REPENT YE, HOLY CHURCH, FROM TOP TO BOTTOM,
AND CONVERT BEFORE YOU CELEBRATE THE HOLY PASCHA
This period experiences a great turmoil, which has never been in recent times. The earth is roaring with anger. Our climate has not been normal for past the past few years; our weather has been so erratic. Many areas on the earth are being ravaged by heavy floods; for example Australia, where there was no misery resulting from floods, has been suffering from deluge; Pakistan and parts of South America suffered from massive losses due to heavy flooding.
The past decade saw massive earthquakes all over the world. Although earthquakes are not uncommon in history, they are occurring frequently and with much higher destructive power, not just killing a few hundreds, but thousands. When the epicenter is in the ocean, the earthquakes create unfathomable power and consequently roll the waters of the sea to make it a devouring lion and totally decimating entire population in surrounding lands. We saw one such wrath of the earth in 2004 that took the lives of more than 200,000 people in Indonesia and in the lands surrounded by the Indian Ocean. Again, we are struck with another such catastrophe in the western Pacific, creating unimaginable destruction and misery in Japan.
Well, the seismologist has his geological explanation for all these calamities. Historians may have a lot to lecture on them with a historical point of view. Philosophers will definitely rationalize on them. Yes, nations may gather together to find solutions for the problems resulting from these calamities. Scientists may also try to develop systems of advance warning for better preparation to deal with such future situations. But none of them will be able to alleviate the pain experienced by the survivors of these catastrophes. In fact the professionals mentioned above can never be able to solve the enigmatic problem engulfing our generation.
Readers, this enigma is understood only through FAITH! Faith can answer the problems, it can heal the wounds, it can comfort the grieving survivors and it can also suggest solutions. Suffering is inevitable in human life; but if we have the right faith it can make it lighter for the sufferer.
In the Semitic Church (both Orthodox Syrians and Nestorian Assyrians), there is a brief fasting period called the “Nineveh Fast”, or the “Three Day Fast”; which is observed in a very austere manner and falls as a prelude to the Great Lent, eighteen days before the Great Fast starts, which lasts for forty days followed by another ten more days of stricter fasting period in honor of the passion of the Lord, which ends on the day of Pascha (Resurrection). Actually the purpose of the Nineveh Fast is to prepare the faithful for the observance of the Great Lent.
We read in the bible that the Nineveites listened to the preaching of Jonah and went into deep practices of austerity. They wore sack cloths, showered ashes on their bodies, provided no food for their babies and animals. Nineveh was in sin; and God was about to destroy that region like he had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. However, God wanted to give them a chance of coming back to Him through repentance. Jonah was asked to preach repentance; but he ran away from the command of God, because he thought that the people of Nineveh were an unrepentant generation, and that they would kill him. But God did not want to destroy a nation. So He decided to punish the running away Jonah, who had taken a ship to escape from the scene. A whale swallowed him and he stayed in the belly of the whale for three days, and it finally threw him up on the shore near Nineveh. Jonah realized the consequence of his disobedience. He started his preaching so vehemently, and asked the sinners of Nineveh to observe the strictest form of penance and repentance. It is with this great biblical episode that the Semitic Church is preparing her children for the Great Lent.
Our present generation has gone beyond the magnitude of sinfulness that devoured the inhabitants of Nineveh. The world has become dangerously hedonistic and has no regard for the law of nature or the precepts of God. We are not just talking about the sin of the unchristian world; we are also talking about the sin of the Church, which was given the discernment of clearly understanding the commandments of God and the laws of nature, which are reflective of God’s ultimate purpose in His created sphere. In fact, the Church and the world around her are equally sinful now. The world around the Church does not know what God really wants of it. But the Church knows what God expects of her; hence her sins are more terrible challenging God in every area of human life.
