A Homily for the Sunday before Lent
From this Morning’s Incense Gospel: “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke XVII:3&4) “Take heed to yourselves.” This is what we are called to this holy season of Lent. How prone we frail sinful humans are to judging others. I know I am – and I dare say some of you are sometimes tempted likewise.
This was the theme of yesterday’s (Saturday before Lent) Liturgy Gospel: “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke XIII:1-5) Don’t judge them but rather take heed to yourselves.
From the Evening Incense Gospel for this Sunday before Lent: “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark XI:25)
This emphasis throughout this weekend of preparation for Lent indicates one major aspect of the manner or spirit in which we are to approach this holy season. No matter how irritating others are, even “if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”
“The monastic fathers tell us to tend to your own garden, don’t worry about the weeds in your brother’s garden, your neighbour’s garden; tend to your own garden. If you’re tending to your own garden and weeding your own garden then it’ll grow and it’ll thrive but if you’re standing in your own garden worrying about all the weeds in your neighbour’s garden and whether they’re weeding properly or planting properly, what will happen is your own garden will be filled with weeds and it won’t produce any fruit.” Those “who tend to themselves, who are concerned with their own faults and their own sins and they don’t pay attention to their brothers… have greater peace and make much greater strides” than the one “whose always… looking around at what everyone is doing or how they’re not doing something they should be doing and he’s very quick to report a brother who is not doing something properly or doing it incorrectly or not doing it at all – and he spends time worrying about these things. If we’re looking around ourselves all the time, looking for something interesting, some new news, some sort of fault or problem, the demons will always make sure that we see that; they’ll provide all the information that we need – and even more and even if it is totally untrue they’ll provide it. It’s much better to tend to yourself and not to be looking about seeing what’s going on with everyone else. It’s impossible to remain, to have any kind of peace or any kind of serious prayer life if we’re constantly looking about and judging others.” “Take heed to yourselves.”
If we want to make spiritual progress this Lent, all this is an essential prerequisite. Refusing to forgive someone and harbouring resentment in our hearts against them hurts ourselves. Weighing ourselves down with animosity and grudges damages ourselves.
Yes, all this is an essential prerequisite to the words in this morning’s Liturgy Gospel: “ But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. (Matthew VI:6)
If we would “Come before His presence with rejoicing.” (Today’s Morning Incense Psalm), yes, if we would “Be still and know that I am God” (Today’s Evening Prayer Psalm), if we would pray to our Father in secret then we must enter within, take heed to ourselves and shut the door of our heart against all judging of others, remembrance of wrongs and resentment and bitterness. These things make it impossible to be still and know God, to come before Him with rejoicing this Lent.
“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” (Matthew 6:6)
This is more than reducing distractions by entering a room where we can deaden the noise of traffic, turn off the television, be alone from conversations with others… and then find peace and stillness before God? What we will then find is that though we may now have entered into an inner chamber or room physically that, alas, we have not done so mentally and that our thoughts are flying here, there and everywhere. We may well find that we are like those referred to in the Desert Fathers who had withdrawn to the physical solitude of the desert but in their hearts still wandered around the city. We must learn to shut the door of our heart, to keep bringing our wandering thoughts back to God – and this most certainly includes shutting out resentments and bringing our wandering thoughts back from judging others and remembering past wrongs committed against us.
I do not say that this is easy; indeed I suggest that for most of us who have perhaps allowed our thoughts to range far and wide for maybe many years we may find this very difficult. Well, this difficulty we simply have to accept and not allow ourselves to be put off from the attempt.
I do not want to demand too much from you (or from myself) so I suggest we aim at ten minutes, maybe fifteen at the very most during which time I want you to do nothing! No, I don’t mean to daydream for that is to do something (maybe not something very profitable but to do something nonetheless) but to do nothing! I want you for ten minutes daily to “come before His presence” and to be still and know that He is God.
Sit before an icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and look at Him for ten minutes.
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful Face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the Light of His glory and grace.”
Alternatively, pray the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” You may choose to combine praying the Jesus Prayer with looking at His icon. “And the things of earth will grow strangely dim.” “Ponder nothing earthly minded.”
You can concentrate on your breathing, breathing in as you silently pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and breathing out as you silently pray “have mercy on me.” And you can give your hands something to do by using a prayer rope or prayer beads – it is a long established, indeed ancient, practice to give the hands something to do in this way as an aid to concentration. (The desert fathers, the monks, used to occupy their hands with basket weaving).
In the words of my patron saint, my father among the saints, Moses the Black, spoken to one who had left his monastic cell and gone to visit Saint Moses seeking a spiritual word:
“Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
Father Simon Smyth