March 19, 2016

Homily for the First Saturday of Great Lent (St. Symeon the New Theologian)

By St. Symeon the New Theologian

The First Week of Lent

That one should not embrace and zealously observe the benefit of the fast only in the first week of Lent, but that the zealous must continue the same zeal in all the weeks of Lent.

Brethren and fathers,

What we are about to say we ought to have addressed to your charity last Sunday. I was aware, however, that every one of us believers, together with the whole Christian people, both monks and laity, with fervent zeal accepts the blessing of fasting in the holy first week of Lent, and that each one of us willingly puts its yoke upon our neck (Sir. 51:26). Even among those who greatly despair of their own salvation and live their lives without fear and reverence for God there is no one who rejects the law of fasting in that week. Rather, as far as he is able, he joins with all in observing abstinence. So I come today to speak a few short words to you about the present season.

As we have said, all the faithful people spend the first week of Lent, which is now past, in a strenuous manner. But now that it has passed and Saturday has arrived, it falls to the lot of the Church of God to celebrate, in accordance with tradition, the feast of the great martyr Saint Theodore, or rather, the extraordinary act of salvation that God wrought through him for His most faithful people. Likewise on Sunday we all make commemoration of the Orthodox Faith and sing hymns of thanksgiving to God, who is all-good. But the evil one, who is always envious of goodness, secretly steals up on each of the faithful and invisibly puts on him the chains of slackness and carelessness. He persuades him to despise and reject the salutary yoke of fasting (cf. Ps. 2:3) and to return to his former habits. Therefore I remind you today and make my appeal to your charity, your paternity, that you do not in any way obey him who wills you ill. Do not be led astray by the bad habit of insatiable gluttony, nor turn back to the old habit of satisfaction of evil desires. Rather, let us keep this second week of Lent like the first, and likewise the remainder of the season.

Fasting as the Healer of the Soul

Indeed, my fathers and brethren, let us act for our own good by so doing, and let us not allow ourselves to lose what we have gathered together in the past, but rather let us strive to add to it and increase it. Let us not miserably allow what we have built up in times past to be destroyed (cf. Gal. 2:18). Let each one of us keep in mind the benefit of fasting and what gifts from God he has enjoyed in these few days and so become more eager for the days to come. For this healer of our soul is effective, in the case of one to quieten the fevers and impulses of the flesh, in another to assuage bad temper, in yet another to drive away sleep, in another to stir up zeal, and in yet another to restore purity of mind and to set him free from evil thoughts. In one it will control his unbridled tongue and, as it were by a bit (Jas. 3:3, 8), restrain it by the fear of God and prevent it from uttering idle or corrupt words (Eph. 4:29; Mt. 12:36). In another it will invisibly guard his eyes and fix them on high instead of allowing them to roam hither and thither, and thus cause him to look on himself and teach him to be mindful of his own faults and shortcomings. Fasting gradually disperses and drives away spiritual darkness and the veil of sin that lies on the soul, just as the sun dispels the mist. Fasting enables us spiritually to see that spiritual air in which Christ, the Sun who knows no setting, does not rise, but shines without ceasing. Fasting, aided by vigil, penetrates and softens hardness of heart. Where once were the vapors of drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth. I beseech you, brethren, let each of us strive that this may happen in us! Once this happens we shall readily, with God's help, cleave through the whole sea of passions and pass through the waves of the temptations inflicted by the cruel tyrant, and so come to anchor in the port of impassibility.

Fasting as the Foundation of All Spiritual Activity

My brethren, it is not possible for these things to come about in one day or one week! They will take much time, labor, and pain, in accordance with each man's attitude and willingness, according to the measure of faith (Rom. 12:3, 6) and one's contempt for the objects of sight and thought. In addition, it is also in accordance with the fervor of his ceaseless penitence and its constant working in the secret chamber of his heart (Mt. 6:6) that this is accomplished more quickly or more slowly by the gift and grace of God. But without fasting no one is was ever able to achieve any of these virtues or any others, for fasting is the beginning and foundation of every spiritual activity. Whatever you will build on this foundation cannot collapse or be destroyed, because they are built on solid rock. But if you remove this foundation and substitute for it a full stomach and improper desires, they will be undermined like sand by evil thoughts, and the whole structure of virtues will be destroyed (cf. Mt. 7:26; Lk. 6:49). To prevent this from happening in our case, my brethren, let us gladly stand on the solid foundation of fasting. Let us stand firmly, let us stand willingly! He who is compelled to climb the rock of fasting against his will cannot fail to be dragged down by his desire and thrown headlong into eating in secret. And so, as he nibbles, he becomes, I think, food for the evil one, for fasting is a divine law and those who presume to transgress it are seized by the devil, who flogs them like an executioner. If this does not happen immediately or quickly it is because God is patient with us and accepts our penitence. Yet we shall not altogether "escape His hand" (Tb. 13:12) either in this life or the world to come, if we persist in sin without repenting thereof. If we act in this way we shall share in the devil's condemnation, and at His hand and together with him we shall receive eternal punishments by the just judgment of God. We may be hidden from our superiors, yet we cannot be hidden from the Master and God of our superiors.

