Friday, March 12, 2010

The Mid-Point, The Turning Point... The One Thing Needful

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Twenty Sixth Day

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." I COR. 2:2)

There is a definite shift in focus once we reach the Third Sunday of Great Lent and the veneration of the Cross. For the first three weeks of the Fast, the hymnography of the Triodion concentrates our attention on the over-all lenten effort of repentance, and all that repentance entails: overcoming temptation and sin, struggling against the passions, intensifying our prayer, almsgiving and fasting, reconciliation with our neighbor, etc. This is not a pious form of spiritual solipsism. It is a way to force us to look at our own lives and relationship with God and to "expose" our own weaknesses and failings, so we can humbly acknowledge our sinfulness and "do something about it." That is one of the main purposes behind Great Lent: "Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved," according to St. Seraphim of Sarov. If we could possibly cleanse our own minds and hearts, then each one of us can become a genuine Christian who worthily proclaims the Gospel by a particular way of life that embodies the precepts of the Gospel. That includes the self-denial of taking up one's cross in imitation of the Lord.

However, with the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the Scriptures and the Triodion will concentrate on the Cross of Christ - the goal of our lenten journey. Our lenten effort must be understood and experienced within the context of the Lord's Cross, without which all of our ascetical and charitable efforts do not transcend their immediate application and do indeed devolve into a series of questionable "spiritual exercises" performed more or less for their own sake. The Cross is the source, ground, and goal of Great Lent and of our personal journey through it. We now begin to anticipate its salvific power in our midst.

At the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday evening, we began with a series of transitional hymns, that in addition to reminding us that we have reached the midpoint of the Fast, combine our own ascetical effort - and the need for its continuation for the remainder of the Fast - with clear reference to the Lord and Cross that is the culmination of His earthly ministry:

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 bring forth even greater achievements.
While pleasing Christ, the giver of blessings, we cry:
O Lord, who fasted and endured the cross for our sake,
make us worthy to share blamelessly in Your paschal victory,
by living in peace and rightly giving glory to You
with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

O Cross, boast of the apostles,
surrounded by archangels, powers and principalities;
Save us from all harm who bow down before you.
Enable us to fulfill the divine course of abstinence
and to reach the day of salvation, by which we are saved.

And there are hymns that are something of an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross' meaning on a cosmic and personal level:

Today, as we bow 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!

The Cross is the culmination of our journey through Holy Week. Practically speaking, that must in turn be the culmination of our lenten effort, or else the sacred forty days and Holy Week will be reduced to empty forms devoid of spiritual power. "Lay aside all earthly care" during Holy Week. Try and plan your schedules so as to maximize your time in church for the services that will bring us to the Cross and Resurrection. Even when unable to be in church, let it be a time of greater silence and concentration, so that empty distractions are kept to a minimum. If possible, use a "vacation day" from work and make Holy Friday a time to immerse yourselves into the Mystery of the Cross. If your children are home on Holy Friday, direct them toward the Church and the "solemnity" of that unique day. In a world that offers us an abundance of the superficially attractive, resist such temptation by focusing on the essential - "the one thing needful" - Jesus Christ.

Fr. Steven

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