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Pastoral Messages

The spiritual welfare of our students, staff and families is central to our mission at St. John's. As part of our commitment to supporting and fostering the Orthodox life of our community, the Chaplain and Principal periodically offer pastoral messages via our e-mail listing, letters, or other means. An electronic version of some of these messages is found here on this page.

Entrance into the Temple of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos

posted Dec 4, 2013, 7:08 AM by Yulia Russiyanova   [ updated Dec 4, 2013, 7:08 AM ]

The Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary is celebrated this Wednesday, December 4. 
Since early days the Church has given to the Mother of God titles of holiness greater than those which are given to any saint. She is called the All-holy, Panagia. We venerate Her as One who is greater and holier than the Cherubim and the Seraphim, greater than the angels of God who, endowed with vision, can see, contemplate and adore, greater than the angels of God who are, as it were, the throne of the Most High. Because the ones as the others see, worship, serve God as their Lord, as their Master, and yet somehow they remain farther from Him than She, who in Her exceeding holiness has become the kin of God, has become the Mother of the Incarnate Word, who is the Bride, the perfect revelation of what the whole creation is called to be and to become.

The birth and early life of the Virgin Mary is not recorded in the Gospels or other books of the New Testament, however this information can be found in a work dating from the second century known as the Book of James or Protoevangelion.

Tradition has it that the parent of the Virgin Mary could not have children. Despite this, they never lost hope or faith and made an oath to God that they would dedicate their child to Him, if God gives them one.  God heard their prayers and Joachim and Anna were given a child. When Mary was three years old, her parents fulfilled their promise by giving her up to live and be raised in the Temple. Their fulfilling this oath is what we will celebrate on Wednesday.

The services for this holiday are as follows. The vigil begins at 6:00 pm Tuesday. There will be two liturgies on Wednesday.  The early liturgy starts at 7:30 am and the late liturgy begins at 9:30 am. Attendance is mandatory. As you may know, there will be no classes on Wednesday, and students are welcome to attend services at their home parishes.

Please accept my congratulations on this wonderful holiday.

In Christ,
Rev. Sergey Kiryukhin

Nativity of the Mother of God

posted Sep 21, 2013, 7:27 AM by Yulia Russiyanova   [ updated Sep 21, 2013, 7:39 AM ]

September is the first month not  only according to the academic calendar but also according to the church calendar. September has a special meaning for our church life because the cycle of events in the life of our Savior begins this month. The first such event that we will relive this Saturday, September 21 is the Nativity (birth) of the Mother of God. I am attaching for your reading a brief description of this holiday in English and Russian. 

As this is one of the twelve major holidays of the church year, it is very important for you and your children to attend church services. The vigil on Fridayevening will begin at the usual time of 6:00 pm. The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom will begin at 9:00 am Saturday, September 21. 

This Saturday is also the 25th anniversary of Archpriest Serge Kotar's priesthood. I am sure that Father Serge needs no introduction to you. He was among the founders of St. Johns Academy. He has been serving Holy Virgin Community and St. Johns Academy for many years. There will be a luncheon honoring Fr. Serge after the 9 a.m. Liturgy. Please do not forget to congratulate Fr. Serge on his day.

With Love in Christ,
Priest Sergey Kiryukhin

Fasting and Great Lent

posted Mar 20, 2013, 8:01 AM by   [ updated Jul 5, 2013, 3:20 PM by Yulia Russiyanova ]


The Crucifixion, fragment (Studenica Monastery, Serbia).
Great Lent is the 40-day season of spiritual preparation that comes before the most important Feast of the Christian year, Holy Pascha (which means “Passover” and is commonly called “Easter”,). It is the central part of a larger time of preparation called the Triodion season.

The Triodion begins ten weeks before Easter and is divided into three main parts: three Pre-Lenten weeks of preparing our hearts, the six weeks of Lent, and Holy Week. The main theme of the Triodion is repentance—mankind's return to God, our loving Father.

This annual season of repentance is a spiritual journey with our Savior. Our goal is to meet the risen Lord Jesus, Who reunites us with God the Father. The Father is always waiting to greet us with outstretched hands. We must ask ourselves the question, “Are we willing to turn to Him?”

During Great Lent, the Church teaches us how to re­ceive Him by using the two great means of repentance— prayer and fasting.


The word “fast” means not eating all or certain foods. As Orthodox Faithful, we can fast completely at certain times of great importance, and especially each time before receiv­ing Holy Communion. Usually, fasting means limiting the number of meals and/or the type of food eaten.

The purpose of fasting is to remind us of the Scriptural teaching, “Man does not live by bread alone.” The needs of the body are nothing compared to the needs of the soul. Above all else, we need God, Who provides everything for both the body and the soul. Fasting teaches us to depend on God more fully.

The first sin of our parents, Adam and Eve, was eating from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:1-19). We fast from food, or a food item, as a reminder that we are to fast from sin­ning and doing evil.

There are several benefits of fasting. Fasting helps us pray more easily. Our spirit is lighter when we are not weighed down by too much food or food that is too rich. Through fasting, we also learn to feel compassion for the poor and hungry and to save our own resources so that we can help those in need.

Fasting is more than not eating food. Saint John Chrysostom teaches that it is more important to fast from sin. For example, besides controlling what goes into our mouths, we must control what comes out of our mouths as well. Are our words pleasing to God, or do we curse God or our brother?

The other members of the body also need to fast: our eyes from seeing evil, our ears from hearing evil, our limbs from participating in anything that is not of God. Most important of all, we need to control our thoughts, for thoughts are the source of our actions, whether good or evil.

Fasting is not an end in itself. Our goal is an inner change of heart. The Lenten Fast is called “ascetic.” This refers to a ctions of self-denial and spiritual training which are central to fasting.

Fasting is a spiritual exercise. It is not imposed or forced upon us. In the same way that true repentance cannot be forced upon anyone, each of us makes the choice to turn away from our sinful ways and go toward our loving, for giving Father in Heaven.


Before Great Lent begins, four Sunday lessons prepare us for the Fast. Humility is the theme of the first Sunday, called the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Lord's parable in Luke 18:10-14 teaches that fasting with pride is rejected by God. For this reason, there is no fasting the week following this Sunday. This includes no fasting on Wednesday

and Friday that week. (Wednesdays and Fridays are usually fast days throughout the year—Wednesday's Fast recalls the betrayal of Christ by Judas; Friday's Fast commemorates the Lord's Crucifixion.)

Repentance is the theme of the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, called the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Before we can return to God, we need to recognize that we are far from God because of sin. Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), we are in a self-imposed exile. Will we come to our senses as did the Prodigal Son and return to our Father?

The next Sunday is called both Meatfare Sunday and the Sunday of the Last Judgment. The second name refers to the Gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-4 6) read on this day. The Lord tells us we will be judged at the end according to the love we have shown for our brother. “I was hungry..thirsty..naked...a prison...sick... What­ever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine you did for Me.” Almsgiving goes hand in hand with fast­ing. This Sunday is called Meatfare because it is the last day meat, fish or poultry is eaten before Easter, for those keep­ing the Lenten Fast.

The last Pre-Lenten Sunday is called both Cheesefare Sunday and the Sunday of Forgiveness. This is the last day dairy products are eaten before the Fast. The Gospel lesson (Matthew 6:14-21 ) read on this day tells us that our fast must not be hypocritical or “for show.” Our work and our appearance are to continue as usual and our extra efforts are to be known only by God. The Gospel reading also reminds us that God the Father will forgive us in the same manner as we forgive our brother. With this promise of forgiveness, Great Lent begins on the next day, which is called Clean Monday. Clean Monday is a total fast day, except for a little water. No other beverages or food are taken.


