Let us all make haste to humble the flesh by abstinence, as we set out upon the God-given course of the holy Fast; and with prayers and tears let us seek our Lord and Saviour. Laying aside all memories of evil, let us cry aloud: We have sinned against Thee, Christ our King; save us as the men of Nineveh in days of old, and in Thy compassion make us sharers in Thy heavenly Kingdom.
(stichera of Lord I have cried)
Having in mind the touching sight – Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise- which the Holy Church has so skillfully depicted before us, we stand on the threshold of the Great Lent, painfully aware of our sin which, as if a high wall, hides God from us. We need God’s forgiveness to regain the initial garments of our soul, which has been stained by sin. We yearn to return to the place where the light of His noble image glows, where we have once been expelled from. But we can’t dive into the depth of the Lent, we can’t truly repent nor reconcile with God, unless we forgive each other. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism in fasting should make those bonds of love ever-stronger. And here is the first step. With a sincere pain in our souls and teary eyes, we humbly ask our neighbors for forgiveness, pleading with God for a great mercy.
Anxious to start the fit of fasting during the Lenten period, the Bigorski monastic family, accompanied by the great multitude of faithful that arrived from all over the country, gathered in the big Church of the Forerunner to sincerely open their hearts to God in repentance, asking from Him and from their neighbors forgiveness for all their trespasses which have abused His kindness. The sanctuary which welcomed them with the serene light of the lanterns, soon replaced its bright vestments with the dark ones, reminding them of the forthcoming redemptive travel through the Lenten weeks; and the monastic choir, through the emotional sticheras, affected the souls of the present with that redemptive feeling of joyous sadness, preparing them for the moment of mutual forgiveness. And look, prostrated with their souls and bodies, they stand before God’s eyes while in the semi darkness of their hearts the voice of the Elder is heard, while he touchingly reads the repentant prayers. Affected by the intense wave of that invocation, the hearts open their doors and sincere sighs are poured out, asking for a forgiveness from their neighbors. The row has no end, and the sight is a joy for angels. A multitude of hearts united in love and forgiveness. And where there are love and forgiveness, God is there, too.
Contemplating these beautiful virtues so necessary for us to begin our journey through the Lenten period, our beloved Elder Parthenius, with his fatherly advice, invited the present to enter even deeper into the beautiful atmosphere of the Great Lent and to adopt the love and forgiveness as the most important virtues:
My dear ones, let us thank God for bringing us here, in this sacred time of the Great Lent, when He opens wide the doors of mercy for us.
In the prayers for blessing of the Lenten period, that we have just read, among the other things, it says: “O, God, you have established this Lent with the Law, the Prophets and the Evangelists.” Actually, one can see the benefit of the Lent in the fact that the Lent was given to our forefather, Adam, in the Paradise, as an expression of God’s love. Through the Lent, all the Old Testament’s Prophets expressed their faith and respect to God.
Reading the Holy Scripture, we will notice that all the great people were fasting before they started some holy deed, before they met God. For example, the great prophet Moses, fasted 40 for 40 days and 40 nights before he saw God on Mount Horeb and before he received the Tablets of the Law, in fact the Ten Commandments. Also, the prophet Elijah fasted strictly and with great zeal, so he was granted to see the Glory of God. The history testifies that whole nations have been saved due to the repenting Lent. Let’s remind ourselves of the Ninevites, who were to endure total extermination because of their bad deeds. But, God, in His mercy took pity on them and wanted to save them through the Lent, which has healing powers against the evil. He chose the prophet Jonah and sent him to the Ninevites, so he could announce that if they repent, their kingdom would be spared. Then, the wise king listened the voice of the prophet and with his authority ordered that all people, including himself and his nobles, should fast for 40 days and 40 nights, and he asked from them to renounce the bad ways and the injustices they did. This nation-wide fit was pleasing to God, so He gave mercy to Nineveh and its people.
There are numerous examples in the Scriptures about the usefulness of the lent. The Old Testament’s Lent also transferred to the New Testament Church and it was practiced by the Holy Apostles, as well as by all saints and all the people who pleased God. But most importantly, the Lent was kept by the One who did not have any need of it, our Most Pure Savior, Lord Jesus Christ, just to show us the benefit of the Lent, accompanied by the Christian virtues.
