The Great Lent Epistle of the Permanent Conference of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops Beyond the Borders of Ukraine
“Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (Jn 14:6)
Beloved in the Lord, Reverend Clergy! Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Once again, that time has come in our Orthodox Church calendar when we embark on a spiritual passage to the capital city of Jerusalem. Over the course of six weeks of travel, we prepare ourselves to lay down palm fronds to greet our Lord Jesus Christ for His triumphal entrance into this holy city as the King of the Universe, Who would undergo severe trials and death for our sake at the hands of those who saw Him as a mere political leader. But the Lord said that His Kingdom is not of this world. In this final week in Jerusalem, we desire to draw closer to the Lord through our worship in the Passion Week services, although those He chose Himself distanced themselves from the Lord, denying they were His disciples (Jn 18:17). Having purified ourselves and made ourselves worthy, we shall come to the end of our voyage to greet with radiant joy, like Mary Magdalene, the Resurrected Christ. But the road is long and we have only just begun. This road is called Great Lent.
Christ tells us that He is the Way, but He did not leave us alone to struggle down this road to eternal life. He gave us a spiritual guidance system, a GPS so to speak, along with a tool box of ascetic practices. If we follow these guideposts and use the tools as instructed, we will arrive at our destination – salvation and eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Great Lent and the preparatory weeks before it – the Sundays of the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son and the Last Judgment – are part of this roadmap. Prayer, repentance, fasting and acts of mercy are part of this tool kit.
For centuries the Holy Orthodox Church has continued the practice of the forty day fast instituted by Jesus Himself after His baptism in the Jordan River before beginning His mission. The Gospel of Matthew teaches how Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil who promised all kinds of riches which Christ rejected. Notably, the Lord was first tempted with food for He was hungry. The Lord’s rebuke, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Mt 4:14), is echoed by generations of saints who caution us that gluttony is the gateway through which we are tempted to other, greater sins of pride, avarice and lust for power. For this reason our food restrictions of the fast help us against many kinds of temptations. Christ left instructions on how to fast,
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance …they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting …and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Mt 6:16-19)
We have just witnessed the world’s athletes achieve great sporting heights at the Winter Olympics after long training for optimal physical strength and mental character. Great Lent can be regarded as a time for spiritual exercises or training for a “spiritual Olympics”. The fast period requires similar enhanced spiritual exercises of prayer, fasting, kindness to others and merciful works to renew our soul and restore our relationship with God, our family life and our communities.
We commence the Great Fast with the poignant lamentations of the Forgiveness Vespers. The words of the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian penetrate our entire being:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despondency, lust of power, and idle talk; But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant.”
What impedes our relationship with God? In this prayer, St. Ephraim draws attention to the four qualities that stand between us and God – laziness, idle talk, despair and greed for power.
The first barrier to God is idle talk. The ability to speak is one of the greatest gifts from God that sets us apart from other forms of creation. The Holy Fathers wrote repeatedly that what comes out of a person’s mouth is of much more concern than what enters. When this gift of speech is used to spread the Truth of God, then it follows its true purpose. When we use language for destructive purposes, such as gossiping, judging others and slander, then we are no longer serving God but satan. Moreover, the Gospels teach us that we are responsible for our words before God and will come to account for them at the judgment seat of Christ. “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the Day of Judgment.” (Matt. 12:36) Idle words have considerable power, equal to deeds, and we should be very careful how we use them towards each other.
The second impediment is that we are lazy – known as idleness or slothfulness in the writings of the Holy Fathers. We may descend to such a state that we take the attitude – be it in our parish life, society, family or personal life: “Let someone else do it,” or “is it really necessary?” or “leave it as it always was.”
“For just as nothing stops an earnest man, one whose soul is upright and awake, so anything at all will stand in the way of the half-hearted and the lazy,” St. John Chrysostom tells us. The Church Fathers also caution us that idleness is the fertile soil of the devil. God created human beings to work for a purposeful life – even before the fall. “The Lord God took the man He formed and put him in the garden to tend and keep it.” (Gn 2:15) Modern science has also come to this conclusion that the human body, mind and spirit must be constantly engaged or otherwise will decline. This state of mind and spirit, as the result of laziness, leads us to fear change and we become apathetic to our surroundings – with serious spiritual consequences. “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is a sin.” (Jam 4:17)
A third quality noted by St. Ephraim is despair, or hopelessness, which we also know as depression. Sometimes, we become suffocated by the thorns of hopelessness. Our fast-paced lifestyles that place an over-reliance on human abilities leave us overwhelmed by the demands of our work, study and family obligations. Yet, we should not despair. We should not allow ourselves to fall into a state of despondency and hopelessness.
