The Lenten Act: Repentance and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

Today is the feast day of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem. St. Sophronios is known for many thngs, but two which concern me today are his revision of the Phos Hilaron, composed by St. Basil the Great, and his composition of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. I’m not sure when, but his Life of St. Mary has for centuries been associated with the Great Canon of St. Andrew. On Thursday during the fifth week of Lent the Canon is sung, and the Life of St. Mary is read in two parts.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is also sung in the Church on the first four nights of Lent. St. Andrew composed his Canon sometime in the early part of the eighth century, probably after 710. In total, it consists of 250 stanzas, each with the refrain, sung in beautiful and haunting minor key “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” Last night was my first singing of the Canon. The first stanza runs: “Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.” Then the refrain: “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” At which we bowed and crossed ourselves.

The genius of Orthodox Lent is revealed in the first two days. On Sunday, after Vespers, the dietary restrictions of the Fast are in place. That morning after Liturgy, for example, was the last time to consume eggs and dairy products. Needless to say, many dishes contained these items. (Something of an Orthodox Mardi Gras?) Then every worshipper present at Forgiveness Vespers cleanses their soul by asking and giving forgiveness. On Pure Monday (yesterday) the Church proclaims an absolute fast, although subject to priestly oikonomia if a parishioner is unable or it would be unwise for them to fast completely. Humbled by our knowledge of our sins, and from the freely given grace of our brothers’ and sisters’ forgiveness, wearied by fasting, we come to the Great Canon knowing and understanding, as Fr. Schmemann notes, that we have been living a lie of self-sufficiency. We begin to get an ever-greater inkling that God is our hope, our life, our all. We are ready, prepared physically and spiritually, now, to begin that Lenten askesis, that athletic wrestling with our soul called repentance, metanoia.

And I had a lot of which to repent. I didn’t count last night, but in the text in front of me now, there is opportunity to sing “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” more than 70 times–with three “Lord, have mercy” sung after the sixth ode. When asked why it’s necessary to say “Lord have mercy” forty times (as some liturgies call for), Frederica Mathewes-Green has quipped, “Because we don’t mean it till the thirty-seventh time.” She’s right. I’m not sure even after more than 70 “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” I really meant it. But I do know that the last time I sung it, I meant it more than the first time. Small drops of water, after all, do wear away stone. And right now my heart is stone.

Thank you, God, for this season of Lent. May it be profitable for my soul, and may I serve You and Your Kingdom ever more diligently from having been through this journey to Pascha.

Forgiveness Sunday Vespers and the Vesperal Litany: Or, How, Despite My Planning, Great Lent, Still Snuck Up on Me

So a dash to Evanston and a visit to our cats–er, I mean, to the Young’s who now own our cats–to see, as Anna puts its, that our kitties are adjusting well to their new home. A quick stop on the way back home to get a pregnant woman a one-pound-bag of peanut M & M’s (as if I hadn’t gotten her Dunkin’ Donuts earlier!), and then I was rushing off to the service for Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong. I was prepared. I’d already discussed my Lenten disciplines with Fr. Patrick and gotten his blessing. Anna and I had talked about them, and she was fine with them. I scheduled in my calendar for the extra services this week. For Pete’s sake, I’d even purchased and read the first several pages of Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent. I mean, come on, now. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I’d been to a few Vespers services, so I had some inkling of what I would expect, but of course, I’d never done the “forgiveness thing” at the end. So I was curious and a bit apprehensive. Would I clink eyeglasses, or bonk noses? I’d never kissed a grown man before, even on the cheek, or at least not since I was a kid, so all those adolescent “don’t want to look unmanly” sweatinesses had to be laughed away. But despite the combination of familiarity and curiousity, I was in tune with the service. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

We were into the Vesperal Litany, when I felt a change deep in my gut. “Lord have mercy” had just changed tone. No upward lilt, even if in a minor key. This was Byzantine, minor key, with downward glide. It was almost like a physical blow. I wanted to sit down. Then another “Lord have mercy.” And another. We were half-way down the page when I noticed the rubric at the top: Lent begins during the Litany. Lent had begun, and I had missed it.

What now? I’d planned on having a small meal of fruit after Vespers, to prepare for the rigors of the first week. Should I eat it now, or not? I had poured a sherry tumbler of Ouzo, but had left it unfinished. Do I just dump it out? Why didn’t anyone tell me Lent began during the Litany? I mean, I knew it was this evening, but . . .

By the time the prostrations came, I was well-humbled. God would be in charge of this Lent. Not me. “O Lord and Master of my life. Take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust for power, and vain talking.” Prostration, forehead to floor. “But give to me, Thy servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.” Prostration. “Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not judge my brother. For blessed art Thou, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Prostration.

And so came the asking for and giving of forgiveness. Fr Patrick made a low bow to Eva’s young boy. “Forgive me,” he said. “God forgives,” was the response. And so it went, each alternately asking for or giving forgiveness. I spent the first half of the time, giving forgiveness to the congregation of worshippers. We were barely minutes into it, and already there were tears. I was unmoved. Well, at least until it came time for me to look the sister to my right in the eyes, to bow and to say, “Forgive me.” My eyes stayed dry. But not my heart.

