SUNDAY OF THE VENERATION OF THE CROSS
“O come, ye faithful, let us worship the Life-giving Cross”…
At the half-mark of the Great Lent, the holy Church triumphantly brings out the precious Lord’s Cross to the middle of the church, in order for its faithful members to venerate it with piety and awe.
Day by day, week by week passes the time of the Great Lent, which the true Christian tries to use as a time for purifying, renewing, and sanctifying his soul.
But alas, not all who call themselves Christian make use of this salvific time. Many continue in a state of spiritual somnolence, spending the brief days of their earthly endeavor in a careless manner. And so the holy Church, which always shows concern for all its members, both fervent ones and those who neglect their salvation, urges all to focus their devout attention upon the life-giving Cross of the Lord…
If you are a true adherent of Christ and are worthily engaged in your salvific Lenten endeavor, and are beginning to falter in this endeavor because of your frail human nature – come up to Christ’s Cross, bring to its foot all your frailties, venerate the Crucified One with faith and tenderness, boldly kiss the wounds of your Saviour, and abundantly draw from the font of salvation the necessary strength and grace for further advancement in your salvific penitential endeavors. And may the Lord reward you for your small endeavors, here on earth, with the joy of Christ’s Pascha, and in the age to come may He grant you eternal bliss in the “never-setting day of His kingdom.”
But if you are spending the days of Lent in your customary idleness and disregard for the salvation of your immortal soul, if your sins hang upon you like a heavy burden, – do not step away from the foot of Christ’s Cross, but stop and fasten your gaze upon the One Who has so widely opened His salvific embrace to every penitent sinner. Regard how Christ loves you: it is for your salvation that He is suffering on this Cross; it is for your sake that He has assumed these terrible wounds and sores; it is for your sake that streams of His innocent and most-pure Blood are pouring forth.
Thus do not increase and augment the sufferings of your Lord and Saviour by your customary deceits, sins, and iniquities; prostrate yourself before the Crucified One with humility and penitence, venerate with awe and wonder His wounds, suffered for your sake, and may the merciful Lord help you throw off your heavy burden of sin and instead take on His light burden and His easy yoke.
And even for the smallest endeavor undertaken by you for the salvation of your own soul, the Lord will open to you the doors of His mercy, and by the grace of God you will experience in this life the joy of the Resurrection, and in the coming eternal age you will enter into the never-ending joy of your Lord. Amen.
(Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 24, 2007)
THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS
Sixth week of Great Lent – Saturday of Lazarus
Friday of the sixth week of Great Lent marks the end of the 40 days of preparatory lent, during which the Church taught us about repentance, inner prayer, the bearing of one’s cross, ascending the ladder of virtues; taught us to supplicate the Mother of God, in order to obtain the most powerful aid in the matter of penitence; and finally, as the supreme example of its teaching, the Church offered us the image of Saint Mary of Egypt, a great sinner, who, by means of penitence, fasting, and obedience to the Holy Virgin, attained the angelic state in which man was originally created.
Now the Church turns to a direct commemoration of the historic events of almost 2,000 years ago, which were instrumental in achieving the salvation of mankind. The Jewish feast of Passover was approaching, and with it the last days of the Lord Jesus Christ’s life on earth. The rage of the Pharisees and the Jewish elders against Christ was extreme, and they waited for an opportune moment to seize the Lord and put Him to death.
Already at the beginning of the sixth week of Lent, church hymns begin to mention the illness of Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, from the town of Bethany. The Lord loved this pious family and often visited it. But Christ was not in Judea at that time, and the sisters sent word to Him of Lazarus’ illness. Then the Lord said to His disciples: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” The Lord then deliberately stayed in place for two more days and finally said to His disciples: “Let us go into Judea. Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go to awake him.” Jesus Christ was telling them about Lazarus’ death, but the disciples thought that He was talking about ordinary sleep, which is often beneficial during an illness, and so they said: “Lord, if he sleeps, he shall do well.” Then Jesus said to them plainly: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sake that I was not there, so that you may believe. However, let us go to him.”
In one of the holiday hymns the Lord is called “the conqueror of death.” There have been many conquerors in the history of mankind: talented physicians conquered illness, military leaders conquered huge armies; there are conquerors of space and conquerors of distance. But the world does not know any other “conqueror of death” except Jesus Christ. None of the most prominent men in the world have ever aspired to that title. He alone could do so – our Lord and Saviour. During His life on earth He showed His power in three cases: the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, the resurrection of the son of the widow from Nain, and the resurrection of Lazarus.
