Friday of the First Week of the Great Fast

The readings from Genesis on the Fridays of the Great Fast point like an arrow to the covenant made on Good Friday, when our Lord gave his body and blood as a new covenant for the life of the world.

The first and second Fridays tell of the breaking of covenants, of the covenant with Adam and Eve when they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of the decision of God to destroy the human race because of its wickedness. The third Friday is the renewal of the covenant with Noah, and the fourth Friday is the covenant with Abraham. On the fifth Friday, Abraham replaces the disobedience of Adam and Eve with obedience to God in the sacrifice of his beloved son. However, God does not want this sacrifice, though he allows his only-begotten Son to die on the cross for the salvation of the human race. The sixth Friday, the funeral of Joseph, looks forward to the burial of Christ, who through his death will trample upon death.
This is our Fast, it is the making of a new covenant with God. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were expelled from paradise, and stationed a cherub with a fiery sword to guard the way to the tree of life. Four curses were imposed on Adam and Eve, on Eve, pain in childbirth, and servitude to her husband, on Adam, hard labor and death.

In the new covenant of our Lord Jesus Christ, the curse is abrogated, as the Kontakion of the Third Sunday of the great Fast proclaims, “No longer does the flaming sword guard the gates of Eden, for the tree of the cross has come to quench it wondrously. The sting of death and the victory of Hades have been driven out.”

The curse is truly abrogated, but in God’s mystical and wondrous way. In childbirth, the woman still suffers pain, but her anguish gives way to joy because of new life (John 16:21), the marital relations between man and woman are now marked by mutual love and respect, in the subtle reading of Ephesians 5:9-19, the harshness of labor is eased by the sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:9). Death remains, and even the Son of God must suffer death (“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hands on a tree,” (Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).

Holy Prophet Zechariah

“Thus says the Lord: I have returned to Zion, and I will dwell within Jerusalem; Jerusalem will be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts, the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of old age (Zechariah 8:1-2).

Zechariah was the prophet of the restoration of Jerusalem. In faith, we see this restoration in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was born in Bethlehem, in the environs of Jerusalem. He fulfilled the prophecy, “I have returned to Zion, and I will dwell in Jerusalem.” He is the light of the city. In the Feast of the Encounter, we see our Lord in Jerusalem, in its spiritual center, the temple and we see Zechariah’s prophecy fulfilled again. “Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem,” and in the present feast we see the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna in Jerusalem welcoming the coming of the Lord. Zechariah sees the Lord coming to Jerusalem as its king, prophesying Palm Sunday, “Exult greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold: your king is coming to you, a just savior is he, humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

Zechariah thus sets the seal on our pilgrimage in the feast of lights, as we come to the spiritual Jerusalem, welcoming Jesus as our Savior, our priest and our king. To find life in him is the continual renewal of our faith.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Sunday of the Last Judgment

Today, the Church begins her preparations for the Great Fast ( aka, Great Lent).

In the coming weeks we will delve into what the Great Fast means for us.

Archpriest David Petras writes,

In our preparation for the Great Fast, we must notice a theme emerging. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee was not justified because he failed to see the image of God in the tax collector. (“I thank you that I am not like this tax collector,” Luke 18:11). In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the older son was not justified because he failed to see the image of God in the prodigal returned home. (“But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him,” Luke 15:20).

Today, in the final judgment, the Lord says to the condemned goats, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it (show charitable works of mercy) to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:45). In the popular mind, Lent is a time for self-denial. Stop, that’s it. But why? Because if we do not deny ourselves, we cannot see the image of God in the other, in each and every other human being that he has created.

Possibly the Last Judgment was commemorated on this Sunday, because it is the conclusion of a “Church Year.” Next Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday, we begin again with the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall.

The Great Fast is our journey through the Old Testament, which is concluded with the New Covenant: the Mystical Supper, the Crucifixion and the Glorious and Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. We then see through the lens of the Resurrection how God’s plan is fulfilled in Christ in the Gospel of John the Theologian (until Pentecost), in the Gospel of Matthew (from Pentecost to the Exaltation of the Cross), and in the Gospel of Luke (from the Exaltation of the Cross until the Sunday of the Prodigal Son).

Then on this Sunday, we celebrate the last and final and eschatological mystery of the Final Judgment, in which God brings to completion and perfection the whole human story. That may be why, on the day before the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we remember the death of each human being, which is the completion and perfection of our own individual story and our inclusion in God’s ultimate divine plan. Interestingly, the Roman Church read the Gospel of the Final Judgment on the last Sunday before Advent, which began their liturgical year.

