Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Fast has brought us midway...

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

According to my calculations we are exactly at the half way point between the beginning of Great Lent and Pascha, as this is the twenty fifth day of the Fast. This was confirmed yesterday evening when, at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, we chanted the following stichera:

The fast, the source of blessings,
now has brought us midway through its course.
Having pleased God with the days that have passed
we look forward to making good use of the days to come,
for growth in blessings brings forth even greater achievements ...

We, hope, at least, that we have "pleased God with the days that have passed." Looking back to a pre-lenten meditation that I sent out a week before the Fast began, I noticed that I included a wonderful passage from St. John Chrysostom, that ended with this very practical but challenging exhortation:

And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accompany them during the fast: to speak ill of no one, to hold no one an enemy, and to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.

If anyone is interested in making a mid-point assessment of his or her efforts, then perhaps this passage may be a good place to begin. Whatever that honest assessment may yield, we do have another twenty five days to go, and as the hymn stated, "we look forward to making good use of the days to come." So let us continue with zeal the fulfillment of our Lord's command that we pray, give alms, and fast with the glory of God and the well-being of our neighbors uppermost in our minds and hearts.

It is certainly no coincidence that the Cross is planted in the midst of the Church at this midpoint in our movement toward Pascha. Our destination is the Cross ascended willingly by our Savior so that our sins may be abolished and death overcome by His life-giving death. The Cross at this point is the first announcement of that destination. The paschal mystery begins with the Cross and our willingness to stand by it in solidarity with our Lord Jesus Christ. His Cross gives ultimate meaning to our crosses of personal tragedy and sadness - all inevitable in this life. And the Cross is the gateway to the Resurrection:

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!

What a privilege, blessing and joy to be able to bow down before the Cross! This gesture is no relic of an outdated piety, but an acknowledgment of our absolute dependence on Christ's sacrifice on the Cross for our salvation. What we believe in our minds and hearts, we express through our bodies since, as Orthodox Christians, we worship God with our whole person - soul and body. We are often tempted to "bow down" before idol after idol erected before our gaze by a fallen world desparately trying to find "something" worthy of our "worship" to fill the great void left by a loss of faith in God. These idols are worthless, but we are slow in coming to that recognition. We stubbornly, if not perversely, continue to cling to them in the hopeless hope that there is something behind them after all. When we come to church during this week of the Cross, then, and prostrate ourselves before the "wood of the Tree," it is as if our sanity is restored, our clouded vision clarified, and our faith, hope and love redirected to the only One who can bring them to fruition.

Today, as we bow down before the Cross of the Lord, we cry:
Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!
O invincible weapon, confirmation of the faithful:
Protect and sanctify those who kiss you!
(Wednesday evening, Fourth Week of Lent)

Rhetorical as this sticheron may be, not one word of it is an exaggeration of the actual meaning and power of the Cross as revealed in the New Testament. The Cross is the only "symbol" worthy of our allegiance. In wearing, bowing down before, or kissing the Cross, it is that allegiance that we confess to the world.

Let us cleanse our souls in the waters of the fast.
Let us approach the precious and most pure cross of the Lord,
venerating it in faith and drawing forth divine enlightenment,
reaping even now the rich harvest:
eternal salvation, peace and great mercy.
(Wednesday evening, Fourth Week of Lent)

Fr. Steven

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