The death of the daughter of Jairus was a very recent death. She died while Christ and her father were on their way to her. Even Christ called her death “sleep,” but everyone laughed at Him, knowing that she had died. But He sent everyone out and, taking her by the hand, said: “Maiden, arise!” And her spirit returned, and she arose.
In the case of the son of the widow from Nain death had taken a stronger hold: the deceased had already been placed on a bier and not only carried out of the house, but was already being carried out of the city gates for burial. The Lord stopped the procession, touched the bier, and said: “Young man, I say unto thee – arise!” The dead youth sat up and began talking. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.
And now – Lazarus. Here the triumph of death was final and complete. Lazarus had already been dead for four days. There was weeping all around, but no one had absolutely any hope of resurrection. And when the Lord said to Martha, the sister of the deceased: “Thy brother shall rise again,” even she answered: “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And here the Lord spoke wondrous and remarkable words, which are a pledge of eternal life also for all of us, Orthodox Christians: “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believes in Me, even though he were dead, shall live again. And whosoever lives and believes in Me, shall never die.”
Then the Lord, seeing Martha and Mary weeping, and all the Jews who came with them also weeping, in His humanity felt grief Himself, and wept. Finally He said: “Take away the stone.” At this point even the deceased’s sister could not contain herself and said to Him: “Lord! He rots already, for he has been dead four days.” And so the stone was taken away from the cave where the dead man lay. And Christ cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus! Come forth!” And the dead man came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was bound about with a napkin. And Jesus said to them: “Loosen him, and let him go.”
Then many of the Jews who were there, and had seen the incredible miracle, came to believe in Jesus Christ. But others went to the Pharisees and told them of what Jesus had done. Christ’s enemies became worried, and fearing that the entire populace might come to believe in Christ, they convened a council and decided to kill Him. But news of the great miracle spread all over Jerusalem. Many Jews came to the house of Lazarus to see him, and having seen him, believed in Jesus Christ. Then the Jewish elders decided to kill Lazarus, too. But Lazarus lived for a long time after his resurrection, and later served as bishop on the island of Cyprus.
(Adapted from the writings of Archbishop Andrew of Novo-Diveevo)
Homily for the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem
Today, dear brethren, we commemorate that triumphant day nearly 2,000 ago, when the populace of Jerusalem welcomed our Lord Jesus Christ into the city and greeted Him joyously, celebrating the arrival of their Saviour, the Messiah. Everyone was full of joy and celebration; only the Lord alone was sad and sorrowful.
He was sorrowful, because in this present joy He foresaw the forthcoming lies and betrayal. The same people who today sang laudations to Him, tomorrow would mock Him, beat Him cruelly, and, in the end, would cry: “Crucify, crucify Him!”
But those were the people of former times – you will say, dear brethren. Those were the inhabitants of Jerusalem. We had no part in those events. However, knowledge of all that took place in Jerusalem in those days has reached us, too. But how did it reach us – only as a rumor, as a narrative, or did it pierce our very soul? Did our heart truly feel that terrible betrayal, that terrible outrage against the Son of God?
The Pharisees and the scribes, those elders of the people of Israel, knew full well Whom they were murdering, but the rest of the people were expecting an earthly king and were, therefore, unaware of the truth of all that was happening. But we now know much more. From the Holy Apostles and Evangelists we know all about what happened there, so our betrayal of the Saviour is far worse than the betrayal on the part of the people of those times.
Each one of you will say, of course: “But I have not betrayed the Lord!” However, let us ponder the following, dear brethren: if we do not follow God’s commandments on loving God and our neighbors – is that not a betrayal of the Lord? If we do not forgive others, do not offer charity, do not keep the fasts, – is that not a betrayal of the Lord? If we do not come to church for all the services – is that not a betrayal of the Lord? If, while standing in church, we do not immerse ourselves in prayer, but let our thoughts wander over all manner of earthly cares and concerns, and if we do not pray at home, even though prayer is our direct contact with God, – is that not a betrayal of the Lord?
