↑ Return to Christian Education

Lenten Daily Devotions

Creative Commons License Through the Psalter in Great Lent: Daily Psalter Devotions for the Season of Great Lent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. All devotions are original works by Marc B. Paine; Psalter quotations are taken from the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Psalter According to the LXX, available here.

—–

Let God Arise!
Great and Glorious Pascha

“Mightily leading forth them that were shackled, and likewise them that embitter Him, them that dwell in tombs.”     (Psalm 67)

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

My small children explain the icon of the Resurrection to me: “Jesus came back to life!” They never stop there, though. “He makes other people come back to life, too.” Today we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, but His resurrection is only part of the story; the second part of the story is that He makes other people come back to life, too.

In the ancient world, a victorious military leader would return to his own city in a triumphant procession through the streets. In his train would be people playing music and acclaiming him; there would also be those whose freedom he had won from the enemy, people carrying spoils like trophies, and also the conquered enemy princes and nobles in chains.

This Psalm, in the context of Holy Pascha, portrays Jesus for us as a returning General. He has gone to war with Death, Hades, and the Devil, and now – He is returned! He is risen from the dead, but He does not come alone! Following the Lord are those who were shackled. Those who were held captive by the enemy, who lived as prisoners under the chains of their oppressors, are now free. All those who dwelt in Hades, awaiting their Savior, now dance and sing in the train of Christ the Victor!

All flesh will be raised on the Last Day. Not only the People of God held by the chains of death were freed on Pascha, but also “those that embittered Him.” The enemies of God will also rise, not to process joyfully behind their liberating General, but as spoils of war and those conquered. All the heathen who have raged and meditated empty things, the kings of the earth who were aroused and the rulers who were assembled together against the Lord and against His Christ in Psalm 2, all these who plotted to cast aside the Lord’s fetters will find themselves in the victory procession of the Risen Lord.

This is the Christian Faith. This is the “hope in which we are saved,” as St. Paul called it (Romans 8:24). This is the Resurrrection, not only of our Lord, but of you and of me and of all mankind. Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead.” As my little daughters remind us: “Jesus makes other people come back to life, too.” And not just life, but everlasting Life and union with Him Who is Life itself! Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!

—–

How Long?
Holy Saturday

“With fire have they burned down Thy sanctuary, they have profaned even unto the ground the habitation of Thy Name… Our signs we have not seen; there is no more any prophet, and he will know us no more. How long, O God, shall the enemy utter reproaches? Shall the adversary provoke Thy Name to the end?”      (Psalm 73)

How long? Of all the Psalms, perhaps this one is the most heart-rending in its earnest appeal. The temple of God had been destroyed, the gold and silver plundered out of it. The enemies of God have mocked and done wicked things to the Holy Place of God, even burning the ground it stood upon. And God’s People can only watch helplessly and cry out to God: How can you let this happen? Now that we have no temple, no prophet, no one to bring us the Word of God, how long must we live like this?

As the Lord lay in the tomb, this Psalm must have seemed very present to His disciples, and still does today on Holy Saturday. The enemies of God have mocked the dwelling place of God among men, beaten the most pure body of the Lord, which He Himself called the temple (John 2:19-21), and even killed Him on the cross in fulfillment of the same words.

Like the Psalmist, they knew what it was to see the victory of God’s enemies and have the Lord’s Presence taken from them. Today is the day all disciples of Jesus experience that darkness – the darkness of hopelessness and despair and defeat. With all the saints we cry out, “How long?” How long is it going to be this way? How long will we live in a world where death is the final word? How long will we live in a world bereft of the Light of Life? How long will we endure silence from the Lord? Will we ever have victory and vindication and justice?

As the corpse of our Savior lay lifeless in a borrowed tomb today, a weak and broken people whisper quiet defiance in the darkness. “But God is our King before the ages, He hath wrought salvation in the midst of the earth.” Everything says that it is over, but faith says to wait. How long?

Today we stand face a sealed tomb and we desperately cry out in faith: “Arise, O God!” This is our plea. “Arise, O God, judge Thine own cause!” The Psalmist prays for that the temple might be rebuilt, that God might dwell among His People once more, that He might make His Word known to them again. This is our prayer today, that the Lord’s word might be fulfilled: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) Arise, O God!

—–

They Have Pierced My Hands and My Feet
Holy Friday

“O God, my God, attend to me; why hast Thou forsaken me?… For many dogs have encircled me, the congregation of evil-doers hath surrounded me; they have pierced my hands and my feet. They have numbered all my bones, and they themselves have looked and stared upon me. They have parted my garments amongst themselves, and for my vesture have they cast lots.”    (Psalm 21)

When our Lord Jesus Christ cried out on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” or “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” He was invoking the entirety of this Psalm with its opening words. The Psalms were commonly known and recognized by their opening or distinctive words, so this was tantamount to the Lord crying out from the cross: “Psalm 21!”

It is a testament to how hard-hearted those standing near the cross were that they did not understand His reference, because anyone who knew this Psalm and looked around at what was happening on Golgotha would certainly have been shocked at how perfectly the words were being fulfilled in their presence.

There are those enemies of Christ gathered around the cross. There are the pierced hands and feet, nailed to the cross. There are the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garment, since it was seamless and of great value. There are His bones for the counting.

When the Lord invoked this Psalm from the cross, it was as if He said for all to hear: “See how perfectly I fulfill all things!” For the His own people, who knew this Psalm’s words so well, Jesus’ utterance was a point-of-no-return.

