Malankara World

Sermons

The Spirituality of Lent

by Rev. Fr. John-Brian Paprock

"This is the fast I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to cut off the bands of treachery, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke;" - Isaiah 58:6

"Therefore now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning... and turn to the Lord your God; for He is gracious and merciful, patient and of great kindness, and He averts disaster." - Joel 2:12-13

The readings for the Sunday of Cana, the first Sunday of the Great Fast of Lent, speak to the process that we are in, in which fasting brings us closer to God. The Sundays before this fast are intended to honor and remember, in some respects, that which is to come and that which was. That is to say that we look at the time when Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden and we expect that we'll be back at that place in the future. And so, we honor the departed. And if you have noticed, around this time a convergence of the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple happened. This is a feast of the infant Jesus and we talked about our birth and the life that we hold in between.

Now, at this time, the veil comes down. We are separated from the Garden and we cannot see it. Imagine that you're being driven out into the wilderness at this time. Or imagine that you are set apart for forty days to learn what God has intended for you.

There are two different ways of looking at this fast because there are two different versions of these forty days, or forty segments of time, in the Scriptures. One is the blessing of the revelation of what it is that we need to do in service to God and to humanity. And the other is of the purification that needs to happen for God to set things straight in us and around us.

So there is the forty years of wandering in the desert to purge the Israelites so they can worship God, the one true God, alone and follow the gifts and the doctrine and the precepts they've been given. On the other hand, Moses fasted for forty days in order to receive those very commandments, to get direction to what he needed to do for the people and to bring everyone closer to God.

There is Noah and the forty days and nights of rain that killed everything except that which was on the ark. Keep in mind that even Noah and the ark were rained upon during the forty days. The difference was that they were in the ark and could float in the in the ensuing flood protected; that forty day rain purged out all of that which was evil and destructive in this world.

There is the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert. He fasted for forty days and after he came out from that, the message was clarified and the clarity of what he needed to do was upon him. He knew that he started the process toward what was to happen. But as an example to us during those forty days, he was tempted by the devil and clarified his stance and clarified his human stance.

Therefore, you can see forty days of fasting can be seen as a purging period, a period where we gain reconciliation, a period where we gain clarity of our purpose and our vision of what it is that we're intended to do.

If we are to return to that Garden, if we are to return to that oneness of God, then we first have to have oneness among each other. We need to overcome one of the first things that happened after Adam and Eve fell from the grace of the Garden, when one son kills the other. The Fifth Century saint, John Chrysostom wrote that we should not just fast from food, but also fast with our tongue so that we don't murder our brethren. This very powerful idea brings the events of Genesis into our present time.

One of the things that happens during this period of time and why Lent can be so tough and so hard and so difficult is not because it's God problem: It's not God's problem that he's giving to us, rather it's our problem that's been there all along. All Lent does is brings this into focus as we begin to see the very things that are problematic. And so, just like Jesus and Moses and other prophets that have taken the refuge in fasting time, so we also take a period of time for fasting. Some of our Lenten prayers say "Spare thy people. Spare us and spare thy people." This is the attitude: "Let us be on the ark, not in the water." If we have to wander the desert for forty years, let us be among those that will see the Promised Land at the end.

The Epistle reading is from the beginning of st Paul to the Colossians Chapter Three. It is very helpful in understanding the spirituality of Lent. It gives us a sense of what's to come after fasting.

St. Paul starts out Chapter Three: "If you are risen with Christ," that is to say "If you are baptized." We say a person is risen with Christ after baptism. You're baptized into Jesus' death. You have risen with Christ out of the water.

The epistle continues: "If then you are risen with Christ, seek those things which are above." It is always important to point out that what is above and what is below is a distinction of gravity for us in our orientation when walking the plane of this earth. We can see that we are not as dense as what is below us because we're able to walk on top of it. What is above can't sustain this body. We can't lift ourselves up into the air above us without help. We have machines for going into the earth by digging and we have come up with ways to float or to fly, but that's different from what I'm speaking to in terms of our orientation, the way that we naturally walk around and get from one place to another.

