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First Week of the Great Lent

Great Lent

 

Today’s Gospel reading, dear brethren, tells us of how Philip, who was one of Christ’s disciples, brought his friend Nathaniel to Christ. Along the way Nathaniel expressed his doubts to Philip as to whether Christ was truly the Messiah, but after meeting Christ and talking with Him, all of Nathaniel’s doubts evaporated. The Lord touched upon the deepest strings of Nathaniel’s heart, touched upon his innermost thoughts and desires, thus showing His divine omniscience; and so Nathaniel proclaimed Christ to be the Son of God and became one of His twelve closest disciples.

But why do we hear this Gospel reading about Christ’s conversation with Nathaniel on this particular Sunday, the first Sunday of Great Lent, which celebrates the Triumph of Orthodoxy? It is because the Lord’s words to Nathaniel clearly describe the character of a true Orthodox Christian and, by extension, the character of the true Orthodox Church.

Here is truly an Israelite, – said the Lord of Nathaniel, – in whom there is no guile; i.e. here is a man who thinks, reasons, believes, hopes, talks, and acts rightly and directly, – since Nathaniel came to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God straightaway, and afterwards his faith never wavered. Such must a true Christian be, dear brethren, and such must be – and is – the Orthodox Church, i.e. a Church in which there is no guile, no vain human invention, which is genuine in its teaching, its sacraments, its divine services, in all of its establishment. Truly such is our Orthodox Church, which has remained unchanged since the times of the apostles and which has been attested to by a multitude of saints and miracles.

The blood of many martyrs has been shed for the purity of our faith and our Church; there have been many heroic struggles with the enemies of truth – pagans, Moslems, false Christians. Great has been the suffering of venerable fathers and hierarchs, and other defenders of the faith. It is this which constitutes today’s commemoration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, – that from the holy Apostles to our days, and despite all the efforts of the servants of hell, the Orthodox faith has been preserved in all its truth and purity. The genuineness of our faith is further confirmed by the fact that so many different kinds of people lived by it and achieved salvation through it: noble kings, wise philosophers, great scientists, aristocrats and commoners, the rich and the poor, both men and women. The Orthodox faith brings people to a state of moral perfection and holiness, and only a perfect faith, with all its divine powers, can bring others to perfection.

Yes, dear brethren, only the Orthodox faith purifies and sanctifies the human nature which is defiled by sin; renews this imperfect nature by means of the sacraments of baptism, penitence, and communion; fills with love those who are quarreling; fills with hope those who are in despair; comforts those who are depressed; makes kind those who are crafty; reforms those who are corrupt; makes the greedy – abstemious; makes the cruel – charitable; adulterers makes chaste; egoists makes selfless; misers makes generous; madmen makes wise, and even the demonic makes godlike. Such are the miracles which the Orthodox faith works in men!

But why does it not produce such a spiritual transformation in us, dear brethren? Because we lack faith, because we are frivolous at heart, because we have distanced ourselves from the Church, we do not live the life of the Church, we do not live in accordance with its spirit, for us Orthodoxy is just a formality.

In order for us to be true Orthodox Christians, we must first of all have constant live contact with the Orthodox Church, we must take part in its prayers and sacraments, we must live in the spirit of our faith, follow its rules and commandments, and – most importantly – through genuine and profound repentance we must become as Christian as were all the saints, we must follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, so that the Lord would say about us, as He once said about Nathaniel: here is truly a Christian in whom there is no guile. Amen.

Father Rostislav Sheniloff

 

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PENITENCE AND PREPARATION FOR COMMUNION

 

The first week of Great Lent consists of strict fasting and long daily services. During the first four days, the Great Compline is served in the evenings, enhanced by the reading of the moving penitential canon of St. Andrew of Crete, with the refrain: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.” The priest and the church are dressed in black vestments, the service is held in the flickering light of the candles, the singing is slow and muted… everything conduces the soul towards repentance, the realization of its sins, and cleansing itself of them. The faithful devote the entire first week to preparation for communion, i.e. they labor spiritually by attending services daily and making themselves ready to partake of the Holy Mysteries at the end of the week. In his three marvelous sermons for the first week of Great Lent, St. John of Kronstadt instructs us on proper preparation for communion.