The Lenten Fast rules that we observe today were established within the monasteries of the Orthodox Church during the sixth through eleventh centuries. These rules are intended for all Orthodox Christians, not just monks and nuns.

The first week of Lent is especially strict. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, a total fast is kept. In practice, very few people are able to do this. Some find it necessary to eat a little each day after sunset. Many Faithful do fast com­pletely on Monday and then eat only uncooked food (bread, fruit, nuts) on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, the fast is kept until after the Presanctified Liturgy.

From the second through the sixth weeks of Lent, the general rules for fasting are practiced. Meat, animal prod­ucts (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard), fish (meaning fish with backbones), olive oil and wine (all alcoholic drinks) are not consumed during the weekdays of Great Lent. Octopus and shell-fish are allowed, as is vegetable oil. On weekends, ol­ive oil and wine are permitted.

According to what was done in the monasteries, one meal a day is eaten on weekdays and two meals on weekends of

Great Lent. No restriction is placed on the amount of food during the meal, though moderation is always encouraged in all areas of one's life at all times.

Fish, oil and wine are allowed on the Feast of the An­nunciation (March 25) and on Palm Sunday (one week before Easter). On other feast days, such as the First and Second Finding of the Head of Saint John the Baptist (February 24) , the Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (March 9), the Forefeast of the Annunciation (March 24) and the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel (March 26), wine and oil are permitted.


The week before Easter, Holy Week, is a special time of fasting separate from Great Lent. Like the first week, a strict fast is kept. Some Orthodox Christians try to keep a total fast on Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday. Most eat a simple Lenten meal at the end of each day before going to the evening Church services.

On Holy Thursday, wine is allowed in remembrance of the Last Supper. Holy Friday is kept as a strict fast day, as is Holy Saturday . Holy Saturday is the only Saturday in the entire year when oil is not permitted.

In short, these are the Lenten rules for fasting. Traditionally, the Church Fathers recommend that someone new to fasting begin by resolving to faithfully do as much as he or she is able during the Lenten period. Each year as one matures as a Christian, a fuller participation can be under­taken. However, it is not recommended that a person try to create their own rules for fasting, since this would not be obedient or wise. The Faithful are encouraged to consult with their priest or bishop regarding the Fast when possible.

Personal factors such as one's health and living situation need to be considered as well. For example, an isolated Or­thodox Christian required to eat meals at their place of employment, school or in prison may not be able to avoid certain foods. The Church understands this and extends leniency.

It is important to keep in mind that fasting is not a law for us—rather, a voluntary way of remembering to not sin and do evil, and to help keep our focus on prayer, repentance and doing acts of kindness, for we “are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).


The Lenten Fast is broken following the midnight Easter service. With the proclamation, “Christ is risen!” the time of feasting begins. The week after Easter is called Bright Week and there is no fasting. For the next 40 days, the Church celebrates the Paschal (Easter) season. Joy and thanksgiving are the fulfillment of our Lenten journey.


The Prayer of Saint Ephraim the Syrian is traditionally said many times throughout each day during Great Lent, in addition to our daily prayers.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faintheartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. (+)

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant. (+)

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin and not to judge my brother, for You are blessed from all ages to all ages. Amen. (+)

(The “(‘+)“ indicates that those praying make a deep bow or prostration at this point.)

17 / 03 / 2013

Wednesday of the First Week of Great Lent

posted Mar 20, 2013, 7:52 AM by   [ updated Mar 20, 2013, 7:52 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

On Wednesdays and Fridays (and on certain feast days) throughout the entire period of Great Lent, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated.

On the first week of Great Lent, according to tradition, most Orthodox Christians approach the Holy Mysteries of Christ after an especially concentrated preparation for confession and Communion, usually on Saturday or Sunday. Communing at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during the first week of Great Lent are those who due to illness or some other reasonable cause are not able to fast strictly during the five days of this especially important Lenten week. During the other weeks of Lent, anyone who wishes may receive Communion at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts; this does not include infants, who may be communed only at the full Liturgy.

Hymns from the Triodion for the first Wednesday of Great Lent

Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh may become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God, slain of His own will for the sake of the world, and spiritually may celebrate the feast of the Savior’s Resurrection from the dead. So shall we be raised on high in the glory of the virtues, and through our righteous actions we shall give joy to the Lord who loves mankind (Aposticha at Vespers for Wednesday).

O Lord, Thou hast consecrated and granted unto us this light-giving season of abstinence. Enable all of us to pass through it in compunction and sincerity, living in peace by the power of Thy Cross, O Thou who alone lovest mankind (Sessional hymn at Matins).

From the tree of the Cross there grows for all the world the flower of abstinence. Let us then accept the Fast with love and take pleasure in the fruit of Christ’s divine commandments.

Abstaining from the passions, let us for the Lord’s sake crucify our flesh; by our life in Christ let us all show that the pride of the flesh is dead.

Lifted upon Thy Cross, O Christ, Thou hast raised us up who were fallen into evil. I have slipped into the pit of sin: bring me out and set me firmly on the rock of salvation, that I may glorify Thy power.

Instructions for those entering into the Fast

If the soul of a Christian longs for purity and seeks spiritual health, it should strive with all its might to make use of this time so advantageous for the soul. That is why those who love God appropriately greet each other with the beginning of the Fast.

Physical fasting means nothing without spiritual fasting of the inner man, which consists in guarding oneself from the passions. This fast of the inner man is pleasing to God and will reward you where your physical fasting lacks.

—St. Barsanuphius the Great

Let us apply all our strength so that we might make good use of this brief time, preserving our works pure of all evil, so that we might be saved from the hands of the princes of evil who meet us; for they are wicked and have no mercy.

—Abba Isaiah the Recluse

We shall not behave ourselves like this: today we have temperance and meekness, but in the morning we have intemperance and pride; today we have silence, vigilance, and humility, but tomorrow we have entertainment, unquenchable sleep, insubordination, and everything like that.

—St. Ephraim the Syrian

We must be sure that no matter how hard we try, we can never do anything if we do not make use of help from on high.

—St. John Chrysostom

Truly, if one does not give himself over to be slain like a lamb for every virtue, even the slightest, and does not spill his blood for it, he will never acquire it. Thus has God ordained in His economy, that we should purchase eternal life by voluntary death. You do not wish to die a voluntary death and live in eternal life? Then, you are dead.

—St. Symeon the New Theologian

The sorrow that comes with cutting off sinful habits brings joy as a result, and spiritual well-being urges us towards thankfulness to God for His inexpressible mercy toward us.

—Metropolitan John (Snychev)

Refraining from anger and wrath is our personal work and it requires great ascetic labor; but becoming immoveable and acquiring perfect calmness of heart and perfect meekness—this can only be the work of God in us.

—St. Symeon the New Theologian

A Christian cannot produce any desired change in himself of his own accord, and Christ will not reward him for any such change if he does not commit himself to Christ with all his heart.

—St. Symeon the New Theologian

On the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian

Great Lent. Sretensky Monastery. Photo V. Kornushin/
Great Lent. Sretensky Monastery. Photo V. Kornushin/
"O Lord and Master of my life! A spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and vain talk give me not; but rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience and love bestow upon me Thy servant. [And further, Yeah O Lord King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother, for Thou art holy unto the ages of ages.]"

This is the prayer that you, brothers and sisters, have heard many times in church during these days. It was written by St. Ephraim the Syrian, a pastor and teacher of the flock of Christ, who lived in the fourth century A.D. and left this inheritance to the Church; and the Church has commanded that we pronounce it during the days of Great Lent at every divine service, except on Saturdays and Sundays.