In this way, we are always in this place in between what is below and what is above. We walk upon the face of the earth. We know there's more underneath us and we know there's always more above us. But what is above us is something that we cannot grasp with our hands. It is invisible. If it has any visibility, it is the stars and the moon and the clouds, things that we really can't grab anyway. They're either specks of light or they're mist and vapor. We cannot see what we call air or wind. We can feel the wind, but we cannot see it. We can see the effects of it, but we cannot see it. And this is the nature of what is above. So what St. Paul's writing here is if you are baptized and if you are Christian, you seek those things which are above, where Christ is.

"Set your mind on things above, not on things of the earth." So raise your consciousness. This is a phrase that we use colloquially in America. "Raising our consciousness" is becoming more aware, more awake, and more able to see what is true. For our minds to ascend, we have to start moving away from the things of the earth; but not the things of creation, not the things of life, but the things of the earth, the denser things. And so it says in verse 3: "For you are dead."

If there was nothing of life sustaining our bodies, they would be dead, right? There's no difference between a dead body and a living body except life. There is no difference; otherwise, autopsies wouldn't work. So the idea that we're already dead is an understanding that there's something else that's giving us life, animating us, helping us stay alive. We call that the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Our Spirit does this. And it is the spirit of life from creation that is interpenetrating this dense world that gives life to all things. And indeed, it is in fact that which was, and will always be, in the original Garden of Eden. That same spirit is now outside the Garden in the reflection that is this world.

"For you're dead. And your life is hidden with Christ and in God." Verse 4. "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with him in glory." In other words, we cannot comprehend this concept fully, which is that we have life in Christ We are born again through baptism and we commit ourselves and, as long as we are willing to continue to seek that which is above, when Christ is clearly present then it will be revealed who has been present with him. It is as though he resonates at a higher level of vibration, if you wish, that cannot be seen with our earthly eyes. This future St. Paul eludes is like somebody took a special light, a special projector, which reveals him when you couldn't see him before. And with that special light, you find out everyone glows just like him – and so are "hidden with Christ and in God." If we take that spotlight with its special ability to see Christ in the midst of us and you shine it upon Christians, they have the same glow. So you can tell in some respect as you develop this higher eyesight, this higher ability to see, where Christ is. You begin to see plainly those that are following Christ and those that aren't. Not out of judgment, but acknowledging that which is true, what is evident. This eventually will be apparent to all people, but not yet. Without such sight, people look at those in the church and they see the hypocrites and others not following the way of Christ and they blame all of us for that, right? All of us, even if we are intentionally following Christ and trying our best. We all get slapped with the same label and the same argument that we are no better than those that don't believe, or we're worse than those that don't believe.

St. Paul answers this: "Mortify, therefore," in verse 5. Mortify is to kill off. "Mortify, therefore, your earthly members," When it becomes apparent who is of Christ and who isn't – of which ilk are you? How much density do you have to your body or to your soul? How much density have you accumulated? He's saying it doesn't matter how much you accumulate, just get rid of it. Kill it off. Prune it. Kill it, cut it off.

St. Paul adds that we are to cut off more: "Immorality," whatever is immoral, that is whatever is not moral, cut it off. "Uncleanness," cut off that which is dirty. "Intemperate desires," that is to say put out those things that make you drunk. There are many things that make you drunk, not just alcohol. "Evil lust," that is to say there are sometimes desires that are not evil, but those evil ones are definitely earthy. Put them off. Kill them. Don't forget "covetousness," which is to say desiring that which is not of your own. Consider these as density, how we get ourselves further away from God, how we get anchored into this world, how we get lost in the things of this world. And it is because of these things, those things that I just mentioned here, that we need to fast.