Sermon on preparation for communion (given in mid-week)

And so, my beloved, today is the fourth day that we are coming to the divine services and preparing for communion. Is our soul benefitting from such preparation? Each one of us should look into his heart and decide: is there a holy change within it, is it beginning to desist from sin? We must also determine whether the divine service is having any effect on us, whether we are leaving the church in a pious mood, or whether we continue to stand in church with cold indifference, praying only from habit and making prostrations without deeply ruing our sins. We must examine the course of preparation for communion, whether it is proceeding successfully, or whether our labors are in vain. You should be fully aware, my beloved, of what you are preparing for. You are preparing to partake of the divine, pure, life-giving, and awesome Mysteries of the body and blood of Christ our God, you are preparing to commune with the Lord God Himself! For this reason our preparation deserves the greatest attention. Let us examine our labors very strictly and make sure they are benefitting our souls.

How do we benefit from our preparation? First of all, we must pay attention to our hearts: within them lies all of man’s evil. Our hearts have completely turned away from God and have turned towards the world and its attractions; our hearts contain all our lusts and passions. There should be an important turning point within us: from love of this world with all its pleasures and sins to love for God, Whom we must love above all; and that is a hard thing to do, especially for those who love the world so strongly.

But let us not fear any difficulty: what is difficult and impossible for us is easy and possible for God. And in this difficult task of turning away from the world and towards God you will be helped primarily by the divine services: simply stand and listen to them with attention and humility, and the spirit of remorse and tenderness of soul will come upon you. And even if you do not understand the entire service, try to draw into your heart and ponder that which you do not under-stand; from the holy words of the Church try to propagate holy thoughts and feelings – and with God’s help your endeavors will proceed successfully. Furthermore, try to imagine more often how you will approach the holy Mysteries after your preparation and confession. However, if you approach them unworthily, with an unrepentant heart, you will have taken communion in judgment against yourself, and after communion you will not become better, but much worse. With these and similar thoughts fortify yourself in your labor of preparation and pray in church as sincerely as possible, from the bottom of your heart; say to God sincerely and often: O God, be merciful unto me, a sinner! O God, cleanse me, a sinner! I have sinned immeasurably, O Lord, forgive me! Remember, that just the words: O God, be merciful unto me, a sinner, – were enough to justify the publican. Why? Because they were said without any affectation, from the bottom of his heart, with full admission of his guilt before God, and a resolve to reform himself. And we, beloved, are so sinful that we have nothing to say to God in our defense. So the only thing we can say is: O God, be merciful unto us, sinners! O God, cleanse us, sinners! We have sinned immeasurably, O Lord, forgive us! Amen.

Sermon on repentance

Today, my beloved, you will come to confession. As your priest I must explain to you what is expected from those who come to confession, in order that this confession be sincere, pleasing to God, and salvific for the soul. Specifically, the penitent must rue his sins, be resolved to reform his life, have faith in Christ and belief in His charity.

First of all, the penitent must feel remorse over his sins. But it is this which father-confessors often do not see in their spiritual children. Many come to confession with total indifference, and if they are not asked anything, they will either not say anything at all or will simply say that they have generally sinned. And if only they would at least say it with a sincere admission of guilt; but no, to our great sorrow these words are said without any feeling of remorse, but simply to get the confession over with as quickly as possible. Beloved! Let us not turn a matter of God’s extreme mercy to us, sinners, into an occasion for God’s wrath. How can we be so insensitive! Have we not so many things to rue during a confession? We are so sinful that were we to spend our entire life lamenting our sins, even then we would not do anything more than is just. Whoever says that he has no sins is simply deluding himself.

You do not see your sins? Then pray to God that He grant you the ability to see them; it is precisely for this reason that this entire past week you have been saying in church together with the priest: O Lord, grant me to see my transgressions! Let us try to see our sins, so that we may confess them with heartfelt remorse. And it is our first very important sin that we, being such great sinners, do not feel that we deserve not mercy, but chastisement from God! O, this Pharisaic righteousness of ours, – how many people it has destroyed!

