PASTORAL LETTER FOR GREAT LENT - 2009
THE MOST REVEREND
Archbishop of New York
Metropolitan of All America
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
Cheesefare Sunday - March 1, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Slava Isusu Khrystu! - Glory to Jesus Christ! - Gloria a Jesucristo!
What is it about the time of Great Lent, that so much is made of it each year? In the church we know that during Lent there will be extra services and extra activities. Even secular society accommodates the Christian Lent. Restaurants offer "Lenten Specials" featuring fish dinners and sandwiches. Supermarkets sell the traditional "hot-cross buns" which in Western society have become a reminder that it is the time of Lent. In recent years, during the weeks before Lent, the Eastern European fried dough, filled with sweet jellies, have become popular in American culture as a whole. Almost every country has some version of "carnival" - a excess of celebration and festivity, whose goal is to satisfy the desire for extravagance, before the somber and strict period of Lent.
Although many of these practices have lost their original meaning, because in our culture, most people no longer abstain from meat and dairy products for the entire time of Lent, they maintain their place in popular culture. For those who still do keep a sense of dietary discipline during Lent, this has mainly been reduced to meatless meals on Fridays, and if one is among the observant, also on Wednesdays. Still, the outward traditions of Lent that surround us, remind us that we are entering a period that is different, a bit morose and potentially challenging, if we take it seriously.
Some writers have called Great Lent, a "seminar in salvation." This is quite true from both an historical and a liturgical perspective. Because this was once an intense time of preparation for those planing to receive the sacrament of baptism at Pascha (the catechumens), the daily lections at the liturgy, especially from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are read in sequence, allowing the listeners to hear and learn the story of salvation and the foundation of the faith. The New Testament themes also feature instructional elements and are reflected also in the hymns of the services. As the time of Lent progresses, the reflection of the liturgy turns more and more to Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem, and his poignant words of instruction to the disciples along the way.
These days, not every parish has people who are preparing to enter the Christian community at the paschal vigil. In their place then, we who are already baptized would do well to use the time of Great Lent as our own "refresher course" - a "cursillo" in the path that leads along the road to life. There are many things we may not realize about our faith, or more still, about the meaning of Jesus' words, that would do us much good to have a better command of. When it comes to walking to road to the reign of God, we all fall short of keeping ourselves going in the right direction.
Each year, I choose an image, which serves as the theme-icon for the period of Great Lent. It is meant to remind us of the meaning of this special time. I try to make the image unique and one that is not repeatedly seen in other sources. This year, I have chosen an icon that is usually entitled, the "Deposition from the Cross" and portrays the sobering scene of Jesus' friends removing his body from the cross and preparing it for burial. This is the Gospel-passage we sing about with such great emotion each year, at the vespers of Great Friday, as we prepare to make the procession with the burial shroud. And truly, it is an emotional scene that we remember.
The icon shows a small group of people huddled around the cross, as two men use ladders to remove the body of Jesus. We know them as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two prominent members of the Sanhedrin, or religious governing council of the Judaism of that time, yet nevertheless, disciples of Jesus. Nearby, two women disciples watch the sorrowful scene unfold, as the apostle John weeps inconsolably. Others stand at the foot of the cross, ready to receive Jesus' body from Joseph and Nicodemus. The group was faithful and were there to help. Despite the complicated and confusing events that led to this picture, these people remained true to the end and did what friends and loved ones do.
The small group also contained the various types of people we find in everyday life. The women disciples, which likely included Jesus' mother, unrelenting in their devotion, who had followed Jesus the entire day, from his condemnation to the crucifixion. John, allegedly the "disciple whom Jesus loved," who is mentioned so often in the fourth Gospel, was, even when the others deserted him and despite danger of retaliation from Jesus' enemies, present to the end, much like any lover would do. The group of men, led by Joseph and Nicodemus, who had the means and the physical and emotional strength to do what had to be done, and take the body of Jesus to a proper burial in a new tomb.
The icon not only focuses us on the goal of Lent - the celebration of the Great and Holy Passion Week, but also reminds us of what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus. To be a true disciple means perseverance, courage, presence and availability, even when it is inconvenient, and most of all, commitment to what is true and just. Those in the small group in the icon probably did not even have to think about what they were doing that dark afternoon. They did what they had to do, both because of their unfailing love for Jesus, and even more so, because they really had learned the lessons he had tried to teach during his ministry - that God's reign is all about what is true and what is just and that being a disciple means always doing, thinking and saying that which promotes truth and justice, even if it is against the popular consensus or departs from what is generally considered the "acceptable" way of doing things.
Dear friends, let us use the time of Great Lent to conform ourselves more to the small group of Jesus' friends, portrayed in our icon. May this period be for us one in which we grow in our understanding of what is true and what is just. Let our hearts be open to making a difference and even going against the popular tide, if our conscience requires it. Jesus' group did not hesitate to do what had to be done, even though it most surely got them "noticed" by those in the community who would scorn their actions of affection. Don't be afraid this Lent, to also be noticed, if it is for a reason that defends truth and justice and promotes God's will for human beings.
I ask that each day of Lent, you pray together with me, for spiritual growth and the advancement of goodness. This year, more than usual, it is important that we work to direct life around us according to a true moral compass. The state of our world economy, the result of horrible greed and pitiful self-promoting attitudes, requires us to continually remind ourselves and others, that life needs to change. We need to be messengers of God's plan of recovery, which can only be successful if women and men everywhere allow themselves to turn away from self-serving agendas and embrace what is for the common good of all. In this age of a global society, we cannot afford to ignore the signs that tell us where truth and justice lie. Let us form our consciences from the example of that small group of friends, gathered around Jesus. Let this be for us, a time of transformation that we can celebrate at Pascha, together with the resurrection of Jesus.
With the assurance of my prayers for all of you, our good people, in each of our parishes and communities across the globe, in Ukraine and throughout the Diaspora, I invoke God's blessing upon you, your loved ones and all those in your lives.
Faithfully Yours in Christ,
Metropolitan-Archbishop of New York
note: The featured icon hangs above the proskomedia table in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Uzhorod, Ukraine.
Joseph with Nicodemus took you down from the tree, your pure body wrapped in light as with a robe, but seeing you lifeless, naked and unburied, began to weep and lament, saying, "Great is my sorrow, O sweet Jesus!" The sun, seeing you hanging on the cross was clothed in darkness, teh earth quaked in fear and the curtain of the temple was torn asunder. But, behold, I now see you as accepting death for my sake. How, O my God, shall I bury you? With what type of shroud shall I wrap you? With what hands shall I touch your body not subject to decay? O Gracious Lord, with what songs shall I sing of your departure? I extol your suffering, I extol in song your burial and resurrection, calling out, "O Lord, glory to you."
(Final sticheron of the Apostica, Vespers of Great Friday)
Go to Lenten Regulations and Prayers