Today we have gathered here in this church, and we have sung hymns to the Lord, just as the populace of Jerusalem did nearly 2,000 years ago: “Hosannah in the highest, blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord.” But what will we do the rest of the week? Will we, together with those same inhabitants of Jerusalem, revile God by our inattentiveness to His passion?
No, dear brethren, let us all gather together in the church, just as we did today, and together with the Most Holy Theotokos, the holy women who remained faithful to Christ, and His loyal disciples, – let us agonize and shed tears over the unholy betrayal to which our Lord Jesus Christ was subjected for the sake of our salvation. Then we, too, will participate together with them in the joy of the forthcoming Resurrection of Christ. Amen.
THE SACRAMENT OF PENITENCE
(see beginning here)
Discourses on confession (4)
Do we believe in God absolutely, without any doubt? Whoever was shaken in his faith, allowed doubts to creep in, dwelt on blasphemous thoughts sent by Satan, – repent and weep. Ask the Lord to forgive you for your lack of faith and to strengthen you in your belief. Pray as did the man of little faith described in the Gospel: “I believe, O Lord, help my disbelief” (Matt. (9:24). Doubts often arise, particularly among young people, because they listen to unbelievers. But unbelievers speak from their own point of view, deliberately passing over the other side of the coin, i.e. the arguments of believers and learned theologians against disbelief. You should know that believers have many rational grounds for their faith; but no matter how much one tries to prove the rationality of faith in God, proving the existence of God like two times two equals four – is impossible. God is a Being totally incomprehensible to us, and requires us to have faith in the greatest divine truths that have been revealed to us – firm, indubitable faith only. You must believe, for example, that the Holy Trinity consists of three Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; however, they are not three Gods, but One. This is hard to understand, but must be accepted on faith. However, the faithful are able to feel the inner presence of God, because He dwells within them. “Know ye not, says the Apostle, that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Thus, for the one who lives in grace, the reasoning of the mind is no longer necessary. Such a person has an inner awareness that God exists, that God is with him. If you wish to have faith and attain salvation, try to achieve just such a faith. Our Orthodox faith is not some kind of teaching or philosophy, but life itself. God gave us His promise, and fulfills this promise upon true believers while they are still on earth: “I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (2 Cor. 6:16).
Blessed is the one who believes in and confesses Christ! But repent those of you who have renounced Christ in some manner or other. In the early years of Christianity, hundreds and thousands of faithful were martyred by all kinds of barbaric methods, but they did not renounce Christ. It is impossible to even describe the cruel and inhuman torture to which Christ’s followers were subjected by bloodthirsty Roman emperors and rulers. However, only a few martyrs renounced Christ, while the others stood firm in their faith despite indescribable tortures.
And yet, as far as we are concerned, it is enough for a relative or an acquaintance to laugh and say something, and some of us already stop going to church. But remember the fearful words of the Saviour: “But whoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven and before My angels” (Matt. 10:33). Ponder these words. God will not accept the one who has renounced Him, but will send him into eternal torment, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Who among us would ever willingly desire such a thing?
But those who are firm in their faith, who are not embarrassed or afraid of anyone, who openly declare: “God exists! I am a believer!,” God will most certainly take unto Himself in accordance with His promise. Nowadays, those who attend church services despite being reviled and mocked by unbelieving relatives are already confessors of Christ, and the Lord will reward them a hundredfold.
But repent those of you who do the opposite, even though you may be numbered among the faithful. Remember the words of the Lord: “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall I be ashamed before My Father which is in heaven” (Mark 8:38). “But the fearful and unbelieving shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 21:8).
Repent and be ashamed only of drunkenness, lechery, abortion, and other similar sinful abominations, but never of faith in Christ. Even if we were to be subjected to abuse and punishment for our faith, Apostle Peter exhorts us not to be ashamed, but to glorify God for such a fate. We must love God so strongly that each one of us should be ready even for torture or death, if necessary.
Let us examine ourselves: do we love God with all our soul, all our heart, all our strength, all our mind; is God more precious to us than anyone or anything else? The Lord said: “He that loveth father or mother, or son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37). Thus Saint Barbara at first loved her father, but came to love God more, and did not cease to love Him even when her father asked the pagan rulers to allow him to behead her himself! Thus every Christian maiden will not marry anyone who is an unbeliever and does not accept a church marriage. Many young girls preferred to remain single forever, rather than marry unbelievers, while others, conversely, lost their faith, because it turned out that a man was more precious to them than God. Repent before God for such preferment of a person, and decide firmly – to love God more than anyone and anything, no matter how difficult that may be.
