Fourth Sunday in Lent

On the Fourth Sunday in Lent, the Eastern Church commemorates Saint John Climacus, also known as John of the Ladder, who was a seventh-century monk at the monastery on Mount Sinai. He is revered as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Roman Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox churches.

Saint John’s spiritual instructions known as Ladder of Divine Ascent describes the means by which one acquires the ascetic virtues. He uses the analogy of Jacob’s Ladder as the framework for his spiritual teaching. Each chapter is referred to as a “step” and deals with a separate spiritual subject. There are a total of thirty steps. The final four steps or “rungs” of the ladder concern the higher virtues: prayer, spiritual stillness (hesychia), dispassion, and, highest of all, love (agape).

Ladder of Divine Ascent became one of the most widely read books of Byzantine spirituality. In Eastern Christian monasteries, chapters of the book are often read in church or in the refectory as part of the Daily Office on Lenten weekdays.

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem – 8 (Final)

Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love– that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone-the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.

All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride.

Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy–pride–will be destroyed in us.

After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all.

In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.”

Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man – soul and body – repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the lenten rite par excellence.

Jesus Christ’s Tomb Opens to Public after Restoration

A burial tomb believed to have held the body of Jesus Christ before his resurrection will open to the public on Wednesday. The tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem underwent nine months of restoration.

A team from the National Technical University of Athens (NTU) carried out intensive restoration on a small structure known as the ‘Edicule’ (little house) within the church, containing the tomb and burial bed believed to have once held the body of Jesus Christ.

During the restoration the team removed a slab of marble that had been placed over the bed in 1555AD to prevent pilgrims removing rocks from the holy site, exposing the original limestone shelf for the first time in centuries.

The team from NTU reinforced the ‘Edicule’ structure during the restoration, using titanium bolts and mortar.

“If the intervention hadn’t happened now, there is a very great risk that there could have been a collapse,” said Bonnie Burnham from the World Monuments Fund, which oversaw the project, The Guardian reported, citing AP.

Thick layers of candle soot and pigeon droppings were also removed from the holy site.

A small window has been cut in the marble wall of the ‘Edicule’, allowing pilgrims to see into the tomb for the first time. On Wednesday, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and a representative of Pope Francis, will mark the completion of the restoration with a ceremony.

According to scripture, the body of Christ was laid in the tomb following his crucifixion. After three days he was discovered to be missing and said to have appeared over a period of 40 days before ascending into heaven.

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem- 7

The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.

Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue.

God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem- 6

Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth.

The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness.

If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.

Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross

On the Third Sunday in Lent, halfway between the beginning of Lent and Holy Week, the Byzantine-Rite of the Orthodox Catholic Church commemorates the precious Cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Services include a special veneration of the Cross.

Recalling the crucifixion narrative, we remember Christ being crucified between two thieves. The first thief, seeing how human falsehood condemned an Innocent, rejected all human justice and was indignant and rebellious to the very end, blaspheming God. The other, seeing that an Innocent was also dying, confessed that he himself had been justly convicted for his crimes. He then turned to this Innocent and humbly plead for mercy and salvation. And God granted his plea for forgiveness and bestowed upon him salvation. Indeed, the penitent robber on the same day found himself with his Savior in paradise.

The Cross conveys how Divine grace, Divine love, Divine power can transform each of us, sanctify each of us, give each of us eternal life, as it has for millions of our predecessors, both Saints that are glorified and holy persons that are unknown to us.

The message of the Cross is the immense and amazing love of God, which is why we can today venerate this Cross, not with a wounded soul, not with horror, but with such bright hope, so that when we enter the days of Holy Week, we are prepared and strengthened to faithfully endure together with Christ His suffering journey. Thereby, we will not simply be spectators grieved by the unimaginable horror of the crucifixion, but rather faithful sojourners and recipients of such incomprehensible Divine love, rejoicing in the ultimate victory of the glorious resurrection.

Saint Patrick the Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland*

Troparion Hymn

Holy Bishop Patrick, faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock, you filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel: The mighty strength of the Trinity! Now that you stand before the Savior, pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!

*Commemorated on March 17/30

The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem – 5

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger.

Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie.

Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four (sloth, despair, lust of power, idle talk) are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four (chastity, humility, patience, love).

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The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem – 4

Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically wrong attitude toward other persons.

If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and selfcentered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments.

The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect.

It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.