Why did the holy Church introduce this prayer and not another into the services of Great Lent? In order to remind us what we must ask and beg of the Lord at the threshold of fasting and repentance. Just as a mother guards her children from catching a cold, so does the Church guard us now from temptation, hinting to us about the angle that temptations make take against us and by what means we can deflect them. Feeling the tenderness of the Church's maternal care for our salvation, let us redouble our attention and enter into accord with her good intentions for us, and follow her instructions as children follow their mothers' counsel.

When the holy Church has us pray to the Lord during fasting and repentance for the banishment from us of the spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and vain talk, she shows that this particular spirit attacks us during the time of Lent more than at any other. In fact, what time is more convenient for exercise in God's word than the time dedicated to preparing ourselves for confession and Communion? Yet it is during this time that the spirit of idleness tempts us the most! What time is more opportune for spiritual contemplation than the time dedicated to attending church and hearing there soul-saving prayers, readings, and hymns? Yet it is during this time that impure thoughts enter our thoughts! What time is better for exercising silence than the time of repentance? And yet this is the time that we most tend to engage in the vain talk!

Isn't that so? But someone who fasts and goes to church only out of need does not notice these temptations; whereas someone who fasts properly and prays in church as he should will understand the whole importance of the prayer the Church now puts to use.

What is the spirit of idleness? It is idleness of mind in the work of correcting ourselves. The mind should exercise itself in the word of God, penetrate the reading of the prayers, encourage us toward the ascetic labor of fasting and prayer, reflect over our behavior as it compares with Christ's commandments, admit our limitations in our inadequacies and errors, and fulfill the requirements of the faith. But when the mind does none of this, isn't it idle, distracted, and immersed in sensualness? Pity the person who fasts but has the spirit of idleness inside: he wears himself out, but receives no benefit.

What is the spirit of despondency? It is the sorrow of an idle spirit. It pines for the pleasures it delighted in before the fast; it sorrows because it cannot break the rule of the Church without reproach from its conscience, and it sighs when it sees Lenten food. And doesn't this spirit of despondency and boredom burden a person more than the most austere fasting? Isn't it more harmful to your health than simple, artless food? Pity the person who longs for pleasures during the fast. The human mind invented pleasures, while fasting was established by God Himself.

What is ambition? It is the pride of life. Whoever fasts while having it, fasts only outwardly. But is outward fasting pleasing to God? The Pharisee fasted but received no benefit; to the contrary, the publican did not fast, but he was preferred over the Pharisee. Obviously it is because one was filled with the pride of life while the other had a humble heart and broken spirit.

What is the spirit of vain talk? It is the passion for empty chatter, which comes partly from a dull mind, partly from idleness, and partly from envy and anger. But no matter where this passion comes from, it is the most dangerous passion. That is because every idle word that penetrates into the soul of our neighbor—if it is not immediately quelled—will become the seed of evil that sprouts, grows, and bears fruit. Do not think that a word released into the air will disappear into air. No! For every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment (Mt. 12:36), says the Lord Himself.

—Metropolitan Nicanor of Novgorod and St. Petersburg

Tuesday of the first week of Great Lent

posted Mar 20, 2013, 7:49 AM by   [ updated Mar 20, 2013, 7:49 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

“I have humbled my soul with fasting”, says David the Psalmist. The goal of every Christian is to prepare his soul for eternity, for life with the Lord; because we should be trying to humble our souls, to calm the passions, but the passions can only be extinguished with fasting and prayer. Humility is the most important element for the salvation of the soul. Everything else—ascetic labors, fasting, prayer, prostrations—these are the means, the way by which the soul approaches humility.

There are “podvizhniki” (ascetic laborers) who place a strict fast upon themselves, but they are also burning in their passions—anger, or hatred of neighbor. Such a fast is not pleasing to God. During the fast, we should be abstinent in everything: food, actions, words, desires... What is abstinence in desires? Well, for example a person loves meat, but for the Lord’s sake he does not eat it at all, just like the monks. Another decides not to watch television... These are all podvigs—ascetic labors. In the struggle with the passions a person cultivates patience, strength of will, and most important—humility.

For the Lord’s sake you can do any ascetic feat—quit smoking or drinking, or stop getting irritated; and the Lord will give you grace for these podvigs, fill your soul with joy and peace, and reveal the meaning of life. Some consider that we can do such podvigs ourselves, without the Lord. But this is pride speaking in us, while life shows us differently. There are many instances when a person could not quit drinking, smoking, or swearing, no matter how he tried. He may have trusted in his own will, and his friends and family may have helped him, or he may even have gone to doctors... But all in vain. Only when a person turns for help to the Lord, to the Mother of God, repents, asks for help, and promises to change does the Lord give him strength for the struggle, and his life is transformed.

The soul and body are healed by fasting. Fasting is a state of vigilance, a struggle with evil spirits and passions. If the demons of despondency, despair, boredom, anger, or jealousy creep in, turn in prayer to the Lord, ask His help for strength in the struggle, and prepare your flesh for the battle by fasting: the warrior who is weighed down will not overcome the enemy. The Church calls us to restraint; the Lord calls us to restraint.

From the book, During the Fast

Hymns from the Triodion in the first week of Great Lent. Tuesday

Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God (Aposticha, Vespers for Tuesday).

Most blessed is the grace of the holy Fast. For through fasting Moses was glorified, and he received the Law written upon tablets; and through fasting the three Children were made stronger the the fire. Through fasting, then let us quench the burning passions of the flesh, and let us cry to Christ the Savior: Grant conversion to us all and deliver us from Gehenna (sessional hymn, Matins).

Be sober, be vigilant, groan and weep, my soul. Through fasting cast aside the whole burden of sin. By fervent repentance escape from the fire; through thy mourning, tear in pieces the mourning-garment of the passions and put on the robe of God.

Through fasting let us all ascend the mountain of virtuous action, forsaking the sensual temptations that creep upon the ground. Let us enter into the darkness of holy visions; by the divine and mystical ascent let us become godlike, and let us look only upon Christ our beloved in His beauty.

Giving wings to our soul through abstinence, let us all offer acceptable prayers to the Lord in heaven.

From the Lenten Triodion, translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1999.

On Fasting

Fasting turns back temptation, it adorns the ascetic laborer in piety, and sobriety and chastity accompany him.

—St. Basil the Great

Poor Lent! How much chiding, insult, and persecution it endures! But you see, it still stands, by the grace of God. And how else could it be? It has strong support! The Lord fasted, the Apostles fasted, and quite a lot at that, as the Apostle Paul said of himself, in fastings often (2 Cor. 11:27). And all the saints kept strict fasts, so that if we had an opportunity to look over the habitations of paradise we would not find there a single inhabitant who was alien to fasting. That is how it should be. Paradise was lost by violating the fast, and taking up strict fasting should number among the means by which we return to lost paradise. Our mother the Church is compassionate of heart; she is not our stepmother. Would she place upon us something that heavy and unnecessary? But she has placed it upon us! Truly it could not be any other way. Let us submit to it... Yes, and everyone who wants to be saved submits to it... Whoever tries to talk you out of fasting surely does not value salvation.

—St. Theophan the Recluse

Setting Out on the Lenten Path: On Clean Monday

posted Mar 18, 2013, 9:12 AM by   [ updated Mar 18, 2013, 9:12 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

Today the Holy Church – and we all – has taken its very important first step into the mystical and penitential arena of Great Lent. Its first day has passed by and, following the reading of the canon of St. Andrew of Crete, our souls have been plunged into the deeply prayerful atmosphere of Great Lent.

Glory to God that the Holy Fast has arrived! This is a time of struggle with the spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking – in the words of the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which we will be hearing for a long time, and which will penetrate deeply into our hearts.