When He invoked this Psalm and made obvious to them by it that He was the Christ and that His crucifixion so perfectly fulfilled these prophetic words, only the hard-hearted could continue to stand by and mock. Even the Gentiles, without the benefits of the Psalter and all the prophets, began to make whatever confessions they could as they watched events unfold on that hill outside Jerusalem, but not the very people to whom Jesus went.

This Psalm continues to stand as an example of the perfection with which our Lord Jesus fulfilled the ancient prophecies. The earliest disciples themselves did not grasp the significance of this day, but Jesus said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

—–

Fear and Longing
Holy Thursday

Kathisma 17 (Psalms 118)

“Nail down my flesh with the fear of Thee, for of Thy judgments am I afraid.”    (Psalm 118 – Second Stasis)

We speak and hear these words every Sixth Hour, the daily liturgical prayer office for noon, when we say the prayer of St. Basil:

O God and Lord of Hosts, and Maker of all Creation, Who by the tender compassion of Thy mercy which transcendeth comprehension, didst send down Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of our race, and by His precious Cross didst tear asunder the handwriting of our sins, and thereby didst triumph over the principalities and powers of darkness: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, Lover of mankind, accept also from us sinners these prayers of thanksgiving and entreaty, and deliver us from every destructive and dark transgression, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible, that seek to do us evil. Nail down our flesh with the fear of Thee, and incline not our hearts unto words or thoughts of evil, but pierce our souls with longing for Thee, so that ever looking to Thee, and being guided by Thy Light as we behold Thee, the unapproachable and everlasting Light, we may send up unceasing praise and thanksgiving unto Thee, the Unoriginate Father, with Thine Only-begotten Son, and Thine All-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The Psalmist makes it clear that the fear of God he is speaking about is rooted in the Lord’s role as judge. This is the honest fear of a sinful creature in the Presence of a Holy and Almighty Judge. This isn’t only a “healthy respect,” but truly paralyzing fear – fear that might paralyze our sinful flesh and keep us from doing evil.

We can’t ignore or minimize or redefine this fear as so much of contemporary Christianity tries to do, but St. Basil’s prayer does balance this fear by placing longing for the Lord as its counterpart. We may be sinful and it is good for us to fear the Lord as Judge, but this fear should never be enough to keep us from chasing after Him, dangerous though He may be. While fear may keep us away, longing must draw us forward.

St. John speaks to this in his first catholic epistle. God has shown us His love by sending His only-begotten into the world that we might live (1Jn 4:9). He says that this love has been perfected among us so that we might have boldness on the day of judgment instead of fear, since “perfect love drives out fear.” (1Jn 4:17-18)

—–

The Law of the Lord
Holy Wednesday

Kathisma 17 (Psalm 118)

“I am a sojourner on the earth, hide not from me Thy commandments. My soul hath longed to desire Thy judgments at all times. Thou hast rebuked the proud; cursed are they that decline from Thy commandments.”    (Psalm 118 – First Stasis)

Three Psalms are considered to be “Torah Psalms:” 1, 18, and 118. Psalm 118 is an exhaustive treatment of the “Law of the Lord.” This first kathisma uses the Hebrew poetic device of parallelism, essentially saying the same thing many times over with slightly different words and emphasis in each successive verse.

What is the “Law of the Lord?” This stasis calls it: His testimonies, His ways, His commandments, and His statutes. One of my favorite terms used is “the judgments of Thy righteousness.” The Law is His words and His sayings. The Law of the Lord is a path, a road, and a walkway. The entire Psalm 1 frames the entire Psalter itself as an opportunity to meditate on the Law of the Lord and delight in it, setting before the reader two ways or paths: the way of the Lord (His Law) and the way of sinners.

While the Lord has revealed His Law through actual spoken and written words, He has also revealed His Law to us through His actions. Psalm 18 especially points to the simple stability and order of Creation as a revelation of the Law of the Lord. The Psalter as a whole recounts again and again the story of the Exodus from Egypt as a revelation of the Lord’s Law.

With so many nuanced ways of speaking about the Law of the Lord, the common legal view of His Law – as rules to be kept or broken for reward or punishment – recedes. Instead, the Law of the Lord can be understood as something closer to the revealed will and mind of God. His gracious revelation of His Law is an invitation to think what He thinks, will what He wills, live as He desires, and be what He intends us to be. We have the opportunity to meditate on the Law of the Lord in order to get to know Him better.

Great Lent is a time to say with this stasis, “My soul hath longed to desire Thy judgments at all times.” Lent is drawing to a close, but this desire should continue. The Fast may be ending, but the invitation of the Psalter to meditate on the Law of the Lord – to know His deepest heart and will better and better – always stands. This stasis proclaims a curse on those who “decline from Thy commandments,” but this entire Psalm promises the deepest blessing and fulfillment for the person who continues in His Law.

—–

What Shall I Render?
Holy Tuesday

Kathisma 16 (Psalms 109-117)

“What shall I render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto me? I will take the cup of salvation, and I will call upon the Name of the Lord.”     (Psalm 115)

This is a good question. Seeing all that the Lord has done for you, what will you now do for the Lord? What can you give to Him who has given you everything? What can a finite creature possibly do to give pleasure to Him Who is divine plenitude?