But let us look further: with what sins have we sinned greatly before God? First of all, that we live on earth not for God and the salvation of our souls, not for eternal life, but for the flesh and its pleasures. Have we forgotten the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, His precious blood spilled for us on the cross, His glorious Resurrection? Is it not for us, whom sin had separated from heaven, that He came down to earth, in order to raise us to heaven? Thus, if we must live here in expectation of eternal life, then we sin if we live with all our thoughts and hearts centered upon earthly life. And how many sins are committed because we want to live well on earth and we do not believe in eternal life! How much anger, hate, greed, envy, avarice, and deceit arise from that! This is the source of all our vices, all our fleshly lusts, all the passions of our soul. Let us confess this sin: that we do not live on earth for God and for the salvation of our soul.

And we also suffer from the great sin of ingratitude towards God for His innumerable bounties. All of you walk on your own two feet, all of you have been endowed by the Creator with intelligence and free will, – and what were you just a while ago? Nothing! Yet out of nothing God has brought you into being, – and from that time on has given you everything: He has showered you with earthly goods, sustains you with His precious body and blood, forgives your countless sins, guards your life as a mother guards her child, has prepared His kingdom for you, and how much more He does out of His love for us, sinners! And what about us? How do we respond to His love for us – a love which has no bounds or measure? We respond with iniquity and ingratitude. Thus let us repent before God our lack of love for Him, and let us ask Him for the gift of love.

The penitent is also required to have a firm resolve to reform his life: you must make note of that especially. As you go to confession, say to yourself: after confession I will make a great effort to rid myself of the sins which I will now be confessing. I will no longer lie to myself, I will not lie to God, I will no longer abuse the sacrament of penitence. Of what good is repentance if afterwards I shamelessly continue to commit the same sins that I have just confessed?

And, finally, a penitent is required to have faith in Christ and belief in His mercy. Everyone who comes to confession must believe that during the sacrament Christ Himself invisibly stands and accepts the confession; that Christ alone can grant remission of sins; that He, through His charity, is always ready to forgive all our transgressions, as long as we confess them with heartfelt remorse. Let us repent with a pure heart; let us make an effort to rectify our lives; let us bring to God the fruits of repentance. Amen.

Sermon on communion

Before you, my beloved, is the divine Body and the divine Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, – and you have prepared yourself, through daily attendance of services and through confession, to partake of these life-giving Mysteries. To come to communion properly, the following is required from each one of us: first of all, a simple and child-like belief that under the form of bread and wine you are taking the Lord Himself into your heart, that you are becoming one with Him, both in flesh, and blood, and in spirit.

Secondly, you must have absolute belief in the Saviour’s charity, that like a divine fire He will burn and cleanse all your sins; therefore, each one of you, being aware of your unworthiness to partake of the divine Mysteries, should throw yourself completely upon the Lord’s mercy; let no one waver, be faint of heart, or fall into despondency thinking of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness; from the chalice to all of us is granted the Lord’s mercy, complete forgiveness, and remission of sins.

Thirdly, the communicants must have great and ardent love for the Saviour, for just think of God’s great love for us, sinners, that is being revealed in this moment of our being joined to God Himself! What mother or what father has ever loved his children as the Lord loves us? And why is the Lord becoming joined with us in the holy Eucharist? To cleanse us of the filth of sin; to give us peace, comfort, joy, lightness, freedom – those things which are most desirable on earth; to take us – purified and renewed – with Him into heaven, into eternal life, into eternal bliss.

Fourthly, you are required to have a change of heart. Until now many of you have loved sin; now you must make a great effort to hate it, for sin is the offspring of the devil; all of you should try to effect a change in the very depth of your heart. You are about to become joined with the meek and forgiving Lord Jesus Christ: you, too, should become meek, forgiving, patient, obedient to God and the Church. You will be partaking of the body and blood of the Saviour, – but He is all love; enmity and anger are offensive to Him; so let us try to live in mutual love, forgive offenses, not repay evil with evil. You are approaching the Lord, the Heavenly King: try to think of the heavenly, abandon your passion for earthly things that are temporary and enslave the soul, abandon all filthy and sinful passions.

Finally, in order for us to retain this divine gift – the holy body and blood of Christ, – we are required to pay close attention to ourselves, to our thoughts, to our heart and all its feelings and inclinations. You must guard yourself from all that is offensive to Christ; you must remember that through communion the Lord deifies us, and thus all of you should try to live divinely in holiness and truth. May the Lord grant you to partake of the Holy Mysteries worthily and fruitfully. And so, let us approach with faith and love, that we may be communicants of eternal life. Amen.

 



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