The Encounter of Simeon and Anna

Today’s feast is also as known the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple of the Purification of Mary (Lk 2:22-40). The Liturgy of the Church prays:

“The sacred Virgin offered the Sacred One in the Sacred Place to the Sacred Minister. Clasping Him in his arms, Simeon received Him with joy and cried out, ‘Now, Master, you release your servant, according to you word, in peace, O Lord.’ “ [From Vespers]

“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. See, he said, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”
(From Isaiah chapter 6, the second Reading at Vespers of the Feast of the Encounter)

“Simeon spoke to the Mother of God, saying: one of the Seraphim purified the lips of Isaiah with a burning ember. You fill me with light as you entrust to me, with your hands as with tongs, the one whom you hold, the Lord of the light that knows no evening, and the King of peace.”
(Troparion at Glory, Ode 5, Canon of the Feast of the Encounter)

Simeon holds God in his arms, the burning coal inaccessible to our human nature, yet made flesh and able to be embraced in love. God is often described as a spiritual fire. He appears to Moses as the bush which burned but was not consumed, which in turn became an image of the Virgin Mary who bore the fire of the Godhead in her womb. The holy John the Baptist protested, “Who has ever seen the sun, that is radiant in its essence, being purified? How then shall I cleanse in the waters the one who is the brightness of the glory, the Image of the everlasting Father? How shall I, who am like straw, touch the fire of your divinity with my hand? For you are Christ, the wisdom and power of God. The Spirit comes upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire.” (1st Troparion, Ode 4, Canon of Theophany)

The Spirit comes upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. God is the light of knowledge and understanding and the fire of love. How can we dare to touch him and live? Simeon holds him and cries out, “Now you may dismiss your servant!” Yet we do, and Holy Communion is called the “coal” in some Eastern Christian traditions, the ember that purified the lips of Isaiah. God cleanses us from our sins and makes us worthy to receive him more intimately than Simeon, in our lips and in our body. We receive Communion “for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.” As we celebrate this feast, we can never comprehend this gift.

Meatfare Week

As a preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, the Gospel of the passion of our Lord according to St. Mark is read. Today Jesus enters Jerusalem as the people exclaim, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Which we sing at every Liturgy in the Anaphora. These acclamations proved to be hollow, when the priests and elders seduced the mob to ask for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Here is a meditation of St. Gregory on the Passion:

So let us take our part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally. Let us regard as our home the heavenly Jerusalem, not the earthly one; the city glorified by angels, not the one laid waste by armies. We are not required to sacrifice young bulls or rams, beasts with horns and hoofs that are more dead than alive and devoid of feeling; but instead, let us join the choirs of angels in offering God upon his heavenly altar a sacrifice of praise. We must now pass through the first veil and approach the second, turning our eyes toward the Holy of Holies. I will say more: we must sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honoring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified.  (St. Gregory the Theologian, Homily, 45)

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

The parable read today is usually called “the parable of the Prodigal Son,” who is at the center of the story. It might also be called “the parable of the Merciful Father,” who welcomes back his son, embracing him, restoring him to his position, declaring a joyous celebration without even seeming to hear or listen to his son’s confession or protestation. It might also be called “the parable of the Petulant Son,” who is grumpy and peeved at the father’s merciful loving kindness because he thinks that he himself is so much better than his brother. As we prepare for the Great Fast, do we see a pattern developing? The pharisee thought he was much better than the tax-collector, the older son thought he was so much better than his prodigal brother, but God overflows in love for all his creatures. Perhaps the real main purpose of the Great Fast is to turn from pride to humility, to begin to see others through the eyes of God, to overflow in love for others. Truly, what does it mean to be a Christian?

The return of the prodigal Son was marked by a great banquet given by the Merciful Father. We are all invited to that banquet, celebrated at every Divine Liturgy, where the food is not the “fattened calf” but the body and blood of our Lord, the only-begotten Son of the Father. How do we approach this banquet, in the humility of the son who acknowledges his unworthiness or in the pride of the older son, who objects to the presence of his weaker brother? The answer is what it means to be a Christian.

