
If you forgive other people few things, few of your own will be forgiven. If you forgive many things, many of your own will be forgiven. If you forgive them with sincerity and with your whole heart, God will forgive yours in the same manner. If after forgiving you make your enemy into your friend, thus will God also be disposed towards you.
(St. John Chrysostom on Genuine Forgiveness)
We greet you on this holy day of Forgiveness Sunday as we stand on the threshold of the Great Fast and ask one another for forgiveness of our sins.
The beautiful quote above from St. John Chrysostom is a powerful reminder of the importance of forgiveness which helps us to understand why we recite in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
There can be no forgiveness from God for our sins unless we willingly and sincerely forgive those who have sinned against us. This is why the Orthodox Church retains the tradition, as part of the Vesper Service for Forgiveness Sunday, to have each person in the church ask for forgiveness from every other person in the church. This is also why the clergy who celebrate the Divine Liturgy, immediately before they receive communion, whether it is the Patriarch, Metropolitan, bishop or priest, bows to the people and asks for forgiveness of his sins.
It is possible to misunderstand the act of forgiveness as somehow being a weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. A sincere and humble act of forgiving another person for an offense that they have committed against us is a very powerful action. The lack of forgiveness gives Satan many tools which he can use against us, including hatred, resentment, and desire for revenge. The act of forgiveness leaves Satan with nothing to hold against us. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ forgave those who had nailed Him to the Cross. His action shattered the devil and left him bewildered and confused.
On this Holy Day of Forgiveness Sunday, I bow to all of you and ask you to forgive me for my sinfulness. I pray that your journey through the Great Fast will bring you spiritual joy.
Your Father in Christ,
Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America
For the Great Fast:
“Thy grace hath risen, O Lord and the illumination of our souls hath shown forth. Lo, now is the acceptable time; the season of repentance hath come. Let us cast down the works of darkness, and put on the works of light, that we may pass the great tempest of fasting and reach the summit of the third day Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls.” (from the Aposticha of the Vesper Service for the Evening of Cheese Fare)
We greet you with anticipation as we embark on the Holy Season of the Great Fast in preparation for the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
The beautiful verse above embodies the true spirit of the Lenten Season as we begin our journey to draw nearer to God so that we may worthily rejoice in His Resurrection. We are called to “cast down the works of darkness, and put on the works of light”. We are all aware that the world in which we live presents us many opportunities to participate in darkness, that is, all pursuits which draw us away from God and are displeasing to Him. These are the works of Satan and his followers who despise the light, for the light shines brightly and reveals them as pure evil. But our Lord Jesus Christ is the True Light, and He has declared that we are the light of the world. (Matthew 5:14).
Why does the verse above refer to this season as the “great tempest of fasting”? A tempest is defined to be a violent and windy storm, and that is what we expect to experience if we truly follow a path of sincere repentance during this season. If we are sincere in this journey we will find ourselves tested in sometimes severe ways, since Satan will not let go of us without a serious battle. If we do not feel weary during this journey, then we are not trying hard enough. But this not a weariness of despair, but a weariness of hope, for we know that at the end of this journey, we will bask in the glory of the Light of the Empty Tomb.
We convey our most heartfelt love to you as we stand on the threshold of this most solemn season and we ask our loving God to bless you and grant to you a most spiritually rewarding journey of repentance.
Your Father in Christ,
Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America
* * *
What is the meaning of the Fast, and why does the Orthodox Church still preserve this special kind of preparation before our great feasts?
We must remember in the first place that fasting is related to one of God’s provisions for mankind. The Holy Fathers say that in Paradise man received the commandment to fast, to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, otherwise he would die. The purpose of the commandment was to protect man from falling away from God, which brings death. St. Basil the Great says, “Because we did not fast, we left Paradise and were driven out of it”. Beginning with the commandment in the Garden of Eden, continuing with the prophets Moses, Elijah, and Daniel, with St. John the Baptist, and then with the Savior Christ Himself, fasting has been a practice respected by all who wished to put aside material things in order to gain spiritual things.
The Savior makes a statement which reveals the profound meaning of fasting: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes out of the mouth of God”. This shows that fasting does not mean just starving ourselves by abstaining from food, but nourishing ourselves with another kind of food—spiritual food, which is the Word of God. The Savior tells us that man is not made of soul and body, the soul desiring spiritual things and the body desiring material things; but man is soul and body, and spiritual things can be nourishment even for the body.
