Entries with tag love your neighbor .

Prepping for Our Journey to Pascha

If you’re anything like me, the fasting periods of the Church seem to just sneak up on you. It feels like it was just Christmas, and suddenly we’re preparing for Pascha! But despite the surprise every year, Lent comes at a time when I always find that I most need it. And like we prepare by stretching before we exercise and we pack before a journey, the Church gives us a period called Triodion before Lent begins to get us spiritually prepared.

 

For three weeks, we ease into fasting and we set our eyes on the goal of Christ at Pascha. On the first Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee – a reminder against pride and a for humility in anticipation of the Fast. On the second Sunday, we were reminded that that we – like the Prodigal Son – are on a journey to the Father’s House. And the final two Sundays of Triodion we bring to mind the Last Judgement and the importance of forgiveness.

 

Interwoven into these four Sundays are three themes that help us to orient our minds towards Christ and to put us in the right spirit as we approach the Great Fast. During Triodion, we are reminded of the importance of humility, of forgiveness, and of being concerned for our neighbor.

 

1. Humility

 

Humility is a virtue which prepares us to receive God and opens us up for compassion towards our neighbor. So it’s natural that humility is woven into each of the four Gospel passages chosen for the period of Triodion.

 

In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the humble and honest prayers of the Publican justified him before God. He was honest with himself and the state of his life and poured out his heart to God without trying to justify himself. The Prodigal Son was humbled by his poor choices and was willing to return to his father’s house even if he had to be a servant. In his humility, he confessed his unworthiness, and his father clothed him in a robe and received him as his son.

 

The theme of humility is especially fitting for us as we prepare for a fasting period because the temptation is so very real to become prideful in our adherence to regulations and our spiritual practices. It is so easy to forget that we worship the God who says on Judgement Sunday, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” We worship a God who not only humbled Himself by becoming man and dying on the Cross for us, but one who continues to identify with the humble and lowly among us.

 

So we hear the words of Christ on Forgiveness Sunday that “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:17-18). You see, it wasn’t a matter of if you fast but when you fast. There was no concept that the followers of Christ wouldn’t keep this tradition. The issue for us is how to go about fasting, how we present ourselves before others, and whether we reflect the humility of the God we worship or the pride of our own egos.

 

2. Forgiveness

 

As we approach Great Lent, we remember that we worship a God who forgives. But forgiveness is connected to our own personal repentance, which is a journey in itself. Each one of us becomes more aware of the things that are barriers to our relationship with God the closer that we come to Him. Lent is a time of special vigilance, a time when we become more attentive to ourselves and our spiritual lives. So the Church reminds us both of the forgiveness that God offers us, but also of our responsibility to forgive others as well.

 

With the image of the merciful father of the Prodigal Son in mind, we remember that God offers us a restored relationship with Him when we return to Him. But on Forgiveness Sunday, we also hear the words of Christ about our role in forgiving others. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). We hear the same thing in the Our Father when we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

In the days that remain of Triodion, we can seek to have forgiving hearts. Holding on to resentments and anger from today or yesterday or years past only holds us back from being able to receive the grace of God.

 

3. Concern for our neighbor

 

The scripture readings during Triodion call us to have a real concern for our neighbor. From the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we encounter the merciful father. We learn not only that our God is a merciful father to us, but also that this should affect our relationships with those around us as well. Christ tells us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Do we show this mercy to those who have offended us? Do we show concern for our loved ones and parishioners who no longer come to church? Do we show concern for our friends who do not know the Father’s House and have never encountered Him in the Orthodox Church?

 

Are we as merciful to our least favorite person as God is merciful to us?

 

On Judgement Sunday, also known as Meatfare Sunday (because it’s the last day we eat meat until Pascha), we hear the words of Christ who says,

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. (Matthew 25:35-36,45)

Our Lord tells us that when we serve those in need, we serve not only them but Christ Himself. In contrast, if we do not serve the hungry, the thirsty, the naked or those in prison, we are neglecting Christ.

 

Lastly, as we begin the fasting period, we are reminded not to let what we eat be a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 8). In other words, we need to be aware of how we are conducting ourselves during the Great Fast. We should not bring undue attention to ourselves just so that we can keep the Fast, but neither should we scandalize our brother or sister by eating meat or dairy in front of them if we are not fully keeping the Fast.

 

*****

 

Lent is our journey back to the Father’s house. Through these next weeks, we take a journey of fasting, of learning how to say no to good things like meat and dairy, so that we can have the strength to say no to the passions that lead us away from God. We learn to say no to our sins so that we can say yes to Christ.

