I wrote different articles from the beginning of Great Lent in my new series “Memra chronicles” on “orthodoxie.com”. Except for the account of the life of Mother Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, I chose to put only photographs of trees. We are strongly incited these years to reflect on the way humankind will or may not survive in shaken if not devastated ecological environments. Survive? Things evolve in the course of rather slow but abrupt processes. We speak of the shortcoming of agricultural, natural produces that have progressively disappeared in the course of the past five thousand years. Animals are terribly endangered, forests, woods, ice spaces and deserts, lands and islands, coasts and continents are submitted to drastic changes.
We have problems. Problems pre-suppose that there are questions, recurrent ones. Indeed, it consists in throwing different propositions into the air and try to stop persistent and insoluble difficulties. The cycles of life, life-paths can be repetitive and monotonous. Great Lenten traditions of fasting border some socially imposed, economically unavoidable tempos of chronic health care and ethos-religious dynamics.
True penance, true penitence or conversion to the Lord are more a gambling party rooted in personal and collectivity considerations: God calls to life, sustains life and maintains us and the creation in life in spite of systems of destruction and eradication that seemingly reign over the reality of substance and memories.
The Byzantine Vesperal prayers constantly propose to meditate on the first Psalm: “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, / nor stands in the way of the sinners, / not sits in the seat of the scornful” (Psalm 1:1). The Hebrew text allows to open up on diversified interpretations. The Psalms are very difficult to translate into any language because the flowing spectrum of the radicals and the letters are always playing with each other and never let the reader to get ossified. Calcification is one of the serious perils that may affect the most pious and ritual fans of religious cycles. Cycles are not cyclical. They break through natural tendencies trapped in mental stiffness, religious routine. God does not allow us to bathe twice in the same periods. Memories as films, videos, audio-recording fade. Faith cannot fade, but how can we truly believe this?
Great Lenten route commences with this kind of special exploit: how can we leave the ungodly? It is parallel to the request of the Great Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. The “ungodly, thus the evil ones, the idolaters (resha’im/רשעים) is reflecting in “(O Lord and Master of my life,) grant me not a spirit of sloth, meddling, love of power, and idle talk”.
The second verse of the psalm refers to standing in the way of the ”sinner, the one passing beyond, rebellious, faithless” (posh’im/פושעים) comparable to the second part of the Saint’s prayer “(but give me) a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love”.
And the third verse requires “not to sit in the seat of the “scornful, those who mock, thumb nose at somebody with the purpose to hurt or even kill verbally”” (letsim/לצים) as expressed in the last part of the prayer: “grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.”
Instead of distorting the others’ identity and fooling oneself and the people we have to socialize with, we can turn to the Creator and feel some remorse. In this particular context, the “scornful” or “lets/לץ” is the buffoon who intends to destroy the ugly appearance that he hates in his self. He would not harm his own distinctness but would accuse the others of such guilts and try to eradicate them till he gets annihilated by some avenging ricochet blow.
Forty days for a return that throws us forward onto the unknown route of revelation and redemption. Then, a week of suffering highlighted by the Paschal meal when the Body and the Blood of the Resurrected is shared as the substantial nourishment.
The Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church started the Forty days of fast and sexual abstinence as a spiritual trek where tracks can be traced along the experience of the past and how new directions are available. Pardon is definitely far too difficult. We discuss on pardon, forgiveness, but our societies and their individuals are rather unforgiveable. The Christians love to speak of pardon, but many would hardly forgive. Or they would add that we have to forgive but not to forget. There is a sort of confusion in what true mercy and acquittal mean.
Does it make sense to pretend that one can forgive and still not forget? The two notions are often presented as parallel matters. Is forgiveness merely a sort of excuse? Subsequently, it would be possible not to forget in order to maintain a reminder, a kind of memorial that would overcome our anguish. Transgressions and faults can harm us anytime, unexpectedly, all of a frightful sudden.
Repentance is not only a matter of reflection and emotions. It pre-supposes real and verbal expression and relational capacity to change human attitudes and social contacts. Repentance is thus more than remorse that is merely a state of mind. The Byzantine Service that introduced the Forty Days of Great Lent sounds often too ritual. It is definitely comparable to a summarized set of Jewish autumnal New Year festivities (Rosh HaShanah, the intermediary Days of Awe and the Atonement Day).