Examine yourself to see whether or not you have created an idol for yourself, i.e. an object or a living being that has become more precious to you than God. Abba Dorotheus, for example, did not allow his young disciple Dositheus to even touch a certain beautiful knife, fearing that the knife would entrance his heart. “Children, keep yourself away from idols,” – exhorts us Apostle John. But how many of us become attached to material objects as to idols, and thus destroy our souls!
It sometimes happens that a person becomes an idol to himself. Such idolatry is called egoism. One must fight with all one’s might against such self-adoration. This abominable predilection for one’s own self completely pushes out of one’s heart love for other people, concern for them, interest in their lives and their needs. It is a terrible thing – to worship oneself as an idol. One must renounce oneself, renounce one’s inherent nature with all its passions and lusts, spend one’s whole life struggling against them and suppressing them.
The same applies to gluttony. It is about gluttons that the Apostle said: “Their god is their belly, their end is shameful destruction” (Philip. 3:19). Whoever is guilty of satiation of the belly, repent and try to tame this beast which leads us into many iniquitous sins.
(To be continued)
CHRIST ON TRIAL BEFORE PILATE
(see beginning here)
Languor of spirit and the death of Christ
There came the dying moments of the One Who had suffered torment on the cross and prior to the cross, Who had already been exhausted by inner suffering to the point of sweating drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane, Who was many times struck on the face and hit over the head with a cane in the Sanhedrin and the Praetorium, and Who, finally, during His agony on the cross, suffered pain from wounds, heaviness in the head, and languor of the heart; all of this, following so quickly one upon another, could soon curtail and did curtail the life of the Divine Sufferer.
It is well known that of all types of mortal suffering there is nothing more agonizing than death on a cross. With all the strength of spirit and obedience to the will of the Father, which the Son of God showed through all His suffering, even He was unable to silently bear the final torments on the cross. In these terrible moments He found Himself deprived of all help, even that of God, deprived of all His mercy; and this was the greatest agony for His most-holy soul. Even in hell there is no greater torment that God’s abandonment of the sufferers; and to all of this the beloved Son of God had to be subjected! And thus, in the midst of the abyss of spiritual and physical suffering, in the midst of the final agony and spiritual loneliness, He finally cried out in a loud voice: “Eli! Eli! lama sabachthani” – which means: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?... Who can fully comprehend the sorrow, the inner torment of the God-man? For the Most-holy to suffer from the wicked, the Creator at the hands of the creation, to suffer for the ingrates, for the very ones responsible for the suffering, to suffer for the glory of God and to be abandoned by God: what an immeasurable abyss of suffering! But not a single fainthearted word issues from the lips of the Son of God, no lament, no protest that God has allowed His Son to suffer so cruelly for the sins of mankind. On the contrary, repeating lovingly the words: My God! My God!, He rues only His terrible condition, but expresses no complaint against God.
And what do we see? Even such a prayerful cry on the part of our suffering Saviour, worthy only of pity, spurred the insane people around Him to new mockery! They misinterpreted His words through similarity of sounds and said: “See how He is calling Elias.” The Jews believed that the prophet Elias would appear on earth right before the arrival of Christ; therefore, by means of such mockery over Christ they were telling the people: look, He is dying, yet He is still trying to pass Himself off as Christ: see how He is calling Elias to Him!
The God-man’s dying agony was also compounded by thirst, the harbinger of imminent death of the crucified. Due to the outpouring of blood, the body’s inner heat increased extremely, and the thirsting sufferer asked to drink: “I thirst!” – He uttered in a dying voice. The heart of one of the soldiers was moved by this piteous cry; he immediately took a sponge, soaked it in a vessel with vinegar, which was standing nearby to slake the thirst of the crucified, and raising it up on a reed, he applied it to the Sufferer’s lips. Even here the enemies were not ashamed to repeat their mockery: “Wait, – they shouted, – let us see whether Elias will come to save Him.”
