Perhaps this was the most fruitful Lent of your life. Praise God.
Perhaps, however, you look back on Great Lent with sadness. You fell short of your Lenten commitment. Your Paschal rejoicing, is tinged with a sense of loss and disappointment. Okay. The truth is the truth. You fell short. “Coulda, woulda shoulda,” as my dad use to say. “Now what are you going to do about it?!,” he would add.
Praise God just as much as the person whose Lent was the best ever!!
The forty days between Pascha and Ascension is, in so many words, the declaration, “It is never too late. Repent and believe the gospel.”
“It is too late,” we say. God says, “No it is not!!”
Here are two reflections that confirm the heart of today’s epistle and gospel reading for me – it is never too late.
When Peter told the Jews that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus whom they had just crucified, they were upset. They were cut to the heart. They had missed it. They hadn’t recognized him, they had crucified him, and he was God. What could they do now? How could they fix this situation? It would seem that everything was lost…it was too late.
… In the Gospel, Mary Magdalene looks for him in the grave and he is not there. He has risen and she does recognize him and tells the others that she has seen the Lord and he is not dead… And it is not too late. Peter tells the Jews to repent and be baptized and they can share in the Holy Spirit. And they did. It’s not too late. They didn’t recognize the Lord before, but they see now, and it’s not too late.
This is the best part. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. We can repent and share in the Holy Spirit. I didn’t really do everything I wanted to for Lent. I started to clean out my closet to donate clothes, but I didn’t get finished, and I didn’t get the clothes to the Goodwill. But it’s not too late. I can take them this week, and they will still do some good. My Lenten sacrifice is a little late, but it’s not too late. I wanted to donate to the food pantry, and I didn’t get it done during Lent, but I can do it now. It’s not too late… If we recognize Jesus now, if we realize now that he has risen and he lives in us, we can repent now. We can do what we need to, and we can share in the Holy Spirit. It’s not too late. (Daily Reflection of Creighton University’s Online Ministries for April 22, 2014) [I heartily recommend this site for your daily devotional reading.]
“…Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.”
(excerpt from the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom)
You cannot change what happened but you can change what will happen from here forward by the grace of God. Repent and believe the gospel. It is never too late.
Not too late for the thief on the cross who is now our brother in Paradise.
Not too late for Mary at the tomb, to whom Jesus said, “Mary!”
Not too late for two on the road to Emmaus to whom the Lord drew near and ministered and whose sorrow was turned into rejoicing.
Not too late for Thomas who wasn’t there. Eight days later Jesus appears, just for Thomas.
Not too late for Peter who denied Jesus, to whom Jesus asked, “Do you love me?”
Not too late for …
With God all things are possible especially, according to the Biblical witness, after it seems to be too late.
Jesus was/is famous for doing stuff on the Sabbath Day. His way of resting and delighting in the Father was to heal, restore, and forgive. In other words, to conquer death and sin and offer new life. The Sabbath was not a “day off” from the restful labor of salvation’s joyful work. Jesus is Savior eight days out of the week. It was an offense to many. On Holy Saturday we know He continues to do so. Praise God for the power of Christ Jesus’ Sabbath Rest. Into it we enter by death. In it we live by resurrection. Here are a couple of reflections from the Holy Tradition that confirm the mystery of this Holy Sabbath Day — Holy Saturday. The fruit of His laborious rest on the 7th day is the creation of the 8th day — the first day of the new creation.
Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated. For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity. Source: “Universalis”
O Lord my God, I will sing to you a funeral hymn, a song at your burial: for by your burial you have opened for me the gates of life, and by your death you have slain death and hell. All things above and all beneath the earth quaked with fear at your death, as they beheld you, my Saviour, upon your throne on high and in the tomb below. For you lie before our eyes in a way beyond our understanding: a corpse and yet the very source of life.
Today you keep holy the seventh day, which you blessed of old by resting from your works. You bring all things into being and make all things new, observing the sabbath rest, my Saviour, and restoring your strength. You have gained the victory by your greater strength: your soul was parted from your body yet by your power, O Word, you have burst asunder the bonds of death and hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it met you, O Word, for it saw a man deified, marked by wounds yet all-powerful; and it shrank back in terror at this sight.
