Glory be to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We read from the first line today in the Epistle to the Romans…that today Salvation is closer to us than on the first day that we believed. Salvation is closer to us this morning than it was on the day that we first made the sign of the cross. It is closer to us than the first day we kissed an icon. It is nearer to us than the first day we were old enough to offer praise and glory to God.
This is the mentality that we must keep at the forefront of our minds this morning. This sacred season is not the time for indulgence. It is not the time for pleasurers…for grudges…or for sins. To engage in those things at this point, is to make an inappropriate judgment of where we are in life, and how much time we think we still have.
My beloved parish family…the day of our salvation is near. Our dedication to this reality is tripled starting today.
A few weeks ago, we said some prayers and bid farewell to Seraphim, who began his tour of duty in the military and is now in the middle of boot camp in San Antonio, Texas. The military spends the first 8 weeks with it’s new recruits…to push them to limits they had never been pushed before. The break of dawn work outs…the discipline…the classes…these practices are put into place, because the military knows that all of the things they need to teach aspiring soldiers, cannot be taught to them unless they are in decent shape physical and mental shape. The recruits cannot learn and internalize the information, unless they are properly prepared to hear it.
For centuries, The Church has had its own version of a boot camp. It calls this first week of lent “Clean Week”…and if we take our spiritual lives seriously, this week should be more difficult than anything we have experienced before, because our goal is eternal salvation…and personal transformation. The battle field which we are preparing for is not some field that we can find on a map…it is the battlefield of life. The freedom which we are fighting for is not from an oppressive government dictatorship…but rather freedom from ourselves. We embrace the next few weeks that the Church has given us, in order to conquer the demonic ranks…and to seek out and destroy our own personal struggles with evil!
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Welcome to Great and Holy Lent!
Each and every one of us here today stands as a new recruit for Christ. And in the short gospel lesson today, our Commander gives us our very first marching orders for the Fast. The Gospel that was read a few minutes ago, was Matthew 6:14-21. If we back up just 5 verses, we read that beautiful prayer that we will sing in a few short moments…the prayer that each and every Christian knows by heart…the Lord’s Prayer. And just so that the people didn’t miss the point of that prayer, immediately after he said it for the first time, Our Lord summed it up for us by saying:
“for if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Think about that statement for a moment.
The “Our Father” is a prayer that we say probably more times than we say any other prayer in the Orthodox Church, outside of the Jesus Prayer. And in the middle of it is this tremendous statement which does one of two things for us. It either becomes a tremendous encouragement…or it becomes an extremely frightful curse upon us. If you forgive those who wrong you…the “Our Father” is a wonderful prayer to listen to. But if you hold a grudge for a single sin of another…that prayer is your death! Every time we are saying the Lord’s prayer, we are asking God to give us the same measure of forgiveness that we give to each other. If we have a little humility, then we should be encouraged each and every time we recite that prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is also why we begin the Great and Holy Fast with asking forgiveness of one another…because this is truly what Lent is all about. Fasting, almsgiving, and knowing the scriptures by heart, are all important virtues to acquire in the spiritual life. But none of those things can hold a candle to a heart that is capable of not holding a single grudge, on a single person, over any single matter.
And so here we are. We stand at the brink of Orthodox Boot Camp. We have been given our marching orders. We all know the schedule of services that lies before us. Now it is us to each and every one of us to take this time seriously…and place it over all other priorities in our lives. There will be difficulties. There will be struggles. It will not be easy. The demons will attack us both outside and in…and it will start today as we line up to ask forgiveness of each other. But we remember the words of St. Paul this morning…that Salvation is closer to us today than it was this past year. As all recruits who enter into boot camp, its important to keep our eyes fixed on that prize…which is why, just before we enter into the solemnity of Lent, the Church calls for the choir to give us a foretaste of victory when they will sing that beautiful hymn which we will hear again during Great and Holy Pascha:
“Let God Arise…Let His enemies be shattered…for Today, A Sacred Pascha is revealed to us.”
May God allow us the strength to enter into this season of repentance with forgiveness on our hearts!