Victory Over Enemies

First Friday in Great Lent

Kathisma 3 (Psalms 17-23)

“He will deliver me from mine enemies which are mighty and from them that hate me, for they are stronger than I… I shall pursue mine enemies and I shall overtake them, and I shall not turn back until they fail.” (Psalm 17)

Who are your enemies who are mighty and hate you? Who are your enemies who are mightier than you? St. Paul tells the Church that ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness and against the evil spiritual forces of the supernatural realms.’ (Ephesians 6:12) The devils are your true enemies, and it is with these enemies that you struggle during Great Lent.

The desire that fuels and drives our Lenten disciplines is the desire to know Christ better, to deepen our relationship with Him, to live in Him; the very opposite desire drove the demons to rebellion and their warfare is directed toward hardening your heart, destroying or misguiding your desire, and drawing you to share their willful separation from the Lord.

It is a struggle. It is warfare, and ‘war is hell,’ but don’t lose heart! The Holy Scriptures are absolutely full of the assurance that, even though it may look like we are losing the battle, we will win the war. This is arguably the very theme and message of the Apocalypse: it looks like evil is going to win, but God and His saints emerge victorious in the end. As Great Lent plunges toward the mystery of the three-day entombment of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, imagine how complete the defeat appeared on Holy Friday! This is the heart of our hope and faith: the Lord is victorious!

St. John Climacus writes: “Join to your breathing the word of him who said: ‘When devils plagued me, I put on sackcloth, humbled my soul with fasting,and my prayer stuck to the bosom of my soul.’” (Ps.34:11)

It is to this we cling during Great Lent – during our own ascetic struggle with the devils, with death, and with all these enemies that are mightier than we. In Christ (and union with Christ in Holy Baptism is the historic end of the Lenten Fast), we are confident and grow in confidence in our own resurrection with Christ. With the Lord, we will suddenly turn the tables on our enemies. In resurrection we will rise up like Ezekiel’s host (Ezekiel 37) and pursue our enemies. We will overtake them, and we will not turn back from them until every last one of them has been destroyed!All Saints

When the devils plague you, read the Psalms to them. Say with boldness: ‘See your end! On the Last Day, I will be the one to pursue you!’ With the martyrs, let us ‘destroy the devils’ strengthless presumption!’

Is God Paying Attention?

First Thursday in Great Lent

Kathisma 2 (Psalms 9-16)

“How long, O Lord, wilt Thou utterly forget me? How long wilt Thou turn Thy face away from me?” (Psalm 12)

While talking with some atheist friends, they brought up this “slam dunk” argument against God’s existence/involvement: Why is there so much evil in the world? It sure looks like the evil prosper and the good suffer and that’s that.

What amused me was their smug attitude while suggesting such a thing… as if I were only a Christian because this particular fact of life had never occurred to me. “Are you kidding me?” I asked. “The Psalter – the hymnbook of the Church – is absolutely FILLED with that very problem!” Christians who read/chant/pray the Psalter basically sing this very complaint several times during the course of a week. Hey, God! Where are You? I look around me and all I see are wicked people prospering, their bellies are filled, they are comfortable, confident, secure, and unafraid of anything as they trample the people around them. What is going on?

If you are immersed in the Psalter, you can up the ante on folks like my atheist friends. The problem isn’t only that these wicked people are stealing, killing, and destroying ‘people;’ the problem is compounded when you see that the ‘people’ being downtrodden are more specifically God’s people! So why isn’t He doing anything about it?

That is the question asked again and again in the Psalter, and that means it is a good question. It is an acceptable question. If you are a Christian asking this question, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty or tell you to ‘turn that frown upside down.’ You’re in better company with all the saints of the ages asking the question than you’d be pretending you didn’t feel the way you do.

It is a good question, but the Christian Faith expressed in the Psalter isn’t only faith for the present day; it has an element of hope for the future. Faith that is seen is no faith, says St. Paul. Faith waits, anticipates, and trusts. God has promised that the problem we have identified, while a legitimate problem, is only a temporary one.

If you pay close attention to the movement of prayer in this Kathisma (Psalms 9-16), you’ll see that especially from Psalm 12 to the end of 16 this question is addressed. Read through it. Pray through it. You’ll finish with these words: ‘They have satisfied themselves with swine and have left the remnants for their babes. But as for me, in righteousness shall I appear before Thy face; I shall be filled when Thy glory is made manifest in me.’

Holy Tears

First Wednesday in Great Lent

Kathisma 2 (Psalms 9-16)

“In judgment hath He prepared His throne, and He Himself will judge the world in righteousness; He will judge the peoples in uprightness.” (Psalm 9)

Ladder of Divine AscentSt. John of the Ladder writes in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7: “When you pray and plead, tremble like a convict standing before a judge. The way you look and the disposition of your heart may overcome the anger of the just Judge. He will not turn away from the widowed soul standing before Him, burdened with sorrow and wearying the Tireless One (cf. Luke l8:5).”

