February 20, 2010

Sermon for the First Friday of Great Lent

Catechesis 55: On Decorating our Incorruptible House Through the Assumption of the Virtues

by St. Theodore the Studite

Given on Friday of the First Week.

Brethren and fathers, people in the world when they erect a luxurious house give themselves no rest at night and at the end of the day they toil and plan, labouring until they have achieved their object; and such is the longing that fills them that their mind is wholly occupied in this and in considering how the roof may be well-covered, how the floor, adorned with many different marbles with every other form of elegance, will offer lovers of fine sights the most pleasing appearance. But if someone were to wish to tear them away from that care, they would be most distressed, as though they were being seriously wronged. But we, when we are building not a corruptible house but an incorruptible, not one made out of stones and wood but one skilfully constructed from spiritual graces, how can we be idle and come far below these others in zeal? How should this not be the greatest of wrongs? That other house harbours people who love the flesh and when it has passed through many masters it will be pulled down and deserted. The other knows that it welcomes the Holy Spirit, since "we are a temple of the living God and the Spirit of God dwells in us", as the divine Apostle says. Moreover with those who depart from things here it leaves too and abides in heaven intact and eternal. What is the material of this building? The assumption of the virtues. Take first, if you will, as a foundation stone, the fear of God, since "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". Next understanding, courage, sobriety, justice; and so with one attached firmly to the other and fitted together with the bond of love it will "grow into a holy temple of the Lord," as it is written. Let us be building this temple, brethren, at every moment, and let us not fail to adorn it with the beauty of the virtues, so that we may have the Holy Spirit for its inhabitant, so that by the pleasantness of our life we may turn the attention of angels and men to ourselves. But since one of the virtues is self-mastery, and we are more closely concerned about this one, let us give glory to God that we have arrived at the one stadium for it. Your faces have been changed from what they were before, but they shine with a fair change: the pallor that comes from self-mastery; your mouths have become embittered, filled with the bile of eating late, [The only reference in the lexica for this word is the Greek Ephrem, where Lampe translates ‘eating slowly’, but the meaning here is surely ‘eating late’, that is after Vespers in the late afternoon, when the only meal is eaten on fast days] but your spirits have been sweetened, flying on wings of hope. And these things are opposed to one another, and by mastering the one the other has become weak; so that we may rejoice for we are sided with the stronger. Perhaps some one will say that to eat every day is a failure of perfection. Not at all! Otherwise our Lord would not have ordered us to ask each day for our daily bread; the prophet Elias would not have been nourished each day in the desert by a raven; Paul, who dwelt in the desert before the godly Antony, would have received bread from God every day; Antony the Great preferred as almost necessary eating daily to a fast of above a day or for a week. And this is how it seems to me; for since our body is physically exhausted through its toil for the whole day, like a racing colt, and needs its rest, so necessarily the creator of our nature has arranged for it to be strengthened by its daily nourishment so that it might run well for the future, but not be exhausted and fading, which what they suffer who drag out their fast over two, three and five days. Nor would they be able to prostrate more frequently, not to join more lustily in psalmody, nor to accomplish their other services easily, unless something truly extraordinary happens. And so daily nourishment is not simply for the imperfect, but very much for the perfect by the traditional definition and canon. And thank goodness these things have been laid down by the fathers. And may you be granted again and again both health of body and strength of spirit to serve the living and true God and to await the last day, in which may you shine out like the sun as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.