Ars Praedicandi: A Homily on the Fourth Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

I preached this homily in my parish, St. Innocent Orthodox Church, in Tarzana, California, on March 22, 2015. This was the fourth Sunday of Lent; we commemorated St. John Climacus, the seventh-century ascetic of Mount Sinai who authored a spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.

I find preparing sermons for the Sundays of Lent to be challenging. The five Sundays preceding Lent introduce rich Lenten themes interwoven throughout the forty days: desire, humility, exile/restoration, judgment, and expulsion from paradise. (The Sundays of Pascha are also quite rich, essentially a Christological mystagogy). The Sundays of Lent are shaped by the monastic influence in Orthodoxy. The first two Sundays commemorate Orthodoxy’s distinct Christology and Trinitarian theology (the Triumph of Orthodoxy and St. Gregory Palamas); the third Sunday places the cross in the middle of Lent as the telos of the journey; the fourth and fifth Sundays honor the place of asceticism in the Christian life, commemorating St. John of the Ladder and St. Mary of Egypt.

The task of preparing a sermon for the Sundays of Lent challenges me because the high-level themes of the Lenten Sundays do not intersect as easily with Lent as the preparatory Sundays. Orthodox people are quite familiar with the appeal to maintain the requirements of the fast during Lent, so drawing from the ascetical material of these Sundays simply adds another layer to the content that has been proclaimed and taught for three weeks.

Here is a brief description of the approach I typically adopt in preparing a homily. I claim no novelty or originality in this approach. The text I used to deliver the homily follows. I invite comments and queries.

1. Read the appointed texts and consider the overarching theme for the day. On this day, we had two epistles and two gospels, one for Sunday (Hebrews and Mark, the vestiges of a an older stratum of lectio continua), and the lessons for the saint (Ephesians 5:9-19 and Matthew 4:25-5:12);
2. Pray for guidance throughout the week. Simple prayers I learned from mentors and also from Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, who taught the homiletics course I took at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (Fr. Thomas died last week): “Lord, may this be Your word, and not mine.” I also pray in my own words that I would have some sense on what the Lord wants me to say to the people;
3. Identify the “big” point, which was twofold: Discipleship calls upon us to imitate God and to live in love, based on Ephesians 5:1. I constructed the entire homily on this foundation, which coalesces with the larger Lenten journey of becoming like God. In preaching, I try to communicate a sacramental mystagogy of theosis, or divinization;
4. I add some smaller points to the larger one: developing a habit out of imitating God is exposing darkness in action. I also connected the Ephesians text to the Matthean lesson, especially since many Orthodox use the Beatitudes from Matthew as the main text for the third antiphon in the liturgy. I converted this into an exhortation: let us become what we sing!
5. I usually aim for ten minutes in a homily. I did not time it, but I think this one was about 15 minutes.

Here is the homily:

“So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” Ephesians 5:1-2

I teach theology, and my job requires me to help students learn and contribute to our understanding of theology. In the reading I have done in the several years, I have encountered a disturbing pattern on the liturgy: some view the liturgy through an anthropological lens, meaning that what we do when we are gathered for worship; our prayers, rites, songs, and movements; are our own creations, our own work, and about us. Critics of this approach says that God has been removed from the picture and that those who are passionate about what the people do in worship are unknowingly committing idolatry, worshipping something of their own creation instead of the creator.

On the other hand, those who view the liturgy as God’s work can relativize what the people to such a degree that what the liturgy becomes concealed and hidden from the people because they lack the tools to comprehend what is happening in the rites, prayers, songs, and movements.

Both sides of this debate are wrong, and both are right: ultimately, the liturgy is an act of God that is for us; God is the one who gives (the divine gift-giver), and we are the recipients. But the point of the liturgy is for us to become imitators of God and to live in love. In the liturgy, we thank God for consistently loving humankind and for providing for us, especially the gift of God’s son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When we receive Christ, we are to become like God: we are to become people who live in love and give for the sake of the other.

Brothers and sisters, on this fourth Sunday of Lent, we begin the first of the last two Sundays which commit us to garner what strength we have remaining and resist the passions until the end. The examples set before us are St. John of the Ladder and (next week) St. Mary of Egypt. Historically, there is no doubt that the Church established the commemoration of these two ascetics because of the prestige monasticism enjoyed in the medieval Orthodox Church. When we think of St. John of the Ladder, and the hymns appointed for this day give us a crash course on his life and contribution, it is very easy to view him and the pattern for Christian life he illuminates as unrealistic. He was a monk who entered Mount Sinai in the early seventh century; he completely gave himself over to the angelic life, to quelling the passions through intense prayer and fasting, and he gave the world a spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. We do not live in monasteries or caves (we do live in a desert climate!); we have responsibilities like bills to pay, mouths to feed, homes to maintain, and families to cultivate.