The highest worship is to simply receive “with the fear of God and with faith and love” the gifts He graciously gives to us. “As the servant looks to the hand of his master, and as the maidservant the hand of her mistress,” so we look to the Lord for every good a perfect gift. He wants us to call Him, “our Father,” and He wants us to live as His children. He wants us to run to Him with our troubles. The scriptures say that the Lord is not only waiting for our prayers, but use Greek words that actually translate into something more like, “He is sitting on the edge of His seat in anticipation,” just waiting for us to “call upon the Name of the Lord.” Together as God’s People, we take the cup of salvation and call upon the Name of the Lord.

This is what we are meant to be and do. We are not created to be infinite mini-gods alongside the Lord; that is the expressed desire of Satan. We are created to be finite creatures, living to be forever filled from the Lord’s own fullness; that is always mercy and grace, because we are not equal to God and never shall be. He nevertheless desires us to live in a joyful relationship, forever receiving all that is His as children receive from their father.

St. Augustine comments on this Psalm by pointing out that if we are to give the Lord any good thing, it must be something we return to Him of His own, since all that preceded His great gift was sin. The “sacrifice of praise,” the Eucharist, the Church offers to the Lord continually is a return to the Lord of what He has given to us.

When we offer up Christ in the Eucharist, the Fathers remind us again and again that we are ourselves bound up in the gift, as we are in Christ and He is in us. St. Augustine says that once you confess your condition of dependence upon the Lord, you must consider: what is this “vow” you will pay to the Lord in the presence of all His people? It is your very self, as St. Paul calls it a “living sacrifice.” You are yourself a creature and have become in Christ one of His benefits to be returned with thanksgiving!

—–

The Offerer and the Offered
Holy Monday

Kathisma 16 (Psalms 109-117)

“The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies the footstool of Thy feet… From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee. The Lord hath sworn and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedek.”    (Psalm 109)

That this Psalm speaks prophetically of our Lord Jesus Christ is beyond question. When Jesus confounded the Hebrews with the words of this Psalm, He demonstrated that all alike understood it to speak of the Messiah, though they did not understand  its full significance. He is both David’s son and David’s Lord, He is eternally begotten of the Father, He is both priest and king.

But what is this priesthood? What does it mean that He is an eternal priest after the order of Mechisedek? St. Augustine says: “For in that character in which He was born of the Father, God with God, coeternal with Him who begot Him, He is not a Priest; but He is a Priest on account of the flesh which He assumed, on account of the victim which He was to offer for us received from us.”

Our Lord Jesus is a priest on account of His flesh and human nature. The priest’s duty is to offer sacrifices and gifts for sin (Hebrews 5:1), so the Lord has no need of priesthood for Himself, but for those to whom He has joined Himself and said, “This is now flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.” (Gen 2:23) He is a priest on account of the sacrifice He would offer once for all for the life of the world.

While the Orthodox faithful sing the Cherubic Hymn, the priest speaks in a single prayer of the Lord’s humanity and priesthood: “But because of Your ineffable and immeasurable love for us, You became man without alteration or change. You have served as our High Priest, and as Lord of all… For You, Christ our God, are the Offerer and the Offered, the One who receives and is distributed, and to You we give glory, together with Your eternal Father and Your holy, good and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

—–

Hosanna in the Highest!
Palm Sunday

“This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous shall enter in thereat. I will give thanks unto Thee, for Thou has heard me and art become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner… O Lord, save now; O Lord, send now prosperity. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.”     (Psalm 117)

Today the people cry out: Hosanna! Save us! This is the solemn cry of every heart. The Psalm gives voice to the need of the people: “O Lord, save now; O Lord, send now prosperity.” And now the Lord and King Himself enters into the city in order to do just that. “Ordain a feast with thick boughs,” says the Psalm, and the people in festival spirit rush to welcome the Savior.

The only true Righteous One enters into the city through the gate of the Lord. The people have long prayed for salvation, and the Lord has heard. As He once said to Moses, “I have seen the oppression of my people and I have heard their cry and behold, I myself have come down to deliver them.” (Exodus 3)

The Lord Jesus may be riding on the colt of a foal, but it is not an act of humility. He is entering the city like a King; this is how the Davidic kings were acclaimed by their people (1 Kingdoms 1). He was received as a royal king, and the Psalm prophesied that His entry would lead to the very altar of God. But the King and Savior the people had long cried out for was also the “stone which the builders rejected,” and He would be crucified outside the city only a few days after this triumphal entry.

This, though, is the Lord’s own doing. The people strewing palm branches before the triumphant King may not have known where this path would lead Jesus, but He knew. He had been telling His disciples about it all the way to Jerusalem. He is entering the city to answer the cry of the people, “Hosanna” – save us.

This is why we still sing with those Palm Sunday crowds: “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord!” It is because He comes in mercy, in grace, in order to bring Life and salvation to His people. He is offering Himself for the life of the world, and continues to give Himself into the hands of sinners in the Holy Eucharist. We receive Him unworthily, yet with the Psalmist we offer our profession: “Thou art my God, and I will confess Thee; Thou art my God, and I will exalt Thee.”

He still enters the city. He still comes to answer His people’s cry of “Hosanna,” “save us.” From the house of the Lord we still bless Him and sing, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever.”

