Forty days! Each year, the Christian Orthodox take on a journey of more than five weeks of fasting days and night. This is a pedagogical path. It seems to be imposed by some Church rules built up over the centuries or born to communities that had to live in special cultural, ecological environments. The Fertile Crescent switched many times along history, from dire poverty and absence of food, periods of terrible famine and renewed agricultural and cattle breeding techniques that enhanced the quality of life, overcame seasons of incredible hunger. A constant fight for survival in the region.
The Greek semantics show a progressive movement: it is not good, not wise, not healthy to stop eating abruptly. Spirituality relies upon a subtle reflection on how to handle actions and behaviors with insights and equanimity. The Eastern Orthodox faith is fond of balanced decisions, taken with measure in order to smooth quick and jerky resolutions. This is why the believers are called to stop eating meat… wait a week… and, then, to stop eating dairy ailments… to continue over a week and then, when entering Great Lent to start the period by accepting to be “dry”, not necessarily “dried up”. Not to die, but to get reinvigorated with onions, mushrooms, carrots and a soup.
It could be a threat. It is a test. It is not a temptation. It is a confrontation with who we are as human bodies and souls. The believers are questioned on why, whereto, what for we may be allowed to continue the way – step by step – in the footsteps of Jesus Who resurrected from the dead, the inflaming Presence of His Father Who burns without annihilating us and protects the creation, His creatures by the overshadowing pavilion of the Spirit. This implies to drown into the realm of total abandonment to an immense overshadowing Divine Presence.
These are often too sweet phrases. Believers love sweet and pious words filled with rather utopian theological principles that can easily be proposed… and biased. The rules that govern Great Lent fasting are not misleading. They focus on a profound respect of the living, from the tiny little plants, all the animals to the human dynamic nature of liveliness.
This corresponds to the first commandment: “Be fruitful, multiple” (Genesis 1:28), confirmed by Jesus Christ. It includes multi-faceted aspects of how to grow, reach out to the fulfillment of one’s destiny or personality. In the tractate Bava Bathra 36b, “p’ri rabba/פרי רבא = large crop of grain” deals with the cultures, the cattle, fruition and usufruct as well. The commandment includes the blessing to grow, develop and mature.
Considering that the whole of history shows that the creation seems submitted to some quintessential process that drifts it toward destruction of nature, souls, animals, objects and persons, how dare we think that humans and creatures are good and can evolve in such a way as to be like the grain of mustard seed that, by the virtue of our faith, may become a magnificent and huge tree where the nestling birds will abide altogether? (Matthew 13:31; Mark 4:30; Luke 13:18).
The journey through the Forty Days of Great Lent into the Holy Week (Week of Suffering) is a matter of growing grains, seeds. Nature/Natura in English and the Latin languages is a passive form while in Greek Physis/φύσις is active, because the days we are given and going through are constantly on the move. Not static or on hold, not likely to be only waiting for some permission to move ahead. Indeed, there are the laws or “shapes” (Semitic expression) for natural laws imposed to the creatures and those that are conceived by the humans. In all cases, whether referring or not to Plato’s and Aristotle’s writings, the Greek notion is rooted in the dynamics of “growth, processing”. This is at the very core of the Forty Days of Great Lent.
English has it in the expression “Ember Days”, i.e. the “recurring, circuiting” days of fasting, of abstaining from food, refraining from sexual intercourse in order to trekking anew onto brand new and unexpected paths. This is never an isolated action in the Church. On the contrary, it suggests that we are able to discover the length, breadth, width and depth of the Great Assembly of all those called to redemption.
The Fathers of the Church shared this feeling of true faith with the Talmud: “Any communal fast in which the sinners [(פושעי ישראל\posh’ey Israel] do not participate, is not a fast” (Keritot 6b). The Churches do not impose a fast. They call out to the faithful and, of course, to their clergy alike (ek-klesia: “εκ-καλεω = ekkaléō, “to call forth, summon”) in view to gather and advance on the process of revelation of how to grow and mature in the face of the Lord. This is confirmed by the English term “Church” (Old English “Circe”) that means “a place of assemblage set aside for Christian worship, i. e. the body of Christian believers, Christians collectively; ecclesiastical authority or power” roots that developed into “kyriake oikia/κυριακη οικια, kyriakon doma “the Lord’s (house),” from kyrios “ruler, lord,” from Ιndo-European radical “keue- “to swell” (to be powerful, swollen as the extension of a body).
In Israel, the modern thinkers have expressed this by using the letters of the Hebrew word “tsibûr/צבור = communal, congregational”, i. e. a pile, an assembly that is growing like a swelling body: TS/ צ = tsadikkim-righteous, B/ב = beynonim-average people, U/ ו = uresha’im-the wicked, sample of all possible characters. Usually, when a body swells, it gets sick and is endangered. In the case of true faith, the collectivity is constituted by limbs and souls normally gathered by abilities to grow into love and show real kindness. Nothing to do with some pious parrotry.