Even though St. John’s presence on the calendar symbolizes the Church’s monastic heritage, there is something quite practical we can take from this and the following Sunday. Even though we are not monks, we too are called to quiet our passions. And the point of quieting them is to adopt a way of love, one might even say a mindset of love that directs the business of daily life. In fact, St. John’s “Ladder” establishes a path that all can adopt: he begins one of his first lists with “A Christian is an imitator of Christ so far as possible, words, actions, and thought, blameless believing rightly in the Holy Trinity.” This primary spiritual objective reflects Jesus’ teaching on the sermon on the mount, especially when he teaches about fasting in St. Matthew 6: The whole point of practicing the quieting of the passions: the hunger that makes our bellies groan; the temptation to tell that other guy off that rages through our fingertips as they are poised over the keyboard; that second or third glass of whiskey; the ease with which we unload on our children, who keep asking us questions; the point of quieting these passions is not to do so for a few weeks while whining about it, but to practice loving the other, especially the ones who annoy us, instead of striking out at them.

Now this is when we might press the pause button and say, c’mon now, St. Paul said that the current days are evil, that there is no place in the Christian communion for immoral people and that we have the responsibility to expose the darkness as people of light.

Certainly, our age is filled with evil. When the evil one’s ploys fail in one era, new evils rise up to replace them. The evils of the world frighten and threaten us. We have to watch where we travel; we might be afraid to use public transportation; we fear the evils our kids will encounter in high school and college, or even elementary school with horrifying violence and the more subtle but no less sinister and destructive bullying that occurs on social media. Our first instinct is to respond with rage and excise the warts from our local communities. Indeed, there is a time for removing warts, but the message of the letter St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians is founded upon a way of life that is love in imitation of God, to be gift-givers just as God is the first gift-giver. Each and every one of us has limited energy and time. An investment in love is a commitment to modeling it and practicing it. This means that we put our phones down or (horrors!) shut them off to hear what our spouses have to say, even if it’s the same thing they said yesterday and the day before! It means that we close the top of the laptop and play ball with our kids, even if it’s for 15 minutes. It means we invest in the people around us and hear them out, even if our values do not intersect. It means that we take time to donate food and clothing for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute, and those who fell on hard times, even if it’s their own fault.
If one tries to do even some of these tasks – and that’s hardly an exhaustive list – one will find that it burns huge amounts of energy. Imagine the potential impact of our investment of energy in others, especially if Christians do something for someone else and develop a habit out of it. The consistent activity of loving others and practicing it – a very simple precept – becomes a pattern and a legacy a generation hands on to its successors. A community that commits to such practices is committing to a way of life. Our church celebrates this way of life today in St. John of the Ladder, not because it’s monastic, but because Christians who commit to loving others are exposing the darkness, because the light shining from those who loved others even at personal risk stood in sharp contrast to the darkness. When we adopt this way of life and actually live the Beatitudes we sing every Sunday, which were read in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, they are summed up by seeking righteousness – we are God’s works in progress, imitators of God who strove to be his disciples because that is why we are here. The light that shines from these works is not ours: it is given to us by God, and he shares it freely with us.

Last week, in his sermon, Father said that Lent was a time of intense preparation for Baptism. In late antique Jerusalem, those interested in Baptism were enrolled in the order of catechumens on the first day before Lent; those who would be baptized on Pascha were called the photizomenoi, “those who are about to receive holy illumination” whom we pray for at the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts beginning during the fourth week of week. Lent was indeed a time of intensified preparation to meet the risen Lord. We should also know that Lent was a time of intense preparation for those who were already Christian as well. An even earlier tradition holds that Lent originated as a 40-day period of imitating Jesus’ sojourn into the desert following his baptism in the Jordan on Epiphany (this is where the Holy Spirit leads him into the desert; he takes a 40-day fast there – quieting the passions – and he does not give into the devil). In his fast in the desert, Jesus exposes the darkness with his light because of his love and steadfast fidelity to God. The Christians who honored this early tradition were not glorifying Jesus because of his fast; they were not glorifying Christ because of his rebuke of the devil; they honored Christ because of his undying love for God which no earthly glory could shake – this love, indeed, was his light exposing the darkness of earthly glory, of the human tendency to seek others who worship us instead of the living God.

When men and women took up the journey to the desert in imitation of Jesus and his fast, they were honoring his love and fidelity to God; they were not looking for our adulation or worship, because only fools bow down before any man or woman who has excelled in emaciating his or her body. They were motivated by love and sought to imitate him.

We do not live in the same conditions or environments as our desert ascetics. But there is no power that can stop us from continuing this journey of imitating God and living lives of love received freely from him and given graciously to others. Jesus himself gives us a plan of what he expects from his disciples in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew: we are called to be poor in spirit; peacemakers, pure in heart, merciful, and people who truly hunger and thirst for righteousness. Our Lord has set the bar high for us, but it is possible for us to become what we sing every Sunday in the Beatitudes. We have already accepted his invitation to imitate him and live in love by observing a 40-day fast. As we complete this journey, may God remind us that the end does not occur on Pascha on April 12, and the point is not to eat meat and cheese again; but the point is for us to entreat our Lord to come again as he has promised so that we may live with him, and his Father and the Holy Spirit in peace and love, forever and ever. Amen.

One comment

  1. “It means that we take time to donate food and clothing for the homeless, the hungry, the destitute, and those who fell on hard times, even if it’s their own fault.”

    Your introduction and sermon were quite illuminating, especially your rationale for the commemorations on the Sundays of Lent.

    I was very much affected by the last five or so words in the quote I included above since they reflect on a situation in which my wife and I are involved. Many thanks!

    I must add that your teacher, Fr. Thomas, would be very proud of you and your work. May his memory be eternal!

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