The previous Sunday we celebrated the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the triumph of that true Church of Christ to which, by the grace of God, we all belong. But the triumph of Orthodoxy is not only a historical event, dear brethren; it is not revealed only in the fact that for almost 2,000 years, despite diverse and most terrible persecutions and heresies, this Church, founded by Christ Himself and His apostles, continues to exist unchanged and to safeguard the fullness of truth. The Church is not some bureaucratic institution; the Church is a living assembly of all its members and, therefore, the full triumph of Orthodoxy occurs only when all the members of the Church are truly Orthodox, i.e. when the faithful incorporate their faith into their lives, when their lives become transformed by Orthodoxy, when they live in an Orthodox manner.
But precisely how should we live in an Orthodox manner? In what way must Orthodoxy permeate our entire life? To this answer the Church dedicates the remaining four Sundays of the Great Lent. First of all, there is prayer. Through prayer we come directly into contact with God, our Creator. Prayer is the breath of life for us, without prayer we spiritually suffocate. Prayer is just as essential to our soul as air is to our body. And so – as a prime example of prayer – on this, the second Sunday of lent, the Church offers us Saint Gregory of Palamas, teacher of the highest form of prayer – the inner prayer, the internal spiritual endeavor.
Another factor of Orthodoxy in our life is the bearing of one’s cross. Thus, as a supreme example – on the third Sunday of lent the Church brings out to us the life-giving Cross of our Lord. Subsequently, on the fourth Sunday of lent the Church gives us St. John of the Ladder, who teaches us another important aspect of Orthodoxy in our life – the acquisition of virtues.
But perhaps we already pray more-or-less, we more-or-less patiently endure the cross which we have been given in life, and perhaps we have even acquired some virtues, and yet we are still not living entirely in an Orthodox manner. Why? Because we sin. All of us are already born with the seeds of sin within us, and during our lifetime we further amass our own sins. If we continue to live with these sins, we cannot be truly Orthodox. However, the Church offers us a wonderful means of overcoming this handicap in our life, and that is – repentance. And so, as a supreme example of penitence and also an example of how we should never despair of our sins, – on the fifth Sunday of lent the Church gives us St. Mary of Egypt, who from the worst possible sinner turned not only into a righteous person, but literally into an angel on earth. In this fashion, throughout the entire Great Lent the Church reveals to us the treasures of the Orthodox faith and teaches us how to incorporate this faith into our lives.
But now let us dwell on the lesson of this Sunday, which is prayer. Saint Gregory Palamas came from Constantinople, lived in the 14th century and was the Archbishop of Thessalonika. He attained a highly virtuous life, became an eminent theologian and wrote many spiritual writings. But his greatest achievement was the revival of the ancient art of inner prayer, which flourished among the great Church Fathers – desert-dwellers and ascetics, – and which in time became forgotten. This method was also called the “internal endeavor,” because those who used it not only prayed at certain times, for example in the mornings and evenings, as we barely manage to do, but remained in prayer constantly.
Such a state of constant prayer became possible only after a long and hard effort, when a person learned to disregard all external stimuli of the surrounding environment, learned to focus his attention within himself, which was called “to bring the mind down into the heart,” and then, miraculously and by the grace of God, a direct link between man and God Himself became established. This was made possible through the use of the so-called “Jesus prayer”: “O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This brief prayer was constantly said in such a way that it became incorporated into one’s very breathing, and thus prayer literally became part of one’s breath, even when one was doing something, or talking to someone, etc.
For us, in our extremely busy lives, with the constant hurry in which we live, with the manner in which we are bombarded by external stimuli, – the process of internal endeavor, dear brethren, is beyond our capability. However, its most elementary part – the Jesus prayer – remains quite accessible even to us. We may not be able to combine it with our breathing, but we can certainly manage to say it continuously within ourselves: while traveling to and from work, while doing household chores, while going shopping – we can always at least keep this prayer in our mind. And you will see, dear brethren, how the fruits of this prayer will quickly reveal themselves: by saying this prayer over and over again, and by continuously repeating the sweetest name of Jesus Christ, we will not be so quick to pay attention to all the temptations that surround us, we will not be so quick to take offense or pass judgment on others, we will not be so quick to fall into despair; on the contrary, as long as we occupy our minds with the Jesus prayer, we will be calm, joyous and peaceful. The Scriptures tell us that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. Such is the treasure of prayer which Orthodoxy gives us.