Great Lent is an amazing opportunity for each of us, for each member of the Church, to break away from deadening vanity, from bustle and chatter, from the eternal pursuit of obscure ends. This is a time of battle with the multitude of enslaving passions, sins, and vices that nests in our hearts. When someone is in bondage to willful vanity and the spirit of the times, it seems to him (because he lives without prayer and grace) that God is somewhere far away and that the entire world is, as it were, woven from the icy particles of indifference and boredom. But we all know that we just need, if only for a minute, to stop ourselves – to turn aside, think, pray, and raise our hearts on high to God – and then we will immediately understand that God, His love and Eternity, are all amazingly close!

Great Lent is an opportunity for us all to put an end to our endless rushing about and to give some thought to Eternity. Great Lent, as the Holy Fathers call it, is an extraordinary expanse of love, goodness, mercy, and magnanimity towards our neighbors; it is an expanse of penitential prayer, contrition, and the remembrance of death. All these concepts are familiar to us, for we hear of them daily when we read the Holy Gospel and when the Church speaks of them to us.

But still, how can we ensure that our souls will truly possess everything that we read and hear? That it will not become a pious sham of the spiritual life, but real life? This, of course, is a very difficult task. But the fast has been given to us to help: it is a unique opportunity not to overlook ourselves, to take a small step towards our own souls. What should we do so that this amazing meeting of man with his own soul would take place?

If we look at our lives, which are often woven from moments of vanity and bustle, we can all ask ourselves: “Which is more important for me: seizing the moment for some new pleasure or new earthly discovery; or seizing the moment for acquiring eternal life?”

The Holy Church will always remind us – especially during these penitential, profound, mystical, and simultaneously joyful days – in the daily Divine services of the most important thing: of seeking the Kingdom of God in our hearts; of the necessity of acquiring the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, peace, and joy. This task is unusually difficult because it is easier for us to focus on the external, including during the fast: to focus on the menu, on giving up certain foods, television, or certain pleasures; on not going to places of entertainment, and so on. This is certainly important, but we should remember that this is not the deepest part of what we are doing.

St. Barsanuphius of Optina speaks wonderfully about monasticism. He has words on prayer, on the meaning and depths of the monastic life, that relate not only to monks, but to every layperson, to every believing Orthodox person. St. Barsanuphius says that outward monasticism can be likened to plowing the earth; but no matter how much you plow, he says, nothing will grow if you do not plant anything. Inner monasticism is the sowing, and the Jesus Prayer is the grain. Prayer illumines the entire inner life of a monk, giving him the strength for battle.

These words of St. Barsanuphius of Optina remind us of the inner component of the fast, of the most important thing: the sowing of prayer of which the Elder speaks. It helps the earth of our hearts to bring forth the grace-filled fruits of humility, meekness, inner mourning, and heartfelt prayer. St. Silouan the Athonite says that if you want pure prayer, then be humble and temperate, confess more often and more purely, and then prayer will love you.

Our Church is the experience of eternal life, which begins not on some abstract plane, but today – here and now in this particular human heart.

The Church returns a feeling of uniqueness, authenticity, and profundity to the life of a person who has become lost in this life, who has been fooled by false currents and ideas, of which there are so many in the world – a feeling that only faith, only Christ and the Church, can give.

The Holy Church gives us this fullness – these colors, this air, this light, this experience of profound feelings – right where God’s providence has placed each one of us, where we live, work, serve, and struggle; it is here that our souls grow into eternal life. No matter how many paths mankind may invent – new technologies, means of development, or new national ideas – there remains only one true path: the path of the Gospel, about which Christ Himself says: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart; and thy neighbour as thyself.” Nothing in this world is more important, profound, or lofty than this commandment.

St. Justin [Popovic] of Serbia says that Christians should bear Christ’s luminous countenance into the twilight of the modern world, proclaiming it to the world that has grown lost in the wilds of self-love. The Gospel speaks of love for God and neighbor. Perhaps the task of every Christian is to bear Christ’s luminous countenance, about which the saint speaks. Of course, it is by no means necessary for the faithful to proclaim Christ with a megaphone in an open square or to accost our relatives, as we might often do, with the insistence that they immediately repent for their entire lives and go to church. Such preaching often does not bear fruit, because the best preacher is the believer who glows inwardly with love, magnanimity, mercy, inner peace, prayer, grace, and harmony. Of course, this is very difficult and we do not always manage to attain this inner glow, but nonetheless this is what the Church calls us to do.

After all, why does the world suffer? We see this suffering around us every day. Why does the unbeliever perceive this world as a catastrophe, as a leap into the abyss, as a total maze of boredom, despair, and indifference? Why does man consider himself the endpoint of this long earthly journey? He places himself, rather than God or truth, at the center of the universe and thinks that he is the ultimate goal of his own movement. Why does someone take drugs? Why does he fill his life with fantasies, rags, laughter, cynical pleasures, and deceit? Thousands of more things, which the person who has gone astray does not remember, stand behind these things. But most importantly, emptiness and the absence of God lie behind this, because every passion is the fruit of emptiness, the fruit of the lack of desire to move towards faith and God.

May our Lenten activity be repentance and contrition! May the people we meet on our life’s path – at work, on the train, in the subway, on the street – during Great Lent (which, of course, flies by), people who have lost their way, who know nothing of the Church or faith, feel at least some warmth and concern from us! May they see that there is another life, that these (as they said of Christians in antiquity) are a peculiar people who live differently! Of course, we do not live as did the first Christians, but may the people we meet still feel that different values and goals exist in this life!

How well St. Maximus the Confessor put it, that a Christian’s attitude towards the surrounding world should be neither passionate nor passionless, but compassionate! This compassion for the world should distinguish Christians. Our small Lenten good deed (and we should set such a task for ourselves) could be saying a small prayer for someone, offering someone a glass of water, or doing some other small good deed – let this be our mission, our preaching, our Lenten activity! But for this to take place, this ringing emptiness, this vacancy of grace and prayer, should not be in our hearts! Rather, those grace-filled gifts of which Holy Scripture speaks should be in the hearts of Christians: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance [Galatians 5:22-23]. We all know that there are few such sweet-smelling fruits in our hearts; as we heard today in the canon of St. Andrew of Crete: “I have ruined the beauty of my mind” [Ode 2]. An amazing verse!

St. Nektary of Optina said: “Sure, things with me are bad; but with grace they are good.” What does this mean? With me things are entirely bad, but the Lord will help me; He will touch my heart with His grace – and help and support will certainly come. The most important thing is that we seek it, that we thirst for God. May Great Lent help each of us to find something new in the spiritual life! Of course, the most important thing is that we acquire repentance and learn patience, magnanimity, prayer, wisdom, and perhaps simple relations with our neighbors, that everyday wisdom that we often lack because our relations are often completely overshadowed by trivialities.

If someone is ill, but does not grumble, and understands that his illness, even if serious, has been given to him for the purification of his heart from a multitude of passions, then this experience of pain turns into one of recovery. If someone loses his loved ones, but sees in this Divine Providence rather than an accident, then this experience of loss turns into one of gain. If we encounter temptations, difficulties, afflictions, and unexpected crises that we had never before imagined – one can meet anything on life’s path – but all the while blame no one, neither God nor neighbor, but rather accept everything that happens with a pure heart, then our experience of everything in life will turn into thanksgiving to God and Heaven, which is wonderful, joyful, and very much needed by us.

Great Lent should not be something external for us. It is not a frown, but inner concentration; not turning down tasty fare, but turning down lack of love, condemnation, enmity, malice, dullness, indifference, and other passions that dwell in our hearts. Lent is a mirror in which we should, with the help of abstinence and repentance, see our hidden passions. The Prophet Isaiah says: And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein [Isaiah 35:8]. Lent, upon which we have taken the first step today, is a very difficult way, but its goal is amazing, beautiful, profound, and very inspirational: Christ’s Pascha.

