Should we lead up to Heaven or down to the earthly and corrupted?

A Sermon of His Eminence, Bishop Parthenius, Elder and Abbot of the Holy Bigorski Monastery, delivered during the Liturgy on the Sunday of Forgiveness, after the reading of the Holy Gospel, on March 14th 2021.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!


My dear ones, we are already at the threshold of the Holy and Great Forty Days Long Fast, which is both the oldest and the strictest fasting of our Holy Orthodox Church. This god-blessed period of restraint and struggle for Christian virtues is aimed at the uniting with our God and Saviour, Lord Jesus Christ. This means our crucifixion with Him, through the personal suffering, but also our rising with Him in His glorious resurrection, through the spiritual joy emanated by the Holy Spirit.

A while ago, we heard the wonderful Gospel spoken by the mouth of our Saviour, in which He advises us as to what our fasting should be like, what we should do during this period and how we should act. First, you heard the words addressed to his Apostles, to the people of His time who were listening, and through them to all of us: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6: 14). It is good to know that before saying these words in the Gospel according to Matthew, our Lord told the Apostles and the people about the Lord’s Prayer “Father ours”. As you all know, we use this prayer very often; even during the services it is very frequent. In it, among the other things, we say every day: and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  With this sentence, the Lord wants to point that if we are not ready to forgive our neighbours, we would not have the right to ask for forgiveness from Him for our sins. The merciful Lord wants to teach us that we should be like Him. Therefore, He told the Apostles: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5: 48). We have been given an ambitious task. Because God is merciful, He expects us to be merciful as well. He expects every Christian to be able to forgive, if he wants to call himself a Christian and be His true disciple.
The second part, the second moral derived from today’s Gospel is about what our fast should be like. Even in the Old Testament the fasting was present, the Jews were fasting as well, but in the time of Christ it was more important what it looked like on the outside, how those who fast would look from aside and whether they would be praised by the others for their piety. However, today our Lord taught us that we should not pay attention only to the external form, but also and much more to the inner state of our hearts, our most profound being. He teaches us that we should achieve the goal of our fasting, which is attaining the mysterious spiritual grace that comes as a result of our honesty, our good will to forgive, to pray, to love – in one word – everything that comes from the authentic Fast.  That’s why Christ says: Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;  That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6: 16-18).  With this he implies that the spiritual joy is a result of truly God-pleasing fast and that fasting should create feelings of joy, good will, affection.

The Fast, my dear ones, is not a human commandment, but rather a Divine institution. The Holy Fathers of our Church say that fasting was given to people even in the Garden of Eden, when the first humans were told not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Actually, this Divine command for temporary restrain was a kind of fasting for the first people. But they did not obey this command. Being deceived by the cunning snake, as well as attracted by the good appearance and taste of the fruit, they decided on their free will not to stick to their first fast. In this way, they condemned themselves to banishment from the Garden of Eden and deprived themselves from God.

So, my dear ones, since fasting is divinely established, let us try to fast in the real way, distancing ourselves from everything attractive but vain, deceiving and fake. In one word – let us be careful and reserved towards the earthly pleasures and everything from this world. This is the third part of today’s most wise teaching of our Lord Christ, Who says: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6: 16-19).
Being rich is not a sin by itself, if it serves to the benefit of both the person and his neighbour. If those who have more than they need, due to God’s generosity, and share this surplus with their neighbours, then such treasure would not be an impediment in their struggle for reaching the Kingdom of Heaven and life eternal. In fact, it would be a ticket to it. The Divine Apostle Paul, teaching the Christians says: But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24). So you see, our home, our city, our real treasure is not here on Earth, but rather in our Lord Jesus Christ. We should constantly make efforts through the deeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, meekness, fidelity, restrain to reach His Kingdom of Heaven.

It is really essential that Christians during the time of fasting work hard on all the virtues and constantly sacrifice themselves in the service to others. Generosity is an essential virtue of the Christian life, because if fasting only consisted of restraint from certain foods then it would be no more than a diet, which brings no spiritual benefit. Whenever during history Christians were faced with terrible ordeals and temptations, they either gave good example and uplifted the entire society towards the Heavenly Kingdom, or unfortunately, acted retrograde and pulled the society downwards to the earthly corruption. This depended on their spiritual progress.

Recently, I read something very interesting in a contemporary column by the British writer and philosopher, John K. Lenox titled: “Where is God in A Coronavirus World?” Namely, in the second century in the Roman Empire a terrible plague appeared, called the Antonine plague, which took away a fourth of the population in the Roman Empire. Imagine, in such atmosphere of certain death the Christians of that time did not spare their lives, but rather devotionally “took care of the infected and were a great spiritual example”. In the next, third century of the period of Christianity there was also another, even more fatal plague, the so called Plague of Cyprian. A contemporary of Bishop Dionisius of that time describes the way the Christians “devoted themselves to helping the sick and taking care of their needs, regardless of the existing danger”. Additionally, you should have in mind that back then the majority of the Roman Empire citizens were pagans, infidels, but this did not stop the Christians from taking care for them as if for their own brothers. This devotional, self-sacrificing and caring behaviour of Christians, during the plague in the Roman Empire, was the very reason for the widespread of Christianity. These are all obvious examples as to what our ancestors, the Christians of the first centuries were like. They did not want to spare their lives, but sacrificed it, even for the sake of infidels. Imagine if they were thinking like the Christians of today, what would they have done? They would probably have accumulated food and treasures in their homes (according to the advises of certain spiritual fathers who are obsessed with the end of times), and would never step out to help, because God forbid, they could die. This is exactly what we see today, regarding the much less deadlier disease caused by the Coronavirus. I think that the selfishness of Christians is more than evident. It seems that the new disease called Corona i.e. Crown, has crowned most of them with the crown of fear, panic and weak faith, resulting with way more dangerous psychosomatic illnesses. This of course doesn’t mean that the measures and recommendations of the medical and state authorities should not be respected, because they were brought for the benefit of all. Actually, in this regard, we should have in mind the crown of thorns with which our Saviour was crowned and cherish the faith in his redemptive power for those who sacrifice themselves for others.
Standing before the very beginning of the Holy and Great 40-days-long Fast, let us comprehend the triple message of today’s Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and make it a real recipe of salvation which leads towards complete healing and eternal life. This recipe is forgiveness, fasting, and the real treasure – the good deeds of mercy and love. Thus, we would be ready to welcome and celebrate with joy our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, participating in His redemptive for us Crucifixion and His glorious Resurrection. It’s up to us, up to our way of life to leave behind us true disciples of Christ. If we are such as our Lord would want us to be, the entire world would become Christian. On the contrary, if we are selfish and ego-centric we would leave a bad example and be a temptation for the world. Therefore, be careful, try the spirits whether they are of God (1 John 4:1). We should be very careful what we accept as an advice, especially today when you can see just about anything on the social networks. You see for yourselves that everybody takes his right to teach on the internet. This is done even by lay people, not well educated in the faith. Incompetent persons open various websites and appear on them as all kinds of teachers. But you stay away from this spirit, visit websites which have been blessed by the Church and by its ordained Bishops. It would be best, however, if you read the works of the Holy Fathers, pray and counsel with proven, sound, spiritual leaders of God’s Church. Then our Lord will enlighten you, what you should do for your salvation.

In the end I humbly ask for forgiveness from all of you for everything I have done you wrong with the word, act, or thought in all the days of my life. May our Christ, our Lord of forgiveness, love and mercy forgive you all who love Him.

Be blessed and have a good Fast!