Now everything that had been said in the psalms and the writings of the prophets came to pass in regard to Jesus Christ with absolute accuracy, so that the words uttered several centuries before seemed to have been written right at His cross. For example, King David said in his psalms: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? They that hate me without a cause have increased… My heart has been subjected to reproach and suffering: and I looked to some to take pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. For like wicked dogs they have compassed me; they pierced my hands and my feet, they stretched out my entire body, and they stare at me with disdain. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. I am like a worm before them, and no man: a reproach of men, and despised of people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shake their heads, saying: he trusted on the Lord; let Him deliver him, if he is pleasing to Him. The sorrows of hell compassed me about; the snares of death have taken up dwelling within me. My strength has become poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My tongue cleaveth to my jaws, and I am nearing death. They give me also gall to taste, and in my thirst they give me vinegar to drink” (from Psalms 22; 69; 18). All of these words now came to pass in regard to Jesus Christ.
And when He tasted of the vinegar, He said: “It is finished.” And then, gazing up into heaven, He cried out in a loud voice: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.” And having said this, He bowed His head and gave up the spirit. Thus ended the life on earth of the One Who only came here to suffer and die for mankind.
But God’s mysteries were not concealed from those who reasoned spiritually. God not only announced through the lips of all His holy prophets, but revealed in other ways and showed in many examples the forthcoming life and death of the promised Redeemer of the world. Thus the innocent Abel, the first righteous man on earth, is killed by his brother as a sign of how the supreme Righteous One, being totally innocent, would be killed by His kindred. Abraham, who out of love for God sacrificed his only son, serves as an image of how God Himself so loved the world, as it is said, that He even gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish (John 3:16). Joseph, beloved son of Jacob, sold by his brothers into alien captivity for 30 pieces of silver, clearly symbolized Christ, Who was betrayed by His disciple and His Jewish compatriots. The serpent which Moses hung up on a cross to save from death those who had been bitten by snakes in the desert symbolized the crucified Saviour of the world. Pointing this out, the Lord said even before His suffering: just as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up. The killing of animals as a sacrifice to God for the sins of men represented the death of Christ for the salvation of the world. The burnt offerings themselves, performed by law outside the camp, indicated the death of Christ, which took place outside the city. Such were the many prophetic images of the suffering and death of the God-man. God revealed this to men from ancient times, and also sent many prophets who foretold of the Saviour and of all that was due to happen to Him. And everything that God revealed from the beginning of time and spoke through the lips of all His holy prophets came to pass in regard to Jesus Christ with absolute accuracy. Moreover, the death of Christ was attested to by fearful events in nature, which occurred at the moment when the Son of God gave up His spirit to God.
The signs of God’s presence upon Mount Sinai seemed awesome to the Jewish people, when the mountain spewed smoke and became covered with dark clouds, when thunder rolled and shook the very foundation of the mountain. “Yet once, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land” (Haggai 2:6), – said the Lord through His prophet, – and now, with the death of Jesus Christ, the earth suddenly trembled, and the stony cliffs cracked in many places. Golgotha still stands with such a crack to this day.
It was fearful to see how all of nature trembled, as though having reached its end; from the earthquake or some other divine force even the veil in the altar, which was affixed to the entrance into the holy of holies, was rent in twain. Seeing this awesome manifestation, all the people became frightened, and beating themselves in the chest, fearfully returned home. The centurion, head of the Roman guard, who stood near the crucified Christ, seeing such terrifying events in nature, became frightened and said: “Certainly this was a righteous man; truly this man was the Son of God.” And not only the centurion, but also the other soldiers who were watching over Christ with him, frightened by the great earthquake, repeated: “Truly this was the Son of God.” The Lord rightly said: “When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he” (John 8:28).
“Know therefore and understand, – said the prophet Daniel, – that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem, after threescore and two sevens (i.e. 62 seven-year spans) shall the Messiah be cut off” (Dan. 9:25-26). And so this prophecy came to pass in the time indicated; the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders, having condemned Him, fulfilled the words of the prophecy that were read every Saturday. And not finding any guilt in Him worthy of death, they talked Pilate into killing Him.
