Today is the second Sunday of Great Lent; and so we have completed two weeks of the fast, as we seek to prepare ourselves for the great and joyous Feast of the Pascha of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each of us has experienced victories and setbacks in our struggles to keep the fast, both in terms of what we eat and drink, and in terms of laboring to replace our passions that lead us to sin with the god-pleasing virtues that oppose these passions. As our Lord spent forty days fasting in the wilderness to prepare Himself for His labors to accomplish our deliverance from death, we also fast. As our Lord spent time in prayer to be refreshed by being in the presence of God the Father, and to know His will, we also seek to draw near to God in prayer – and make an effort to set aside the normal diversions and entertainments of the world in order to have time and energy to devote to prayer. We also seek to know God better through the reading of His Word, and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and the lives of the saints. So it’s a busy time; there’s a lot to do.
In the midst of all that goes on during the fast of Great Lent, it is important for us not to lose sight of why we do what we do. The end, the goal, of the Orthodox life, is not to fast, or even to feast. We are meant to partake of, we are meant to participate in, the divine nature of God. The reason to follow the Orthodox way of life is so that we can be one with God; or, as St. Maximos the Confessor says, “to be sons of God in the Son of God.” St. Athanasios says of our Lord Jesus Christ, “He became as we are, that we might become as He is.” We have received the life of Christ, risen from the dead, in our baptism. The opportunity, and the challenge, for each of us thereafter is to live in such a way that the life of Christ is seen in us; that the light of Christ shines forth from us. If we are not actively and intentionally pursuing this end – to be like Christ – then there is no point to keeping the rules of the Orthodox life; there is no point to prayer, or fasting, or giving tithes and alms and offerings, or struggling to overcome our sinful desires or to change the sinful habits of our lives. This is the way of our salvation: to become like Christ. And the way to become like Christ is by living an ascetic life.
St. Gregory Palamas, whom we celebrate on the second Sunday of Great Lent, was the Bishop of Thessalonika in the 14th century. A strong ascetic, he reminded the Church of the teachings of the early Fathers, particularly with the practice of hesychia, or “stillness”; by which we quiet our souls, in order to hear God speaking to us. This stillness is the way of our salvation; it is the way that our hearts are purified; and it is only achieved by the ascetic life. Hesychia has an exterior aspect – the hesychia of the body; and an interior component – the hesychia of the soul. With regard to the body, the ascetic seeks to be free from all attachments to this world, and the influences of our senses. With regard to the soul, the ascetic seeks to cultivate the powers of the mind so that it is free from all external stimulation, images, and temptations; so that the mind can be free to enter into the heart, and there to see God. And so the steps we take in Great Lent are steps to this journey to being at peace, and to see God. In prayer, we seek to be in the presence of God. By fasting and giving, we seek to be set free from the snares and temptations and the pleasures of this world. The more we are set free from the cares and concerns and attachments to this world and this life, we are able to be at peace in our hearts, and to see God, and the life that is in the world to come. This isn’t easy; and I don’t pretend to be an expert at this, or with the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas – but this is the life to which we are called: to purify ourselves, and to seek God, so that we can be more and more like God.
Brothers and sisters: The remainder of the fast is now before us. No matter what start that we have made, let us resolve today to make the best use we can of the time remaining before celebrating Pascha. Let us fast and pray; let us give and struggle; let us seek to live the life of Christ. Above all, let us remind ourselves, and one another, that all this is possible only because of the incredible love God has for each and every one of us. No matter what you have done; no matter how you have sinned; no matter how you have failed – God loves you with a love so deep, so profound, and so rich that we cannot begin to describe it. The only thing that keeps us from the love of God is our failure to repent, and our failure to forgive. Being mindful of the love that saves us, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life, unto Christ our God; and love one another, as He loves us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.
Through the prayers of our holy father and hierarch, Gregory Palamas, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, and save us.