Then verse six, St. Paul says, "Because of those things, the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience." And let's be clear about this. When we say someone is going to hell, we're not saying it's a judgment of us or of God, even. It is their own judgment upon themselves. When we say someone's going to suffer the wrath of God, it is the same suffering that those that did not climb into the ark had. They drowned in the purification process. Not because they didn't have the chance to join – Noah tried to tell them what was coming and told them I'm building this ark that will keep us alive during this flood. Noah was not spared from the flood; he was spared from drowning in the flood. There's a huge difference in understanding that. We will not be spared whatever is to come among all the people. But we have an ark that will sustain us through it. That is the only difference between us and anyone else. Keep this in mind. So it is because of these things the wrath of God comes to the children of disobedience. That is to say they will not have that ark to float in the water when the water comes to wash them and wash the earth clean. Now there's not going to be water again – God promised it won't be water again. The prophets talk about a fire that will do this. Even St. Peter in his Epistle talks about what happens when everything melts away.

St. Paul continues, "In the past." There was the past when he wrote this. The past just happened. So the past is anything from this moment backwards. And you're thinking, this moment backwards? Paul is making a strong point about the choices you have right now by saying this - "In the past."

"But in the past," he says, "you have also lived among these things and you were perverted by them." For any of us who believe we're not so perverted, I would just simply say, "Look at the clothes you're wearing. Look at the things in your refrigerator. Do you have a television?" I mean, all these things are possible ways for us to be anchored only in the earth. There's more. I just bring up those as examples. But we are perverted by them. Perverted means that we are distorted. And what is distortion? When something that is supposed to be a perfect, like a sphere or a circle, is distorted, what happens? It is no longer what it was. It becomes a different shape. And that's what perversion does; it changes the shape of us. If we're to consider these things and consider what it is to be around these things that it perverts us and partaking of them obviously puts us in a whole different category of shape and substance. Do you understand this? This is what he's really saying. So in the past you've also lived among these things and were perverted by them.

So how do you deal with this problem that we're living among these things and they're perverting us? We have a choice. How do you deal with that? How can you get past that problem? We're in the world, and we will suffer because of what's in the world. We will have the problem of temptation and all these desires and all these problems. We will live among these things and they will pervert us just because we live among them. Not even participating in them, they'll still pervert us.

St. Paul says in Verse 8: "Now put off from you all of these." Here's how we deal with it; the way that we keep ourselves clean and keep ourselves the right shape and the right substance is to "Put off from you anger and wrath and malice."

Anger, wrath and malice have one thing in common; they're all about the will. They're ways of enforcing our will. If we don't get what we want we get frustrated. We get angry. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are. In truth, anger is a reaction of our will. When something happens that we don't want to happen or we don't like to happen, we get angry. And if we feel threatened, then we may respond with wrath until we get to the next level - we become violent. So anger itself is not violent, although it can be considered a form of violence. Wrath certainly is a form of violence. And then malice is a different form of this, which is to say that when you are so angry you carry it with you. With this resentment carried along, you may do things to undermine people that you're angry with, trying to manipulate them or change them or force them to suffer. That's what malice is. Malice means for them to have pain and suffer. And this is because they didn't do what you wanted, or you don't like them, or they did something you didn't want, or they hurt you and you became angry. It doesn't matter the reasons, however justified, we are to put these things off from us.

How does one put off things like anger and wrath and malice? By accepting and following the other precepts that God has given us, those of love and tolerance, those of forgiveness and repentance. Nevertheless, put off the things of anger, wrath and malice.

St. Paul lists three more things: "Blasphemy, foul conversation and do not lie to one another." These three things are communicative, right? But notice all six of these things are about our interaction with other people. Notice that the five other issues listed at the beginning of the reading - immorality, uncleanness, intemperate desires, evil lust, covetousness - are idolatrous, which makes them about us and God. All of the other things are about us and other people. They can get in the way between you and God and they certainly do. Blasphemy is basically to lie about the truth of God or the religious truth of God. To be dishonest about the truth of God in a spiritual way is also blasphemy. That's why it has been popular in the Protestant culture to understand blasphemy as "don't take your Lord, God, in vain." If someone swore inappropriately, someone who was a Puritan might say, "Blasphemy!" We hear this usage on TV or in movies, maybe on the street. We hear people swear, take the Lord God in vain. That's a form of blasphemy in the sense that it is taking and perverting the truth of God. Does that make sense? So blasphemy is a lie.