—–

The Witness of the Baptized
Lazarus Saturday

Kathisma 18 (Psalms 119-133)

“Our soul hath passed through a torrent; then had our soul passed through the water that is irresistible. Blessed be the Lord Who hath not given us to be prey to their teeth. Our soul like a sparrow was delivered out of the snare of the hunters. The snare is broken, and we are delivered!” (Psalm 123)

This Psalm is for the catechumen who is about to go into the waters of Holy Baptism and come back out again on the other side as a new creation, into a new and promised land, a new and eternal Day of the Lord. This is the song that bursts forth from every Christian mouth as Holy Saturday becomes the Great and Glorious Pascha of the Lord. This is the witness  of the baptized.

“Our soul hath passed through a torrent.” We have descended into the torrent of the waters with the children of Israel. We have descended into the depths of the sea with the prophet Jonah. We have descended even into the water that is irresistible; we have died. We have been placed into a grave that is not our own as we have been buried with Christ in baptism. Nevertheless, we did not descend in order to remain. We have passed through. We have come out on the other side.

The children of Israel passed through the torrent and as they stood on the distant shore and watched the waters fall on their slavers and enemies, they began to hymn the Lord (Exodus 15). This is the witness of the baptized. Jonah cried out in the depths, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” This is the witness of the baptized. The Psalmist says, “Blessed be the Lord Who hath not given us to be prey to their teeth.” Death, Hades, Sin, the Devil – these enemies and hunters have not overcome us. Dripping wet but gloriously alive, the Christian can sing with Moses that these enemies said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide their spoils,” but the Lord blew with His wind and the waters covered them. They sank into the depths.

He has delivered us from the snare of the hunters. Even that great snare, the grave, has been sprung and broken by the Lord. The enemies of our souls converged on Jesus Christ our God, they closed the snare about Him, and He broke it utterly. Now that the grave and Hades are defeated and broken, our lives don’t end in the bottom of the baptismal waters. Our lives don’t even end in the grave. The snare is broken and we are delivered! This is the witness of the baptized. “He brought [me] out of darkness and the shadow of death, and [my] bonds He brake asunder… For He shattered the gates of brass, and brake the bars of iron.” (Psalm 106)

—–

Homecoming
Sixth Friday in Great Lent

Kathisma 18 (Psalms 119-133)

“Woe is me, for my sojourning is prolonged; I have tented with the tentings of Kedar, my soul hath long been a sojourner.”    (Psalm 119)

Great Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Baptism. The catechumens fast, pray, and learn about the Lord and His People to whom they are about to be mysteriously joined. The faithful of the Church fast with them, pray with and for them, and prepare with them for the great and glorious Day of the Lord.

When I was a boy, I used to visit my great-grandmother a few days a week. She was bent over with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and had lost her sight to glaucoma. I always enjoyed her company. She told great stories, had a great sense of humor, and still like to play whatever games her blindness allowed. But from time to time, she would become quiet. The spirit of this Psalm would fill her: “Woe is me, for my sojourning is prolonged… my soul hath long been a sojourner.” She told me she was homesick, and always asked me in those times to read the last few chapters of the Apocalypse to her. She would echo St. John’s closing plea each time: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

God’s People are sojourners. Our father, Abraham, was a sojourner in the land, preferring to live in tents and wait for a city whose architect and builder would be the Lord (Hebrews 11:8-12). Moses led the people on pilgrimage between the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan. The catechumen is a pilgrim on his way to the waters of Holy Baptism, to the mystery of death and resurrection in and with Christ our God. The faithful are pilgrims, traveling with the catechumens, but also on their own pilgrimage, like my great-grandmother, from the Red Sea to the Jordan – from death and resurrection in Holy Baptism to death in this age and resurrection to the age to come.

The words of this Psalm may resonate with you for many reasons. Perhaps you are a catechumen and the time of preparation has seemed so long, Holy Baptism so far away. Take heart! Your homecoming is at hand! Perhaps you are of the faithful and you grow weary on the way, struggling with the passions and this fallen world. Be of good cheer! “Surely I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:20) Maybe you are tired of beans and cabbage and feel like the Fast will never end. The Paschal feast is about to begin. Soon we will abandon our tents and recline with Abraham in the City of Promise. Our time of sojourning is almost over.

—–

What Pleases the Lord ?
Sixth Thursday in Great Lent

Kathisma 20 (Psalm 143-150)

“He shall not delight in the strength of the horse, nor in the legs of man is He well pleased. The Lord is well pleased in them that fear Him, and in them that hope in His mercy… For the Lord taketh pleasure in His people.”    (Psalms 146 & 149)

What do we take pleasure in? Do we take pleasure in a good meal, a community of friends, the satisfaction of well-deserved rest at the end of a hard day’s work? Do we take pleasure in the beauty of a sunset, the smell of fresh-cut grass, or the knowledge that we have helped our neighbor? Do we take pleasure in singing a psalm to the Lord? This Psalm says it is a good thing; in fact, all these are good things and we are welcome to take pleasure in them, but what does the Lord take pleasure in?

What pleases the One who numbers the stars and knows all their names? What could possibly please a Lord with immeasurable strength and wisdom? The Psalm tells us, and the answer reveals something about the heart of God.

Look at His activities in the Psalm. He builds up and gathers together His people. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up the wounds of those who are hurting. He lifts up the meek and humbles sinners. He provides food for beasts and men. These are the things that please the Lord. It makes God happy to create, to provide, and to serve.

He takes pleasure in them that fear Him. He takes pleasure in them that hope in His mercy, and this Psalm encourages everyone and everything that lives by His mercy by telling us that the Lord delights in showing mercy.

He isn’t impressed by what creatures can do for Him; how can the powers of men or beasts compare to His strength and wisdom?! But He is pleased when His creatures fear Him and hope in His mercy – a mercy He is pleased in turn to bestow.

