First Sunday of Lent – Sunday of Orthodoxy

My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

My dear friends, fasting is the spring of renewal of our souls. As we learn from the Fathers, for the true Christian, fasting is to be a spiritually joyful time in which we allow the bright Sun, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ, in revealing His love, to melt the ice which has formed within and around our own hearts – the ice of despondency, of neglect, of avarice, idle talk… the gentle light of our Lord’s love warming our hearts, and enlivening within us the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love.

The present days of holy fasting ought to become for us like a quiet haven, a respite between the other times of the year. It’s a safe harbor where we might all come together and acquire spiritual quietude. And this is not only monks, but also lay people of whatever station, all Christians, be they rulers or subordinates, kings, priests, mothers, fathers, the young and the old. For Lent is profoundly useful, and it’s deeply healing for people of all ages, all walks of life, all societal stations.

Now, at first fasting might indeed seem difficult for us, but if we diligently keep the fast, step by step, day by day, then with the help of God we find that it very quickly becomes much more easy. My dear friends, we keep the fast so that the fast might also keep us.

For in fasting we must refrain not only from certain types of food according to the custom, but far more importantly we are also to be refraing from all sin, physical and spiritual. We are to pray diligently and carefully at home and corporately at church services; we are to observe and uproot the passions of vanity, and envy, hatred, enmity – for these will kill the soul.

And we must be especially careful of self-will and disdain of counsel, for the devils like nothing more than to find a person who does not ask advice of spiritual advisors, and who does not consult with those who can instruct him for good. So today, just for a moment, let us hear and heed the warning of Saint Simeon when he reminds us, in speaking on this very day many centuries ago. He says: “All Christians struggle in the First Lenten Week. The evil one, who is always envious of goodness, secretly steals up on each of the faithful and invisibly puts on him the chains of slackness and carelessness. He persuades him to despise and reject the salutary yoke of fasting and to return to his former habits. Therefore I remind you today and make my appeal to your charity, your paternity, that you do not in any way obey him who wills you ill. Do not be led astray by the bad habit of insatiable gluttony, nor turn back to the old habit of satisfaction of evil desires. Rather, let us keep this second week of Lent like the first, and likewise the remainder of the season.”

Wise words from centuries ago; true today as they ever were. And so we continue the fast with the same resolve as we started it.

Fasting gradually wears down the sinful veil which lies on the soul, and it dispels its mental darkness, as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting, with vigil as its humble assistant, drives away the hardening of the heart, and it brings forth cleansing streams of tears of compunction and truth. If we act daily in contrition, then with the help of God’s grace, we will easily rid our hearts of the rebellion of the passions and the storm of hostile temptations, ultimately coming to the serene state of contemplation. And once again, this is not merely for monks. This is not merely for those who are in cloistered seclusion. But this is a work that anyone can and ought to do.

Now this, my dear friends, this is of course not achieved in one day or in one week or one Lent, but is achieved step-by-step, incrementally, sometimes in the smallest steps imaginable – almost imperceptible – but all with the help of God. And it is done over our entire lifetime. And it is done by working and by fasting, by prayer, by working in charity, all according to our own diligence and generosity of ourselves, giving of ourselves by the grace of God.

And with that in mind – that we are called to give of our entire selves – with this in mind, the Church today, on this First Sunday withing the Great Fast, the Church celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy, orthodoxy meaning “right glory,” “right worship,” which is continually maintained from the apostles and will be preserved by the Holy Church until the end of the world.

And in this we find the reason, that pearl of great price, which is worth giving of our selves. For the apostles call firmly and steadfastly always to abide in true orthodoxy and unchanged devotion within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, do manfully, and be strengthened,” the Holy Apostle Saint Paul tells us, imposing on us the great duty to always inviolably maintain the apostolic faith, to cultivate true piety, to cultivate true Christian virtue, in order that we might attain to eternal life in the heavenly kingdom.

