CATECHETICAL HOMILY ON THE OPENING OF HOLY AND GREAT LENT
+ B A R T H O L O M E W
By God’s Mercy
Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
To the Plenitude of the Church
May the Grace and Peace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Together with our Prayer, Blessing and Forgiveness be with You
We offer a hymn of thanksgiving to the Triune God, who has rendered us worthy once more to reach Holy and Great Lent in order to fight the good fight of ascesis and turn towards the “one thing that is needful” (Luke 10:42).
In a world averse to asceticism, in the presence of contemporary de-sanctification of life and domination of self-centered and self-indulgent ideals, the Orthodox Church insists on a Lenten period of spiritual struggle and “venerable abstinence” for its children in preparation for Holy Week, the Passion and Cross of Christ, so that we may become witnesses and partakers of His glorious Resurrection.
During Great Lent we are called to experience the creative and salvific economy of the Trinitarian God more deeply and to partake in the eschatological inclination, direction and progression of ecclesiastical and spiritual life more tangibly. We become conscious of the tragic impasse of the self-serving arrogance of the Pharisee, the hard-heartedness of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal, the callous disregard for hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness and abandonment of our neighbor, according to the gospel account of the future judgement. We are encouraged to imitate the repentance and humility of the Publican, the return of the Prodigal to the household of the Father, in whose Grace he trusts, as well as those who show mercy to the needy, Gregory Palamas’ life of prayer, John the Sinaite’s and Mary of Egypt’s life of ascesis, so that strengthened through the veneration of the holy icons and the precious Cross we may arrive at a personal encounter with Christ the life-giver who arose from the tomb.
During this blessed period, the communal and social character of spiritual life is revealed with particular emphasis. We are not alone; we do not stand alone before God. We are not a sum of individuals but a community of persons, for whom “existence” means “coexistence”. Ascesis is not individualistic but an ecclesiastical event and achievement—our participation as believers in the mystery and sacraments of the Church, a struggle against selfishness, a practice of philanthropy, a Eucharistic use of creation and a contribution to the transfiguration of the world. It is common freedom, common virtue, common good and common adherence to the rule of the Church. We fast as defined by the Church and not as we individually please. Our ascetic effort functions within the framework of our relations with other members of the ecclesial body, as participation in events, initiatives and actions, which constitute the Church as a community of life and of “truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Orthodox spirituality is inextricably bound to participation in the entire life of the Church, which culminates in the Divine Eucharist; it is a piety that is nurtured by the Church and expressed as Church.
The period of Great Lent is not a period to highlight religious or emotional extremes or superficial sentimentalities. From an Orthodox perspective, spirituality does not mean turning towards the spirit and the soul, which fosters a dualistic reduction of matter and body. Spirituality is the permeation of our entire existence—spirit, mind and will, soul and body, our entire life—by the Holy Spirit, which is a spirit of communion. Accordingly, then, spirituality means transforming our lives into church, a life inspired and guided by the Comforter, a genuine bearing of spiritual gifts, which presupposes our own free cooperation and participation in the sacramental life of the Church, a godly way of life.
Venerable Brothers and beloved faithful in the Lord,
When spirituality is authentic, it cannot also be fruitless. Whoever truly loves God also loves one’s neighbor everywhere as well as creation in its entirety. This sacrificial love that “never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8) is a Eucharistic act, the fullness of life on earth, the foretaste and truth of the last times. Our Orthodox faith is an inexhaustible source of empowerment, enabling us in spiritual struggle, God-loving and philanthropic action, and generous bearing of fruit in the world for the benefit of all. Faith and love constitute a uniform and uninterrupted experience of life in the Church. The practice of ascesis, fasting and philanthropy in the Holy Spirit and communion of the Church comprises a barrier preventing ecclesial piety from becoming a religious idol and barren introversion or individualistic feat.
The Spirit of God blows unceasingly in the Church, where God is forever “with us”. In these holy days of Great Lent, we are called to intensify our ascetic struggle against selfish attitudes, to be in “constantly waiting in prayer” (Romans 12:12), “living in humility and practicing acts of mercy” (Abba Poemen), living virtuously and mercifully, forgiving others and exercising love toward one another, glorifying God as the Giver of all that is good, and thanking Him for His abundant gifts. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Therefore, we invoke on all of you the strength from above so that we may all, with a burning and cheerful desire, welcome this Holy and Great Lent. We wish you “a smooth journey through the fast” and bestow our Patriarchal blessing to our venerable brother hierarchs in Christ, as well as the beloved spiritual children of the Holy and Great Church of Christ throughout the world.
Holy and Great Lent 2018
† Bartholomew of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant before God