Christians are often reminded by the Lord that earthly life comes to an end and that judgment awaits every living soul. Those who are wise are mindful of this truth, and it produces not a morbid sense of doom but instead a great wisdom. Moses writes in Psalm 89: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” It is for wisdom that Christians learn to keep judgment ever before their eyes. The one who is dying is not easily roused to anger, but seeks to be at peace with all men. He is quick to forgive wrongs committed against him and even searches out those against whom he has sinned, that he may ask forgiveness of them.

Death and impending judgment may drive you to fear of punishment, but this will blossom into holiness. It becomes transformed into a knowledge of what we have lost and how far we have fallen from true fellowship with our King and Maker. Fear may produce tears, but an experienced and perceptive judge will not be fooled by them. True and holy tears are those of fear mingled also with desire for life with God. Holy tears mourn the relationship with God that should be and has not been… and is not yet.

Holy tears reach toward God Himself with desire and longing mingled with humility and unworthiness. “I desire Him above all things, and yet unworthy as I am, surely He will never be mine, nor I His,” says the heart that sheds holy tears. Yet it is Christ Himself who comes to claim you for Himself! He lifts up the lowly and comforts the mourner. He speaks peace to those who fear Him as the Righteous Judge, but He reserves His anger for those who have no fear or love of God and no love of neighbor in themselves.

St. John of the Ladder goes on to say: “Tears over our death produce fear, but when fear begets fearlessness, then what a joy comes dawning! When joy is without interruption, holy love comes blossoming forth.”

Kings, not Slaves

First Tuesday in Great Lent

Kathisma1 (Psalms1-8)

“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man, that Thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels; with glory and honour hast Thou crowned him, and Thou hast set him over the works of Thy hands.” (Psalm 8 )

In his book, Eucharist: The Sacrament of the Kingdom, theologian Alexander Schmemann reflects on the mystery of Chrismation and writes that it is the oil of coronation. Man was created to be the ruler and king of all God’s Creation. In the Fall, this divinely given vocation was twisted and perverted. In sin, the passions arose in the heart of man and mankind became a slave to the Creation instead of its king.

When we desire to use God’s Creation for ourselves and crave to have our passions and appetites satisfied by created things, then we become the slaves of Creation. An old bit of folk wisdom certainly applies: “Make sure that the things you own don’t own you instead.” But that is exactly what has happened to us – all of us. How can you be a master over food if you are a slave to your appetites? God did not make you a slave; He gave you dominion over all the earth. When you are chrismated, you are anointed to be a king. You are crowned again and restored in a mysterious way to that glory for which you were intended from the beginning.

And now here we are: fasting. If we are masters over the animals, then why can’t we kill and eat whatever we want? Is it as a holy king and caretaker of Creation that you would kill and eat, or as a slave to your appetites?

And now here we are: giving alms. If we are truly intended to be kings over all the earth, and if we are sons of God and heirs and all that is His is ours, then why must we give away the riches He has given us? It is precisely because we are kings and because all things are ours that we feel no need to cling to them.

Great Lent is a time to reclaim your rightful place as a ruler over all Creation. It is a time to realize the mystery that you are made an “anointed one” in your chrismation. It is a time to cast off the slavery that belongs to the age that is passing away and live in the kingship and freedom of the sons and heirs of God in Christ. It is a time to war against the passions and appetites that would make you a slave where you are rightly a king.

The Invitation

Clean Monday

Kathisma 1 (Psalms 1-8)

“Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the pestilent. But his will is rather in the law of the Lord, and in His law will he meditate day and night.” (Psalm 1)

The Psalter opens with an invitation. The Law of the Lord is one path, and the way of sinners is another. One path is wisdom and leads to everlasting Life; the other is folly and leads to eternal death. One path brings solace and comfort in trials; the other brings the pain and misery of sin’s consequences. In judgment (or on Judgment Day), the one who has walked the path of the Law of the Lord shall stand, while the one who has walked the path of the ungodly shall perish.

You are invited during this Great Lent to meditate on the Law of the Lord, and more than that – to delight in it! The Psalter begins with this invitation because the Psalter is itself a divinely given expression of the Law of the Lord. This is the hymnal of the Church. This is the Liturgy of the Church. We say them, chant them, pray them, and meditate upon them.

Why? Why do we meditate on this Law? Is it because we desire to be blessed (and the Psalm does promise such blessing)? No. We delight in the Law of the Lord because we desire the Lord Himself. In meditating upon His Law we learn to know Him better, just as we learn to know a friend or spouse better as our relationship with him or her unfolds in time. In the Psalter we can meditate upon the will, the desires, the very Personality of our Lord Himself! Blessed is the person who so desires to know the Lord! Who is this Lord who turns everything on its head? The Theotokos, filled with the Holy Spirit, sang of Him that He fills the hungry with good things, and sends those who are satisfied away empty. Do not be satisfied! This is the invitation of Great Lent! Do not be satisfied! Search for God. Seek His face as a lover searches for his beloved, not as a drudgery, but because he delights in her and desires her. Where will you search? The Psalter’s invitation is a neon sign that says: “Here! Look here! Meditate on this Law and you will learn to know the Lord and His Wisdom!”

Today is only the first day of Great Lent. Don’t look at the days ahead as a drudgery or a chore. Instead, hear the words of the invitation and be filled with delight in the Law of the Lord. When the season seems long or you lose your focus, pick up your Psalter and read Psalm 1 again.