Had they been wiser, perhaps at that moment they could have understood that it was not a common man whom they had killed, for there could not have been such terrible manifestations if He were like other people. But they were so blinded by envy that they did not even wish to know how badly they had acted in killing Jesus Christ, although in the parable of the evil vineyard tenders He taught them not to do so. There He clearly presented the evil deeds of their fathers, who had beaten up all the prophets sent to them from God, and said that they, too, would commit the deeds of their fathers. For when God sent His Son to them, seeing Him they said: let us kill Him, and the inheritance will be ours. And seizing Him, it says in the parable, they led Him out of the vineyard and killed Him. Thus Jesus Christ foretold them even the very place where they would kill Him. And finally He pointed out the prophecy itself, saying: Have you never read in the Scriptures: the stone which the builders refused has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes (Psalm 118:22-23).
The Mother’s Lament
The day on which Christ suffered and died was the last day before the Jewish Passover, and Christ’s killers, not wishing to leave the crucified men on the cross in order to avoid unseemliness for the holiday, asked Pilate to quicken their deaths by breaking their knees and to take them down from the cross. And thus for the sake of the Sabbath, a day of solemn rest, the crucified men were forced to suffer new agonies. The soldiers sent by Pilate came and broke the bones of the legs of both the one and the other thief. Coming up to Christ and seeing that He had already died, they did not break His legs, but instead, for further confirmation of death, one of them pierced His chest between the ribs; and immediately there poured forth blood and water, the mortal liquid which only issues from the deceased. And even this event clearly prophesied of Christ: “And they shall look upon the One they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10).
Now Christ hung on the cross lifeless and inanimate, but His intimates did not leave Him; they gazed from afar at all that was happening to Him. These were all women – Mary Magdalene, and another Mary, mother of James and Josiah, and Salome, mother of the Zebedees, and many others, who had followed Him and served Him when He preached in Galilee, and who finally came to Jerusalem together with Him. There is no doubt that they were now weeping bitterly over their dead Master, Whom they respected and loved, but bitterest of all was His Mother’s lament.
(To be continued)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On March 10th (February 25th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates Saint Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople.
Saint Tarasius was born in Constantinople, in the family of the affluent and notable courtiers George and Eucratia, who brought up their son in the fear of God and provided him with a good education. While still young he was elevated to the prominent civil position of senator. In 783, when Patriarch Paul of Constantinople died, and the question of his successor arose, in the entire city of Constantinople there was no worthier candidate to be found than the senator Tarasius, who was directly elected to the position of patriarch. However, due to his fervor for Orthodoxy, Saint Tarasius agreed to the election only on condition that an ecumenical council be convened, in order to suppress the raging tempest of the heresy of iconoclasm, which was creating a rift in the Orthodox Church at that time.
The heresy of iconoclasm originated in the early 8th century, when the Greek emperor Leo III decreed that all holy icons be taken out of churches and homes, and burned in the city squares. The decree was motivated by a false belief that the worship of icons was a form of idolatry. When the people began to resist this decree, to the persecution of icons Emperor Leo added the persecution of their worshippers, and many of the faithful were tortured and killed at that time. Nevertheless, the people continued to revolt against the Emperor’s decree, and prominent theologians of those times wrote from all sides, denouncing Emperor Leo: as, for example, St. John Damascene from Syria and Pope Gregory II from Rome.
After the death of Emperor Leo, his son and successor, Constantine Copronimus, continued the iconoclastic efforts of his father, but decided to try a different approach. He convened a false council, at which the clergy which he had set up condemned the worship of icons. As a result of this false council, not only were icons continued to be destroyed, but also priceless frescoes on the walls of famous cathedrals were plastered over. From persecution of icons Constantine turned to a persecution of holy relics, and then to a persecution of monasteries, which were all either destroyed or turned into barracks, while all the monks were brutally martyred.
The heresy of iconoclasm continued almost throughout the entire 8th century, and only towards the end of it, during the reign of the pious Empress Irene and as a result of the election of Saint Tarasius, the worship of icons was restored. Through the efforts of the Empress and with the full support of Saint Tarasius, the 7th ecumenical council, attended by more than 300 bishops, was convened in 787. The council totally condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, condemned the false council that had been convened by Copronimus, and triumphantly restored the worship of icons by determining that in honoring the icons we honor and worship those who are depicted on them.
The holy Patriarch Tarasius ruled the Church for 22 years and peacefully departed this world in 806.
BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PEOPLE
(see beginning here)
Abraham, Moses, and Elijah As the Preparers of the Salvation of Mankind
The names of three righteous men– the Patriarch Abraham, the God-Seer Moses, and the Prophet Elijah – mark the stages of mankind’s spiritual ripening for salvation in the Old Testament.