How can any creature respond to this encouraging message? The Psalm answers simply: Alleluia! Praise the Lord! It isn’t just a word we say in the Church. It is a command. It is an order and an invitation to do what it says: Praise the Lord! “Begin a song to the Lord with thanksgiving and chant unto God with the harp.”

These are the last Psalms of the Psalter. They aren’t the last in the order we sing them in the Church, but they are the last in the book of Psalms, and they all begin with this command: Praise the Lord! This is the final and exhausted utterance of the Psalter in the face of God’s mercies: “Let every breath praise the Lord.” (Psalm 150)

—–

Blessedness
Sixth Wednesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 20 (Psalm 143-150)

“They have called the people blessed which fareth thus; but blessed is the people whose God is the Lord . ”    (Psalm 143)

What does blessedness look like? There is a temptation to confuse material blessings with genuine blessedness. The Psalmist describes this confusion here. Here are people whose words are vanity, who practice unrighteousness, and what are their lives like? The Psalmist uses words that sound like a popular radio host’s description of his fictional home-town where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” They have plenty of food, their flocks are so bountiful they are “multiplying in their gateways, and their oxen are fat. They have peace and security in their cities.

The Psalmist identifies the temptation to look at such people and say, “The Lord must really be blessing them!” After all, if the Lord is on your side, surely things will go well for you in this world, right? Just a few days from Holy Week, we remember that this was the assumption of the scribes and the Pharisees. In the middle of this way of thinking, the tortured Christ and King is lifted up on the cross. If blessedness and worldly gain go together, then surely Jesus was not blessed! Nor His disciples! Nor any of the martyrs and confessors who followed Him into death!

The Hebrew leaders who stood by and watched the Lord suffer and die on the cross were quite sure that no truly blessed person would experience such hardship. Blessedness goes with worldly gain and security, right? But the Psalmist had it right: “blessed is the people whose God is the Lord.”
This is true blessedness. This is what enables the saints to sing hymns of praise in prison, to consider suffering with Christ to be an honor, and to consider the poor of the Church to be Her treasures. Whether a Christian is healthy or sick, he is blessed if the Lord is his God. Whether wealthy or poor, hungry or well-fed, free or in prison, these considerations are absolutely nothing beside the fact that the Lord and God of the universe has mercifully come to you and calls you His child, brother, and friend.

On the cross at Golgotha, those standing near the Lord considered Him to be stricken by God, smitten, wretched, and afflicted in fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 53:4). They heard the words of our Lord: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but they didn’t grasp the blessedness of the address: My God! My God! You are able to call upon Him in the same manner, and no riches or prosperity can hold a candle to that blessing.

—–

No Stinky Words
Sixth Tuesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 19 (Psalms 134-142)

“Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee… Set, O Lord, a watch before my mouth, and a door of enclosure round about my lips.”
(Psalm 140)

A little boy stood beside me during liturgy once and he looked at me and asked, “Why do we have smoke in church?” He pointed toward the incense. His simple question deserved a simple and straightforward answer in my opinion: “The smoke is our prayers going up to God.” The little boy accepted my answer with the characteristic trust and simplicity of a child his age. He nodded and then added his own thought: “Our prayers smell good to God.” I smiled and felt the urge to take advantage of what I felt could be a teaching moment for the boy. “How do you think our bad words smell to God?” I asked. He scrunched up his nose at me before answering with a little titter, “I think maybe like poop.” We both had what I hope was a reverent chuckle.

I think the Psalmist would approve of the discussion. He asks that his words and the heart from which they proceed might smell good to God. On the other hand, he also asks that the Lord guard his speech – in a word, the Psalmist asks that no stinky words come out of his heart and mouth to offend God, because “out of the abundance of the heart does the mouth speak.” (Luke 6:45)

There is a bit of a treasure buried in a field for those who look carefully at the Levitical Law. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest performed the animal sacrifice at the Brazen Altar outside and then took hot coals from that altar, along with incense, into the Most Holy Place. There, he burned the incense on the hot, blood-covered coals. Mingled with all the incense and prayers of the people was the blood of the sacrifice.

This is a tremendous lesson and encouragement for all Christians. When you see the incense rising, remember that all our prayers ascend to God mingled with the purifying blood of the Son of God. When your prayers rise toward the Lord, they do not depend solely on the cleanness or good smell of your own heart and lips. The smell of Jesus’ blood rises with them, always a pleasant odor rising from the altar of the Lord. Keep watch over your heart and the words that come out of it, but be confident that the prayers of the Church are made into a pleasing odor by the blood of the Lord.

—–

The Idols of the Nations
Sixth Monday in Great Lent

Kathisma 19 (Psalms 134-142)

“He gave their land for an inheritance, an inheritance for Israel His people… The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of men.”    (Psalm 134)

This is the final judgment on the nations and their idols: the Lord simply took away the created things in which the nations put their trust and gave them to His own people. The Egyptians and the Canaanites trusted in created things. They trusted in things created by God like silver and gold and lands and goods, and they also trusted in things created by their own hands and imaginations.

The silver and gold, the land and goods – these things were made by God and are good in themselves; it is only their abuse that is not good. So, when the Lord destroyed and drove out the peoples from the land, He did not destroy these good things. He simply gave them to His people to use properly.