 

But the period we are in today is preparing us for this journey. It is time for us to pack by practicing humility and forgiveness and to get ready for how we will serve Christ and our neighbor during Great Lent.

 

How are you preparing for Great Lent? Who do you need to forgive and how is Christ calling you to be of service during the Fast?

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Prayer of Saint Philaret

The Orthodox Church places prayer at the core of the Orthodox Christian life. The Church offers us the Book of Psalms, the “Our Father” that Christ taught us, various liturgies, devotional prayer services to various saints, and private prayers written by the saints. All of these prayers guide us closer to Christ by giving us words to say when we can’t quite seem to find them. Over time, these prayers shape the words we use in times of need and inspire the conversation we have with God at all times.

 

In recent years, a prayer written by Saint Philaret the Metropolitan of Moscow (1782 – 1867) has come into popular use as a prayer for the beginning of the day. Here is the prayer in whole:

 

O Lord, grant me to meet the coming day in peace. Help me in all thing to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day, reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealing with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray You Yourself in me. Amen.

 

Prayed daily, this prayer helps us reorient our attention from the world’s distractions and passions and towards a focus and trust in God. Saint Philaret calls us to look at our inner world, to align our will with God’s, and to be attentive to how we interact with those around us.

 

1. Serenity and our inner world

 

The first thing this prayer is concerned with is our inner world. We ask in this prayer that God grant us the peace we need for this day. We ask Him for help in treating everything with peace of soul, instead of with anxiety and stress. How often do we wake up anxious, beginning the day already feeling behind schedule and worried? If only we could discover this peace on our own (the right meditation practice or the right quiet place in nature); if only we could fix ourselves! But instead of our peace, we need the peace of God which is beyond all understanding (Philippians 4:7), a peace not like what the world can offer, a peace that casts out our fear and calms our troubled hearts (John 14:27).

 

As God calms our anxieties, He also gives us strength when we are not strong enough to stand. In this prayer, we ask God for the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day. We don’t ask God to strengthen us tomorrow, we just ask for His help today “with all that it shall bring”. This implies we are also willing to trust that God will be with us in whatever situation we might encounter today. We are not alone.

 

We also ask God to guide our thoughts and our feelings. We are so often pulled this way and that by our emotions and thought life, but Saint Philaret reminds us to ask God to be our guide in everything. We even ask God to give us the words to pray. And as this prayer helps us to rely on God, it also calls our attention to His will.

 

2. God’s will and our will

 

So much of the Christian life is trying to bring our will into alignment with God’s will. Theologians and poets, rich and poor alike, all struggle with accepting God’s will at certain times, especially in times of suffering and difficulties. As Orthodox Christians, we neither believe in a God who can be manipulated by man (if we only pray correctly) nor a God who holds us like puppets on strings (where we have no control over our choices). Instead, we seek to know what God’s will is each day and then strive to live in accordance with that will.

 

Saint Philaret gives us the words to ask God to reveal His will to us and that we will then rely on His will in everything. But in moments of weakness and in moments of distress, we might lose that conviction that God is still with us at all times. So we ask God for the assurance that His will governs all things.

 

Finally, we give up trying to be in control by asking God to direct us and to help us bring our will to match His. We stop trying to run our own show and make a decision to let God be our shepherd and our guide. We give up control over what we cannot control and trust that God will take care of the outcome. As we let go, it opens us up not only to a better relationship with God, but also with our neighbor.

 

3. Our dealings with others

 

Just as we need to be aware of our inner life, and to meditate on the will of God, we also need to be cognizant of how we relate to and treat others. The prayer next asks that God will bless all of our interactions with our neighbor. In the stillness of our morning prayers, we ask God to help us not to forget that everyone in our lives can help us grow closer to God – even the most frustrating person – but how they do so depends on us. This is why we ask God to remind us that all are sent by Him. It changes our perspective from seeing others as pests to agents of God’s will in our lives.

 

It’s easy to be sure of our own “rightness”. We see that all too much today. What’s harder is to let go of being right and to live humbly in relation to others. At times we might need to be firm, but we always need God’s discernment in learning how to speak as God would have us speak. So we ask God that we “act firmly and wisely” but with the important caveat that our relations with others be “without embittering and embarrassing” them. Saint Philaret leads us then to approach our dealings with others with humility instead of with pride.