St. Basil the Great says that he could never look without tears at the depiction of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. In truth, if one ponders the moral image of the righteous Abraham in this matter, our soul cannot but be filled with the most ardent admiration.
At a single word from the Lord, Abraham leaves his native city of Ur of the Chaldees, which was flourishing culturally, with conveniences for living, everything attractive for life, and goes to a wild, faraway country, which the Lord promises to give to his descendants to rule over forever: “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
Many years passed after that migration. Abraham, already old, but still childless, asks God: “Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?... Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir” (Gen.15:2-3).
But with what ardent love is inflamed this powerful patriarch, great in his righteousness, for his long-awaited lawful son Isaac, born in his old age! This love is all-embracing, it comprises all: both the natural attachment of a father to his son and the joyfully triumphant contemplation of the beginning of the fulfillment of the Divine promises, which were to be fulfilled through this son. Therefore, in the love of Abraham for Isaac one can see the origin of the elements of the most perfect love on earth, which will be revealed two thousand years after Abraham through his blessed Granddaughter in Her relationship to Her Son and God.
And it is this son, loved with such great love, that at a word from God Abraham leads to be slain, ready to sacrifice even him to the Lord God Whom he loves more than anything in the universe. Moreover, this decisiveness to sacrifice his son at God’s command is not a brief elevation of feelings, not simply a burst of ardor. For three days Abraham and Isaac walk towards the place of sacrifice; for 72 hours lasts the torturous agony of the sacrificing father, his readiness for this terrible offering. In truth, there can be no human heart so hard that it would not tremble with anxiety while carefully reading this Biblical narration (Genesis, chapter 22)
Abraham receives the highest honor which is accessible to man in this endeavor of his. According to the Church’s view, he becomes the prototype of the Almighty God Himself – God the Father, Who for the sake of mankind’s salvation sacrifices His Only-Begotten Son. And meek Isaac, carrying the wood for the burnt offering on which he was to lie down as a sacrifice, humbly questioning his father and being bound by him without complaint, – becomes the prototype of Christ the Saviour.
The first people sinned through disobedience, and through the endeavor of the righteous Abraham and Isaac disobedience is conquered with the greatest power and vividness. Human nature ascends to the highest stage of obedience, dictated by the purest love for God – the quality which the Lord, in giving man the original commandment, wanted to develop in him as the governing one, for He created man to grow in submission and love – the Divine-like qualities which the Son of God later manifested on earth in such abundance.
Truly the Lord brings us to salvation not without our participation, but in His concern for us He chooses as His co-participants those from amongst us who are faithful to Him.
But we have the right to ask: why then, if Abraham rose to such spiritual heights through his endeavor, why did he remain only a prototype of the Lord, but did not take part in the incarnation and real salvation of mankind? Why did the Lord not hurry to descend upon the Mount of Moriah, where this tremendous sacrifice was being carried out, the way He later descended to the room in Nazareth and the cave in Bethlehem? Why did He linger for over two thousand agonizing years before coming down to mankind?
In order to answer that question, we should sorrowfully turn our attention from the shining peaks of holiness which Abraham had attained, to those testimonies of errors and frailties into which the same great patriarch fell.
We see that, before the birth of Isaac, fearing the Egyptians and Abimelech, Abraham twice hid behind his wife Sarah and out of fainthearted cowardice was ready to sacrifice her – the co-participant in his holiest endeavors – and lead a whole nation to Divine punishment (Gen. 12:11, 12). We see Abraham after the death of his wife Sarah, being consoled by the handmaiden Keturah.
Let not any pen or any tongue judge the greatest and holiest of the Old Testament patriarchs. But, seeing such errors, such human frailties, we understand why the Lord could not descend to him in closest unity, could not make him, the way he was, a co-participant in Divine life: we see that human nature in Abraham was not yet mature enough to accept God. But Abraham participated, like none other, in the process of preparing mankind to accept the Lord, in the process of maturing for Divinely-human life. “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day: and he saw it, and was glad,” – said the Lord – the son of David, the son of Abraham.
With Abraham the Lord talked in visions at night or appeared before him in the image of the Three Wanderers. Meanwhile, before the Fall, people talked with God face-to-face, knew Him as a Person, for they were created to know God in love and obedience to Him. And it was necessary that even before the coming of the Lord to mankind, people would be given back the possibility to know God, see Him, and recognize Him.