Fasting and Devotion

Let us then beware, brethren, not only of eating in secret, but also of eating our fill from the dishes set before us on the table. Indeed I entreat you without ceasing to call to mind this sacred week that has passed. Take into account, as I have said, not only the benefit you have derived from fasting and vigil, from prayer and psalmody, but also your sorrow, your devotion, and your silence. At the time the monastery seemed to me to be uninhabited by man and inhabited only by angels, since I heard no worldly word but only the glorification we offered to God, which is also the work of angels. I believe that just as you fulfilled the function of the angels, so also the angels took their part with you and sang with you. Do not then allow yourselves to be separated from their company by much and idle talking, nor by disorderly voices or loud shouts, so that you cause the demons to come near you as in times past. Rather, let each man take heed to himself and carefully work at his handiwork and his appointed service, as rendering service to the Lord and not to men (Eph. 6:8). For it is written, "Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness" (Jer. 48:10).

Mutual Invitation to the Spiritual Feast

Brethren, fail not to encourage one another during the offices to listen carefully to the sacred readings. At a physical gathering we encourage and invite our neighbors to eat of it, and those whom we like best we constrain to eat. So at this banquet, which nourishes the soul, we have the obligation to encourage our neighbors to pay attention, lest we be condemned for failing in mutual love and lose our right to be Christ's disciples. For he says, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:35). At the physical banquet he who does not compel his friend to feast of it often does him the greatest service. At the spiritual feast, by which I mean the hearing of the oracles of God, he who acts in this way causes untold harm to those who are his neighbors. To fill oneself with physical food often causes harm and damage to both body and soul. On the contrary, the words spoken by the saints both enlighten the mind and sanctify the soul, and thereby impart sanctification even to the body itself and make it healthier and more vigorous.

How to Feed on the Words of Life

Let everyone then pay attention to the reading (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13)! The words of the saints are words of God and not of men. Let him put them in his heart and keep them securely (cf. Lk. 2:19), since God's words are words of life (cf. Jn. 6:68) and he who has them within himself and keeps them has eternal life (Jn. 5:24). Were you often guests at a sumptuous banquet I doubt that any of you would be so indifferent that he would fall asleep and only take from it for his own need, and not be anxious before departing to take with him something for the morrow that he would eagerly share with some of his friends or even with the poor. But here the words of life are offered to you, which make those who feed on them immortal! Tell me, is it right for anyone to be inattentive or to fall asleep and snore as if he were a living corpse? How great the loss! How great the insensitivity and sluggishness! He who sits at table and has no desire for the food set before him is clearly lacking in physical health. So he who sits at the divine reading without unspeakable pleasure and spiritual desire, and fails to take immaterial and spiritual delight in the immaterial oracles of God and intellectually fill all his senses with their sweetness, is weak in the faith (cf. Rom. 4:19). He has never tasted the spiritual gifts; for in the midst of many good gifts he wastes away with hunger and thirst. Just as a corpse, when it is being washed with water, cannot feel it, so this man feels nothing when God's life-giving streams of His word flow over him.

You have the word of life in yourselves (cf. Phil. 2:16). You have come to be fed with this bread of the word (cf. Jn. 6:27); you are not dead, but have become living instead of dead. You have tasted of the true life and have obtained compassion for your neighbors (cf. Phil. 2:1; Col. 3:12) from God who is compassionate. Therefore do not fail to stir up, to encourage, to instruct your neighbors and all others, as best as you are able, as your own members, or rather, as those who are members of Christ and sons of God. Be anxious to educate them, reprove them, rebuke them (cf. 2 Tim. 4:2), not in order to cause them pain, but rather to deliver them from the Father's wrath and indignation. Your purpose is not to harm them, but rather to confer on them the greatest benefits by preparing them to accomplish the things that their God and Father wills. If you act in this way and each of you stirs up his brother to increased effort of love and good works (Heb. 10:24). we shall quickly be lifted up to the summit of virtues and show ourselves to be fulfillers of the commandments of God. So shall we all together attain to the kingdom of heaven in Christ Himself, our God, to whom is due all glory forever and ever. Amen.

From The Classics of Western Civilization: Saint Symeon the New Theologian, The Discourses (Paulist Press, New York, 1980) ch. 11.