As Christians we should know what sin is and what its consequences are, more than the heathen world. Tragically, our problem is that we are already blinded by the scars of constant sinning; we do not understand the depth of the wound it inflicts on God’s loving heart, we do not understand severe consequences of our sin. The Church is called to be the light and salt of the world. A sinful Church cannot add flavor to the world surrounding her, a constantly sinning Church cannot be a flaming torch within the world darkened by the intensity of sin. The current problem of the Church is that it DOES NOT KNOW what constitutes a sin. There is no sense of sinfulness anymore.
Our basic Orthodox Catechism tells us that there are three enemies always ferociously working against the Church and the Christians, which are the World, the Flesh and the Devil.
The World is very attractive, and as such it is innocuous; and it basically provides for our physical preservation. When does it become a peril for us? When it becomes the goal of our living on earth. The goal of a Christian is to reside in the kingdom of God. That is why Jesus said, “You are from this world, but not of this world”. The pleasures of this world are only to be used for the greater purpose of achieving our ultimate goal, which is the abode where God is. Look around us and see the world around us. The world generally praises glittering pomp and shining gold and empty extravagance and delusory affluence; and it attracts its residents. We need a lot of money for this kind of life style. This style is not satisfied with the minimum needs. For minimum needs one does not need a lot of money. Our problem is that we do not stick with the minimum anymore. We buy the biggest house possible to show off our affluence, we buy expensive jewelries when can still be modestly attractive with a modest amount of jewelries. We buy unusually expensive cloths to compete with our neighbor. Our cars should carry the mark of high affluence. The list goes on… Behind all these desires grow a number of cardinal vices, which are fundamentally sinful, and hence evil. Greed, vengeance, envy, gluttony, injustice, covetousness and many related vices grow very rapidly in this kind of environment; and we forget that these are not just sins, but deadly sins that take you directly to hell.
Is luxury is vice? Strictly speaking pomp is a vice. A decent living with all the conveniences to meet our needs is not a vice at all. When does it reach the point of being despicable before God? When our luxuries do glorify ourselves and our egos, forgetting the needs of the poor, and forgetting the source of every good we enjoy. Any necessities beyond the level of our reasonable needs come to borderline sinfulness. For example, ask ourselves if we reasonably need a gold-filled Rolls Royce, or a five storey building for our house. If there is no justifiable reason for a possession, there is sinfulness hidden in it. We need a decent house; but we do not need a palace for ordinary living. The house of a head of State could be bigger to accommodate his offices and ministers.
But does an Orthodox bishop need a palace (Aramana)? Definitely no! First of all, he is a monk; a monk does not live in a palace (Aramana); he lives in a monastery. The Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be a humble entity without any claim to worldly royalty; and the Church of Christ does not need a palace to run its business. The best that the Church of God can aspire is only a secretariat, or a Church Center, or a Diocesan Center, not an Aramana or a Palace. Why does then an Indian bishop have no scruple to utter the following: “I am calling from Aramana”; “Send the report to the Aramana”, etc., etc. Or why can’t he say, “I am calling from my residence”, or “from my monastery”. Believe me, a bishop does not live in a palace; if he does live in it, it is a violation of his vows, and it is against Christian simplicity. He is definitely committing a sin. The Church should be the symbol of Christian poverty, and the top of the hierarchy should show its commitment to Christian poverty. If an Orthodox bishop is found guilty in this area, he should be singled out as a scandal to the Christian faith.
See how much we are immersed in the World that destroys the soul of a Christian.
We are so much attached to earning more money. This writer does not say that we do not need money; we need money for a decent living in this world, and it is for that purpose we all work hard. When we multiply our needs, often unnecessary needs, we need more revenue, and we are forced to work beyond our physical capacity, finally crippling our own health with overtime work and subsequent fatigue or high blood pressure. We compete with our neighbor in possessing a better luxury home or car. The truth is that we seldom sleep in or enjoy that home as we are always away working two jobs to pay off a heavy mortgage! There are several vices involved in this scenario. God is not against you having a good home or a car. However, when we pass beyond our modest needs, we might slowly slip into sinfulness.