Why should I ask the forgiveness of what were, really, little more than strangers to me, some of whose names I didn’t even know? It began to dawn on me that my sins may not have been so much ones of commission as ones of omission. Why didn’t I know their names? Why did I withhold Christian love and joy behind my introverted persona? What would it have hurt to have gone up to a total stranger and ask, “How are you doing? How may I pray for you?” Ah, see, it would have hurt my pride. See. There it was. I had sinned against these my brothers and sisters. And no, not just from withholding of Christian love. No, truth be known, I had judged them. That school teacher who’d made some harsh comments about an Orthodox bishop. Yes, it was me; I was the one that judged him as immature, and impatient. That young high school boy, the one I nicknamed in my own mind, “the loudmouth.” Yep. That one stings. This young man, after all, is not merely a creation of God, but a member of God’s Kingdom. He is one of the least of these. I began to keep a wary eye out for millstones.

I don’t know how long Forgiveness Vespers has been around. The quizzical shrugs (“Why is that important?”) seem to indicate centuries. That may well be. But it’s clear to me now the spiritual genius for starting Lent this way. We need it. Great Lent is hard enough without carting all this baggage around. And anyway, we’ll end where we begin: with the great mercy of God.

Alexander Schmemann: On Fasting

It is important, therefore, to discern the uniquely Christian content of fasting. It is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible: one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other ar the beginning of the New Testament. The first event is the “breaking of the fast” by Adam in Paradise. He ate of the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the New Adam–and this is the second event–begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation; Christ was tempted and He overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise. . . .

In the Orthodox teaching, sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God. It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating. For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive. But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean? For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning: life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world. But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it. God, we are told, “created no death.” He is the Giver of Life. How then did life become mortal? Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists? The Church answers: because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on “bread alone.” Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world. . . .

Christ is the New Adam. He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2). Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else–when we urgently and essentially need food–showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? . . .

What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam, being part of it, we still depend on food. But just as our death–through which we still must pass–has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. . . .

All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. It not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science and existence on that lie. Fasting is a denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be covercome “but by fasting and prayer.” Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which makes him the “Prince of this world.” . . .

Ultimately to fast means only one thing: to be hungry–to go to the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry, to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself is first of all a spiritual state and that it is in its last reality hunger for God. In the early Church, fasting alway meant total abstinence, a state of hunger, pushing the body to the extreme. It is here, however, that we discover also that fasting as a physical effort is totally meaningless without its spiritual counterpart: “. . . by fasting and prayer.” This means that without the corresponding spiritual effort, without feeding ourselves with Divine Reality, without discovering our total dependence on God and God alone, physical fasting would indeed be suicide. If Christ Himself was tempted while fasting, we have not a single chance of avoiding that temptation. Physical fasting, essential as it is, is not only meaningliness, it is truly dangerous if it is disconnected from the spiritual effort–from prayer and concentration on God. . . .

It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast God-centered. We should fast for God’s sake.

[Great Lent, pp. 93, 94, 95, 96, 97.]

There’s Got to Be More Going on Here: What Difference the Incarnation Made for Me

In a note to Tripp I reflected on my change from a Zwinglian, anti-sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper, to what is the biblical and patristic witness. In this experience is encapsulated my move to a sacramental faith in general.

Growing up in the Stone-Campbell churches, I was taught that the Lord’s Supper was a time of contemplation when we remembered historical events, asked forgiveness of our sins, and gave thanks for the salvation by grace through faith we’d been given. The small rectangles of cracker-like bread (we irreverent college students called them chiclets), and the small thimbles full of grape juice, were nothing more than, well, “chiclets” and grape juice. They were symbols, sure, but only mental reminders of historical realities.

While in Bible college training for ministry in the Stone-Campbell churches, I served as a minister to yoked parishes in Mound City, Kansas: the Wall Street Christian Church (my first experience of a church named out of sarcasm–Wall Street Christian Church was located about five miles outside of Mound City in the midst of acres of pasturage) and the Federated Church (itself a coming together of a Methodist Church and another church back in the early decades of the twentieth century). It was while the elements were being passed to the various members during the service at the Wall Street church that it hit me: Is this all there is? I had some sort of intuition of the holiness of this time, and had the impulse to kneel (a no-no as that would have been too Catholic). Something more than just meditation had to be going on here. Eventually I came to the belief that somehow Jesus had to be specially present with his Church at this time. I wouldn’t have been able to defend or even articulate that belief very well at the time. But I held it with conviction.

In my journey into Anglicanism, I began to better understand some of the teachings of the Church relative to the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Our Lord. Such things still smacked too much of that Protestant bugaboo of transubstantiation for me, but I began to modify my understanding. I slowly came to believe that Christ was present in a special way in the Eucharist, not simply just present with his Church, but somehow present in a wonderful way in the activity of the Eucharist.

In the last few years I felt myself being drawn ever closer to the biblical and patristic understanding, but still hesitated from “going all the way.” I understood the elements to be holy in a special way, so genuflecting and praying before the reserved Sacrament became a heartfelt way to pray and worship the Trinity.

