Category Archives: Lent Services

Meditation for Palm Sunday

Icon Palm SundayIt’s easy to be a Christian and to love God when things are going well with us. On a warm, spring day we might spontaneously say ‘thank you’ to God for what He has done for us. As the English poet Robert Browning wrote: “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world”. Of course when things start to go wrong we instinctively turn to God in prayer. If we or a loved one gets sick, if we lose a job, if we have family or work problems, we ask God for help. This can comfort us for a while, but then sometimes it seems that God is not answering our prayers. Then we might become bitter, hate God or even lose faith in Him.
In a sense we are like the crowds in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week. On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. The crowds cry “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Jn 12:13). They are ready for Jesus to drive the Romans out of Jerusalem and inaugurate the Messianic kingdom.
Jesus Christ cleanses the Temple, the crowds expect some earthshaking event is going to happen. But then Jesus preaches and teaches as usual. He is not driving the Romans out and bringing in the kingdom. The crowds are disappointed and begin to turn against Him. Then Jesus is arrested, tried, beaten and mocked. The crowds know that this is not supposed to happen to the Messiah. When Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor or Palestine says to the crowd “Behold the man” (Jn 19:5). The crowds replied “…. Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” (Jn 19:6-7) The crowds have turned against Jesus because He did not do what they expected Him to do, what they thought He should do.
At times we are like the crowds in Jerusalem. We love Jesus when things are going well with us, but when He seems to not answer our prayers we can turn against Him. But prayers are not magic and Christ does not promise us heaven on earth. He Himself was tortured, beaten and killed. That means Christ knows what it means to suffer, to (literally) bear the cross.
As we accompany Christ through His last days during Holy Week, the scripture reading and the prayer tell us about His suffering. This means we are bearing our own crosses, as terrible as they are sometimes, and Jesus is with us, helping us to bear our cross. He promises us resurrection, of course, at the end of time, but through prayer to our Lord, our reading of scripture and veneration of icons, and above all in receiving Holy Communion, even in the midst of our suffering, we have a foretaste of the coming resurrection.

Tone 1 Troparion
By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion,Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God.Like the children with the palms of victory,we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
Tone 4 Troparion
When we were buried with Thee in baptism, O Christ God, we were made worthy of eternal life by Thy Resurrection.  Now we praise Thee and sing: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
Tone 6 Kontakion
Sitting on Thy throne in Heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God, accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He Who comes to recall Adam!

Fr. John

St. Mary of Egypt 334-421 AD (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

As a young woman in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, Saint Mary became a prostitute. She did not do this because of necessity but to gratify her own lusts. After living this way for over a decade she decided to go with the pilgrims to Jerusalem for the feast of the Holy Cross. She did this not out of piety but in effect, as a vacation. She planned to support herself by seducing other pilgrims. She tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher but an invisible force prevented her from entering.
This happened three times. And then she realized she could not enter the church because of her sinful way of life. Looking at an icon of the Mother of God, she resolved to end her sinful lifestyle.  Then she was able to enter the church and venerate the icon. She then heard a voice telling her to go to the monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan River. There we went to confession and received Holy Communion. She then crossed the Jordan River and went to live alone in the desert. She lived alone for over forty years seeking to win the struggle over her passions.
We only know the story of St. Mary because a year before her death she met Saint Zosima of Palestine. She told him her story and asked that he come to bring her Holy Communion the following year. When St. Zosima was bringing her Communion she walked across the Jordan River to meet him. A year later, Saint Zosima went to look for her in the desert and found her lying dead and he buried her. Saint Zosima told her story to the brethren of his monastery and it was finally written down by Saint Sophronius.
The example of St. Mary of Egypt teaches us that it is always possible to repent and change one’s life no matter how far from God we have gone.

Troparion — Tone 8
The image of God was truly preserved in you, mother, / for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away, / but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, holy mother Mary, Rejoices with the angels!

Kontakion — Tone 3
Having been a sinful woman, / you became through repentance a Bride of Christ. / Having attained angelic life, / you defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross. / Therefore, most glorious Mary, you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Fr. John

St. John Climacus (522-606AD) – The Fourth Sunday of Lent

On this day the church commemorates St. John of the Ladder. He is called this because he wrote a book on the human soul and journey called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, in which he compares this journey with a ladder reaching from earth to heaven.  St. John was the abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.
The monastery contains what is traditionally said to be the bush in which God appears to Moses and is one of the oldest still functioning monasteries in the world, being founded by
Emperor Justinian in 565 AD.
Saint John entered the monastery when he was sixteen years old. Having spent time learning to be a monk he felt called to greater solitude. He lived as a hermit in a cave at the base of Mt. Sinai. When he was about 75 years old, the monks of the monastery, knowing of his holiness and wisdom, asked him to become their Igumen or Abbot. At the request of the abbot of another monastery, in the early seventh century he wrote the book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” showing a ladder of thirty rungs (referring to the thirty years Jesus spent before he began his public ministry). This book is one of the most important books in Christian history and is often read during Great Lent. In some Orthodox monasteries the Ladder is read during the monastic meal. In some places during Lent is read in Church on Lenten weekdays. Although this book was written for monastics, all Christians can benefit from its wisdom.