The false gods of the peoples, however, created by the hands and imaginations of men, were not salvageable. These things were to be removed completely from the land. When human beings created false gods in the imaginations of their hearts, these are not good creations.

God has given us many good things to use. He gives us food and drink, money, land, houses, families. These are good things, but they are just as liable to abuse as they were among the nations in this Psalm. We can abuse these gifts, too. We can become gluttonous with food and drink, slaves to our passions, and this makes food and drink a master over us; the ascetic fathers speak often of this. Money and possessions can easily replace the Lord as the source of our confidence for future security.

Countless people spend their lives in service to the acquisition of things in their own strength. Even one’s own family can become a problem whenever a Christian becomes unable to prefer Christ to “father or mother.” Church buildings can become subjects of greater veneration than the Church and the Living God Who meets us in them.

In such situations, this Psalm stands as a warning: the Lord is the true owner of all things, and He can take these things away today and give them to those who won’t abuse them just as easily as He did back then. But if the Psalmist prays that those who worship the idols become like them, this is our time to pray that we who worship the only True and Living God might become like He is and bless His name with all the Church forever.

—–

St Mary of EgyptA Broken Spirit
Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt

“A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.” (Psalm 50)

St. Mary of Egypt is a wonderful illustration of this Psalm. Once the Lord had humbled her, He did not turn her away, but received her immediately.

St. Mary lived as a prostitute. She was what people today might call a “sex addict.” She started her life on the street as a young girl and sometimes performed sexual favors without payment, later saying that she often felt “driven by an insatiable desire.” For many years she lived this way.

One day she decided to travel to Jerusalem for the Elevation of the Holy Cross. She had no desire to worship, but rather to engage in prostitution among the pilgrims. Once in Jerusalem, she lived in the city as she always had.

Eventually, she decided to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and join in the celebrations, but when she tried to enter the church, she was prevented by an unseen force. She perceived that it was due to her great impurity that she was prevented and was stricken with remorse. This act of the Lord broke Mary’s heart and crushed her spirit. In deep humility and repentance, she stood before an icon of the Theotokos outside the church and begged forgiveness, promising to become an ascetic.

After praying thus, St. Mary was no longer barred from entering the church. She venerated the Holy Cross and promptly left the city for the wilderness, where she spent the remainder of her life in repentance and prayer. She attained such holiness of life that she was able to walk across the water of the Jordan river and at her death was buried with the assistance of a wild lion.

How relieved she must have felt when she stepped across the threshold of the church! Not everyone receives such a miraculous confirmation that God has not despised their simple offering of a broken spirit and a contrite heart, but we all have the sure Word of God in this Psalm that it is so.

The pollution of past sins prevented thee from entering the Church to see the elevation of the Holy Cross; but then thy conscience and the awareness of thine actions turned thee, O wise of God, to a better way of life. And, having looked up on the icon of the blessed maid of God, thou hast condemned all thy previous transgression, O Mother worthy of all praise, and so hast gone with boldness to venerate the precious Cross. (Sticheron for Vespers of St. Mary of Egypt)

—–

Prayers for Enemies
Fifth Saturday in Great Lent

Kathisma 15 (Psalms 105-108)

“When he is judged, let him go forth condemned, and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few, and his bishopric let another take. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord, and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.” (Psalm 108)

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
(Luke 23:34)

The Psalter is a treasury of prayers. A monk once told me that one of the reasons the Psalter is so beloved by God’s people is because there is no feeling common to humankind that doesn’t find expression in it. No matter how you feel, you will find yourself in good company in the Psalter.

King David certainly prays some harsh words in this Psalm. This is what is called an “imprecatory” Psalm, or a Psalm of Curses. It may seem odd to find prayers in the Holy Scriptures asking God not to forgive a man his sins, asking God to kill and destroy those who have risen up against us as enemies. But then again, seriously, who hasn’t felt this way? Who hasn’t felt like praying these kinds of things against an enemy?

It is validating in a certain way to find our darkest prayers against our enemies given voice in the Psalter. It seems to say to us, “Yeah, you’re not alone in that feeling.” The anger, even the righteous anger, gets all twisted up in our own sense of self-worth and our love of neighbor breaks down and we find ourselves praying curses on people. It isn’t alright, but it certainly seems like a common enough part of our human experience in a fallen world.

This kind of prayer wouldn’t be so striking, perhaps, if not for the incredible alternative that Christ our God uttered from the cross. Here was a man – truly God, to be sure, but also fully human – and yet the kinds of prayers in this Psalm are as far as possible from the prayers Jesus speaks. His prayer is simple: Father, forgive them.

Psalms like this one do a good job of revealing our heart toward those who are far from us and alienated and sinful and warring against us. Jesus’ prayer does a good job of revealing God’s heart toward those who are sinners and opposed to Him, even to the extend of crucifying Him: He is forgiving. He is loving. He is merciful. He is everything that we in our fallen state, find it so hard to be. Here are the prayers of two hearts. What will your heart’s prayer be for your enemies?

—–

The Mercies of the Lord
Fifth Friday in Great Lent

Kathisma 15 (Psalms 105-108)

“And they cried unto the Lord in their affliction, and out of their distresses He saved them. And He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and their bonds He brake asunder. Let them give thanks unto the Lord for His mercies.” (Psalm 106)

The Liturgy of the Church has begun to take on a different tone. The hymns have taken on a yearning sound and references to the coming victory of Pascha are now heard throughout the week.

