So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:13
We are about to begin Great and Holy Lent. Clean Monday, or the first day of Great Lent is next Monday, February 27. If we are keeping the Orthodox Tradition correctly, yesterday was the last day we eat meat until Pascha, which is April 16. Yesterday is called “Meatfare Sunday” or “apo-kreas,” which literally means “from meat.” This week is called “cheesefare week” because dairy products are still allowed, that is if we are keeping a strict fast during Lent. And then next Sunday is called “cheese-fare Sunday” because it is the day we take leave from cheese and dairy products and begin a strict fast on Monday, February 27.
That being said, I would venture to say that many (maybe even most) people reading this message will not keep the strict fast. They probably are already planning not to. And that’s okay!!! What I want to focus us on as we begin Great Lent is overall preparation to have a spiritual journey, and have some spiritual growth this Lent. Many times, people are so concerned about fasting that they either neglect other ways to grow during Lent, or they fast so strictly that they quickly can’t keep that and end up doing not much of anything. Fasting is important, especially concerning spiritual discipline. But we can’t focus on only discipline, or what some might say is deprivation.
This week, as we approach Great Lent, I am going to focus on five things that happen to be the five core values of the parish of St. John the Baptist, where I serve, as they relate to Great and Holy Lent. The first core value is love. This is the centerpiece of Christianity. God created us out of love. God so loved the world that when it fell, He sent His only-begotten Son to redeem it. God is love. God’s love produces mercy and forgiveness for us. The two greatest commandments, given by Christ, are to love God and love our neighbor. And as we read in today’s verse from Scripture, there are many important facets to Christianity, such as faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.
As we make a plan for Lent, we should lead off not with fasting, but with love itself. Sin is the absence of love. We cannot make a gesture of love and sin at the same time. In I Corinthians 16:14, we read “Let all that you do be done in love.” If we were to set any goal for this Lent, it should be how we can incorporate more love and less sin in to all that we are doing. We are addicted to sin, you might say. We all do it, we do it every day, and we can’t stop ourselves from this state of sinfulness. What we can do is to try to manage and control our sinful tendencies.
I’m sitting at the computer right now typing this message. While at the computer, I oftentimes fall prey to the temptation to look at meaningless (though not necessarily bad) things on the internet. For instance, on Sunday afternoons, I like to look at the Divine Liturgy from different churches. Not to listen to the whole service, or ever to listen to the sermon—just to see if maybe a hierarch was somewhere, or what color vestments the priest had on or how many people were in attendance. As I said, these things are meaningless. And while scanning YouTube, I might click on a lawn video (I like those) or some concert footage (I like that as well) and soon it’s been 20 minutes and I haven’t accomplished anything. This is called laziness, or perhaps it might be called the sin of slothfulness. The phones and I-pads that are everywhere tempt all of us. So, today when I sat down on the computer, I said to myself “you are NOT going to go on YouTube right now.” And I haven’t. I’ve written this message pretty efficiently. Now, will I go on YouTube again at some point in my life and waste time? Probably. Heck, definitely. But for today, I didn’t do that.
We can look at a decision to love or sin in the same way. We can say to ourselves “In this moment I am in, I will not sin.” I am not sinning while writing, I’m just writing. I’m loving God while I’m writing because I’m writing about Him. When I leave this activity of writing in a little while, I might be tempted to sin. I’m tempted to sin right now, but I’m not giving into temptation. Later, I might. The point is, to manage our temptations and our sinful thoughts. And if/when we fall, to get right back up and keep on trying again.
Another way we can love is we can PLAN to make loving gestures—we can plan to send a loving text or note, to make a loving comment or compliment or a loving gesture of help. We can set numerical goals for these things so that a good part of the effort of the day will be spent on these gestures—not so many that we can’t do them and become despondent. Not so many that we will just start to check off a box begrudgingly. Enough that it is a challenge and enough that it fills the empty spaces of time that we otherwise would waste. There is a saying that “no one plans to fail, but we fail to plan.” Being more intentional about plans to make loving gestures is a good discipline that not only expresses love for others, it expresses love for God and helps us manage sinful temptations.
Lord, thank You for the gift of Your love, for creating me in love, for showing us what real love is, in that Christ laid down His life for us. Thank You for loving me even when I sin. Help me to love Your more deeply and with more commitment and conviction. Incline my heart to good things and away from sin. As often as I may fall, help me to be raised up again, so that I may continue to love with purpose, even as I am tempted to sin. Forgive me my transgressions, and help me to forgive others by loving them. Amen.
Practical idea for Lent: Set a goal to text 1-2 people a day from February 27-Pascha a message of love and encouragement.
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 two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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