Let us take advantage of this wonderful time of the Great Lent, dear brethren, in order to apply some effort and try to teach ourselves the Jesus prayer, which is the mightiest weapon against the evil spirits and, at the same time, a source of spiritual blessings and joy for us.
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us, sinners.” Amen.
Homily for the second Sunday of the Great Lent
Today’s Gospel, read during the Divine Liturgy, tells us of the healing of a person sick of the palsy. Upon coming into the city of Capernaum, the Lord Jesus Christ stayed in a certain home. News of this spread throughout the entire city, and the overjoyed inhabitants began to gather to Him in such great droves, that all the people were unable to get inside the house. At this time a man was brought up whose entire body was sick of the palsy. Being unable to squeeze through to Jesus Christ, the people who brought the sick man decided to uncover the roof of the courtyard in which Jesus Christ was sitting and preaching. It should be noted that courtyards in the Palestine were usually covered to protect them from the sun, and it was not too hard to uncover such a roof. Thus, having uncovered the roof, the sick man’s friends let him down on his bed to lie at Jesus’ feet. This action revealed both in them and in the sick man a strong faith in the Saviour’s omnipotence and mercy. Seeing such faith on their part, the Lord said: “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” And then He granted health to the man sick of the palsy, saying: “Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.”
Especially remarkable in this healing is the fact that the Lord first forgives the sick man’s sins and only afterwards heals his body. In this manner He reminds us that the primary cause of all illness is sin. Thus, in order to be healed of illness, before going to an earthly physician one must consult the Heavenly One. There are many examples where the healing of the body is not always needed as long as the soul is completely healed, since in such cases physical illness often passes without any treatment, even when physicians are unable to help a sick person with medications.
The story of the man sick of the palsy is also instructive in that the Lord pays attention not only to the faith of the sick man himself, but also of those who had brought him, because it says in the Gospel: “when Jesus saw their faith…”. From this we see that when someone is sick, his family members and close friends should appeal for his healing with prayers of faith to the Heavenly Physician. For this purpose the Church has established special prayers for the sick, and also the sacrament of Holy Unction.
It is not by chance that the Church has decreed that the Gospel narrative about the man sick of the palsy be read during the Great Lent. The Church’s intent is to show all of us during these days of fasting and communion the image of the man sick of the palsy as a reflection of our own spiritual state, and in his healing to indicate to us the means of restoring our own spiritual health.
Repentance is one of the foundations of our spiritual life, and it is closely tied in with fasting and abstinence, while fasting in turn is the means to grace-filled inner enlightenment, when a person already begins to enter more deeply into spiritual life and spiritual joy.
The Orthodox teaching that fasting and repentance constitute a means towards grace-filled illumination is especially powerfully revealed by Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop and Wonderworker of Thessalonika, who is commemorated this Sunday (his feast day is November 14th). St. Gregory is known as the denouncer of the heresy, or false teaching, of Varlaam, a Calabrian monk who rejected the Orthodox teaching on the grace-filled light which illuminates a person internally (i.e. fills a person with spiritual joy) and is sometimes revealed externally, visibly, such as, for example, on Mount Tabor, on Mount Sinai, or as it happened to St. Seraphim during his conversation with Motovilov. Varlaam and his disciple Akindinus taught that it is impossible to achieve this illumination by means of prayer, fasting, or other spiritual labors of self-sacrifice. This heresy was rejected by a council in A.D. 1341, at which St. Gregory zealously fought for Orthodoxy.
On the first Sunday of the Great Lent the Church commemorated the triumph of Orthodoxy over all the heresies, while on this Sunday it commemorates the triumph of Orthodox ascetic teaching. We thus enter more profoundly into spiritual life than we usually do at other times.
The Church, as a kind and loving mother, leads us gradually into spiritual life, into a spiritual atmosphere.
During the preparatory weeks to the Great Lent the Church led us gradually by means of Gospel narratives, beginning as though with the alphabet of spiritual life. During the Lent itself the Church leads us more deeply into an understanding and perception of spiritual life and offers us examples from life which we should try to follow as best we can. Thus, each Sunday of the Lent we should immerse ourselves more deeply into the mysteries of God’s plan for our salvation, until we hear the deepest and most supreme mystery of all – the words “Christ is risen!” That is the purpose and the joy of our entire faith.
Let us heed the teaching of the Holy Church and cherish it in our hearts, and let us ascend the spiritual ladder until grace-filled light illuminates our souls, giving us the peace of spiritual joy. Amen.