In fasting we can experience the fact that our body can be nourished also by another kind of food, not only by bread. This is because, as a result of our efforts in fasting, the body begins to let go a little of its attachment to material things and to receive spiritual things more. The very matter with which we are in solidarity through our body begins to be spiritualized through the work of grace, to which is added man’s efforts to receive the Word of God. In fasting we begin to understand a certain communion which was established between God and man before the fall of Adam, a communion in which the entire being of man, soul and body, participated. We also begin to understand the communion which exists between us as people, related to our communion with God. The closer we get to God, the closer we get to our brothers as well.
In the light of these things, every time of fasting is a struggle for each Christian who desires to fast. Today’s world and our responsibilities in it don’t encourage our fasting. In every fast, the struggle comes in trying to find a certain balance between our ascetical efforts and fulfilling our daily responsibilities. But this struggle will bring spiritual joy for the one who fasts and discovers the meaning of our Savior’s words about feeding on the Word of God.
* * *
The sun hid its rays, the moon and stars were changed to blood;
the mountains shook with fear, the hills trembled, when Paradise was shut.
As he departed, Adam struck his eyes with his hands and said:
“O merciful Lord, have mercy on me who am fallen!”
(Cheesefare Sunday Vespers)
We have now completed the preparatory weeks, which lead us to Great Lent. We know that we enter the Fast on Cheesefare Sunday, when we put aside the last of the delicacies of this world to order a more Spartan diet of self-denial. We know that this entrance is also after we bow down before each other and ask mutual forgiveness. But we often forget that the liturgical “theme” of this last day before the Fast is a remembrance of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
All the pre-Lenten Sundays have formed in us two realities: first that we reside not in Paradise, for which we are created. We are expelled from Paradise by our sins, by our selfishness, by our insistence on feeding every appetite that rears its ugly head in our souls. We live every day of our lives in the desert outside the Gates of Paradise, living by the sweat of our brows.
And second, the Fast is not about me. My fasting, my self-denial, my prayer, my repentance, indeed, all my effort, is not measured by how “good” it makes me. It is all measured in how much it makes me reflect Christ. The desire of Zacchaeus, the humility of the Publican, the profound understanding of exile and return of the Prodigal Son, and the least of the brethren, which is the basis of the Last Judgment, the forgiveness we are called to give and receive, all make it abundantly clear that the journey to salvation is not about me. It is about the other — if we avoid foods, say more prayers, come to services and confess our sins, but are still bitter, hard-hearted souls, and do not see Christ in each other, we have not fasted at all. May all of our efforts, feeble as they may be, lead us to each other and then to Christ. Let Christ fill the space that is created by hunger and effort!
I ask your forgiveness as we enter into this tithe of the year and wish for all my faithful parishes and each and every one of you a most fruitful and joyous Fast. May we all rejoice in the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection at the end of these most holy days.
With love in Christ,
Archbishop of San Francisco
* * *
Christ is in our midst! – He is and ever shall be!
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.
As we begin the sacred season of Great Lent, I am mindful of the Russian term podvig, a very important concept in our Holy Orthodox Tradition. The word podvig can be translated as “spiritual struggle.” It is an aspect of asceticism, a disciplinary way of life, pursued as a means of a higher ideal. In performing a podvig, we find it to be a means of drawing closer to Christ as we travel along the path of salvation.
The great Russian Saint, Theophan the Recluse, defines our entire Christian life as podvig. He explains that while the spirit hates sin, the flesh may actually dwell in it. How then is this battle within ourselves to be resolved? It is resolved through podvig, the spiritual struggle of bringing the soul into mastery over the body. The Church gives us directions for doing this through our prayer rule, participation in divine services and Scripture reading, fasting and abstinence, standing in worship and making prostrations, giving alms to the poor, etc. All of these things strengthen the soul by disciplining the body, and as we fulfill these ascetical practices, we will indeed find that they help us draw nearer to our Creator and Savior. During Lent in particular, we are called to deepen our souls in Christ, to do more, to go beyond what the Church has already told us are the necessary first steps. Podvig is precisely that "doing more.”
