Sermon – The Fifth Sunday of Lent 2020
The Fifth Sunday of Great Lent
Commemorating St. Mary of Egypt
By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig
April 5, 2020
One of the hymns in our Sunday Orthros (early morning) service highlights the witness and testimony of the penitent saints, like St. Mary of Egypt who we commemorate today: The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, spiritual striving and holiness… This hymn is taken from the words of St. Paul who said: “The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:7). Our Lord Jesus Christ also said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but needs every word that God speaks.” (Matthew 4:4). And from His Sermon on the Mount we hear, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:6). Then, perhaps among the most frequently quoted verse are the words of Jesus: “Be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and what He requires of you, and He will provide you with all these other things.” (Matthew 6:33).
Christian virtues are spiritual qualities increase a person’s experience of heartfelt joy and inner peace. These eternal virtues are practiced with the mature understanding that our life does not consist in relishing temporal (earthly) things, fixating upon fleeting passions, or trusting our emotions.
You and I determine each day: How much is enough to live? How much is enough to eat? How much is too much to spend? How much quality time we should be spending with someone? The list goes on and on. Our current health crisis has made us all very conscious of these questions. In his letter to Timothy St. Paul says: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (I Timothy 6:6). He goes on: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trip and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:7-10).
Great Lent is often defined in terms of fasting from the food we normally eat. However, the fast also involves applying our talents and skills, as well as the management of our resources. We tend to forget that our Lenten discipline of fasting is accompanied with prayer and good works.
At each of the evening Liturgies of the Pre-sanctified Gifst we pray the words of St. Gregory Diologist: …Let our eye have no part in any evil sight. Let our hearing be inaccessible to all idle words; and let our tongue be purged from unseemly speech. Purify our lips which praise Thee, O Lord. Make our hands to abstain from evil deeds and to work only such things as are acceptable unto Thee, establishing all of our members and our minds by Thy Grace.
How is any of this possible? What are we saying by praying these words? Are we calling upon God to act by somehow preventing these things from happening (…that our eye have not part in any evil sight, or our hearing be inaccessible to idle words, etc.). Perhaps. Or what might we actually supposed to be doing?
St. Gregory’s prayer in the Liturgy summarizes the task and the goal of our personal Lenten discipline. Prayer involves our relationship with God and our conversation with Him. And while you and I can easily call upon God’s help with many things and at various times, we are also expected to do our part as we live our lives from day to day.
There is much to be said about what is gained from the spiritual virtues of temperance, self-control, chastity, and modesty. They are exemplified in the life of the Holy Virgin who is at the forefront of intercessors. These virtues are greatly lacking in our day and are among the lessons that parents need to spend time in helping their children to understand. In doing so, our Tradition places importance upon ensuring that these virtuous qualities are seen, lived and experienced in our relationships.
Great Lent in our church is is also time when we become focused upon addressing the subject of our passions; a word frequently heard in our prayers. The Fathers of the church saw every negative impulse that may thrust us into self-serving and self-gratifying obsessions as an opportunity to be transformed. One of the best teaching on this important lesson is heard in the words of St. John Climacus who was commemorated last Sunday. St. John says that passions such as anger, gluttony, pride or lust, which can cause us to sin, can also be transformed to virtues if they are redirected. In other words we can “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21) by curbing or redirecting our passions. Listen to what St. John himself says:
God neither caused or created evil and therefore, those who would assert that certain passions come naturally to the soul are quite wrong. What they fail to realize is that we have taken natural attributes of our own and turned them into passions. For instance, the seed which we have for the sake of procreating children is abused by us for the sake of fornication. Nature has provided us with anger as something to be turned against the serpent, but we have used it against our neighbor. We have a natural urge to excel in virtue, but instead we compete in evil. Nature stirs within us the desire for glory, but that glory is of a heavenly kind. It is natural to be arrogant—against the demons. Joy is ours by nature, but it should be joy on account of the Lord and for the sake of doing good to our neighbor. Nature has given us resentment, but that ought to be against the enemies of our souls. We have a natural desire for pleasurable foods, but not surely for wastefulness.
Gluttony, St. John tells goes on to say, is a vice, but eating as such, is by no means sinful; there is nothing wrong about enjoying food. The practice of fasting implies no condemnation upon the action of eating, but serves to make that action sacramental and Eucharistic (a sacred action of thanksgiving).
I am convinced that these undiscovered and untaught lessons can make a significant difference in our personal struggle with anxiety, pain and human suffering. This is precisely why the Feast of the Resurrection (“Holy Pascha” Aramaic for the word “Passover;” [Christ is our Passover, having passed from death to life.]) is so very important and central to everything about our Orthodox worship.
Great Lent and Holy Week are not mere rituals and should not be looked upon as some magical formula for our healing. It is intended to provide us with a structure and prayerful services that bring us closer to a reality that we often want to ignore. The work and effort to change: to be renewed and transformed, remains with our willingness to do what is right with a self-discipline provided by the framework of our Church’s prayer life, beginning with the renunciation of pride and any sin that prevents us from being in communion or in fellowship with each other.
May we all make the most of our time in remaining days of the period of the Fast and in the Great and Holy Week which is to come in order to be prepared in experiencing the fullness of Holy Pascha. And may the Glorious Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection be even more meaningful this year to every member of our families.