 

*****

 

When we are anxious and stressed out, when we are pursuing our own will instead of God’s, when we are pitting ourselves against others, we will not have the eyes to see and the ears to hear how God is working in our lives today. The prayer of Saint Philaret, like all of the prayers of our Church, helps us to slow down and to bring attention to this present moment. For it is here and now that we can encounter the living God. Today, we can know the peace of God, we can pursue the will of God, and we can see God at work in our lives through our neighbor.

 

Have you ever incorporated the prayer of Saint Philaret in your morning prayers? How might praying this short prayer help you to see that Christ is present with you, even in the stress of today?

 

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Faith Witness in Albania

Albania, which is not high on most desirable destination lists, has long competed against a not-so-untruthful global reputation. Having spent 12 days touring most of the country, I can attest that some clichés are rightly earned. But any minor nation that spent 45 years of the last century completely isolated under a repressive and paranoid Communist dictator may have a few issues here and there.

However, despite Albania’s underdevelopment, there is a beauty to the land and the people that is slowly garnering attention. One such dimension is the religious plurality that has blossomed out of the world’s first atheist state.

Due to its history and geographic location, an intricate religious web is woven in Albania. Throughout the first millennium, the territory of modern Albania was essentially split with the northern half belonging to the Western Roman Empire and the southern portion belonging to the Eastern, resulting in Catholic and Orthodox populations, respectively. The territory changed hands a few times as the Bulgarians, Serbians, and Venetians all vied for control in the Late Middle Ages. Finally, the rise of the Ottoman Empire consumed the Balkan peninsula and brought Sunni Islam, from which sprouted the Bektashi order of Sufism. Many Albanian natives converted to Islam, by choice or by force, but Catholic and Orthodox Christians survived albeit in an oppressive condition.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

An Orthodox church and a mosque stand side-by-side in Berat, Albania.

 

After World War II, Enver Hoxha seized Albania’s government as first secretary of the country’s communist party and held grip until his death in 1985. During his reign, Hoxha pushed communist objectives that makes Joseph Stalin seem like a reasonable man. By 1967, his aggressive agenda officially outlawed the practice of religion. Whereas even the Soviet Union left some wiggle room, Albania became the first nation to mandate strict atheism as government policy.

Churches and mosques were destroyed or converted into hotels and nightclubs, clerics were imprisoned, tortured and murdered, and the people were forced to abandon the faith of their forefathers in fear of their lives. When communism finally toppled in 1991, the religious landscape was decimated. Yet, like tiny seedlings in an arid climate, the consciousness of Albania’s religious communities revived as democracy opened the floodgates.

Learning from its experiences, history has taught Albania the necessity of a peaceful religious coexistence. Now a secular state, the small country does not ignore or repel the importance of its local religious traditions. As the new parliament was forming, civil authorities worked with religious leaders to ensure a smooth, tolerant transition that would minimize the risk of an extremist takeover.

The spiritual leaders of these communities have worked tirelessly over the last twenty-five years to fulfill the underserved needs of the Albanian people. Outreach programs, such as food and homeless shelters, orphanages, vocational schools and medical facilities, were established to fill the gaps of a government trying to get back on its feet. They even helped rebuild each other’s places of worship.

In all that they did, Albanian Muslims and Christians did it freely for the love of God and the love of their neighbor. Herein lies the foundation of World Interfaith Harmony Week, which begins today.

Declared in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly, World Interfaith Harmony Week was proposed by King Abdullah II of Jordan after witnessing the ongoing religious turmoil in the Middle East. A common thread of the Abrahamic faiths, King Abdullah reiterated the greatest commandment of loving both God and neighbor with all one’s heart, mind and soul.

From this, the United Nations has proclaimed the first week of February as a time to “spread…the message of interfaith harmony and goodwill in the world’s churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship…based on love of God and love of one’s neighbor or on love of the good and love of one’s neighbor, each according to their own religious traditions or convictions.”

World Interfaith Harmony Week serves an important purpose in our increasing secular lives today. It sets aside time to reflect on our relationships with our religious neighbors. How well do we know each other? Are we cooperating for the greater good of society and the honor of God? Do we see Christ in our neighbors?

Such interaction does not give reason to compete with other faiths or water down one’s own, but rather it provides the opportunity to bear witness to one’s faith. For an Orthodox Christian, all interreligious engagements should be approached with humility, asking “what can I learn?” And upon observing our neighbor, we then ask “what can I offer?” What we learn and what we offer will depend on the circumstances, yet we always respond with the same embrace the Church offers her children.