In Great Lent, as the Church prescribes, many of us will strive to improve our rule of prayer – which, in the words of Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki, is “conversation directly with God, being always with God, having one’s soul united with Him and one’s mind inseparable” -- through the prescribed words in our prayer books, the saying of the Jesus Prayer, and the pouring out to God of our own requests, intercessions, and confessions. The Church will offer us more divine services to participate in, so that we can draw ever closer to our Savior, Who is the object of our worship. The world, however, with its demands on our time and talents, will tug at us to go in a different direction, and we will indeed have to “struggle” to stay focused on the One Who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
During the Great Fast, many of us will strive to follow the Church’s guidelines and abstain from meat and dairy products for seven weeks. However, Saint John Chrysostom reminds us of an even greater understanding of the Fast – “abstinence not only from food but from sins.” He says, “The fast should be kept not only by the mouth but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and the other members of the body.” The eye must abstain from impure sights; the ear, from malicious gossip; the hands, from acts of injustice. Our podvig will be to fight the temptations that will come from the media and our own social life … temptations to indulge in foods we have pledged to give up … temptations to succumb to practices, common on the streets, which we have promised to avoid.
The Lenten Season affords us the opportunity to focus on the criteria of judgment on the Last Day, presented to us in the Gospel of Matthew: to express our love for others in practical form – to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison. The second century Shepherd of Hermas insists that the money saved from abstaining from rich foods during the feast should be given to the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Because the world will continue to lure us to spend our time and talents and treasures on material possessions, creature comforts and forms of entertainment, we will “struggle” to increase our works of mercy for the least of His brethren, those in need.
The podvig of Lent, our spiritual struggle, is an imitation of the struggles of the Chosen People of the Old Covenant as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, seeking entrance into the Promised Land. It is a replication of the struggles of the Saints of the New Testament, from the apostles and disciples of the first century to the martyrs and ascetics of our own time and our own country! It is the legacy of the struggles of so many of our grandparents and parents, who took their Faith seriously and held to the practices of Great Lent piously. But most importantly, the spiritual struggle we undertake is homage to the One Who prayed and fasted for forty days and nights, before He began His ministry which would achieve our salvation.
In our Lenten struggle, we are encouraged by Saint Paul in I Corinthians 9:24-26, where he tells us that we need to be spiritually fit, like athletes in training. And in order to do that he urges us in Ephesians 6:10-18: Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places…
One might ask, why should we do all of this? Why should we undergo this Lenten “struggle,” this podvig, anyway? The answer is to achieve our goal, the goal not only of Lent but of our entire lifetime – to come closer to Christ, to become more like God, to enter into eternal communion with the Holy Trinity. We want that because we know how much Jesus Christ, our Lord God and Savior, has loved us – with that love greater than any man has, to lay down His life for His friends (John 13:35). And so, let us “Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat” … let us undertake our Lenten podvig … to show our love for the God Who loves more than we love ourselves. To Him be all glory unto ages of ages!
With my humble prayers, Archpastoral blessing and sincere love,
+ M I C H A E L
Archbishop of New York and the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
* * *
As we begin Holy and Great Lent this year on March 14th, I want to share with you a few thoughts so that we may journey through this reflective period and arrive at the Great Feast of Feasts, Pascha to receive the Resurrected Christ.
We are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we at the same time reconcile with one another. In this holiest period of the ecclesiastical year, we should honestly examine our relationships with our families, our parish families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and the Church in general.
After all, a fast without mutual love and forgiveness is “the fast of demons”. Part of our salvation in our daily lives is practicing love and forgiveness. Forgiveness is truly a glimpse of the Heavenly Kingdom in our sinful and fallen world. Only with God’s grace and a repentant heart can we truly return to unity, love, and harmony.
Great Lent involves hard work: on ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, our relationships with those around us. Our Lenten discipline of fasting, prayer, and charity is given to us not as a burden or hardship, but rather as an opportunity for restoring our relationship with God, our neighbors and ourselves. The Church invites us to transform our lives and to receive abundantly both peace and joy. Great Lent is an opportunity to renew our souls, minds, and bodies by entering more fully into a Christ-like life.
Therefore as we begin our Lenten journey together, I am asking you for your forgiveness as I forgive you for any offenses we may have caused each other. In addition let us pray for each other so that on that day of Pascha, we may sing with loud voices the beautiful Hymn of the Resurrection.
I pray that this Great Lenten Season is a spiritually uplifting experience for all.
Working in His Vineyard with much love,
+BISHOP GREGORY OF NYSSA