***
“Receive me now, Lord, as you once received the Prodigal. Open to me your fatherly arms, and in thanksgiving I will sing of your glory and goodness” (Sunday of the Prodigal Son Canon, Ode 1, troparion 3)

The parable of the Prodigal Son is also commemorated on the Second Sunday of the Great Fast, in the Canon of Matins, because the origin of the Triodion is from Palestine, where this Gospel was read on the Second Sunday.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee: the Connection

The journey of the feast of lights was a journey to specific holy places. It is a journey which we now make in spirit, in order to find the light of Christ. Soon after this journey, we begin another journey, going with our Lord to Jerusalem, as he foretold in the Gospel of St. Luke: “When the days for his being taken up (which John calls his glorification) were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” During the Great Fast, then, we make another journey that ends in the holy city of Jerusalem, as Jesus said, “Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). But his death is his glorification, “by death he tramples death,” and it is the way to resurrection, to a resurrection promised to all. Our journey likewise ends in life (resurrection) and in light, as the Gospel of Paschal Sunday, the Day of Resurrection says, “ The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The journey to light in the Christmas – Theophany – Encounter cycle ends in the temple, where the incarnate temple of God enters into the holy Temple, and there is proclaimed to the world by Simeon and Anna, who witness to his glory. The journey of the Great Fast then begins in the Temple, and two men go there to pray. One witnesses to pride and self-righteousness, the other to humility and repentance. The whole of the Great Fast is for us to make our choice on which to imitate. To be a Christian means to hear our Lord’s warning, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever exalts himself will be exalted.” This is the central meaning of the Great Fast, as our Lord invites us, “Come and see.”

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Sunday of Zacchaeus

1 Timothy 4:9-16; Luke 19:1-10

Though there is no special office for this Sunday, it is commonly seen as the beginning of our preparation for the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection. Today we must be Zacchaeus. When Jesus came to Jericho, “Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.” Today is where we start our search for God, who is coming to take away the sin of the world. Today we must be filled with the desire to see God, as was Zacchaeus. Today we must acknowledge our sins, for Jesus is coming to St. Stephens in Phoenix, today he is coming into our homes, more exactly, into the home of our heart. What a contrast between Zacchaeus and the Blind Man of last week’s gospel, who could not see and begged Jesus for sight. Zacchaeus could see and yet climbs the sycamore tree to get the best possible view. What a contrast between Zacchaeus and the rich young man of two Sundays ago.

The rich young man could not let even one penny of his riches escape his grasp, but Zacchaeus says, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Today, Jesus tells us, “Salvation has come to this home.” It is already Pascha, if we turn to our Lord in his mercy, if we seek him with the zeal of Zacchaeus.

Today St. Paul’s promise is fulfilled, “We have set our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). Today we must be among those who believe.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Blessing of Water

As a cradle Byzantine, my memories of church when I was a young boy are spotty. They touch only those aspects that somehow grasped my attention. One of these was the blessing of the water on Theophany: the solemn prayer, the priest lifting up the trikirion and thrusting it into the water, the going up to receive the holy water for our home. I don’t remember how much I understood, but this was a very powerful part of our faith.

The Christian faith does not depend on exotic substances, in magical elixirs, in secret formulas, but the Christian faith is the transformation of simple gifts of life – of water, of bread, of wine, of oil. Our water is no longer ordinary water, but it has been touched by the feet of God incarnate. Merely to see this day, merely to drink this water, merely to pray to Jesus baptized by a human hand transforms us. We need water to live, to drink it for nourishment, to wash with it to be kept clean, and now to be baptized with it for the life and cleansing of our souls as well as our bodies. The prayer for the consecration of water on Theophany may be said to be thrilling. We use words in ways we do not usually use them. The words come to the water, and all creation is transformed.

And so the priest prays: “By your will you brought forth all things from nothingness into being; by your might you control creation, and by your providence you govern the world. You created all things from four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. The spiritual powers tremble before you. The sun praises you, the moon glorifies you, the stars serve you. Light obeys you, the depths tremble before you, and the springs adore you. You spread out the heavens like a tent. You established the earth upon the waters. You fringed the seas with beaches of sand. You poured forth air for breathing. The angelic powers serve you; the ranks of archangels worship you; the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim stand before you or hover over you, yet they dare not gaze at your unapproachable glory. Although you are God, boundless, indescribable, and without beginning, you came upon earth, and taking the likeness of a servant, became like one of us.”

Theophany – God is manifest! Nothing will ever be the same again, and it is in all these created elements that are free and available to us all.