You were torn but not separated, O Word, from the flesh you had taken. For though your temple was destroyed at the time of your Passion, the person of your Godhead and of your flesh is one: in both you are one Son, the Word of God, both God and man. The fall of Adam brought death to man but not to God. Hell is king over mortal men, but not for ever. Laid in the tomb, mighty Lord, with your mighty hand you burst asunder the bars of death. To those from every age who slept in the tombs, you have proclaimed true deliverance, O Saviour, who have become the firstborn from the dead.
Be astounded, O heavens, and let the foundations of the earth be shaken. He who dwells on high is numbered among the dead and dwells as a stranger in a narrow tomb. The second Adam, he who dwells on high, has come down to the first Adam in the depths of hell. The disciples’ courage failed, but Joseph of Arimathea was more bold; for seeing the God of all a naked corpse, he asked for the body and buried him.
Coming forth from a birth without travail and wounded in your side with a spear, O My Maker, you have brought to pass the re-creation of Eve. Becoming Adam, you have in a way surpassing nature slept a life-giving sleep, awakening life from sleep and from corruption by your almighty power.
‘Do not weep for me O Mother, beholding in the tomb the Son whom you conceived in your womb without seed. For I shall rise and be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify you with faith and love.’
‘O Son without beginning, I was blessed by your strange birth in ways surpassing nature, for I was spared all travail. But now looking upon you, my God, as a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be truly magnified.’ From Matins of Holy Saturday in The Lenten Triodion (1978) Source: Two Year Lectionary, Patristic Vigil Readings, Lent, Year 2
From a treatise On the Holy Spirit by Basil the Great
When humankind was estranged by disobedience, God our Saviour made a plan for raising us from our fall and restoring us to friendship with himself. According to this plan Christ came in the flesh, he showed us the gospel way of life, he suffered, died on the cross, was buried and rose from the dead. He did this so that we could be saved by imitation of him, and recover our original status as children of God by adoption.
To attain holiness, then, we must not only pattern our lives on that of Christ by being gentle, humble and patient, but we must also imitate him in his death. Taking Christ for his model, Paul said that he wanted to become like him in his death in the hope that he too would be raised from death to life. We imitate Christ’s death by being buried with him in baptism. If we ask what this kind of burial means and what benefit we may hope to derive from it, it means first of all making a complete break with our former way of life, and our Lord himself said that this cannot be done unless we are born again. In other words, we have to begin a new life, and we cannot do so until our previous life has been brought to an end. When runners reach the turning point on a racecourse, they have to pause briefly before they can go back in the opposite direction. So also when we wish to reverse the direction of our lives there must be a pause, or a death, to mark the end of one life and the beginning of another.
Our descent into hell takes place when we imitate the burial of Christ by our baptism. The bodies of the baptized are in a sense buried in the water as a symbol of their renunciation of the sins of their unregenerate nature. As the Apostle says: ‘The circumcision you have undergone is not an operation performed by human hands, but the complete stripping away of your unregenerate nature. This is the circumcision that Christ gave us, and it is accomplished by our burial with him in baptism.’ Baptism cleanses the soul from the pollution of worldly thoughts and inclinations: ‘You will wash me,’ says the psalmist, ‘and I shall be whiter than snow.’ We receive this saving baptism only once because there was only one death and one resurrection for the salvation of the world, and baptism is its symbol. Source: Atwell, Robert (2011-09-08). Celebrating the Seasons (Kindle Locations 4293-4311). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.
It is useless to accuse those around us and those who live with us of somehow interfering with or being an impediment to our salvation and spiritual perfection… Spiritual or emotional dissatisfaction comes from within ourselves, from inexperience and from poorly conceived opinions we do not want to abandon, but which bring on doubt, embarrassment, and misunderstanding. All of this tires and burdens us, and brings us to a sorry state. We would do well to comprehend the Holy Fathers’ simple advice: If we will humble ourselves, we will find tranquility anywhere, without having to mentally wander about many other places, where we might have the same, or even worse, experiences. – Elder Ambrose
The sacred heart of Jesus the Christ is big enough to embrace and contain the whole universe.
By grace, our heart is to become over a lifetime of purification, illumination, and deification, the heart of Jesus the Christ. His heart is to become our heart…
Indeed, “blessed are the pure in heart.”