Optina Pustyn, 2011.

THE MEANING OF THE GREAT FAST: The True Nature of Fasting

posted Mar 15, 2013, 10:17 AM by   [ updated Mar 15, 2013, 10:17 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

THE MEANING OF THE GREAT FAST: The True Nature of Fasting
by Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware

We waited, and at last our expectations were fulfilled’, writes the Serbian Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid, describing the Easter service at Jerusalem. ‘When the Patriarch sang “Christ is risen”, a heavy burden fell from our souls. We felt as if we also had been raised from the dead. All at once, from all around, the same cry resounded like the noise of many waters. “Christ is risen” sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians one after another, each in his own tongue, in his own melody. . . . Coming out from the service at dawn, we began to regard everything in the light of the glory of Christ’s Resurrection, and all appeared different from what it had yesterday; everything seemed better, more expressive, more glorious. Only in the light of the Resurrection does life receive meaning.’ 1

This sense of resurrection joy, so vividly described by Bishop Nikolai, forms the foundation of all the worship of the Orthodox Church; it is the one and only basis for our Christian life and hope. Yet, in order for us to experience the full power of this Paschal rejoicing, each of us needs to pass through a time of preparation. ‘We waited,’ says Bishop Nikolai, ‘and at last our expectations were fulfilled.’ Without this waiting, without this expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost.

So it is that before the festival of Easter there has developed a long preparatory season of repentance and fasting, extending in present Orthodox usage over ten weeks. First come twenty-two days (four successive Sundays) of preliminary observance; then the six weeks or forty days of the Great Fast of Lent; and finally Holy Week, Balancing the seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week, there follows after Easter a corresponding season of fifty days of thanksgiving, concluding with Pentecost.

Each of these seasons has its own liturgical book. For the time of preparation there is the Lenten Triodion or ‘Book of Three Odes’, the most important parts of which are here presented in English translation. For the time of thanksgiving there is the Pentekostarion, also known in Slav usage as the Festal Triodion. The point of division between the two books is midnight on the evening of Holy Saturday, with Matins for Easter Sunday as the first service in the Pentekostarion. This division into two distinct volumes, made for reasons of practical convenience, should not cause us to overlook the essential unity between the Lord’s Crucifixion and His Resurrection, which together form a single, indivisible action. And just as the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are one action, so also the ‘three holy days’ (triduum sanctum) – Great Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday constitute a single liturgical observance. Indeed, the division of the Lenten Triodion and the Pentekostarion into two books did not become standard until after the eleventh century; in early manuscripts they are both contained in the same codex.

What do we find, then, in this book of preparation that we term the Lenten Triodion? It can most briefly be described as the book of the fast. Just as the children of Israel ate the ‘bread of affliction’ (Deut. 16: 3) in preparation for the Passover, so Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of the New Passover by observing a fast. But what is meant by this word ‘fast’ (nisteia)? Here the utmost care is needed, so as to preserve a proper balance between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible’ , in the words of the Triodion; 3 and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.

The second tendency is doubtless the more prevalent in our own day, especially in the West. Until the fourteenth century, most Western Christians, in common with their brethren in the Orthodox East, abstained during Lent not only from meat but from animal products, such as , eggs, milk, butter and cheese. In East and West alike, the Lenten fast involved a severe physical effort. But in Western Christendom over the past five hundred years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic. How many, one wonders, of those who eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday are aware of the original reason for this custom to use up any remaining eggs and butter before the Lenten fast begins? Exposed as it is to Western secularism, the Orthodox world in our own time is also beginning to follow the same path of laxity.

One reason for this decline in fasting is surely a heretical attitude towards human nature, a false ‘spiritualism’ which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of his reasoning brain. As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of man as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible; they neglect the positive role played by the body in the spiritual life, forgetting St. Paul’s affirmation: ‘Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. . . . glorify God with your body’ (I Cor. 6: 19-20). Another reason for the decline in fasting among Orthodox is the argument, commonly advanced in our times, that the traditional rules are no longer possible today. These rules presuppose, so it is urged, a closely organized, non-pluralistic Christian society, following an agricultural way of life that is now increasingly a thing of the past. There is a measure of truth in this. But it needs also to be said that fasting, as traditionally practiced in the Church, has always been difficult and has always involved hardship. Many of our contemporaries are willing to fast for reasons of health or beauty, in order to lose weight; cannot we Christians do as much for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom? Why should the self-denial gladly accepted by previous generations of Orthodox prove such an intolerable burden to their successors today? Once St. Seraphim of Sarov was asked why the miracles of grace, so abundantly manifest in the past, were no longer apparent in his own day, and to this he replied: ‘Only one thing is lacking – a firm resolve’. 4

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food – particularly in the opening days – involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15: 5). If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow over-confident in our own abilities, acquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency. Stripping from us the specious assurance of the Pharisee – who fasted, it is true, but not in the right spirit – Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke I 8: 10-1 3). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us ‘poor in spirit’, aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.

Yet it would be misleading to speak only of this element of weariness and hunger. Abstinence leads, not merely-to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. As many doctors acknowledge, periodical fasts contribute to bodily hygiene. While involving genuine self-denial, fasting does not seek to do violence to our body but rather to restore it to health and equilibrium. Most of us in the Western world habitually eat more than we need. Fasting liberates our body from the burden of excessive weight and makes it a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.

It will be noted that in common Orthodox usage the words ‘fasting’ and ‘abstinence’ are employed interchangeably. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church made a clear distinction between the two terms: abstinence concerned the types of food eaten, irrespective of quantity, whereas fasting signified a limitation on the number of meals or on the amount of food that could be taken. Thus on certain days both abstinence and fasting were required; alternatively, the one might be prescribed but not the other. In the Orthodox Church a clear-cut distinction is not made between the two words. During Lent there is frequently a limitation on the number of meals eaten each day, 5 but when a meal is permitted there is no restriction on the amount of food allowed. The Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat to satiety but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.

If it is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance. Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father’s house. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means ‘abstinence not only from food but from sins’. ‘The fast’, he insists, ‘should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body’: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. 6 It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: ‘You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother’ . 7 The same point is made in the Triodion, especially during the first week of Lent:

As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. . .

Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.
True fasting is to put away all evil,
To control the tongue, to forbear from anger,
To abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury.
If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.
Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food,
But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions. 8

The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving. Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. It leads, not to contrition and joyfulness, but to pride, inward tension and irritability. The link between prayer and fasting is rightly indicated by Father Alexander Elchaninov. A critic of fasting says to him: ‘Our work suffers and we become irritable. . . . I have never seen servants [in pre-revolutionary Russia] so bad tempered as during the last days of Holy Week. Clearly, fasting has a very bad effect on the nerves.’ To this Father Alexander replies: ‘You are quite right. . . . If it is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability. It is natural that servants who took their fasting seriously and who were forced to work hard during Lent, while not being allowed to go to church, were angry and irritable.’ 9

Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer. In the Gospels the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone, but by ‘prayer and fasting’ (Matt. 17: 21 ; Mark 9: 29); and of the early Christians it is said, not simply that they fasted, but that they ‘fasted and prayed’ (Acts 13: 3; compare 14: 23). In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God. Thus our Lord’s forty-day fast in the wilderness was the immediate preparation for His public ministry (Matt. 4: 1-11). When Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34: 28) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (3 [1] Kgs. 19: 8-12), the fast was in both cases linked with a theophany. The same connection between fasting and the vision of God is evident in the case of St. Peter (Acts 10: 9-17). He ‘went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became very hungry and wanted to eat; and it was in this state that he fell into a trance and heard the divine voice. Such is always the purpose of ascetic fasting – to enable us, as the Triodion puts it, to ‘draw near to the mountain of prayer’. 10

Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by almsgiving – by love for others expressed in practical form, by works of compassion and forgiveness. Eight days before the opening of the Lenten fast, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the appointed Gospel is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25′: 31-46), reminding us that the criterion in the coming judgment will not be the strictness of our fasting but the amount of help that we have given to those in need. In the words of the Triodion:

Knowing the commandments of the Lord, let this be our way of life:
Let us feed the hungry, let us give the thirsty drink,
Let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers,
Let us visit those in prison and the sick.
Then the Judge of all the earth will say even to us:
‘Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.’ 11

This stanza, it may be noted in passing, is a typical instance of the ‘evangelical’ character of the Orthodox service-books. In common with so many other texts in the Triodion, it is simply a paraphrase of the words of Holy Scripture. 12

It is no coincidence that on the very threshold of the Great Fast, at Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness, there is a special ceremony of mutual reconciliation: 13  for without love towards others there can be no genuine fast. And this love for others should not be limited to formal gestures or to sentimental feelings, but should issue in specific acts of almsgiving. Such was the firm conviction of the early Church. The second-century Shepherd of Hermas insists that the money saved through fasting is to be given to the widow, the orphan and the poor. 14 But almsgiving means more than this. It is to give not only our money but our time, not only what we have but what we are; it is to give a part of ourselves. When we hear the Triodion speak of almsgiving, the word should almost always be taken in this deeper sense. For the mere giving of money can often be a substitute and an evasion, a way of protecting ourselves from closer personal involvement with those in distress. On the other hand, to do nothing more than offer reassuring words of advice to someone crushed by urgent material anxieties is equally an evasion of our responsibilities (see Jas. 2: 16). Bearing in mind the unity already emphasized between man’s body and his soul, we seek to offer help on both the material and the spiritual levels at once.

‘When thou seest the naked, cover him; and hide not thyself from thine own flesh.’ The Eastern liturgical tradition, in common with that of the West, treats Isaiah 58: 3-8 as a basic Lenten text.
So we read in the Triodion:

While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit.
Let us loose every bond of iniquity;
Let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence;
Let us tear up all unjust agreements;
Let us give bread to the hungry
And welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them,
That we may receive great mercy from Christ our God. 15

Always in our acts of abstinence we should keep in mind St. Paul’s admonition not to condemn others who fast less strictly: ‘Let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats’ (Rom. 14: 3). Equally, we remember Christ’s condemnation of outward display in prayer, fasting or almsgiving (Matt. 6: 1-18). Both these Scriptural passages are often recalled in the Triodion:
Consider well, my soul: dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbor.
Dost thou abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother.

Come, let us cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor,
Not sounding a trumpet or making a show of our charity.
Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing;
Let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving;
But in secret let us call on Him that knows all secrets:
Father, forgive us our trespasses, for Thou lovest mankind. 16

If we are to understand correctly the text of the Triodion and the spirituality that underlies it, there are five misconceptions about the Lenten fast against which we should guard. In the first place, the Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people. Nowhere do the Canons of the Ecumenical or Local Councils suggest that fasting is only for monks and not for the laity. By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians – whether married or under monastic vows – are Cross-bearers, following the same spiritual path. The exterior conditions in which they live out their Christianity display a wide variety, but in its inward essence the life is one. Just as the monk by his voluntary self-denial is seeking to affirm the intrinsic goodness and beauty of God’s creation, so also is each married Christian required to be in some measure an ascetic. The way of negation and the way of affirmation are interdependent, and every Christian is called to follow both ways at once.

In the second place, the Triodion should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense.If the Lenten texts are continually urging us to greater personal efforts, this should not be taken as implying that our progress depends solely upon the exertion of our own will. On the contrary, whatever we achieve in the Lenten fast is to be regarded as a free gift of grace from God. The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete leaves no doubt at all on this point:

I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction;
But as God do Thou Thyself, O Saviour, bestow them on me. 17

In the third place, our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient. When we fast, we should not try to invent special rules for ourselves, but we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition. This accepted pattern, expressing as it does the collective conscience of the People of God, possesses a hidden wisdom and balance not to be found in ingenious austerities devised by our own fantasy. Where it seems that the traditional regulations are not applicable to our personal situation, we should seek the counsel of our spiritual father – not in order legalistically to secure a ‘dispensation’ from him, but in order humbly with his help to discover what is the will of God for us. Above all, if we desire for ourselves not some relaxation but some piece of additional strictness, we should not embark upon it without our spiritual father’s blessing. Such has been the practice since the early centuries of the Church’s life:

Abba Antony said: ‘I know of monks who fell after much labor and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work and neglected the commandment that says: “Ask your father, and he will tell you.’” (Deut. 32: 7)
Again he said: ‘So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should consult the gerontes, in case he makes some mistake in this.’ 18

These words apply not only to monks but also to lay people living in the ‘world’, even though the latter may be bound by a less strict obedience to their spiritual father. If proud and willful, our fasting assumes a diabolical character, bringing us closer not to God but to Satan. Because fasting renders us sensitive to the realities of the spiritual world, it can be dangerously ambivalent: for there are evil spirits as well as good.
In the fourth place, paradoxical though it may seem, the period of Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness. It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a ‘joy-creating sorrow’ . 19 The Triodion deliberately mentions both tears and gladness in a single sentence:

Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven,O Christ,
As I keep this joyful day of the Fast. 20

It is remarkable how frequently the themes of joy and light recur in the texts for the first day of Lent:

With joy let us enter upon the beginning of the Fast.
Let us not be of sad countenance. . . .
Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence;
And let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments. . .
All mortal life is but one day, so it is said,
To those who labor with love.
There are forty days in the Fast;
Let us keep them all with joy. 21

The season of Lent, it should be noted, falls not in midwinter when the countryside is frozen and dead, but in spring when all things are returning to life. The English word ‘Lent’ originally had the meaning ‘springtime’; and in a text of fundamental importance the Triodion likewise describes the Great Fast as ‘springtime’:

The springtime of the Fast has dawned,
The flower of repentance has begun to open.
O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity
And sing to the Giver of Light:
Glory be to Thee, who alone lovest mankind. 22

Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality. Certainly it has its somber aspect, with the repeated prostrations at the weekday services, with the dark vestments of the priest, with the hymns sung to a subdued chant, full of compunction. In the Christian Empire of Byzantium theatres were closed and public spectacles forbidden during Lent; 23 and even today weddings are forbidden in the seven weeks of the fast. 24 Yet these elements of austerity should not blind us to the fact that the fast is not a burden, not a punishment, but a gift of God’s grace:

Come,O ye people, and today let us accept
The grace of the Fast as a gift from God. 25

Fifthly and finally, our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God’s creation. As St. Paul insists, ‘Nothing is unclean in itself’ (Rom. 14: 14). All that God has made is ‘very good’ (Gen. I: 31): to fast is not to deny this intrinsic goodness but to reaffirm it. ‘To the pure all things are pure’ (Titus I: I S), and so at the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom of heaven there will be no need for fasting and ascetic self-denial. But, living as we do in a fallen world, and suffering as we do from the consequences of sin, both original and personal, we are not pure; and so we have need of fasting. Evil resides not in created things as such but in our attitude towards them, that is, in our will. The purpose of fasting, then, is not to repudiate the divine creation but to cleanse our will. During the fast we deny our bodily impulses – for example, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink – not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by sin and require to be purified through self-discipline. In this way, asceticism is a fight not against but for the body; the aim of fasting is to purge the body from alien defilement and to render it spiritual. By rejecting what is sinful in our will, we do not destroy the God-created body but restore it to its true balance and freedom. In Father Sergei Bulgakov’s phrase, we kill the flesh in order to acquire a body.