This is the Christian Faith. It seems like a roller coaster sometimes, but it is the way the People of God have always seemed to live. Things are good and we forget about God and start to wander. The consequences of our sins start to get the better of us and before we know it we are at rock bottom. We cry out to the Lord, “Help us!” and He is faithful to rescue us. We live the way He instructs us for a while and things are good. Things are good so we start to forget about God and wander again. Up and down, up and down we go.

This Psalm is about the upswing in that pattern, but it also looks forward to Pascha in a special way. It points to the ultimate “rock bottom” we can possibly reach: death. This is the ultimate consequence of our sin and unfaithfulness: darkness and the shadow of death.

But it isn’t the end. Once-and-for-all the Lord has come to His People in the depths of their affliction. Our Lord Jesus Christ went Himself to the place of deepest darkness and broke asunder the bonds of death. We see it in the holy icons in the form of broken chains. Death no longer holds power over us. Pascha is the end of the roller-coaster.

In a certain sense, Great Lent makes it very clear that while we live looking back in history at Jesus’ final victory over death and the grave, we also live looking forward to our own Great and Holy Pascha. We have died to the age and kingdom that is passing away in Holy Baptism and we have “passed over” from Death to Life; historically, Great Lent is a preparation for that very baptismal passing over.

Great Lent is a march to the baptismal waters. It is a pilgrimage into the tomb with our Lord. It is a descent into the darkness of death and into the depths. As we go, we sing the Church’s ancient hymns in the Psalter. Shall we fear death? Shall we draw back from the holy water that is our death and burial? No. We will sing this Psalm in faith as we drown in the Mystery. It is a confession of faith: just as we die with Him, so we will also live with Him, and sin will no longer have any hold over us! (Romans 6:1-7)

—–

The Magnificence of Creation
Fifth Thursday in Great Lent

Kathisma 14 (Psalms 101-104)

“How magnified are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is filled with Thy creation .” (Psalm 103)

In the beginning, the Lord looked at all that He had created and said, “It is good.” We too can look at the whole of Creation, even distorted as it has become through the entrance of sin and death into the world, and confess that the Lord has created all things in Wisdom.

The earth, the sea, the sky – all are teeming with life and display a marvelous order and the working of an incredible creative impulse and immeasurable intellect. Everywhere we look there is a reason to marvel at the intricate handiwork of the Lord.

Christians have always affirmed the value of the physical world. Long before sin and death entered into the picture, the Lord created the physical world in His own good pleasure. Being a physical living thing isn’t a bad thing. It is a good thing. It’s the way humans were intended to be. In fact, it is the way humans are intended to be forever.

Our Lord and Savior became a physical human being without suffering loss or change in Himself. He did not rise from the dead as a disembodied spirit. He rose bodily from the grave. This is a profound mystery, but also the greatest possible affirmation of the rightness of the physical universe. It may be somehow broken and disharmonious since the Fall, but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just something that involves human beings. All of creation is going to experience a sort of death and resurrection on the Last Day.

That is how important the created order is, and how precious it is to the Lord: it is all going to be saved, recreated, and restored. If St. John says that what we will be has not appeared yet (1 John 3:1-3), we have to say the same about the whole world! But if we can look around with the Psalmist and marvel at the Creator’s work in its current state, how much more will we marvel when it is all made new?

The prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what the Creation will look like in the eternal Kingdom. He shows us lions eating grass like cows and wolves and lambs lying down together. Children play near cobra’s holes and there is no cause for fear. The fear of the Lord will fill the whole earth as the waters fill the seas and a marvelous harmony will exist between God and mankind and all of the Creation. Pascha isn’t only a celebration for all mankind; all Creation joins in hymning the risen Lord (Rev 5:13).

—–

The Heart of God
Fifth Wednesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 14 (Psalms 101-104)

“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our iniquities from us. Like as a father hath compassion upon his sons, so hath the Lord had compassion upon them that fear him; for He knoweth whereof we are made, He hath remembered that we are dust. ” (Psalm 102)

The past two days have shown us the people of God chastised and called to repentance after having fallen into wickedness and the hard-hearted response of God’s people when they take God’s mighty acts for granted. But what about God? The last two days’ Psalms have shown us our hearts, but what about God’s heart?

The cure for our own hearts is the heart of God. Look at what He has done and see how He treats you, O my soul. He is not ignorant of your iniquities, and He doesn’t pretend they aren’t there, but He “is gracious unto all thine iniquities.” More than that, He heals your infirmities, both of body and soul.

He redeems your life from corruption. When we say the word “redeem,” we mean that He actually buys your life from corruption. He rescues you by making you His own. He doesn’t make you His own as a slave who has been bought, but as a friend (John 15:15) and even as a child and heir; the King crowns you with mercy and compassion “as a father has compassion on his sons.”

Look at what you were before “all He hath done for thee.” This Psalm paints the picture: you were sinful and full of iniquities, sick and infirm, your life was corrupted and you were dying. You didn’t know where you were going and had no law or way of life. The Lord didn’t write you off. Christ our God has “torn asunder the handwriting of our sins” by His death on the cross and and His glorious resurrection.

That is why Orthodox Christians around the world sing this Psalm at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. It is why we gather: to bless the Lord as those upon whom He has had mercy and for whom He has done mighty things. He has cast our sins away as far as East is from West.