“The purer the heart is, the larger it is, the more able it is to find room within it for a great number of beloved ones; whilst the more sinful it is, the more contracted it becomes, and the less number of beloved it can find room for, because it is limited by self love, and that love is a false one. It is pleasing to God when a man begins to notice His action in the heart, because He is the Light and the Truth, whilst the Devil is powerful only through darkness, deceit, and falsehood; reveal his falsehood, place it before the light, and all will disappear! The future life is the perfect purity of the heart, which is now only gradually purified, and which is at present more often shut and darkened by sin and by the Devil’ s breathing into it, and only at times, under the influence of God’s grace, brightens and sees God, being united to Him most truly during prayer and in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. ” -St. John of Kronstadt
Everyday life is filled with death. And, everyday death is filled with life. The present is always “a matter of life and death.”
The Burial Rite in the Anglican tradition affirms the paradox.
In the midst of life we are in death;
from whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
who by our sins are justly angered.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
shut not your ears to our prayers,
but spare us, O Lord.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
O worthy and eternal Judge,
do not let the pains of death
turn us away from you at our last hour.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and merciful Savior,
deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
We, in the economy of God’s saving work live IN this world but not OF this world. We are invited, indeed commanded, to be full participants in both worlds. Both must be true in order for us to “work out [our] salvation.”
So, our view to the circumstances of our everyday life is paradoxical. It is a human view and a divine view. It is a view that is honest about the struggle of purification. It is honest about the grief and sense of loss and defeat with which we still struggle. And, it takes seriously the faith conviction that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
We began Lent in the Western Church with the honest statement, “remember that dust you are and to dust you shall return.” And (not but) on Easter we will sing with faith conviction, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” We say both.
That does not mean we are affirming a static both/and. We are affirming that we are in the midst of a journey of purification, illumination, and deification. In the midst. We must be honest in order to be victorious – “I believe, help Thou me unbelief.” We live in the paradox of “already but not yet” and it is a moving edge. Moving toward the day when:
“… sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35.10)
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7.13-17)
I believe Jesus, in the story of the raising of Lazarus does wept and He does say with boldness, “Lazarus come out!!” He does both as God and He does both as man. He does both as fully God and fully man, the God-man.
I offer the following reflections from Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Elder Sophrony, to properly contextualize my comments, surrendering them to the affirmation and/or correction of the Holy Tradition.
Lazarus, the Friend of Jesus
Let us first of all understand that Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, personifies the whole mankind and also each man, and Bethany, the home of Lazarus the Man, is the symbol of the whole world as a home of man. For each man was created friend of God and called to this Divine friendship: the knowledge of God, the communion with Him, the sharing of life with Him. “In Him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4) And yet this Friend whom God loves, whom in love He has created, i.e. called to life, is destroyed and annihilated by a power which God has not created: death. God encounters in His own world a power which destroys His work and annihilates His design. The world is but lamentation and sorrow, tears and death. How is this possible? How did this happen? These are the questions implied in John’s slow and detailed narrative of Jesus’ coming to the grave of His friend. And once there, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) Why does He weep if He knows that in a moment He will call Lazarus back to life? … the Orthodox Church teaches that all actions of Christ are “theandric,” i.e., both Divine and human, are actions of the one and same God-Man. But then His very tears are Divine. Jesus weeps because He contemplates the triumph of death and destruction in the world created by God.
Love, the Power of Life
“It stinketh.” say the Jews trying to prevent Jesus from approaching the corpse, and this awful warning applies to the whole world, to all life. God is Life and the Giver of Life. He called man into the Divine reality of Life and behold “it stinketh”…The world was created to reflect and proclaim the glory of God and “it stinketh.” At the grave of Lazarus God encounters Death, the reality of anti-life, of destruction and despair. He meets His Enemy, who has taken away from Him His World and become its prince. And we who follow Jesus as He approaches the grave, enter with Him into that hour of His, which He announced so often as the climax and the fulfillment of his whole work. The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: “and Jesus wept”… We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The power of Resurrection is not a divine “power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life. This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them love is at work again—recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!…” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love. From The Christian Way, 1961 Archpriest Alexander Schmemann
In refusing to accept Christ as Eternal Man and, more importantly, as True God and our Saviour – whatever the form the refusal takes, and whatever the pretext – we lose the light of life eternal.
‘Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovest me before the foundation of the world’ (John 17.24).
There, in the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, must our mind dwell. We must hunger and thirst to enter into this wondrous Kingdom.
Then we shall overcome in ourselves the sin of refusing the Father’s love as revealed to us through the Son (cf. John 8.24).
