Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol
The time of the Triodio is the whole of our spiritual life in miniature. If you follow the messages in the hymns every day, it’s enough to show the journey you have to make in the struggle that awaits you. It begins with the basis of the spiritual life and ends with our sanctification and glorification. The Triodio’s a very rich spiritual period; though, because of the particular conditions in which we now live, and with all the various obligations all of us have, it’s not easy to take all the spiritual opportunities that are offered us.
The Triodio proceeds in three stages. The first, before the start of the fast; the second, the fast itself; and the third, Great Week with the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord.
The first stage is preparatory which shows us how we’re to strive and what the best way is for us to enter this spiritual struggle. The basis of the whole of the Christian life is nothing other than the awareness of repentance. Repentance is begotten by humility.
The first Sunday in the Triodio is that of the Publican and the Pharisee. Here, the Lord clearly shows us a person full of sin, utterly immoral, who is acquitted before God. At the same time, it also shows us a moral person, devout and ‘pious’, who observes all the provisions of the law, but, instead of being acquitted before God is found guilty, because he hasn’t found the key which opens the gate to the spiritual life. This key is that of repentance and humility. These go together. So, anyone who isn’t humble can’t know repentance; proud people can’t repent. Only the humble really repent, because repentance means heart-felt contrition, in which state people haveto call upon the name of God, which alone can save them.
Repentance hurts, it’s painful. But through it you can be reformed. Repentance is the key that opens the gate to God’s mercy. Because human nature is such that it can never attain sinlessness. Only Christ, as a human person, was without sin, as was, by grace, the Most Holy Mother of God, who received this gift from God. We can’t envision ourselves as ever being sinless, because it’s not possible. Therefore, given that sin is, in practice, unavoidable for us, that which can be evidence in our favor before God isn’t our deeds and virtues, but our genuine repentance. In this way we destroy the myth that we can become purely moral and virtuous, because, no matter how moral we are, we’ll certainly still sin. So we can’t build our relationship with God on the fact that we’ll escape sin; but we can do so on repentance. We learn to repent and to stand aright before God through a spirit of humility.
Repentance, then, is begotten by humility. Humble people repent and don’t find excuses. Once you start finding excuses for yourself, you can’t repent. Once you grant extenuating circumstances to yourself, you immediately lower the flame of repentance. This is why the fathers accept no justification, not because there isn’t an excuse when people sin: when we do so it’s because we have been affected by some event. If, however, we feel the pain of sin and if, as the saints did, we stand before God without any excuse and learn the ethos of the publican, then that’s the basis of success. Everything else leads us to this situation.
The second Sunday, that of the Prodigal Son, shows how great the love of God is for us; God receives us when we return to him. There’s no chance that penitents will be cast out. There’s no chance that you’ll return and God will reject you.
The third Sunday, with the narrative concerning the Second Coming, shows us that faith isn’t something abstract, but specific, involving works of love and the spiritual struggle.
On the fourth Sunday, our Lord shows us the real way to fast and tells that we should move our heart to where our treasure is.
Then follows the first week of fasting, with the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Historically, there was a particular reason behind this, with the issue of iconoclasm which plagued the Church for a century. Since then, once it had been brought to an end historically and theologically, the Church has celebrated this day. But, as the fathers says, it’s not the historical events which matter. Iconoclasm is always before us, because it affects the very salvation of humankind. It was the initial heresy, which is constantly being repeated in a different form. According to this heresy, God didn’t actually become a human person. So, since God didn’t become human, we can’t truly become gods by grace. When those people refused to venerate or look at icons, whereas the fathers of the Church insisted on them, it wasn’t because the former were devout and feared that the icons were idols and that other people weren’t concerned and underestimated the situation. It certainly wasn’t like that.
The fathers insisted on the fact that, from the moment Christ, the Word of God, became human and was perfect human and perfect God, we can describe him and depict him. Because the whole of faith itself depends on the real incarnation of God the Word, on what Saint John the Evangelist says, that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw his glory’, we saw the incarnation of God. In other words, this heresy essentially struck at the very foundation of the faith. Within the realm of the Church, we aren’t dealing with ideas or theories or philosophy, but with a person called Jesus Christ. This has nothing to do with any ideas contained in the Gospel, however beautiful we might think them. In the Church we don’t worship love or freedom as ideas; what we have to do is develop a relationship with the person of our Lord, Jesus Christ, this Christ who became human and remains in the Church as the person whom we’ve seen. We’ve never seen the Father. Because Christ is the image of the Father and we’re the image of Christ. Because Christ became human, we’re images of him who made all things. So, within the realm of the Church we have this fact of the presence of Christ. From the moment we have a person to deal with, our attitude towards that person is no longer one of faith. It’s not enough to say to Christ that you believe (in) him. You can believe in ideologies and systems of ideas, in world-theories and party politics. But this can’t be the case in the Church. What happens is that, yes, you step onto the first rung of the ladder, faith, but you don’t stay there; you go on to ascend to love. Within the Church, you’re called upon to develop a relationship of love with Christ. This requires acceptance of the truth of Christ and the Gospel, which is the first rung. But you can’t stay there. You have to go on to the end. Saint Paul says that, in the end, faith and hope will be abolished and love will remain. If young people seek and search to find where truth lies, they have to understand that, if they compare the Church with other truths and consider it a truth, then, with the best will in the world, they can’t understand that the Church doesn’t talk about a truth; it talks about Christ, who is the truth of the world. Christ is the truth, freedom, justice, peace, the be all and end all, and is everything within the Church. So, everything we do within the sphere of the Church, all the battles we fight, are undertaken so that we can love Christ with all our heart. So that we can develop our own relationship of love with Christ. But how does this work?
The first thing is to investigate; to learn who this person is. This is why reading helps so much at the beginning of the spiritual life. This is why the fathers say that, for beginners, reading helps more than prayer, or just as much. It’s very important for us to read spiritual books, lives of the saints, in order to see how these people, who loved God fiercely and strove in their lives, wherever they found themselves to be, steeped their lives in this tide of their relationship with God. Then the process of the spiritual life begins. We start to keep God’s commandments. And we remain in God’s love by this observation of his commandments. These commandments aren’t peculiar instructions, but medication. They’re the course of therapy prescribed by the Church, which brings results to those who follow it. As people observe God’s commandments, they produce zeal, which is strength and this makes it more attractive for us to strive further. Once there’s a reduction in the application of God’s commandments, energy drops until it disappears, that is, there’s a cessation of the spiritual struggle. At the beginning, God grants his grace as a free gift. As soon as we enter the Church, everything’s easy: reading the lives of the saints, taking part in various services, observing the fasts, everything’s so easy. But afterwards we have to strive to receive this grace.
So God, who is a true human being and also the incarnate God the Word, is the prototype for all of us and also the focus of our love. We’re invited to have a personal relationship with him and, over the course of this journey, to put back together our shattered self, which would certainly restore the image of God which the devil broke through the fall. Through the Church, with the whole of this course of therapy, we have to see the fact of our cure which is specific and bears particular fruit.
(Extract from a recorded homily)