A matter of grain? Seeds are sown to grow. Jesus shows that grains grow in different ways. Just as an Assembly is composed of good and bad, nice and violent, lovable and hateful individuals and groups, seeds grow in contrasted styles. In either case, the Forty Days propose a rather short period of time in which we may consider how to grow together, from personal renewal to the Lord and penance till we can reach congregational, social, economic and ecological respect and support.
This is indeed a matter of grain and of growing crops, even when it deals with domestic or wild animals, societal relationships, outcasts or those who consider themselves as the cream of the crops. Ups and downs that all relate to how we are fruitful or allow our fellow people to be productive, only viewing to act positively.
On the way to Emmaus, the disciples were sad and deceived when Jesus came to walk with them toward evening. He told them “āw ḥasīray, Fools and slow of heart to believe” and from Moses to the Prophets, He explained the nature of His life, trial, execution, death and resurrection. They still did not recognize Him, but as He seemed to go away from their company, they asked Him to stay. He took the bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Their eyes went open and they knew Him[ καὶ ἐπέγνωσαν αὐτόν /weštawdəᶜū] and He vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 31). This sounds rather comparable to the Transfiguration at Mount Tabor.
In the Book of Genesis (24: 63), Isaac “went out to converse in the field toward evening” [ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב – Vayetse Yitskhaq lasu’akh basadeh lifnot arev]. The Hebrew radical relates to meaningful alternative significations. “Lasu’akh/לשוח“ is related to the word “si’ah/שיח = vegetation, agricultural grains” as well as to a conversation, i. e. “sikhah/שיחה” that, evidently, can develop into a positive dialogue, capacity to socialize and not refrain from open contact in speech . Judaism considers that Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer that comes before the end of the day. It is the time for the “minha/מנחה” that links to the very yields of the soil – the daily produces of the earth.
Indeed, bread is the fruit of the earth, of the soil, of the grains and seems vegetative but, according to the compared Jewish and Christian traditions, it grows and ripes in order to reinvigorate and plant the Kingdom… then it disappears. Fasting allows to utter that we feel hungry. Sexual abstinence shows the importance of the burning ardor of the Presence during the loving intercourse. Great Lent is not only an alimentary subject, it is also a period of limb, physical stand-by in the Orthodox traditions of the East.
The fourth Sunday of the Great Lent is dedicated to the commemoration of Saint John Climacus of Mount Sinai. It focuses on the memory of the Sinaitic Father of the Church whose writings continue to teach how important it is to comply with the real route to grow for the sake of salvation, obedience (= common hearing and listening to Divine Words of the Lord) and to get to freedom. His best-known book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” explains how to ascend to the Highest whilst abandoning oneself, step by step. It allows to introspect and reach to the fruit of abundant and subtle observation of one’s soul along with a long-term in-depth spiritual experience. It proves to be of a great benefit and guide along the path toward truth and goodness. This cannot be compacted into a lonely journey to holy and intangible things. It develops into a highway to universal, supreme and progressive apprehension of Divine Presence.
The steps of The Ladder consist of the ascent from strength to strength on the human path to perfection, which can only be attained gradually, not out of a sudden.
Acquiring strength to strength in order to combat the in-born raw violence of human and natural elements is a part of the process of the growth. It may correspond to times of grieves and traumas. Jacob had been wounded during his night fight with the “Ish-איש/Man”. The Ladder proposes a way to come to full equanimity. Hebrew has it because everything is a matter of “ascent”.
The Jew ascends to the Bema (lectern) to read the weekly portions of the Bible in the synagogue. The aliyah/עליה is also the ascent to Jerusalem for the major feasts of the year. It consists in climbing up just as the sacrifice of incense (‘ol/עול = the sacrifice and the yoke) is light – not a burden Jesus said (Matthew 11:30) – and swiftly goes up in the air.
During Great Lent, the Byzantine Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts includes the fifteen Psalms or Songs of Ascents (120-134) that underscore how the journey develops from despair and naught into a real capacity to get strengthened and face the radiant Light.
Still, things remain fragile. The journey through Great Lent and the Forty Days can be segmented into a lot of tests.
There is a profound connection between the steps of the creation of the world, of the universe, of the galaxies, their expansion into the development of the soil, the plants, the vegetation, the animals and the deployment of human conscience and dignity. It is the reality of the natural/physical beauty of all the creation. Along the way, there are ups and downs, flashes of Presence and, at times, concealed companionship as when the Lord walked anonymously with the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
This year, the Jews of Great-Britain and the Commonwealth are of course on the way to the feast of Pesach that always precedes the Christian feast of Easter (04/21 for the Catholics and the Protestants) and the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Pascha (04/28, 2019). They created a new name to speak of the Passover festivities: “Breadxit” in a time when they seem to break some ties with the European Community..