But this past summer I hunkered down and thought through the issues I had about the Church, what it was, what it did, and so forth. (In an ealier blog I linked to those essays. The essay on the Lord’s Supper can be found here.) In short, reading 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, and Ignatios and Irenaeus (among others) convinced me that the proper biblical and patristic understanding was that in the Eucharist the elements, in a great and mysterious way, become the body and blood of our Lord.

This understanding was predicated on a belief in the Incarnation of our Lord. I had always believed the Jesus was God in the flesh. But I had not always drawn those implications as far as they should have been. The Incarnation through the Resurrection sanctifies creation. By death Christ trampled down death, and released us from its bondage. So now all creation groans awaiting its redemption. This means things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and, most importantly, humans may partake in this renewal, this participation in the energies of God. We are saints not merely by divine fiat, as in the ubiquitious metaphor of the judge declaring the guilty innocent. We are saints because by participation in God our souls and bodies are transformed in a synergy of holiness and sanctification. If God can do that with humans, if God spoke the material world into existence, if the ground around burning bushes can be declared to be holy by the divine presence, it is surely not too difficult for bread and wine by divine mystery to become Christ’s body and blood. It is surely no hard thing for water to be blessed and a means of prayer. It is surely no challenge to the Almightly to turn ordinary bread into antidoron to be brought home to the prayer corners of the faithful and used in worship. The Incanration grants grace to the tangible.

This is no magic. Antidoron becomes hard and moldy at times. Holy water sometimes gets a bit smelly. (Which is why both should be used up frequently, and not saved superstitiously.) But these material corruptions do not diminish the gracious energies. Faith, living faith, after all, is an important component; perhaps second only to the divine activity itsefl.

But this is where I’m at now. It’s not where I’ve always been. It has taken, quite literally, years of reflection, worship and study to come to this point. I’m grateful I can now share in the beliefs of millions of Christians around the world in our day, and the millions more of our fathers and mothers in the faith stretching all the way back to the upper room.

The Love of God and the Little Things: The Sunday of the Last Judgment

In the ancient Tradition of the Church, the penultimate Sunday before the start of Great Lent is the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). On this day, the Gospel lection is the parable Jesus told about all the nations being brought before the Son of Man, Jesus, where he will judge them. He will separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the wicked. The righteous will inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The wicked will depart into the everlasting fire prepared–note: not for them–but for the devil and his angels. The righteous inherit what has been prepared for them; the wicked gain that which was prepared for someone else.

That this parable is one which Jesus himself gave has never been denied until modern times. And it is denied on the basis either of that understanding which denies the reality of God altogether or on the basis of that understanding of God based on honest misunderstandings of the biblical and patristic tradition or on deliberate falsifications of that tradition. In short, the reality of the Gospel is that Jesus will judge the nations. He came once to save. He comes again to judge.

But note the basis of the judgement: not some Augustinian or Calvinist system of God’s divine foreknowledge and predestination. Rather, the nations are judged on one single standard: Christ. It is what the nations did or did not do with regard to Christ which determines their destiny. And note the context in which actions for or against Christ are judged: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and the prisoners. (I’ll not go here into whether or not “my brothers” in the parable refers to Christians or just humanity in general. Though I think the Gospel context on this is clear, and therefore more particular, it’s a point for another blog.)

I know there are well-meaning Christians who find the idea that Christ himself will judge the nations difficult, even repugnant. How could a God of love condemn anyone to everlasting condemnation? To which one appropriate response is another question: How could a God of love deny anyone their repeated and considered choice? For those who have repeatedly denied God again and again, heaven would be worse than hell. God is not so unjust as to deny us the consequences of our choices and actions.

And note this also: Those who depart into the everlasting fire depart not on the basis of one grand all-encompassing decision. Rather, they are judged on the basis of their repeated little actions: not feeding the hungry, not clothing the naked, not visiting the sick and the prisoners. In other words, just like salvation, judgment comes from a lifetime of small decisions.

I was prepared for today’s Gospel lection by my very own actions this morning prior to going to worship. I got up feeling tired and ugly. My duty every morning is to pray the Morning Prayers of the small red service book I have. This morning I most definitely did not want to. I kept procrastinating (yes, it was most crucial that I log on and download my email; yes, I must eat something, I feel so sick, and besides why should I keep the fast since I can’t partake of communion yet anyway; and so on). But finally, I dragged myself in front of the icons, lit the candle, and began praying. And a most dismal display it was, too. Not only did I not feel enlightened, anyone else joinging me would have feel the deep pit of slack that emanated around me.

But when I was done and as I was heading out of the house, somehow, God had blessed my feeble efforts, and I felt prepared to worship.

Then I got to service and heard: “It’s not the grand decisions which form the basis of our destiny. It’s the accumulation of all the small ones.”

Thank God for his great mercy. And may he continue to save me. And may I continue to work our my salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it is He who works in me both to will and to do his good pleasure. And may I one day hear, “Enter into your inheritance in the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Glory to God in all things.