When we are anchored on possessing more and more, our greed also becomes limitless. People generally seek unethical methods to grab more money. Greed for money is often the source of many evils in the society, and in the Church. Often greed for money is a constant problem among the clergy. A priest who is greedy of money would definitely sacrifice his integrity as the custodian of orthodox faith and morals. Such a priest becomes so liberal and lenient in observing his faith, because a stricter priest is not appreciated by the rank and file and his donations generally do not multiply. Back door money comes only from people who seek exception to the rules or violation of canons. Or a liberal position by a priest is the only way to please his flock, which is often translated into tapping more money from his parishioners. Often such liberal behavior involves violation of standard canons or even violation of God’s law.
A year ago a new bishop visited one of the regions of his diocese and held a clergy meeting. In the meeting, the bishop very gladly expressed his happiness for being their bishop saying: “Many of the other new bishops desired to come here as your bishop; but I was the lucky one to be chosen to come to this diocese…” What were his inner emotions when said so? Every bishop wanted to become the head of that affluent diocese or he himself was so lucky to get such a wealthy diocese to rule over. In either case it reflects the passion for wealth that is rampant in our higher clergy, and it is evil and sinful. In the same meeting one of the elderly priest, who is well-educated and a former professor, suggested, “Your Grace, we hope that you do not run around cities after cities blessing marriages and houses, which are the functions of local priests; this will not enhance a bishop’s image, which would be interpreted as greed for money”. Another priest also encouraged the priest with his body language. The bishop immediately looked at him and the rest of the priests and frowned at the participants and asked, “If some request for it, what could I do?” (Meaning, he did not want to give up this money making practice kept by the majority of the episcopate in his Church). The priest who originally pointed out the problem smiled at all other priests and gave up without asking additional questions. Later in the same meeting, the bishop wanted to impress them with a “new idea”, which he wanted to implement as a new practice. “I will turn over the honorariums I will be receiving from parishes to the diocese… however I will keep donations given by individuals in my pockets for buying ‘soap and comb’”. (“soap and comb” is a slang phrase in his native tongue to mean ‘incidental expenses’).
Think about the most frustrating situation when a bishop is severely criticized for his excessive attachment to money before making decisions related to his pastoral work.
We hear that a bishop attempts to force his visits in all the parishes of his diocese, without being invited, during the Lenten Season under the pretext of conducting retreats, and he is heavily questioned by his priests and laity because of his simply pecuniary motive. In the past none of his predecessors forced such a Lenten program unless the parish council had offered an invitation. Hence the people would be really concerned about this newly fabricated spiritual activity, especially in view of his reported utilitarian agendum. It is said that a bishop receives honorarium from every parish he visits. WE wonder if any of this money is utilized for the glory of God, for the poor, for educating the poor children, running orphanages or treating the sick or for paying off the debts of his diocese! Some even wonder how a priest or bishop, who is always running around during the entire week, could even observe the fasting season with the right spirit! It is also interesting to note that some parishes have clearly expressed their unhappiness about it, because they are not financially strong to support an episcopal visit, which involves the bishop’s air travel, stay, accommodation and a decent honorarium (which is generally unaccounted in the books of the diocese, and could be possibly unreported to the IRS). Corruption, indeed!
Some years ago we heard about a hierarch who was richly rewarded with a sumptuous sum of money by a parish so that their parish could be honored in future with the title “Cathedral“ instead of Church. It is said that the bishop like any other bishops became an easy target of corruption (who would refuse money!?) and without scruple accepted it. Later the request for cathedralship came from the same parish, and the bishop could not deny their request (the power of money was so strong), with the full knowledge that there could be only ONE cathedral in a metropolitanate or diocese. He himself conducted the service of naming that parish church a “cathedral”. We are reminded quite often of similar cases in many places. Thus the canons of the Church are strangulated! Again corruption!