Foul conversation - you can imagine what that is. No, it's not talking about birds. That would be fowl conversation with a different spelling. Foul conversation is talking about anything that is dark, evil, gross, and putrid. There are other words for these things, and that's also another way that people swear, isn't it? They use foul language, language that has that putrid quality to it. St. Paul tells us that we have to put that off from us. Understand that to speak with foul conversation has the quality of speaking against life. So in a sense, using foul conversation is speaking against, or lying about, life itself.

The last one is "do not lie to one another." Now this is interesting, because it also implies something about us. Doing this usually relates to our fear. One reason we lie to one another is out of our personal fear. Fear of what? Not being accepted? Not getting away with something? Hurting someone else's feelings? Think about all the reasons you lie and you'll find it's all about you being afraid of something. Now, a lot of us walk around this world petrified, scared to death, of some of these issues. We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings so we make up lies. But we're told by St. Paul to put that away from ourselves, put that away because that fear is part of the perversion of this world.

The perversions of this world are twofold, right? One is the fear that causes us to lie or speak incorrectly or say untruths, prompted by fear mostly, but maybe other factors as well. The other is the assertion of our will upon others, which evokes anger. The perversions of this world are about how we relate to other people, but they're related to these two underlying survival instincts. One is about enforcing what we want or getting what we want and the other is about us being afraid – perhaps a better way to put that would be avoiding anything we don't want. These are really connected to, in a sense, our desires in relation to other people.

St. Paul continues further, just to make it clear, as in the past you have lived among these things: "Do not lie to one another, but put away the old life and all its practices." Right now, at this very moment, you have a choice. All that's in the past, you can put off, now - all the old life and all its practices. Well how do you do that? St. Paul answers in verse 10, "And put on the new life, which is renewed in knowledge after the pattern in which it was originally created."

This renewal happens when we engage the seeking of knowledge in this original pattern, the original way we were created. This is the forty day revelation that I'm talking about. Not just the purification and suffering that we endure by giving things up, but this other thing that happens which is to become more conscious and more aware and more awake and more fully realized in that which God has created us to be, which is to be of him in the Garden of Eden, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

If you're not sure what we were created as, St. Paul tells us that there is "No Jew or Gentile," which is to say believer or unbeliever. "Circumcision or uncircumcision," that means one following the law or not following the law, there's none of that. "There is neither Greek nor barbarian." The Greek are those that are intellectually aware, conscious, and there are those that are dumb or stupid brutes, the barbarians. "Neither slave nor free man," right? So in the Garden of Eden, none of those things exist. There was no need for the law. There was no need for there to be a difference between people. We were all Adam. A-dam also means humanity.

This is how we get back to the renewal of how we were originally created. This is how we get back to it. We give up all these separations, these ideas that we know. Because St. Paul says in verse 11, "Christ is all and in all men." All humanity. Christ is already present. Christ is already come. Christ is already died for us. Christ is rose from the dead. Christ is ascended to heaven. And if we put our mind there, he is present here among all of us. And when he comes back, if we are not living with him already, then we're not going to live with him then. See the reason? Because we made our decision. If he is already here and present and we're not doing it, we're not living as though he's here present, then we made a decision not to be with him! It's a powerful problem for all of us. None of us are immune from this problem, by the way. None of us. Even the most pure and dedicated monastics in a cave in the wilderness deal with this problem. They avoid contact with everybody trying to avoid this problem and they still have this problem!

St. Paul goes forward: "Therefore, as elected God, holy and beloved," that is to say that you are already there, you already are chosen, you've already done this, you've already been baptized, you already made the willful intent to be present with God.

Here's the answer for us, this is how we do it: "Put on mercy and kindness, gentleness and humbleness of mind. Meekness and patience, forebearing one another and forgiving one another. And if anyone has a complaint against his fellow man, just as Christ forgave you, you should also forgive." Do you see what this is? If you do these things, you will be one with all of humanity. If you don't like it now, what happens when we're all united in the heavenly kingdom in the world to come back at the Garden of Eden? If you don't like these people now, then you've already severed yourself from God's kingdom, haven't you? If you treat these people differently because of any of the issues that you had before, although they're just a Jew, or they're just a Gentile, or they haven't been circumcised or they're too intellectual or they're not intellectual enough, or they're a slave or they're a free man, or they work for a living or they have a salary or they're rich or they're not rich – any of the issues that we brought along in our lives in this world prevent us from doing the very things of putting on mercy and kindness and gentleness. See the problem? If I put others outside my reach because of the categories I place them, I cannot put these virtues of St. Paul on: I cannot be merciful, I cannot be kind. So, they all have to be included.

"Gentleness, humbleness of mind, meekness, patience," all these things are required for honesty, to tell the truth. If you do these four things, you will be telling the truth, you'll be honest. If you're doing these things, you will have no reason to assert your will upon another's life. That is not to say you can't enter into a discourse about what should be done or enter contractual arrangements. This means there's a higher calling that we are called to do and, at the very end of the day, if anyone has a complaint against us, we should forgive them and ask forgiveness from them.

In verse 14, St. Paul clarifies fruther. If you still don't know how to do any of these things -"and with all these things have love." So if you don't know how to do any of these one things, how to be kind or what it means to have gentleness of heart or whatever, then have love! Because if you have love, you have all of those things that we have been talking about, all of them are with you, right? As St. Paul says, because "love is the bond of perfection." The way that we know God is by love. The way that other people know God is by love. People want tremendous things to happen - medical and physical things to happen - and extraordinary events to happen, but without love there is no presence of God. The rain will come, earthquakes will come, terrible times will come to all of us. We're not immune to any of those things. But we have the ark and we'll be able to float above them. And those that do not want to participate in that ark and do not want the protection of the ark, they will drown. And as much as our love for them is available, just as much as Noah's love was, we reach out to them - not to force our will, but to encourage them to be in the safe reservoir, this safe place of the holy church.

St. Paul goes forward from there, verse 15: "And let the peace of Christ govern your hearts." Again, if you don't know how to do these things, let the peace of Christ come into your heart and you will know. It won't be a big secret. When you see somebody and you go, "Ew!" or you act in a weird way that's perverted, or a way that's distorted, if you bring Christ in your heart, you will see and, in the midst of your reaction of distortion and your action of revoltion, you will find yourself reaching out to that very person that you're being repulsed, praying, "Lord, help me have love for this person, rather than turn away from them."

So often we choose to turn away from them, don't we? No one is immune from this. No one is immune from the struggle of this. And then St. Paul says, "And let his word dwell in you abundantly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another," not in verbal conflict, not in taking someone down. He doesn't bring up those ways of teaching and admonishing. St. Paul says, "Don't just admonish one another, don't just chasten one another, don't just challenge one another, don't just cause each other to suffer to try and force your will upon them." No, he says this: Teach and admonish in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." Admonish one another, encourage one another with singing with grace in your hearts to God. Your interaction with those that are suffering, those that are distorted, those that are perverted, those that have chosen of disobedience, should be of this action of the grace of God in our hearts, this love pouring forth from us. It should not be about us trying to make someone else conform to us or to our sense of what is right. It should be an action of our love.