So, my dear ones, having all the saints as an example and, above all, Christ Himself as the most excellent example to follow, let us try to spend in a God-pleasing way this time of repentance and spiritual purification and exaltation. This Spiritual Spring, as the Holy Fathers call the Holy Lent is a time when, due to our small works, we get to blossom with many graceful gifts. So, encourage yourself! We need to endeavor at the fasting with courage, not with hesitation, but with love. To enter these sacred days of the Lenten arena as spiritual fighters, as Athletes of Christ. Only then will the Lent be beneficial to us, and we will be supported by the holy angels as well. The liturgical order of the Holy Lent proposes that every Wednesday and Friday we are to serve the so-called Liturgy of previously consecrated gifts. During this specific and beautiful service, instead of the Cherubic song which is usually chanted at the St. Chrysostom’s and St. Basil’s Liturgy, we will be chanting something which means: Now all the heavenly forces are serving invisibly together with us. The Holy Pope St. Gregory the Theologian, who is responsible for the creation of this Liturgy, wanted to show us that angels serve with us as well. God sends us support during the Lent so that He could encourage us to make God-pleasing deeds, which are going to bring us closer to Him. If, however, we begin to think faint-heartedly that, tomorrow, it will be difficult for us, because we will have to give up our favorite foods, it would not be easy for us to abandon our sinful habits, or to restrain from some pleasures, then in the very beginning of the Lent we lose the benefit of it. A soldier who is afraid of the enemy, cannot win the battle. Courage is the necessary virtue. Therefore, let us pray that God grants it to us, and as spiritual athletes let’s cross the threshold of the forthcoming fit with great joy, thanking Him that this year too we were honored with this spiritual marathon. Let’s get to love from our hearts this wonderful time, this Great and Holy Lent. Great not only because of the length, but also because it ends with the greatest holiday of our redemptive faith, the Resurrection of Christ, the foundation of our existence.
Entering the arena of the forty-day graceful struggle, we must never be judgmental towards our neighbors who won’t fast. On the contrary, we should pray even more for them, so that one day they too would seek Christ and please Him with good deeds. We are not called to judgement and pride over the others, but to love and forgiveness. In today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus was very clear: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:
But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6,14-15). We cannot, therefore, fast, if we do not make peace first and forgive everyone. Because fasting is our small gift to God, and the gift cannot be offered if the brother has something against us. It does not say: “If you have anything against your brother” – we shouldn’t even think about it – but it says: if your brother has something against you (Matthew 5, 23). If your brother has something against you, go to him and ask for forgiveness. We would not be looking for a worldly justice, nor judges, lawyers, so as to investigate who is right. I go first, although I might be sure that I am right, my conscience tells me so, but still I go first to ask for forgiveness from my neighbor. May God give us all grace to do this. Let us forgive, especially to those who we have trouble to forgive. That is the endeavor of Christian love. Tonight, all of us who are gathered here will tell each other forgive me. And not just as a part of a routine, because it’s proper to do so, but rather from the heart, with real forgiveness. Also, not only to those who we would encounter tonight, but also to those who we really need to ask forgiveness from. To those with whom we have lost communication, who we have separated with because of the wall of our passions and egoism which is dividing us.
In the end, I beg you and humbly ask you for forgiveness for all that I might have done wrong to you as a spiritual father, as well as for all my sins in all the days of my life, because there is no man who could live without sinning. Sometimes those who have great spiritual power and responsibility can make the greatest mistakes. I feel as the last and the most sinful among you all, and that’s why I hope for your prayers and your forgiveness. If you find the strength to forgive me, God will forgive you too. And I, the most unworthy among you, forgive you all with the greatest love. If God forgives everyone, including me, then who am I not to forgive?! Tonight, it came to me that Christ in the Gospel encountered so many sinners, yet he didn’t reject anyone. Even a single spark of repentance, a small wish for an encounter with God, instantly attracts Christ to the sinner. Remember the penitent thief on the cross, the harlot who was to be stoned according to the law, Zacchaeus, who only wished that he could see Him from the fig tree … Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house (Luke 19: 5). No matter how wrong we are, God wants to be in our inner home, in our heart.
God bless you all, may we all have a pleasant Lent and, in the end, be honored with the joy of our gloriously resurrected God!