Faith, my dear friends, faith is most necessary to us. More necessary than any knowledge. More necessary than any arts, or earthly blessings, however useful and necessary they may seem to us. For the Apostle Paul says that in order to preserve faith in Jesus Christ, he esteems all else as if nothing: all knowledge, all dignity, all honor, all glory, – everything that the world loves and appreciates, all of it pales next to the priceless treasure of the Faith.

And it is good for us during the fast especially to recall the great works that the first Christians performed in confessing their faith. They willingly went to torment and to death, so that through faith in Jesus Christ, they would receive eternal life. We are not called to go through torture and death. Our greatest “torture” during this time is merely to bring our own tastes and our own desires under subjection during the fast.

Let us recall the works of the apostles in their evangelical preaching that carried the light of the true faith to all who had been perishing in the darkness of ignorance and error. Let us recall the works of the fathers and teachers of the Church, the successors of the apostles. Let us recall the valiant saints who kept the faith in deserts, and mountains, and in caves. Let us recall those holy men and women, who tirelessly throughout their lifes, through labor, through deprivation, through fasting, wholly devoted their entire being to Christ.

Recall our own ancestors in the faith. While scattered across the face of the earth, and despite the brutal persecution and hardship which they faced, they retained the true faith. They retained reverential purity, and the fullness of worship. Today we can be truly inspired by their courage and their steadfastness. For centuries they stood fast in faith, in the purity of confession, in genuine evangelical spirituality, and have preserved to us the precious, instructive, and salutary Tradition of the Church.

Let us also keep this great sacred treasure, inherited as a precious inheritance from our fathers and forefathers, the Faith, the guarantee of our salvation. We must care most of all about keeping it unsullied, firmly and steadfastly always clinging to it, avoiding doubt and avoiding superstition, courageously overcoming the temptations of false beliefs. And thus we will earnestly fulfill the covenants and regulations of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

My friends, the Holy Scripture itself urges us to preserve the faith, always to live by it, saving one’s soul within the holy Church, which is, as the apostle teaches, “The Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3, 15). The Holy Church calls upon her children, in the unity of faith, to firmly hold to her lawful authority and hierarchy, and to obey in all things that concern the salvation of the soul, according to the word of the Saint Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews, when he says to us: “Obey your prelates, and be subject to them.” (Heb. 13, 17).

The Holy Church during this time of Fast admonishes her children diligently and reverently to resort to the holy Sacraments, to fulfill all the commandments and ordinances of the Church, to pray earnestly to God, to observe the fast and all that is defined by the laws of the Church; and above all, to do all things with prayer. The Church now calls upon her faithful children to openly and fearlessly confess their faith before all, in every place and at any time. When meeting with unbelievers or the misguided people in this world, a Christian should consider it his duty to defend the truth professed by him and in no way by word or deed to change his rightful conviction, but rather to confirm with his whole life the faith he has been vouchsafed as a child of God.

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Holy Church celebrates the memory of the victory of orthodox teaching about the veneration of icons over the heresy of iconoclasm. Today we recall the historical event of more than a thousand years ago, when the veneration of holy icons was finally restored by the command of the pious Empress Theodora.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, and it did so with the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and it affirmed the apostolic doctrine of the veneration of holy icons. In the earliest times of Christianity, the faithful were strengthened by the depiction of the saints and the Most Honorable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord as a means and instrument of salvation. The holy icons depict those who during their lifetime became living temples of God, and images of the manifest grace of God almighty.

We, my friends, we are called to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, and in so doing we will be faithful to the apostolic faith, the very faith that has been kept and treasured by the host of saints on earth, and which has been passed down to us as it had been received. Praise, my dear friends, praise and glorify the Author and the Finisher of our Faith. Let us do so with our prayer and our entire lives lives. Let us worship our Lord Jesus Christ, Whom those who have gone before us also served. And let us cry out with them: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!

May the coming days of fasting serve us as a purification from passions and from sins. Fasting and prayer, good deeds and repentance – all of this helps us, by the grace of God, to impress in our hearts the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, Who suffered for us and was resurrected, in order to resurrect us to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven.

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