Lenten Homily 2017 of His Eminence Archbishop John of Charioupolis, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch
Dear Fathers, Brothers and Sisters, beloved in Christ,
As we now enter the Lenten period our spiritual life demands of us that we have a change of heart according to the Gospel. In order for the Christian life to take root in us we must gradually remove all obstacles related to “me”. Asceticism appears to be the surest way to fight all forms of death connected in our existence. It challenges us in all our dark recesses and allows the light of the resurrection to invade our being, to heal our wounds and to cure us from all ills connected to our selfishness. Asceticism, as we too often tend to believe, is not a search for merit or adherence to a code of conduct. No, asceticism has only one goal: to enable a personal encounter with Christ, to make man an authentic participant in the life of the Risen Christ. True Christian asceticism is found in the Beatitudes which our Fathers called the "commandments of Christ". Asceticism brings us face to face with the idols, with the passions that overshadow our true life, it gives us grace to restore our real human nature in Christ.
Our nature of flesh and spirit is at the same time human and non-human as it was created “in the image and likeness" of God. It is both what we are and what we should be. The nature of man, the flesh, is imbued with the energy of the Person related to the image. But if it is left on its own without the help of these energies it can become “contrary to nature” and becomes an end in itself, heading towards nothingness. Asceticism allows us to fight this ’autonomy’ of the flesh so that energies can blossom into their true destiny: union with the divine energies in union with Christ, perfect icon of the divine humanity, defined by ’the great divine Council’ as St Maxim the Confessor says. In this light, asceticism is not a vulgar, voluntary and moral struggle, because any law or rule is secondary. Asceticism, as our Fathers described it, is an effort of our whole being, to receive grace, which is man’s real goal and law. The flesh and the spirit must be quickened in order to be filled with light. The aim of asceticism is to motivate our existence so that it is, bit by bit, filled with this light. By grace human effort will be brought to bear and God himself will convey his energies to the man who is receptive and willing.
The Lenten season makes us aware of the physical aspect of asceticism. The true knowledge of God, in the image of the wedding of the Song of Songs, brings body and soul into play. Asceticism is the bridal realisation in the humility of this meeting of the Bridegroom and bride. All our Lenten liturgy stresses fasting as a way to master desire to make us aware of our relationship with God. Fasting allows us to approach the problem not as a predatory beast, but as a Eucharistic man whose life has become perpetual Thanksgiving. As Saint Romanos the Melodist of Constantinople tells us the first deviance was eating, consuming the world without giving thanks, in other words, taking for ourselves rather than recognising and thus transforming what is offered. Fasting also means waiting for the Bridegroom. He who fasts enters into Christ’s humility in order to put on the risen Christ, that he will meet in the Easter joy, and Whom he sees in each Eucharistic encounter. As Saint Andrew of Crete says, Lent is a "bright feast" because above all man is nourished "by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God". True fasting will change the relationship we have with God, our neighbour, the world and even ourselves. Everything will be seen vertically, in other words, in its truth, in its immediate relationship with the divine energies that are reflected in all things, to the extent that we have increased our own understanding. By fasting, man must release the divine wisdom present in all things.
Abstinence from flesh and blood reminds us of our true vocation which is to give and encourage life. "Don’t feed your sensuality, put an end to those murders and suicides which inevitably follow from the search for the pleasures of the flesh; purify and regenerate your body to prepare for the transfiguration of the universal body" wrote V. Soloviev in the Spiritual Foundations of Life. This means that the fast tends to restore our relationships with the outside world and give us a true balance of life.
However, just fasting with food means nothing, the fast must be accompanied by what gives it its full strength: the spiritual fast. This fast forces us to abandon all that is evil in our relationship with creation, our neighbour and ourselves. We also have to extend the fast to the passions that inhabit us, and the sin that haunts us, also to a sense of power by finding a sense of service again and to a feeling of glory by exercising humility. And the Fathers also tell us to extend it to our intelligence, so as not to fall into fruitless speculation that in the end exalts our pride in knowledge.
All this is summarised in the Prayer of Saint Ephrem which is for us the surest guide in this time of Lent. Every day we have to impose it on our hearts and engrave it on our bodies through the accompanying prostrations. This prayer, alms to the poor, careful attention to the services: all this, if we live it intensely, will allow us to host "the Bridegroom who comes in the middle of the night" as the troparion of Great Monday reminds us. Then, in the image of the wise virgins, we will enter the bridal chamber and we will participate in the bright feast of the wedding of the Lamb, while contemplating His Resurrection.
" Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ Our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the holy resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life."
(The Monday of the first week of Lent, 3rd kathisma Matins)
Brothers and sisters, I wish you all a good and true Great Lent, I humbly ask all of you forgiveness for anything that might have offended you in my behaviour and ask of each of you your fervent prayer.
† JOHN, Archbishop of Charioupolis, Patriarchal Exarch of Orthodox parishes of Russian tradition in Western Europe
Paris, 26 February 2017