“Rejoice in hope of the glory of God. We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Rom 5:2-6)
We must remember to give up our burdens to the Lord and He will help us out of His love for us.
The fourth quality is the greed for power and authority. In St. Ephraim’s prayer, we pray that God is our Lord and Master. If we disregard this, then we make ourselves the lord and master and try to force our surroundings to serve our purposes. We desire that everyone around us would bend their will to ours. Again, we begin to perceive reality in a distorted state and our personalities change so that we become unrecognizable to those who know us. The consequence of the hunger for power is that it destroys the dignity of personhood. “Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward and learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude,” writes St. John Chrysostom.
What really distinguishes us from other forms of creation is that the Lord has given us free will to make moral choices. What a great responsibility! Yet, we have used that free will to make the wrong choices, just as human beings have done for generations. The cumulative effect of these erroneous choices has led the world to its current circumstances. This damaged state of the world led to the coming of the Son of God to lift the burden of the consequences of these choices from the shoulders of humanity.
Furthermore, during His mission in the world, the Lord provided us with tools to combat these erroneous decisions that are especially beneficial during Great Lent. The gift of repentance is the first step along the Way of the Lord, as St. Peter recommended to those asking practical advice about how to follow Christ.
“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 3:38)
St. John Climacus, who we commemorate on the fourth Sunday of Lent, defines repentance as the “reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of the virtues in opposition to sins” in order to completely shift our way of being. Repentance is so important that it was the first message Jesus began to teach after His own fast in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 4:17)
The gift of tears that accompanies repentance is often called the second baptism. In the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which we serve during the first week of Great Lent, we witness his deeply personal cry of repentance, “I have sinned, O Savior, have mercy! Awaken my mind to conversion, accept me who repents, have compassion on me as I cry: Against You only have I sinned and acted lawlessly; have mercy on me.” (Song 8)
Let us make use of the opportunities God has given us during this Lenten period to draw closer to Him. Let us absorb the themes of each week of the fast and listen to the words of the saints serving as examples for us – St. Gregory Palamas, St. John Climacus, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Andrew of Crete, among others. Let us strive to participate in some of the special services of the Lenten period and take up their meanings into our hearts: The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and the Passia, or Passion of Christ, service. At the same time, we lose any benefits of the fast if we simply focus on ourselves. Instead, let us lend help to those in need around us. May we increase our prayers for our family, friends and parish community, especially for our enemies and those who have fallen away from Christ’s Path. Let us particularly intensify our prayers for our brothers and sisters in Christ in our spiritual homeland of Ukraine in their struggle for human dignity and righteousness.
The Holy Orthodox Church has provided us with an opportunity for quiet introspection to evaluate the priorities in our life and to strive for spiritual growth in Christ. As we embark upon this Lenten journey, it is also a time to renew ourselves as Orthodox Christians. Upon baptism we assumed the obligation of sharing the Good News of Christ with others, of defending the Holy Orthodox faith from persecution and of living a Christ-centred life of
love for others. Keeping the true fast means struggling along such a straight and narrow road.
This six-week voyage that we have begun entails striving for humility and contrition before God in our repentance, seeking mutual forgiveness and contemplating our renewal in our prayers. Let us open our hearts to let in that which is eternal, that which is Truth and not be blinded by the temporal world around us. Where there is light there is hope. Through His life and suffering for our salvation, we gain renewed hope in the light of Christ’s glorious victory over death and in eternal life.
May our All-Merciful and Almighty Lord assist us on our travel through this Great Fast with humility and reverence so that we may be worthy to greet the glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ!
With Hierarchical Blessings,
† YURIJ, Metropolitan
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
† ANTONY, Metropolitan
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
Locum Tenens of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Diaspora
† IOAN, Archbishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Diaspora
† JEREMIAH, Archbishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Eparchy of Brazil and South America
† ILARION, Bishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
† ANDRIY, Bishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
† DANIEL, Bishop
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA