Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord.

Psalm 130:1

In the Gospel of John, Chapter Four, we read the story of the encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jesus is weary from His journey and He sits beside a well where He encounters the woman. He asks her to draw some water out of the well for Him. She asks Him, in reply, “How is it that You, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9) Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies. Jesus answers her “If you knew the gift of God, and Who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (4:10)  Jesus continues in verses 13-14, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again (meaning the water at the well), but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give Him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Two things that we can say with certainty reflecting on these few verses. First, we all desire for our material “thirsts” to be quenched—our thirst for security, popularity, sufficiency, financial success, confidence, love, belonging, freedom, fun and so many other things. Second, if we really knew the gifts of God, we would realize that our thirst can only really be quenched by Him. Because a thirst for the things of earth is insatiable. The only way to feel truly content is to drink from the spiritual well of God’s living water.

As I write this message, I am fifty-two years old. There is more life in my rearview mirror than on my horizon. I have now served as a priest for twenty-six years, half of my life. And I still have questions, I still have doubts, I still make mistakes. The older I become, the more I become aware of my own sinfulness. The idealism of youth gave way to cynicism, which is now giving way to sadness, mourning the unfulfilled idealism, wanting the water that will quench my thirst, and realizing that the water I’m drinking is not the living water, at least not all the time.

There is an increasing tension in my mind that reflects the increasing tension in the world as it relates to Christianity. Much of the secular world is turning a negative voice towards Christianity. Christians are caving in, whether it means they have chosen sports over church, or let contemporary moral shifts swing them away from God’s never wavering righteousness. At the same time, we are seeing in many Orthodox churches, a revival of sorts, as people, especially young men, are flocking to the churches seeking order and structure that is increasingly absent in the world. The devil is lurking at all times, looking for easy targets to take down, and patiently waiting for harder targets to wear down. All of this creates confusion, in my mind for sure, and in the minds of many others I have spoken with.

Today is the first day of Great Lent, which we call Clean Monday. It is a day to make a clean start. I think of today as the beginning of a hike up a mountain. The goal for today is to simply start walking. There will be some steep sections of the climb, there is definitely a goal, the summit. This is a metaphorical mountain of course, the summit being Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ. The steep sections are the difficult obstacles, actions and thoughts that lie between here and there. One does not make the summit without making the hike, one does not get to the goal without getting through the tough parts of the trip. If one only comes to church for Pascha, it’s like being dropped off via helicopter on the summit of a mountain, which will feel like a hollow victory at best.

For this year’s Lenten series, I want to focus on Psalm 130:1, Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord. Those depths might be depths of pain, sorrow, confusion, regret, and shame. Somewhere in those depths, there surely will be joy and hope. The icon used for this series is the icon of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before His arrest and crucifixion. He was in a depth of despair that was so deep, He told His disciples “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” (Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34) Yet, His eyes did not look for an earthly solution. He entreated His Father, first in an earthly way, to take the cup of suffering away, and second, with even more conviction, that whatever the will of the Father is, that He would fulfill the Father’s will. The icon depicts an angel sent by God to comfort Christ in His agony, a heavenly relief to meet an earthly sorrow.

The customary prayer that ends each reflection (from now until the end of Great Lent) will be one hymn from the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, written in the seventh century. (The Holy Week prayers will be hymns from Holy Week.) It is sometimes referred to as a penitential canon, because it is a dialogue between the saint and his own soul on his need for repentance. Some of this canon is very hard to read. I’m sure some of its contents are found in our own souls if we are honest. And sadly, so many souls have dismissed the need for repentance, or the need for salvation, or the need for Christ at all, that for many this canon will have little meaning.

At this stage of my life, my own soul cries out to God for relief from stress, disappointment, and uncertainty. It also cries out to God in shame for my own sinfulness, and the constant tension I feel as a priest who stands at the altar of God and a person who is caught up in battling temptations and often falling. The majority of readers may not stand at the altar, but you stand in the pews, stand in prayer in your homes, and battle the same temptations. I hope that this unit will provide an opportunity to assess, think, forgive, commit, grow and reclaim joy and hope. I hope it will do the same for me.

During Great Lent, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy is offered on Wednesdays and Fridays. It is a Vesper service with Holy Communion that was “pre-sanctified” the previous Sunday offered at the conclusion of the service. During the service, the priest makes a solemn circuit around the Holy Altar, pausing on each side and praying the words of Psalm 141:1-4:

I call upon Thee, O Lord; make haste to me! Give ear to my voice, when I call to Thee! Let my prayer be counted as incense before Thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice! Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord, keep watch over the door of my lips! Incline not my heart to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in the company with men who work iniquity; and let me not eat of their dainties!

This is a reminder to us that if we are to really make this journey and hope to reach the summit of the mountain, we need several things. Just like the hiker will take essentials like sunscreen, bug spray, water, and food, the Christian pilgrim who wants to truly make a journey through Great Lent to the summit of Pascha must also take some spiritual essentials.

First, we must call on the name of the Lord, and not just casually. We must do it from the depths of our soul. The “cry” for help must truly be a crying out in both humility and hope. There is no room for self-congratulations in a cry for help.

Incense has traditionally been offered to God in the context of worship. It is offered in churches during corporate prayer. It is offered in homes as part of private devotion. There is no relationship with Christ, no spiritual growth, without prayer. Along with the ritual of incense, there must be the fervent cry of prayer. Lent is a time for increased prayer and increased worship. Even the short stanzas from the Canon of St. Andrew can each give us pause to reflect and to pray more personally for the thoughts it will bring to our minds and hearts.

The mouth is the greatest tool and also the greatest weapon of the human body. It provides the greatest opportunity to sin, as we use it to gossip about others, to speak untruths, and to promote ourselves. It also provides the means by which we sing God’s praises, encourage others, and offer forgiveness. Thus, we must guard our mouths.

The human heart beats and keeps the body going. Does it beat for God, or only for ourselves? We must guard even our heartbeats, because the cadence of the heart has great influence on our lives. When our hearts are beating too fast, we become fatigued and tired. Yet, getting a good workout in is good for our hearts, it is in fact necessary for them to stay healthy. It is also necessary for the heart to have periods where it is calm and relaxed. A heart that beats too fast all the time will wear out prematurely. We don’t want our hearts to beat for evil, but to beat in a time that reflects the mercy, hope and joy that are found only in God.

As we begin this journey, let us do so with a sense of purpose. No journey up a mountain begins on a mountain top. The journey begins in a valley at the base of the mountain. Similarly, our journey to Pascha does not begin at the Resurrection. It begins searching the depths of our souls, and crying out to God our pain, our shame, our guilt, our confusion, and from there it can lead to a cry of hope and joy.

Wherever you are in your journey, begin by thinking of what is deep in your soul, and cry out to God about these things that are part of your past, whether that past was yesterday or many years ago. In the present, take your steps today with prayer, watching your mouth, and guarding your heart. Even if yesterday was a disaster, take these steps today. We will get to the past failure, but even as we examine this, let’s be cognizant of the steps we take in the present, with the goal of repenting of the past, taking positive steps in the present, and working toward a better future.

He became for me a helper and a shelterer for salvation. He is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my father, and Him I will exalt, for He is greatly glorified. (Canon of St. Andrew, Ode One, Pl. 2, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

Kali Sarakosti! Have a blessed journey of Great Lent!


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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