There was report about a young newly ordained bishop, who engraved his own image on a metal sheet ornamentally framed, mostly resembling the look of a saint, with his miter on his head and his crosier in his left hand and a blessing cross in his right hand, and sent to every home in his jurisdiction, with individual salutation! Some estimate $40,000 for this extravagance. Whose money was it? God’s money? If it is donated money, would the Lord justify its use for such a wasteful and meaningless enterprise? Look at the episcopal crave for worldly adoration and fame! Whose idea was it? It is clearly understood that the bishop himself must have approved this act which would even numb the mind of atheist. If the bishop sent an engraved icon of the Lord or the Theotokos, with a spiritual message and greetings, it would definitely have been more appreciated. Look at the mess in the Holy Orthodox Church! Yes this act was nothing but sinful. Think if the word “corruption” would apply to this ungodly episode.
We point this out not to collect and expose the filth in the Church, but to show how worldly we are, how hedonistic we are, and how sinful we are. It is not sinful to work for one’s subsistence; however, when a monk, who is supported by his Church, shows unhealthy attachment to the treasures of this world, the World becomes his enemy, an enemy of the Kingdom of God. If a priest’s life is such a messy one, how much can we expect from a layperson? This writer believes that he has a prophetic role (in additional to his priestly and teaching functions), the role played by the Prophets Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others of the first covenant, to preach against this grave sin that spiritually destroys not only the one who sins, but also Church that envelopes him. St. Jerome, one of the fathers of the undivided Church, instructed that we should run away from the priest who accumulated more wealth than what he had at the time of his ordination, just as the way we run away from persons with contagious diseases!
Priests of the Holy Church, whether you are of presbyteral order, or of monastic order, or of chorepiscopal order, or of episcopal order, your spiritual calling is the same; you are all called to separate yourself from this world and its attractions. Otherwise this World will subjugate you. Your attachment to wealth, gold, expensive cloths, expensive houses or palaces, or luxurious living, will detach you from the grace of God; do not forget you are the imparters of divine grace to the people of God, you are “dividers of the word of truth”. God will punish you unless you repent and come back to a simple Christian life for which you are called in order to become worthy ministers of the mysteries of God.
People of God, you are also reminded by our Lord that you do not belong to this World although you live in this World. You may enjoy the resources of this world, and it is for you to enjoy. But be aware that gluttony in any area is one of the deadly sins; overindulgence is indeed not a virtue. Yes, you can enjoy this world modestly and moderately. Anything in excess is a vice. Virtue stays in the middle, like Aristotle taught. Everything applicable to the priesthood, mentioned above, is also applicable to you, because we are all called for the same perfection, the perfection of the Father, which was demanded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
We live in era tragically characterized by the glorification of the flesh and its pleasures.
The windows of your computer show indecent and sexually provoking materials; you will see hundreds of sites that cater to immoral cravings. Pornography is depicted as an innocent game for pleasure, because it is justified as amoral, having no victim or perpetrator of any crime. If you are an adult and choose to visit such sites and enjoy, the government does not find any criminal act involved. The concept of sin is not in the book of the penal code of the government. But God’s Word says that the body of every human being, particularly the body of a baptized person, is the temple of God. How many Christians are seriously thinking that pornography desecrates the abode of God? Because it arouses human body and mind against sexual purity and chastity. It even destroys the sanctity of the sacramental union of married couples. How many of our Orthodox Christians are victims of this disastrously sinful habit, and how many are confessing this sin and seeking forgiveness in the sacrament of confession? If you are a slave of this vice, shake it off and come and reconcile with God and restore enduring purity. You will have peace of mind.