This is what we're being called to do for Lent. This is the call of Lent, this idea of all coming together. And to make this more poignant, to make this even more so, St. Paul adds this: "And whatever you do in word or deed," (I don't know what else that there is to do besides word or deed, but everything we do is in word or deed, right? So he's saying everything you do, in whatever you do in word or deed) "do it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to him through God the Father." Do you understand? That means bringing Christ into everything you do and say.

And here is the problem – if you're cursing, if you're lying, if you're blaspheming, if you're following evil lust, immorality, uncleanness, you cannot really have Christ in those moments, can you? Since Christ is not in those moments, then you separate yourself from Christ. This is the problem. This is the issue that we confront.

There's so much more, but I just want to point out one more thing from today's readings, which is during the blessing of Cana at Galilee. Remember there are those six things that I mentioned from the Epistle to the Colossians, I counted six, right? Well, six is the number of humanity because we were created on the sixth day. God rested on the seventh day after we were created. So six is our number, it's the number of being you. The Star of David, also called the Seal of Solomon, has six points.

Sure enough, in this Gospel reading from St. John, Christ performs a miracle after being asked by his mother (By the way, we learn from this Gospel to ask her to pray for us and asked her to intervene for us, because Christ Jesus does what she asks him to do – even if it seems inappropriate or poor timing for him, he still listens to her.)

"And there were six stone jars placed there for the purification of the Jews." Now do you understand the symbolism of this? These are stone - of the earth – jars. We are told they are emptied, which could hold seven gallons each, that is to say they're big. Jesus said, "Fill the jars with water." Just fill them with water which is abundant and available to us all the time. "And they filled them up to the brim," as much as the jars could hold. The servants followed what God said and they did it. They filled these six to the brim. And then Jesus said to them, "Draw now and bring it to the chief guest." And then it was wine. Not just weak wine, not just pretend wine, not just colored water, but the best wine this chief guest ever had. So much so that he praised the bridegroom for this wine. Now understand that the wine that we use is mixed with water. And it says in the Scripture that when the sword pierced Jesus' side, there came out from him blood and water. This idea of the water being changed to wine eludes to that something that Christ will do for us; that he will bring us to a more potent and more powerful and more beautiful state than just plain water. But we'll have to be filled with it, with the water, and we need to follow his instruction first before that happens.

And St. John says this, "And the chief guest says to them, „Every man at first brings out his best wine." In other words, you always try to present the best to people. "And then later, they bring out that which is not so good." That is to say when people get to know us better, our faults and weaknesses can be seen. And just like how Christ says in other places and Paul talks about other places, it is in our weaknesses that we are made strong. We should not be afraid to present ourselves in the weak and humble manner that we are truly of. Whatever our deficits are, we should not be afraid of them. But instead, we still try to project ourselves with the best wine, first. But in the process of spiritual development, we have these six stone jars that we fill with plain water. Then, the chief guest points out: "But you have kept the best wine until now." Let me say it again: "Every man at first brings out the best wine and when they have drunk, then that which is weak, but you have kept the best wine until now." When what you gave before was weak, even when you wanted to present the best, compared what is to come by following the instructions of Christ.

Let us be empty stone jars to put off from us negative attributes, to be cleansed with the water of baptism so we're no longer perverted and distorted by the things of this world. Then, let us follow the instructions of Christ, so he will fill us with a new wine so the best of will be presented always. The best of us will always be available and that is Christ giving to us the gift. And as it says here, "This is the first miracle Jesus performed."

Audio of this sermon can be heard at http://frjohbrian.blogspot.com/2010/02/spirituality-of-lent.html

See Also:

Life in Christ - Message of Great Lent from Holy Father (2011)
Apostolic Bull for Great Lent -2011
The holy gospel is a reliable record of the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ in words and deeds during His divine economy in the flesh. It does not impose on us orders. It does not give us commandments to blindly hold to. It does not list prohibitions. Rather, it presents to us Jesus Christ as a living paradigm to longue for and a model to pursue carrying His cross. We shall follow Him so that we obtain eternal life through Him.

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