When we choose Christ we are carried beyond time and space, beyond the reach of what is termed ‘tragedy’.
The moment the Holy Spirit grants us to know the hypostatic form of prayer we can begin to break the fetters that shackle us.
Emerging from the prison cell of selfish individualism into the wide expanse of life in the image of Christ, we perceive the nature of the personalism of the Gospel.
[...] It is a recognised fact that the ego is the weapon in the struggle for existence of the individual who refuses Christ’s call to open our hearts to total, universal love.
The persona, by contrast, is inconceivable without all-embracing love either in the Divine Being or in the human being.
Prolonged and far from easy ascetic effort can open our eyes to the love that Christ taught, and we can apprehend the whole world through ourselves, through our own sufferings and searchings.
We become like a world-wide radio receiver and can identify ourselves with the tragic element, not only in the lives of individual people but of the world at large, and we pray for the world as for our own selves.
In this kind of prayer the spirit beholds the depths of evil, the sombre result of having eaten of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’.
But it is not only evil that we see – we make contact, too, with Absolute Good, with God, Who translates our prayer into a vision of Uncreated Light.
The soul may then forget the world for whom she was praying, and cease to be aware of the body. The prayer of divine love becomes our very being, our body.
The soul may return to this world. But the spirit of man, having experienced his resurrection and come near existentially to eternity, is even further persuaded that tragedy and death are the consequence of sin and that there is no other way to salvation than through Christ. Elder Sophrony (1896-1993; Orthodox): from His Life Is Mine, London 1977, p. 37-40
Are you tempted at this point in the Lenten pilgrimage to judge and measure the worthiness of your Lenten performance? Listen to and heed some words of comfort and exhortation. Wisdom. Let us be attentive…
I received your letter, my child, and I saw your anxiety. But don’t be sad, my child. Don’t worry so much. Even though you have fallen again, get up again. You have been called to a heavenly road. It is not surprising for someone running to stumble. It just takes patience and repentance at every moment.
Therefore, always do a metanoia when you are wrong and don’t lose time, because the longer you wait to seek forgiveness, the more you allow the evil one to spread his roots within you. Don’t let him make roots to your detriment.
Therefore, don’t despair when you fall, but get up eagerly and do a metanoia saying, “Forgive me, my dear Christ. I am human and weak.” The Lord has not abandoned you. But since you still have a great deal of worldly pride, a great deal of vainglory, our Christ lets you make mistakes and fall, so that you perceive and come to know your weakness every day, so that you become patient with others who make mistakes, and so that you do not judge the brethren when they make mistakes, but rather put up with them.
So every time you fall, get up again and at once seek forgiveness. Don’t hide sorrow in your heart, because sorrow and despondency are the joy of the evil one. They fill one’s soul with bitterness and give birth to many evils. Whereas the frame of mind of someone who repents says, “I have sinned! Forgive me Father!” and he expels the sorrow. He says, “Am I not a weak human? So what do I expect?” Truly, my child this is how it is. So take courage.
Only when the grace of God comes does a person stand on his feet. Otherwise, without grace, he always changes and always falls. So be a man and don’t be afraid at all.
Do you see how that brother you wrote about endured the temptation? You, too, should do likewise. Acquire a brave spirit against the temptations that come. In any case, they will come. Forget about what your despondency and indolence tell you. Don’t be afraid of them. Just as the previous temptations passed by the grace of God, these, too, will pass once they do their job.
Temptations are medicines and healing herbs that heal our visible passions and our invisible wounds. So have patience in order to profit every day, to store up wages, rest, and joy in the heavenly kingdom. For the night of death is coming when no one will be able to work anymore. Therefore, hurry. Time is short.
You should know this too: a victorious life lasting only one day with trophies and crowns is better than a negligent life lasting many years. Because one man’s struggle, with knowledge and spiritual perception that lasts one day, has the same value as another man’s struggle, who struggles negligently without knowledge for fifty years.
Without a struggle and shedding your blood, don’t expect freedom from the passions. Our earth produces thorns and thistles after the Fall. We have been ordered to clean it, but only with much pain, bloody hands, and many sighs are the thorns and thistles uprooted. So weep, shed streams of tears, and soften the earth of your heart. Once the ground is wet, you can easily uproot the thorns.
– Elder Joseph the Hesychast