The main mental and spiritual experience of Judaism is that “kol Israel arevin zeh bazev = כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה = All Israel are responsible for one another” (Shevuot 39a & Deuteronome 57). On the Sunday of Forgiveness, we were not proposed to change for our own sake. Indeed, it is better to find some way out of our wrongdoings, faults, sins, transgressions as far we are able to make up our minds and get aware of our failures or hindrances. But Great Lent is not a race that we can hire from a coach. On the contrary, the Lord frees us if we are ready to follow his project. This is never a personal decision. It is a “common good” that includes the contribution to the large reality of the Church body. It is not based on our own choice. We cannot select each other in the Ekklesia – all congregations. We are contemporary and transgenerational co-witnesses to the Risen Lord. It itches at times, really! We can’t help!
Forgiveness implies something more that cannot be reduced to formal acts, ritual and rigid words of sweetness. Pardon means that we are able to avoid any form of humiliating the others. This is why it is quite an exploit to be conscious of what we say when we ask for forgiveness: the English word “atonement” is a source of constant Jewish and Christian reflection because it deals with how to be reconciled to the fullest and be “at one”, one with each other and one in the Only One!
Along the Forty Days, we have been proposed to feel the true significance of time. In Hebrew, “Shanah/שנה” is linked to the radical “to change, repeat whilst in a developing way”. We are taken into waves of blowing mutations. Still, the past cannot pre-determine our future. Faith in the Resurrected allows us to respond to new prospects because we can regret what we have wrongly done in the past. This means that we are proposed to eradicate the errors that contravened the dynamics of acting with goodness, justice.
Pascha (Aramaic for Easter, ܦܨܚܐ) is more than a change of year: it is a true transfiguration, a flashing instant thoroughly carried over and above time and substance. The Hebrew and Aramaic roots refer to “to leap over, to spare, to make the sacrifice of the Easter lamb” (Pessahim 5,1 58a), a sacrificial act (Hullin 129b, linked to circumcision).
This notion of offering for life – not in order to be eliminated – is at the heart of vivid faith. We are not called to be dried out skeletons on hold. The journey of the Great Lent gives us an opportunity to revolve, rotate and evade into new elements of blessing. It is much more than a bungee jumping experience. It cost drops of blood to Jesus. The Lord gave his blood twice in his lifetime: when He was circumcised according to the Law and on the Wood of life at the Golgotha.
At the present, the Confession of sins (Viduy/וידוי), during the Jewish Day of Atonement, includes this sequence said after the mention of the transgressions: “What can we say before You (Lord)… You know every secret since the world began, and what is hidden deep inside every living thing. You search each person’s inner chambers, examining conscience and mind. Nothing is shrouded from You, and nothing is hidden before Your eyes. And so, may it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that You forgive us all our sins (chato’teynu/חטאתינו), pardon all our iniquities (avonoteynu/עונותינו) and grant us atonement for all our transgressions (utechaper lanu al kol p’sha’eynu/ותכפר על כל פשעינו).”
This is definitely similar to the Byzantine prayer of absolution: “Absolve, erase, pardon all faults committed by word, deed, thought or various emotions/feelings” (Slavic rite).
atonement has been shown on the Sunday of St Maria the Egyptian. She had such a
“normal” path for people who can be driven to lose common sense or
decency. We may be to humble or concealed to admit that anybody can be prompted
to real excesses.
Her life was written by Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem. He described a young woman who could drive crazy about sex and carnal appetite she could offer without being paid. Driven by passion, a notion that is so important in the Eastern Christian traditions because excited passions are overcome by uncontrolled motions of mind and conscience. Maria the Egyptian sold her favors to have a trip to Jerusalem – a sort of fake pilgrimage for her, cheating the Lord and the pilgrims. She was invisibly stopped to enter the Holy Sepulcher. This sounds like an angelic barrier (cf. Bilaam she-donkey). These veiled barriers are the pedagogical medium that allow hidden and secret matters to come up and break through. She prayed to the Most Holy Mary and venerated the True Cross.
crossing roads like the Lord stopping her at the Holy Sepulcher gate and her
desire to move to total revival. She left for the monastery of Saint John
the Baptist located at the Jordan River. She made full confession, received
absolution and communicated to the True Food that substantiates the in-depth
Communion in the Messiah. Then, having bought three loaves of bread, she went
to the wilderness, on the other side of the Jordan River.
Saint Maria the Egyptian once told about her past life to Saint Zosimas of Palestine as they incidentally met along some sand tracks. She was naked. She only had some desert products to eat… by the way, depending on the language, these could be quite numerous (the Aramaic version mentions the carrots among other fresh vegetables at that time).
Saint Zosimas covered her with his mantle and gave her the Holy Communion. She asked him to come back on Holy Thursday of the following year. The Saint made the long trip to her the next year and found her dead body. On her side, she had written in the sand that she was to die on the night after she had communicated. Her body was incorrupt, wrote Sophronios of Jerusalem.