Fr. John

 The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Saint Gregory Palamas

​All human beings have a desire for union with God. In some Asian religions, union with God means the dissolution of the human person into God. As the saying has it “The dewdrop (the soul) falls into the shining sea (God).” But in Christianity we say that we never “merge” with God, we have a personal relationship with God. However, In Orthodox Christianity, we hear about the process of theosis (divinization), which means becoming God. We also hear the saying “God became a human being that human beings might become God.” So it seems we have a paradox here – we never dissolve into God, yet we genuinely undergo the process of divinization. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? We do so by studying the saint of the day, Gregory Palamas.
​St. Gregory was born in 1296 in Constantinople. He was educated at the imperial court with the idea that he would become a court official. However, he felt the call to become a monk. He left behind his life at court and become a monk on Mount Athos, where he learned the practice and theology of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Later on St. Gregory became archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347 and died in 1359, and was canonized soon after his death. His contribution to the theology of divination is as follows.
​The monks on Mt. Athos claimed to have an experience of God himself in prayer. They said the light they sometimes saw as an uncreated light, the light of God Himself. In other words, in prayer they genuinely had an experience of God. However, an Italo-Greek name Barlaam said that human beings can never have such direct contact with God, that they were deluding themselves. The Athonite monk asked St. Gregory Palamas to defend them. He wrote a book “The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts” (those who practice the Jesus Prayer). In the book he explained and defended the ancient Eastern Orthodox teaching on essence and energy in God. The idea is that we can never know the essence of God as God is Himself. However, we can know God and can participate in Him through His energies. The energies of God are God himself acting beyond the divine essence, but still God. Or to put it another way, God’s energies are his uncreated, divine grace. So we truly participate and are united to God through his energies, but we never “dissolve” into the divine essence. It is important to remember that St. Gregory did not invent the energy-essence concept. It was there in early Eastern tradition. St. Gregory rather organized and defended the teaching which was declared as Orthodox doctrine by several synods of the church in Constantinople.
​So the essence-energies distinction shows us how we can never “merge or dissolve” into God, but as human persons we can be united to the tri-personal God by participation in the divine energy.

Troparion — Tone 8
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation, / O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, / O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, / always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Now is the time for action! / Judgment is at the doors! / So let us rise and fast, / offering alms with tears of compunction and crying: / “Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea; / but forgive us, O Master of All, / so that we may receive the incorruptible crowns.”

Fr. John

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

Although icons had been used in churches, in the early 8th century AD, the eastern Roman Emperor began a campaign against icons. The emperor ordered his soldiers to remove icons from churches, monasteries, public places and so on. No one is entirely sure why the emperor ordered this. Some think it was because of the Old Testament commandment forbidding the worship of graven images. In any case, many Christians suffered because of their defense of icons.
In 787 AD the Empress Irene, who was ruling in place of her young son, called a council of bishops to defend icons. Many bishops gathered and the veneration of icons was declared to be not only permissible, but even necessary. This council, known as the second council of Nicea, is considered the seventh ecumenical council. However, later emperors renewed the campaign against icons. It was not until 843 AD, when the empress Theodora ordered the restoration of icons that the iconoclasm, or the campaign against icons, ended. This was on the first Sunday of Lent that year and since then the first Sunday of Lent commemorates this event. This is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The Fathers of the church taught that we venerate icons, not worship them. Worship is due only to God, when we venerate an icon, we are not venerating wood and paint, but rather the person or persons depicted on the icon. We can do this because Jesus Christ became a genuine human being.
The essence of Christianity is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became a human being order to save humanity. As human beings we are not imprisoned in bodies, as some Greek philosophers taught, but we are unities of body, mind and spirit.
Therefore, the whole human person participates in the process of salvation and this includes the veneration of icons. And so icons are not simply religious pictures which can be used or not used according to taste, but rather they make the essential dogmatic point that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, and came to save the whole person. This is what the church proclaims on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Troparion — Tone 2
We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One, / and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God. / Of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh / to deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the enemy. / Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to Thee: / Thou hast filled all with joy, O our Savior, / by coming to save the world.
Kontakion — Tone 8
No one could describe the Word of the Father; / but when He took flesh from you, O
Theotokos, He accepted to be described, / and restored the fallen image to its former
beauty. / We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

Fr. John