For this the Lord calls upon one of Abraham’s descendants – the righteous Moses, filled with love for his brethren, the co-heirs of the promise, to such an extent that he abandons his brilliant (by earthly standards) state as the adopted son of a princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, as something contemptible and not deserving attention, comes to the defense of an offended countryman-Jew, and runs from Egypt. If in Abraham we see the peak of Old-Testament human love for God, then in Moses, in addition to love for God, which is not any less than that of the righteous Abraham, we see the incarnation of the second half of the basic Divine law: the peak of love for others as for oneself.
The Lord greatly elevates Moses among the elect. In storm and thunder He gives him His law on Mount Sinai, talks with Moses face-to-face, and, for the first time after the Fall, the only time before the pre-Golgotha hours, the Lord calls a human being, in the person of Moses, His friend: “If there be a prophet among you, I make Myself known unto him in a vision, and speak unto him in a dream, but not so with My servant Moses, who is faithful in all Mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark speeches; and the image of the Lord shall he behold” (Num. 12:6-8) and “And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Ex.33:11).
(Yet another time in the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah, Moses is called the friend of God, but this time not during his lifetime, only many centuries after his death.)
Using his friendship with God for the realization of his strong love for others as for himself, in the terrible hour of Divine anger for the sin of the Israeli nation, Moses turns to God with a most daring prayer: “Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin… and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written” (Ex. 32:32).
(Note: Since the sin of the nation was in violating the Covenant, then the request of Moses “to forgive their sin” is equal to an appeal: “Do not think the Covenant to be violated, do not reject Israel, do not take away its name and rights as the God-chosen nation.” The need for such a request was caused by the following. The Lord answered the first appeal of Moses with the promise not to destroy Israel. In this way its continued existence was guaranteed. But such a promise did not yet mean that the Jews would remain the God-chosen nation. The very frame of mind of the nation raised doubts, for not only did it not reveal a readiness to reclaim for itself the mercy of God, but displayed extreme stubbornness, which placed them under the threat of being fully rejected by God. In view of this Moses begs: “Forgive their sin.” If forgiveness cannot be granted, then he offers his life as a sacrifice:“Blot me, I pray thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.”)
Moses is the tool of a great Divine act: through him the Divine law, of which people were deprived after having sinned in Eden, is returned to them; they are given back the possibility of Divine Services, partial communication with God; the earth ceases being totally alien to heaven. Incompletely, imperfectly, in shades, in images and conjectures, but still through Moses, in the God-given Divine Service, into terrestrial life comes the uninterrupted process of the preparation of people for the acceptance of the Son of God. Therefore the Church especially sees in Moses the prototype of Christ, and often in the festal divine services sings chants which relate to him and to Christ the Lord, drawing comparisons between them: “The shadow of the law has passed now that grace has come…instead of a pillar of fire the Sun of righteousness has dawned, instead of Moses – Christ, the salvation of our souls” (Dogmaticon 2nd tone).
But to Moses likewise the Lord could not descend in closest union.
In the hour of his selection we see him bargaining with the Lord, evoking Divine anger by his persistent unwillingness to follow the Divine call: “O my Lord, send another one whom Thou wilt send”; we see Moses sinning before God by the waters of Meribah in Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin (Num. 20:12 and 27; Deut. 1:37 and 32:51).
The Lord said to Moses: “Yet thou shalt see the (promised) land before thee; the land which I give the children of Israel” (Deut.32:52). The Promised Land was not only a real manifestation, but it was also the prototype of the Kingdom of God, and God’s words to Moses referred to both meanings of the Promised Land: the great holy righteous God-Seer Moses was given the chance to see the Divinely-human life – the tabernacle of God and men, but was not permitted to enter it.
(To be continued)
THY BRIDAL CHAMBER
I see Thy chamber, O my Saviour!
It glitters with majestic glory,
But I do not dare enter in it,
But I do not have proper attire
To stand before Thy awesome presence.
O Thou, our Light-giver, do enlighten
The rags of my impoverished soul.
I traveled life’s path as a beggar,
Do Thou with love and greatest mercy
Among Thy servants number me.
– Prince P.A. Vyazemsky
– Translated by Natalia Sheniloff