The point of her full return to the Lord is definitely identified with the very Holy Communion, that, in the Eastern tradition, consists of a small piece of leavened bread received with some wine.
The focus of Great Lent is to journey up from time-countable matters of corruptibility to the reality of something that is sealed with life beyond life, substance and existence beyond the perceptible genuineness of our world and societies. Saint Maria the Egyptian showed the connection between this fundamental return to God and the Mystery/Sacrament of the Eucharist.
This is at the core of the Paschal joys: the lamb shared during the flight from Egypt, the Manna received as daily edible portion during the trek through the Sinai. The question “Man hu/מן הוא – ܡܢ ܗܘ” – What is it? i.e. what is this (kind of aliment)? – defines a matter that sustains in the quality of an essential subsistence shared during the Vigils and Divine Liturgies in the night of the Resurrection. The nourishment is incorruptible, which is quite a challenge in the Byzantine rites. Indeed, while the Latin and some Oriental traditions that make use of unleavened bread for the consecration of the Body of Christ during the Liturgy, the Byzantine rite systematically take leavened bread and red wine for the Blood of the Lord.
Therefore, it is a very exceptional spiritual experience that may happen to a priest to find that the Body of Christ under the species of the unleavened bread can be “spoiled” after some hours or days. The Byzantine Churches do not keep Eucharistic Bread – only at times for the sick and in very tiny parcels. Spoiled pieces of consecrated bread : this does not mean that the Communion crumbs, dipped in some drops of wine, are corrupt. They look spoiled and estranged but, on the contrary, they retain the precious Presence of the Resurrected in totality. This is a very peculiar though rare observation but does oblige to consider the depths of Divine Presence in our midst.
The raising of Lazarus (John 11: 1-44) allows to deepen this reflection on the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth, on the way to his Passion, going through the silence of Good Saturday and the night of the resurrection. The account is very rich with different layers of possible interpretation. The point is that Jesus ascertained that Lazarus was asleep, meaning that he died. Jesus asked “Where have you laid him? They said to him, Lord come and see. Jesus wept.” He came to the grave as Lazarus’ sister Martha told him: “He stinks , for he has been dead for four days” (John, 11:39). The Aramaic word is “ܣܪܺܝ / sry = was rotten, corrupt, decayed.”
Jesus faced the decomposing smell of death that accompanied the return of his friend Lazarus to dust. He reversed the process of corruptibility and operated the sign that introduced to his own Way of the Passion. The Passion does start at Beit Phageh, on the day when Jesus called Lazarus to come outside of the grave : “Lazarus, come forward! – ܠܒܪ ܬܐ / tha l’bar, come outside – Λάζαρε, δεῦρο ἔξω!” (John 11: 43).
This is the call that transfigures human nature, deep in its essential dynamic character. The raising of Lazarus challenges all real matters insofar the dead man came out from the tomb tied up in his tachrichin/תכריכין (graveclothes) from which he was loosened, released by his fellow people.
This means that corruption can be overcome. The raising of Lazarus pushes to accept the choice of faith as a journey through human abomination. Dirt and defects can be swept away because miracles are natural and supernatural occurrences in the Christian Orthodox faith. How dare we pretend that this was real on the day when Jesus came to call anew his friend Lazarus? How dare we profess that this sign impacted thousands of years of grace.
We see murders, we remember mass-murders. We would oblige others to recognize numerous genocides and ascertain that those victims have been more discriminated than these martyrs whose memories we would be anxious to keep alive. Old assassinations are driven away by new crimes. Who raised from the caves of the desert during the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic Greek mass-murder committed in 1915? These days, we remember that 104 years have passed.
Indeed, here is the question: how do we read the call of Jesus to Lazarus: “Come forward!” in our generation? The first “Tha/ܬܐ ” = imperative form to walk forward, to appear, to show that releases are possible.
Again, Christ was born for all times. Jesus rose from the dead once forever. We are not ambushed in a long- short series of periods of times. In the timetable of our days and generations, the Lord comes. In the Semitic languages it is definitively clear and challenging: the word “to rise” proceeds from the same matter as “to go, come up, arrive, introduce into (life)”.
The Lord comes, he came and will come. It deals with a perpetual, endless continuum, but how can we perceive this move that we cannot catch when we seem to be done with fears, social, economic, ecological, historic constraints. Winds and hurricanes also come, earthquakes and catastrophes. But the Lord comes. He comes each time his paschal Meal/Eucharist is served and this succinct communion prolongs the call made to Lazarus: “Come forward!”
It is our time to march in.
Christ is risen! Truly He is risen! Maran atha, the Lord comes, indeed, – Marana tha, o Lord, come! (Apocalypse 22 : 20)