But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace. 26 Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5: 19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended it to be.

Such is the way in which we interpret our abstinence from food. Bread and wine and the other fruits of the earth are gifts from God, of which we partake with reverence and thanksgiving. If Orthodox Christians abstain from eating meat at certain times, or in some cases continually, this does not mean that the Orthodox Church is on principle vegetarian and considers meat-eating to be a sin; and if we abstain sometimes from wine, this does not mean that we uphold teetotalism. When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make an our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic – no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver. So far from making us look on food as a defilement, fasting has exactly the opposite effect. Only those who have learnt to control their appetites through abstinence can appreciate the full glory and beauty of what God has given to us. To one who has eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, an olive can seem full of nourishment. A slice of plain cheese or a hard boiled egg never taste so good as on Easter morning, after seven weeks of fasting.

We can apply this approach also to the question of abstinence from sexual relations. It has long been the Church’s teaching that during seasons of fasting married couples should try to live as brother and sister, but this does not at all signify that sexual relations within marriage are in themselves sinful. On the contrary, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete – in which, more than anywhere else in the Triodion, we find summed up the significance of Lent states without the least ambiguity: Marriage is honorable, and the marriage-bed undefiled. For on both Christ has given His blessing, Eating in the flesh at the wedding in Cana, Turning water into wine and revealing His first miracle. 27

The abstinence of married couples, then, has as its aim not the suppression but the purification of sexuality. Such abstinence, practiced ‘with mutual consent for a time’, has always the positive aim, ‘that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer’ (1 Cor. 7: 5). Self restraint, so far from indicating a dualist depreciation of the body, serves on the contrary to confer upon the sexual side of marriage a spiritual dimension which might otherwise be absent.

To guard against a dualist misinterpretation of the fast, the Triodion speaks repeatedly about the inherent goodness of the material creation. In the last of the services that it contains, Vespers for Holy Saturday, the sequence of fifteen Old Testament Lessons opens with the first words of Genesis, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth… : all created things are God’s handiwork and as such are ‘very good’. Every part of this divine creation, so the Triodion insists, joins in giving praise to the Maker:

The hosts of heaven give Him glory;
Before Him tremble cherubim and seraphim;
Let everything that has breath and all creation
Praise Him, bless Him, and exalt Him above all for ever.

O Thou who coverest Thy high places with the waters,
Who settest the sand as a bound to the sea and upholdest all things:
The sun sings Thy praises, the moon gives Thee glory,
Every creature offers a hymn to Thee,
His Author and Creator, for ever.

Let all the trees of the forest dance and sing. . . .

Let the mountains and all the hills
Break forth into great rejoicing at the mercy of God,
And let the trees of the forest clap their hands. 28

This affirmative attitude towards the material world is founded not only on the doctrine of creation but also on the doctrine of Christ. Again and again in the Triodion, the true physical reality of Christ’s human nature is underlined. How, then, can the human body be evil, if God Himself has in His own person assumed and divinized the body? As we state at Matins on the first Sunday in Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy:

Thou hast not appeared to us, O loving Lord, merely in outward semblance,
As say the followers of Mani, who are enemies of God,
But in the full and true reality of the flesh. 29

Because Christ took a true material body, so the hymns for the Sunday of Orthodoxy make clear, it is possible and, indeed, essential to depict His person in the holy icons, using material wood and paint:

The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed,
Taking flesh from thee, O Theotokos,
And He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory,
Pilling it with the divine beauty.
This our salvation we confess in deed and word,
And we depict it in the holy icons. 30

This assertion of the spirit-bearing potentialities of the material creation is a constant theme during the season of Lent. On the first Sunday of the Great Fast, we are reminded of the physical nature of Christ’s Incarnation, of the material reality of the holy icons, and of the visible, aesthetic beauty of the Church. On the second Sunday we keep the memory of St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1 359), who taught that all creation is permeated by the energies of God, and that even in the present life this divine glory can be perceived through man’s physical eyes, provided that his body has been rendered spiritual by God’s grace. On the third Sunday we venerate the material wood of the Cross; on the sixth Sunday we bless material branches of palms; on Wednesday in Holy Week we are signed with material oil in the sacrament of Anointing; on Holy Thursday we recall how at the Last Supper Christ blessed material bread and wine, transforming them into His Body and Blood.

Those who fast, so far from repudiating material things, are on the contrary assisting in their redemption. They are fulfilling the vocation assigned to the ‘sons of God’ by St. Paul: ‘The created universe waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. . . . The creation will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now’ (Rom. 8 : 19-22). By means of our Lenten abstinence, we seek with God’s help to exercise this calling as priests of the creation, restoring all things to their primal splendor. Ascetic self-discipline, then, signifies a rejection of the world, only in so far as it is corrupted by the fall; of the body, only in so far as it is dominated by sinful passions. Lust excludes love: so long as we lust after other persons or other things, we cannot truly love them. By delivering us from lust, the fast renders us capable of genuine love. No longer ruled by the selfish desire to grasp and to exploit, we begin to see the world with the eyes of Adam in Paradise. Our self-denial is the path that leads to our self-affirmation; it is our means of entry into the cosmic liturgy whereby all things visible and invisible ascribe glory to their Creator.


1 Bishop Nikolai (Velimirovich), Missionary Letters: abbreviated from the translation in The Journal of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, no. 24 (1934), pp. 26-7.

2 The Lenten Triodion is so entitled because on weekdays in the Great Fast the Canon at Mattins usually has only three Canticles, instead of eight as at other times of the year. To avoid confusion, we shall follow the Greek practice, reserving the name ‘Triodion’ to the volume for the Lenten period, and always referring to the volume for the period after Easter by the title ‘Pentekostarion’.

3 Vespers for Saturday of the Dead.

4 See V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London, 1957), p. 216.

5 For details, see below, pp. 35-6

6 Homilies on the Statues, iii, 3-4 (P.G. [PatroloOia Graeca] xlix, 51-3).

7 Homilies on Fasting, i, 10 (P.G. xxxi, 181B).

8 Vespers for Sunday evening (Sunday of Forgiveness); Vespers for Monday and Tuesday in the first week.

9 The Diary of a Russian Priest (London, 1967), p. 128.

10 Mattins for Tuesday in the first week.

11 Vespers for Saturday evening (Sunday of the Last Judgement).

12 Compare what is said in Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, The Festal Menaion (London, 1969). p. 16.

13 See below, p. 183.

14 Similitudes, V, iii, 7.

15 Vespers for Wednesday in the first week.

16 Mattins for the Sunday of the Last Judgement; Vespers for Sunday evening (Sunday of Orthodoxy).

17 Canticle Two, troparion 25″.

18 Apophtheomata Patrum, alphabetical collection (P.G. lxv), Antony 37 and 38. The Greek term geron (in Russian, starets) means literally an old man – old, not necessarily in years, but in spiritual experience and wisdom. He is one endowed by the Holy Spirit with the gift of seeing into men’s hearts and offering them guidance.

