Before Us Unfolds an Exceptionally Holy Time

Sermon by His Grace, Bishop Parthenius of Antania, delivered during the Forgiveness Vespers on March 5/18, in the year of Our Savior 2024


By God’s grace and blessing, here we stand in the eve of the Holy and Great Lent. The Holy Church, through this specific service known as the Forgiveness Vespers, with its inspired hymns, calls us to repentance, to forgiveness, to a desire for perfection in all Christian virtues. A truly sacred and hallowed temporal space opens before us, dedicated to preparation for the most exalted Christian event – the Resurrection of Christ, the Lord’s Pascha, the transition from death to life.

Christ calls us: “Come and meet Me.” This is the meaning and the purpose of our existence. He came into this world, became man, one of us, to embrace us and give us the opportunity to become gods by grace. Each of us holds immeasurable value in God’s eyes, for, as He Himself says in the Holy Gospel, a human soul is more valuable than the whole world, for the soul, by God’s grace, is endowed with immortality.

Yet, in calling us, Christ also warns us, when we go to meet Him, not to appear unprepared. Therefore, the Church prepares us, through efforts and virtues, to stand dignified and in enlightened attire at the Great Supper in the Kingdom of our Savior. Indeed, throughout life, at every Divine Liturgy, we are privileged to sit at the Mystical Supper. Consequently, let us strive to keep our bright attire, which we have received as pure, through the holy mystery of baptism. As Christians, we are clothed in the garment of salvation, clothed in Christ Himself, and called to eternal life. We are all children of God and friends of Christ, and as such, we are invited to the spiritual joy, to the wondrous supper of the Lord, not as servants but as sons and heirs. We are worthy to sit at the table with Him. In this, the magnificence of Christ’s mercy and love for each of us is revealed.

Therefore, beloved, let our endeavours and efforts during these Holy Forty Days be directed towards godly deeds, towards feats that will bring us closer to the true joy in the Lord. May the upcoming fast be a time of deep contemplation and self-examination, and of rejoicing and gratitude for the gift of Christ’s Resurrection. We have just heard how the prayers for the blessing of the fast concluded: “Grant us all to peacefully complete the accumulation of all good deeds, to worship Thy redemptive Passion and the holy Resurrection,” and also, “at the end of our life to gain, together with all who have pleased Thee, eternal joy in Thee, our God and Savior.” Therefore, let us spend this fast by doing good deeds, so that we could welcome the Resurrection worthily and with joy. However we also pray that at the end of our life we could enter into the Lord’s eternal joy. For, one day, similar to this fast, our earthly journey will conclude in the eternal joy of Christ’s Resurrection, in the ultimate meeting with Christ. Every Great Lent is like a microcosm of human life, like an entire life’s journey in miniature. Tomorrow the first week of the fast begins, and perhaps right away we will be preoccupied with earthly cares: what we will eat, what we will drink, which lean recipes to try, etc. But time swiftly passes, and suddenly we will arrive at the Sunday of the Cross, halfway through the fast, then Palm Sunday, and behold, Christ will be waiting to enter our hearts. On Great Thursday, we will sit at the Mystical Supper with the Lord, and He will wash our feet. How will He do this? With His unfathomable humility. He humbles Himself before all, gently and lovingly awaits our repentance, patiently waits for our hearts to open to Him.

During the past week, the beautiful services with their stichera showed us the path of repentance, called us to prepare for the meeting with Christ. We must not approach the holy Supper unprepared. The Lord has done everything for our salvation. He left us the Church, which is His body, composed of us as His members. Therefore, it is truly regrettable to behave negligently and irresponsibly, without any effort or ascetic struggle, for inevitably there will come a time when we will sit together at His table, praying for Him to wash us and commune us with Himself. And if we have not prepared adequately, with abstinence, prayers, mercy, and love, we will prove insensitive, and thereby utterly unworthy. Similar to the Apostle Judas, who hoped only for earthly things and did not grasp the spiritual significance of Christ. He was not attached to the person of Christ, but to the benefits from being with Him, and when finally all his intentions and conceptions of Christ as an earthly king failed, he stooped to betrayal, selling Him for money. So we too, if we hope in the world and the mighty therein, will inevitably be disappointed. Even the earthly Church, with its bishops and priests, sometimes may appear strong in a worldly sense, with worldly power, but that should not deceive us. For, the Church has not always been strong with worldly authority, there have been many periods when it was persecuted. Worldly power is a reason for people with mercenary motives to cling to the Church. When the disciples saw great power and authority in Christ – how He commanded the winds, calmed the storms, walked on water, fed thousands without any resources – some of them wanted to crown Him as an earthly king. However, when the time of trials and suffering came, when the Cross arrived, they all left Him. Man finds it hard to accept the cross, prefers instant joys, and seeks an express entry into the Heavenly Kingdom, without understanding that the path to the true Resurrection and to eternal life leads precisely through the cross and pain.

Unfortunately, today we witness how Christians increasingly become victims of the negative effects of globalization, losing the apostolic foundations of their faith. How many of you loudly protest against this globalization, but it is fair to ask ourselves: how strongly has it affected us, haven’t we ourselves undergone changes because of it? How much has our Christian identity remained untouched? It is hard, today, to find an authentic Christian – one who repents, lives in Christ, loves sincerely. For, what is Christ’s recognition sign, His password? “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another!” (John 13:35) – He says.

Now we stand at the threshold of an exceptionally sacred time, which concludes with the brightest feast. We are invited to experience the grace that comes with that majestic day, to unite with Christ. Not to grieve Him, but to be like Apostle Peter, striving to emulate his bitter repentance and not his moment of his weakness when he denied Christ. Let us strive to become good Christians, in whom there is no judgment or condemnation, malice or envy. Let us not reproach those who do not wish to fast. We must not judge them at all. Surely, from tomorrow, many of you at home will sit at the same table where you will eat lean food, and someone opposite you will not fast. But do not be troubled. Maybe those who do not fast, now are still not ready to understand the mystery and majesty of the fast, but under the influence of your patience, humility, and love, one day they too may step firmly in Christ and become actual Christians.

From all my heart, I wish you present here, and all Christians, to have a God-pleasing and soul-beneficial Lent. Fasting has great power; it can quieten the world, appease God. And as we see, our troubled world so desperately needs it, because now people fight against each other, nations rise against nations, as it has been foretold in the Revelation. Our mission is to be aware of Christ’s call, to prepare for the meeting with Him. He is always ready to meet us, always filled with love for us. He only desires to embrace us with His grace, to make us truly joyful, to rest us from our heavy trials. Therefore, He tells us that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. If we bear with patience, with faith in Christ, and with gratitude life’s sufferings and hardships, which are the embodiment of the cross, we will constantly have His assistance. His consolation is always with us, making us fearless against evil and strong to overcome all temptations, and ultimately, to achieve the greatest victory – to unite with His bright and glorious Resurrection.

May God grant all of you spiritual and physical strength for a successful endeavour during the fasting period and let us all gather again at Holy Pascha in this sacred temple. Forgive me and have a good Great Lent!