What about our habit in reading? Are we given to the habit of reading indecent books that arouses voluptuousness and sensuousness? A good number of adult reading materials do not foster Christian ethical values on human sexuality. As Christians we have to safeguard ourselves against opportunities that lead us to sexual immorality. Some of the modern secular books, including sex education reading materials, deal with sexuality outside marriage as amoral, and even healthy. Even some liberal Christian thinkers have tried to explain fornication as an acceptable practice before marriage. Most of them consider masturbation or self abuse as simply very natural and hence not imputed as sinful or immoral! A young man who came for seeking spiritual counseling told this writer that he was told by a monk-priest that masturbation was “just a weakness of the flesh”, not a topic to be confessed in the confessional, nor was it a grave sin at all. An elderly priest in America has told this writer that recently there is very little mention of such sins when he listens to the confessions of young people; some thirty years there was frequent mention of such moral issues pricking the mind of young people who sought guidance and counseling. Are our young people properly prepared for the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the help of the Book of Examination of Conscience, which reflects the moral teachings of the Christian Church? Yes, fornication and masturbation are no more considered among the sins to be confessed or repented! Thus the human soul becomes the property of the devil. Once a person is possessed by the devil, he does not realize he is under the grip of the devil; nor would he ever recognize that he is in sin. This is what happened to our generation. Sins are no more sins. Take for example, homosexuality: some Protestant churches are ordaining homosexual men and women to the ministry of their churches! Why worry? These actions are all results of our natural urges, like the biological functions in washrooms. But God’s Word emphatically tells us that these are violations of His laws, and invite eternal damnation for those who commit them.
Look at the advertisements: Who are we watching mostly? Modestly dressed young women? No! Most of the advertisements are exposures of partial nudity, if not total nudity. These provocative exposures do lead us to sinful voluptuous desires. But Christian morality clearly teaches that sexual arousal outside the holy matrimony is a grave sin, which is to be confessed in the confessional. Utilitarianism and capitalism exploit your sensuality to generate more money for the entrepreneur.
Is our married life morally safe? We presume that every marital act in our marriage is morally acceptable; but the fact is that it is not so. This is an age that demands limiting of children in a family. The truth is that when couples deliberately limit their family size without morally justifiable reasons and through questionable means are basically on ethically slippery grounds. An Orthodox Christian has to make this decision only with the moral guidance of his spiritual father or pastor. Enjoying marital relations for the sake of meeting only the noble unitive objective of sacred marriage may not always satisfy God’s demand for the sacrament of marriage. Seldom has this writer seen some childless marriages, a situation voluntarily embraced by couples. Please understand that a prenuptial agreement for a childless marriage renders a marriage null and void. It never brings grace; and it is not a sacrament according to sacramental theology. The Christian marriage has two inseparable goals or objectives, unitive and creative; although every unitive act does not entertain a creative aspect every time, both of these objectives are sacramentally intertwined in a Christian marriage. What about artificial marital enhancers? Use of drugs like Viagra may be morally questionable if it is not meant for treating a pathological condition that might impede the unitive objective of sacred marriage; if it is used for sheer intensification of pleasure or on selfish motive, there definitely rises an ethical question.
One of the beautiful aspects of our Orthodox life is that we are mostly nourished by our married clergy; and it is an apostolic practice and it is a glorious tradition unlike the Roman Church. Our married clergy should be living examples of Christian married life for the laity. We urge our priests to examine their own married life and see if it is without moral inadequacies. Approach your altar every Sunday, every day, with a clear conscience of pure and holy marital relationship behind you. The Ark of Covenant is said to be an object of fire; if it is so, the holy altar of the New Covenant, where the body and blood of Christ are offered, is indeed FIRE; and if you touch this Fire with a morally tainted married life, you will be burned, and the Church you serve will also be destroyed! We wonder the lack of sexual purity could be a reason for many perilous situations our churches have gone through or are going through. Let no celibate priests or monk-priests approach the holy altar with the stains of self-indulgence or other immoralities. The flesh is very powerful and if we do not subjugate it with prayer and other appropriate disciplines, like fasting and manual work, it will subjugate us and make us its saves, and we fail as Christians. If you have any such stains, repent and approach the church for God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of reconciliation.
We take pride in being a part of the modern affluent societies. Although there is poverty in many parts of the world, a good number of us have been given good food and modern comforts. In western societies, we eat more than what we need; and we also waste life-sustaining foods. WE do not need steaks and chops or heavy dinners everyday. Occasional festivities for a reason could justify such menus. We eat for our nourishment and health. But wasteful spending for foods and other comforts is just a thirst for satiating our gluttony; and gluttony is one of the deadly vices in Christian life. Eating more than what is required or indulging in very luxurious edibles is also a mark of gluttony.