Albania is just one of the many parts of the world where the Good Samaritan has strengthened communities and given life to the beaten and downtrodden. World Interfaith Harmony Week invites us all to return to the core of our beliefs, that innate goodness with which Christ created all people—the goodness sought and expressed by all faith traditions—so that we may be the Good Samaritan Christ has called us to become.

Demonstrating Faith Through Works: Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017

Ephesians 6:12

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”- Ephesians 6:12

Each year on January 27, the United Nations commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day,[1] corresponding with the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. This Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, articulates a unique, yet significant concept that is often missing from acknowledgement of historical atrocities: while it is certainly important to remember those who have been lost, it is equally as significant to learn from these events so that we may ensure it does not happen again. In doing so, we can provide an element of hope to an otherwise somber day by showcasing those who, in the face of evil, demonstrated love, compassion and courage.

As Christians, we have a duty to preserve the shared memory with our fellow man of the greatest evil of the 20th century, in order that we never see it repeated. Attempting to comprehend why and how the Holocaust was allowed to happen is an arduous task, filled with political, cultural and societal complexities better left for another post. However, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew gave some clarity from a Christian perspective. Upon visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he remarked:

“The images of this place, the terror of which we glimpse but for a moment here, was suffered in the unspeakable depths of living images of God -- men, women and children…We must understand that such depravity of human action was caused by a deprivation of human spirit.  We cannot help but see in this place that Jews and Christians bear a special responsibility toward the hope and guarantee that this terrible evil must never again take root within the human psyche.”

Despite the horrors of this period, we can take some element of solace in the fact that when faced with brutality, many of our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters stood up in the face of this evil to protect the value of all human life, whether or not they were Christian.

To demonstrate, I call to your attention the story of Yolanda Avram Willis, a native of Thessaloniki and a child during World War II. Called a ‘hidden child,’ Mrs. Willis was born into a Jewish family, one of thousands of Jewish Greeks living in Greece at the time.[2] When the war finally arrived in Greece in 1940, many Greeks, including clergy members and bishops, protected and hid their Jewish brothers and sisters in order to safeguard their well-being. Because of her religion, Mrs. Willis and her family, along with thousands of other Jewish Greeks, had to adopt a new identity to evade persecution at the hands of Nazi officials that had infiltrated Greece.

She and her family moved around Greece, hiding in the mountains of Crete and seeking refuge in caves. Her family ultimately separated, merging with different Orthodox Christian families, and her parents were able to convince authorities that they were childless. After pretending to be non-Jewish, she was finally reunited with her family after four years, and they eventually made their way to the United States, where she remains today. [3]

With the spirit of Mrs. Willis and all those who aided her in mind, it is important to recognize the effort and struggle that they went through when faced with ‘spiritual wickedness and their fight against ‘principalities…powers… and the rulers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). Patriarch Bartholomew notes that “silence in the face of injustice, silence in the shadows of helpless suffering, silence in the darkness of Auschwitz's bitter night will never again be allowed. True Christian faith ought to be manifest toward every people of faith, any faith.”

This was best exemplified through Mrs. Willis’ story, along with numerous other examples of individuals putting others ahead of themselves. Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens, risking harm when Nazi officials arrived in the city demanding a list of all Jews, falsified thousands of baptismal certificates in order to hide the true identities of these citizens from the Nazi officials.[4] Similarly, the Athens police chief Angelos Evert provided over 27,000 false identity papers to those attempting to flee Greece after orders came in from the Nazis to procure a list of all those Jews currently living in Athens.[5]

As Christians, it is important to ensure that we are not Christian in name only, but in our actions as well. Outside of these examples, history is full of indifferent populaces to ongoing injustices, meaning people often struggle to connect their faith with their actions. As we hear in the Epistle of James: “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble” (James 2:18-19).

The rescuers of the Jews in Greece and around the world were living testaments to the Christian faith. They understood that to have faith alone is not enough; it must be accompanied by action as well. (James 2:24-26). We have the ability to discern right from wrong, but we must look outward towards our fellow man, both Christian and non-Christian alike, and ensure that when we perceive an injustice, we do not look the other way, ensuring that our faith is aligned with our actions.                                                                                                                  

 

Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.


[1] https://www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance/

[2] http://holocaustcenterpgh.org/exhibitions/in-celebration-of-life-living-legacy-project/yolanda-willis-2/

[3] http://triblive.com/news/valleynewsdispatch/10228514-74/willis-family-holocaust

[4] http://www.raoulwallenberg.net/es/generales/archbishop-damaskinos/

[5] Id.

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