During Great Lent, the discipline of the Church certainly can remind us of what we are made, that we are dust, that we are mortal. Every year it seems to come as a surprise to us, but it is no surprise to the Lord. He knows how small we are, how weak, how full of passions, how sinful, how fallible and mortal. He knows we don’t deserve His goodness, no matter how we might start thinking maybe we do, but He keeps showing His mercy to us, not because we have good and holy hearts, but because He does.

—–

A Hard Heart
Fifth Tuesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 13 (Psalms 91-100)

“Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.” (Psalm 94)

For the Hebrew people, the “day of temptation in the wilderness” referred to a two-part pivotal event in the history of God’s People: the double-episode of the grumbling of the people in 2 Moses (Exodus) chapters 16 and 17. The Lord had led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. He didn’t do this from afar off, either. From the burning bush, the Lord said to Moses: “I myself have come down.” (2Moses 3:8)

He had miraculously saved the people, baptized them in the Red Sea (1Cor 10:2), and made them a new, free people belonging to Himself. He was in the midst of the people, and yet they still still accused Moses and the Lord of leading them out only to kill them of hunger (2Moses 16) and thirst (2Moses 17). They hardened their hearts. Even though they beheld the Lord’s Glory and divine Presence in the pillar of cloud and fire, they dared to ask whether the Lord was with them or not.

This is the quintessential hardening of the heart: to see God’s mighty acts first-hand, to know what it is to be made to be God’s own, and yet to respond not with gratitude, humility, and obedience, but instead with grumbling and provocation and dissatisfaction. This is what the Psalmist warns against.

We hear the words of this Psalm in the Divine Liturgy: “Bow your heads unto the Lord!” It is a moment of decision as profound as that in the wilderness. Will you harden your heart or will you bow before Christ in humility. You have been made to be God’s own and you stand in His presence. He is your God, and it is Christ Himself who is the spiritual Rock who gives us food and drink in the midst of our pilgrimage in the Holy Eucharist.

The Hebrew people were dissatisfied with the heavenly bread in the wilderness and provoked the Lord by asking for meat. They actually stood with the heavenly gift in their mouths and looked back in yearning for the foods of Egypt. This was hardness of heart.

Today, it is hardness of heart to hear the invitation of Great Lent to draw near to the Lord and yet to look with longing at the world that is passing away. The Lord is in our midst! He has made us a people and feeds us with Himself. He leads us into the waters of the Red Sea, of holy baptism, and of death, and brings us out again as new creations, as participants in His own glorious Resurrection. Why long for what we leave behind?

—–

Blessed Chastisement
Fifth Monday in Great Lent

Kathisma 13 (Psalms 91-100)

“The Lord knoweth the thoughts of men, that they are vain. Blessed is the man whom Thou shalt chasten, O Lord; and out of Thy law shalt Thou instruct him.” (Psalm 93)

The Psalmist is really doing two things in this Psalm: he is calling on the Lord to help him because evil men are causing him to suffer, but he is also rebuking the evil men themselves and admonishing them to repent and return to the Lord and to wise living.

The Psalmist speaks to “the evil ones among the people,” and the words he uses suggest that these are actually members of God’s own people who have fallen into evil behavior. In modern terms, these would be church people who are misbehaving. It certainly isn’t easy to be called to repentance. It doesn’t feel good to be called “evil” or “foolish” when you are called out on account of your sin, but that is exactly what is happening here.

The Psalmist isn’t saying what he says for spite, though. He is providing a genuine opportunity

What Pleases the Lord ?

Sixth Thursday inGreatLent

Kathisma 20 (Psalm 143-150)

He shall not delight in the strength of the horse, nor in the legs of man is He well pleased. The Lord is well pleased in them that fear Him, and in them that hope in His mercy… For the Lord taketh pleasure in His people. (Psalms 146 & 149)

What do we take pleasure in? Do we take pleasure in a good meal, a community of friends, the satisfaction of well-deserved rest at the end of a hard day’s work? Do we take pleasure in the beauty of a sunset, the smell of fresh-cut grass, or the knowledge that we have helped our neighbor? Do we take pleasure in singing a psalm to the Lord? This Psalm says it is a good thing; in fact, all these are good things and we are welcome to take pleasure in them, but what does the Lord take pleasure in?

What pleases the One who numbers the stars and knows all their names? What could possibly please a Lord with immeasurable strength and wisdom? The Psalm tells us, and the answer reveals something about the heart of God.

Look at His activities in the Psalm. He builds up and gathers together His people. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up the wounds of those who are hurting. He lifts up the meek and humbles sinners. He provides food for beasts and men. These are the things that please the Lord. It makes God happy to create, to provide, and to serve.

He takes pleasure in them that fear Him. He takes pleasure in them that hope in His mercy, and this Psalm encourages everyone and everything that lives by His mercy by telling us that the Lord delights in showing mercy.

He isn’t impressed by what creatures can do for Him; how can the powers of men or beasts compare to His strength and wisdom?! But He is pleased when His creatures fear Him and hope in His mercy – a mercy He is pleased in turn to bestow.

How can any creature respond to this encouraging message? The Psalm answers simply: Alleluia! Praise the Lord! It isn’t just a word we say in the Church. It is a command. It is an order and an invitation to do what it says: Praise the Lord! “Begin a song to the Lord with thanksgiving and chant unto God with the harp.”

These are the last Psalms of the Psalter. They aren’t the last in the order we sing them in the Church, but they are the last in the book of Psalms, and they all begin with this command: Praise the Lord! This is the final and exhausted utterance of the Psalter in the face of God’s mercies: “Let every breath praise the Lord.” (Psalm 150)