Indeed, Passover is the special period of the Jewish festive cycle during which only unleavened breads are eaten instead of the usual loaves. The Matsot are light but the point here is that bread is broken and shared with all those who can participate in the Paschal meal. We are not sure of which “rite” Jesus used for the institution of the Eucharist. He acted by the normal Jewish fraction of bread that is performed on Shabbat and during the Feast, just when starting a normal meal with a few guests.
Whether leavened or unleavened, the bread is “the fruit that comes out of the earth”. This implies that the Lord Himself configurated Himself to the totally accomplished materiality of agricultural produces, substantially changed into His own Body and Blood.
From the plants, the vegetation (= “growing up) of the first days of the creation till the shaping of the human beings, it is impossible to separate the concerned elements. They belong to the one and unique divine Presence and sanctification of the world in which all come up, grow, ripe and perish and rise again.
There are times and delays. Times to throw away the stones and times to assemble them. Times for war and times for peace (Eccleasiastes 3:1-8). Too often, splits show up and people are likely to consider that they are still united. We have to acknowledge that we are not in times of dialogue. Dialogues are on hold and biased. Encounters hardly can maintain some kind of tolerance in many cases, maybe because terrible instruments of destruction that have been developed and can annihilate our planet and all the existing seeds of life.
Do we see the connection between the process of “dialogue and conversation”, “growth” and “vegetation”, “cultivating activities and prayers in due time” and redeeming action of “the fraction of the bread”. All these are linked to our combat against violence, self-centeredness and, finally, to the openness to the plenitude of faith and confidence?
During these weeks of Great Lent, we are reminded that we all germinate as the fruit of dynamic movements that the Creator initiated because of the breathing presence of natural elements: i. e. the earth, the waters and the air. Are we driven to destruction and despise? On the way to His Passion, Jesus of Nazareth, true man and true God, was mocked by the Roman soldiers of His time. They put a crown of thorns on His head and mock Him.
We go through times, years, now decades of disdain and mockery toward our fellow people, those we dare not approach or whom we would consider as aliens, strangers. It becomes shameful when religious denominations fake to stand each other, would meet but not converse. All groups, down to the smallest or up to the biggest would pretend that dialogue is a requirement, but once they speak, the words can be interpreted after opposed traditions and misleading patterns. This hurts the Churches and we would not accept to see how it is dangerous to meander astray from authentic oneness, not the ritual one, not the monologued one, but the magnificent unicity of faith given from Above.
There are so many journeys to cross the continents and so many turned to originate in the Southern part of Africa up to the African Horn, the Fertile Crescent then Ukraine and different directions to the East toward Siberia and to the West to the North of Europe.
In that sense, Jerusalem remains the center of human and divine nature. It is said and known there that the thorns used to make the crown put on the head of Jesus came from the Monastery of the Cross. One of the most ancient place when the nascent Georgian Church resided for centuries. It could be returned or at least shared by the Greek Orthodox of Jerusalem with the Georgian patriarchate that left from Jerusalem after AD 2000 Millenium celebrations.
These thorns are special and are quite similar to the South African tree called in English “Buffalo Thorn Tree”, in Latin “Ziziphus mucronata” that came from Greek “Ziziphos”. The word is rooted in the Semitic languages that haunted from old the coasts of the Mediterrean and down through Zanzibar to the South of Africa.
Afrikaans is the creolized new language from Dutch and has a very special name for the tree: “Wag ‘nbietjiebos – Wag ‘nbietjieboom”. It is very sweet and clear, quite amazing. It means: “Wait A Little Bit Tree“. The tree or the bush is full of thorns. It is very green with some fruit, and it definitely looks nice. The tree has been known over the centuries in the Middle-East and in particular in the Holy Land and Eretz Israel. We have such a tree with thorns, very similar to the South-African one. But, according to the Christian tradition, the Thorns that were put as a crown on Jesus’ head came from the same “Ziziphus micronata, Buffalo-Thorn Tree” and thus from a “Wag-‘n-bietiebos”. It is evident that the local thorns and those of the Southern African bush tree have been compared and somehow identified as being of very close species.
The tree represents life as we know it. The young twigs are zigzag, indicating that life is not always straightforward. Two thorns at the nodes are also significant; one facing backward represents where we come from and one facing forward, represents where we are going.
In Afrikaans, Wag ‘n bietjie [/wax n biki/] means “Wait a bit”… do not hurry. Yes, there is a project in nature, human growth and activities. Don’t swell because these fruits are excellent, so beautiful. The thorns show the meaning of our life path and the different ascends or disappearances.
The crown was not intended to respect Jesus in the prison. The mockery meant: the soldiers were down-to-earth, illiterate and heathens, gregarious, basic instinct. Those who “mock” are not atheists, they deny that God sows and that it is called to grow and let grow a lot of people.
“When you have suffered just a little bit, I shall reinstall you…” (1 Peter 5: 10-11)… So wait a bit because mockery and apostasy will pass by the virtue of faith and respect.