Get back to your God, Christians, through genuine repentance, and restore your unity with your Savior Jesus Christ!
When this writer was a child some fifty years ago, his parents often talked about the devil and his tempting devices. The priests also preached about the power of the evil one. No more are we hearing about the devil or his temptations from parents or from the pulpits, and the devil is very happy about this era of ours as we do not try to defend us against him. No one feels tempted by the devil any more! The World and Flesh are at our convenience all the time and we consider all the pleasures coming from these two are basically amoral; in other words, there is no sin involved in our encounters with the World and the Flesh. After fasting for forty days, the devil tempted the Son of God by showing the world and its pleasures, and He rejected the proposal of the devil and crushed him down.
Do not think the devil is inactive anymore. The evil power is very alert and vigilant to keep the children of God away from Him. However we do not experience his active role much now-a-days. It is because the world and flesh have already conquered us for him; he does not need to work hard to tempt us, or divert us from God. We are already in his camp, sinning and offending God day after day. The devil really enjoys this generation, because the sense of sinfulness no more pricks it. There is no moral norm, no ethical standard. WE are free to enjoy our lives according to the urges of our bodies; that is what this generation tells us. The dearest terms for the devil are “permissiveness”, “politically-correct”, and “ecumenism”, where there are no strict standards or moral certainties. Standards and norms may make someone uncomfortable, which is the sin of this age! The devil loves this kind of pragmatic and utilitarian ethics. Christians, the Christian Ethics is directly coming from the mouth of God, from His commandments. His commandments are His norms and standards to live by. For a Christian there is no other alternative. When we pray, “Deliver us from the evil one”, we pray that the devil may not take over our soul and body, that we may not become servants of the devil and his standards.
If we study the lives of saints, we see their struggles against the devil. The devil literally tortured them. Every good Christian would experience this struggle if he is striving after Christian perfection. However, not many of us experience this temptation by the devil; it is not because we have already become Godlike, but because we are not really engaged in striving after Christian perfection; and that is what the devil wants and he ignores us.
But, Christians, start living the closest Christian life, you will definitely feel the devil working against you, like the saints. Then you will have two great sacraments to prepare you for your defense against the devil, the sacrament of confession and the communion with our Lord in His body and blood.
During this Lenten season, particularly the Holy week, make your confession and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord for complete communion with Him.
Orthodox Christians, surrender yourselves to the loving mercy of your Redeemer, who suffered and granted you freedom from sin. What you need to do is to come to the feet of the Lord with your tears of repentance.
Let us point out that the Orthodox regularly receive communion; but seldom make a good confession. In some churches there is a rite of granting absolution (Husoyo) without a genuine confession. In some churches the congregants receive communion without any rite of absolution. Both are not genuine practices. If you have committed a serious sin, you need to confess to a priest of God for absolution. An absolution without confession is spiritually dangerous. They say absolution without confession is only meant for minor offenses. But the people have no sense of clearly discerning what is grave or what is light. People may approach this practice in receiving absolution even with very grave sins. Hence the sacrament of auricular confession is the only genuine alternative to be reconciled with God before receiving communion.
Those Orthodox who receive communion without any rite of absolution, we urge you to regularly seek the grace of absolution through genuine confession. The purifying grace of this sacrament is an important weapon against the temptations of this world, the flesh and the devil, and it will guard you against committing sins in future.
We know that the Great Fast is going to end soon, and for another week we are going to meditate on the mystery of our Lord’s suffering on our behalf. WE want every Orthodox Christian all over the world to repent and make his sacramental confession by the end of this fasting period or during the Holy Passion Week.
May this Great Lent bring you peace of mind, reconciliation with your Creator and take you to the joy of Resurrection! May you be spiritually recharged, refreshed and restored for His Kingdom! +TVOO