19 The Ladder of Paradise, Step 7, title.

 20 Vespers for Monday in the first week.
21 All these quotations are from Mattins for the first Monday.
22 Vespers for Wednesday in the week before Lent.
23 Photius, Nomocanon, Tit. vii, c. I. Might not this rule be applied by contemporary Orthodox to television?
24 Council of Laodicea (c. A.D. 364), Canon 52. Dispensations from this rule require episcopal permission, which should not be granted except for grave reasons.
25 Mattins for Monday in the first week.
26 The liturgical texts, however, do not always conform to this Biblical usage, but sometimes employ the word ‘flesh’ as a synonym for ‘body’.
27 Canticle Nine, troparion 12.
28 The Great Canon, Canticle Eight, irmos; Compline for Holy Thursday; Mattins for the Sunday of the Cross; Mattins for Palm Sunday.
29 The Persian Mani (c. 216-76), founder of Manichaeism, advocated an uncompromising dualism. He considered that there is no salvation for man’s body or for the rest of the material creation; the particles of light imprisoned in man are to be released through strict asceticism, including vegetarianism.

Copyright: Faber and Faber: London, 1977; 1978; 1984).


Editor: Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware

The Who's Who of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete & General Themes

posted Mar 14, 2013, 8:40 AM by   [ updated Mar 14, 2013, 8:40 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

Next week, the first week of the Great Lent, all of the students at St. John's Academy will attend the reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This masterwork of Church hymnography guides us to reflect on our fallenness by placing in front of us the characters of the Old Testament as well as a few from the New Testament. Unfortunately, many of us and our children have not been raised in homes that know and cherish the scriptures. This is a very sad state and one that prevents us from fully understanding the greatness of the Canon written by St. Andrew. Below is a useful guide to bring us back to a knowledge of the characters mentioned and used in the Great Canon. Characters that all Christians should know.

The Who's Who of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

General Themes of the Great Canon.

How we should think about ourselves

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 (Monday:1.1).

Desire to changedialogue with the soul

Come, wretched soul, with your flesh, confess to the Creator of all. In the future refrain from you former brutishness, and offer to God tears of repentance (Monday:1.2).

Recognizing Reality

The end is drawing near, my soul, is drawing near! But you neither care nor prepare. The time is growing short. Rise! The Judge is at the very doors. Like a dream, like a flower, the time of this life passes. Why do we bustle about in vain? (Monday:4.2)

How to pray - Laments and supplications to God

Thou art the Good Shepherd; seek me, Thy lamb, and neglect no me who have gone astray. (Monday:3.5).

OT and NT examples of righteousness and unrighteousness, for the purpose of emulation or avoidance.

Do not be a pillar of salt, my soul, by turning back; but let the example of the Sodomites frighten you, and take refuge up in Zoar.(Genesis 19:26) (Thursday: Ode 3:5)

I have reviewed all the people of the Old Testament as examples for you, my soul. Imitate the God-loving deeds of the righteous and shun the sins of the wicked (Tuesday: Ode 8)

The most important thing to know about the Great Canon

The Great Canon was written by a holy man to teach himself the right way to live. We cannot benefit from it unless we make it a priority to stand in prayer, in the church, and listen to it, with a great desire and expectation for God’s grace to teach us and heal us. Our theology is first and foremostexperienced and prayed, and not only “studied”.

The Great Canon of St Andrew of CreteThe text

All these texts are available at

As chanted on Monday of the first Week

As chanted on Tuesday of the first Week

As chanted on Wednesday of the first Week

As chanted on Thursday of the first Week

First Week of Great Lent

posted Mar 12, 2013, 11:23 AM by   [ updated Mar 12, 2013, 11:23 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

Greetings to you once again in this final pre-Lenten week. On Sunday the Orthodox Church will celebrate the rite of mutual forgiveness, which is for us the threshold of Great Lent itself - which begins properly on Monday morning. We will enter into the Fast as a community, eager to discover true repentance and arrive with joy at our Lord's holy Pascha.

The week ahead - the first week of Great Lent - is very important, not just to all Orthodox Christians generally, but to our school and our community life. At St John's the full entry into the services of this week are an essential part of our academic program and our mission, both to our students and ourselves as staff, as we seek to raise God's children into the full worshipping life of His Church. 

This means that next week's school program is quite different, and that eager cooperation is required of us all to ensure that each and every one of our students participates in the important services of First Week, as well as the life and lessons of the school week.


While all of you as parents know that I do not like to speak, with reference to student and family participation in the Divine Services, in terms of 'obligations' or 'requirements', occasionally it is necessary and appropriate: and it is important to note that as an Orthodox school the following expectations are indeed requirements of all students, and an essential part of their program (and grades) at St. John's. Attendance will be taken both in class and at services during this First Week, so please ensure that your students are on time to all services.

  • All students must be in attendance at school every day during the First Week of Great Lent - there will be no excused absences except for medical emergencies. This is in part because the school will assign no homework during this important week, and full attendance is required for teaching purposes (note: light reading for AP literature may be given to older students). If your child is absent for a medical reason, homework will be provided in lieu of in-class attendance.
  • All students will participate in the Great Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete, which takes places Monday-Thursday evenings at 6:00 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin. All students must be in the Cathedral by 6:00 p.m. on each of these days, and in their St. John's Academy school uniformsThey will stand with their classes and teachers during the Canon. Children in grades K-5 may depart after the conclusion of the Canon; students in grades 6-12 must stay to the end of Compline, as they will be singing on kliros as part of their music program at the Academy.
  • Limited homework may be assigned by teachers on Friday for study and completion over the weekend; however, this will be in reduced quantity, as families should attend both the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning (either at the Cathedral or your home parish), as well as the important Service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy at 12:00 on Sunday (everybody at the Cathedral). This is an extremely important service in the Church, about which your children will have been learning, and so it is quite critical that every student be in attendance.

Once again, it is a requirement of enrollment at St. John's that every student be present at each of the services described above for next week. If for any reason you fear that your child may be absent for a service, it is critical that you contact me in advance, this week, to discuss this; but please do bear in mind that, given the absolutely essential nature of these services to the Orthodox life and our program at the school, only medical emergencies will normally be considered for absence!

As we all know in the Orthodox world, the first week of Great Lent is long, tiring, and challenging -- but it is also a wonderful, incomparable week of true Orthodox spirituality, repentance and beauty. I trust that each of you will join with all of us on the St. John's Academy staff, and rise up to these spiritual and practical challenges in the week ahead. May our Lord bless our fruitful beginning to the Great Fast!

The Approaching Fast

posted Mar 6, 2013, 10:41 AM by   [ updated Mar 6, 2013, 10:41 AM by Yulia Russiyanova ]

We are currently in the week called Meat-fare Week. It is called this because at the end of this week, on Sunday, we stop eating meat for the duration of Great Lent.

This following week, Cheese-fare week, it is customary to eat "cheese fare," i.e., milk products and eggs.  With the exception of meat, it is a fast-free week, although it is desirable to observe the Wednesday and Friday fasts until evening. Cheese-fare week is popularly regarded as a week of entertaining and indulging in the butteriest foods.  The church services for this week recall the fall of Adam and Eve-the result of indulgence. On Cheese-fare Saturday, the Church commemorates "all the righteous who shone forth in the ascetic life"-in fasting and prayer.  It is a week to use up what dairy products we have in the house before Great Lent, to begin paring down our food intake, not to stuff ourselves as if we were going to starve for the next forty days. We enter Great Lent with the rite of forgiveness following vespers on Cheese-fare Sunday.  Clergy and laity ask one another's forgiveness, and then the priest blesses everyone for their journey through the Great Fast. Strengthening ourselves with the desire of Zacchaeus, the humility of the publican, the resolve of the Prodigal Son, sobriety at the thought of God's righteous judgment and the lesson of Adam's expulsion from Paradise, we are well equipped "for the noble contest of the Fast."

"Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat.  Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion.  Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover." Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness.

(Adapted from 'Preparing for Great Lent' as published in Orthodox America)

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