A Homily for the Beginning of Lent

February 13, 2010 Length: 14:07

As the Lenten season begins, Fr. Tom Hopko reads a brief sermon penned by Fr. John Parker of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. This sermon was written in the style and tradition of St. John Chrysostom's well known and loved Paschal Homily.

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In the Orthodox Church, there are some churches, particularly I know Russian churches that I was raised in, at the end of the Great Vespers service on Forgiveness Sunday night that formally begins, commences, the Great Lenten season, the beginning of Great Lent. There is a custom that, while the people are asking and giving forgiveness to each other—each person asks forgiveness of every other person and receives forgiveness from the other person—so that the Lenten season can begin in peace… And of course forgiveness is foundational: God forgives us. He commands us to forgive one another as he has forgiven us. Every day we pray several times, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” or “Forgive our debts, loose our debts, as we loose our debtors.” This is in the Lord’s prayer. And then even on Pascha night, on the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, one of the central Paschal hymns says, “Let us say, brothers, even to those who hate us, and in the Resurrection forgive all things. Forgive all things in the Resurrection.”

So the Forgiveness Sunday marks the beginning of Great Lent, but at that service of forgiveness, when Lent begins, as I just mentioned, there is a custom to sing the Paschal hymns, to actually sing the Paschal canon, sing the Paschal verses, sing the Paschal troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,” to sing that at the beginning of Great Lent. Actually, it’s interesting: it’s not done in our churches, but it’s interesting that from the middle of Lent to the end, from the Sunday of the Cross to the end, the Paschal canon odes are actually sung already during the Lenten season to inspire us, encourage us, exhort us to carry on to the end in our Lenten effort.

Now this year a friend of mine, Fr. John Parker, who’s the pastor of the Church of the Ascension of Christ, Holy Ascension Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that Fr. Parker sent me a very creative homily that he wrote for Forgiveness Sunday, for the beginning of Great Lent, that is patterned after the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom that is read on Pascha night, at the Divine Liturgy on holy Pascha. It is the custom in the Orthodox Church in recent centuries that at the Divine Liturgy, the holy eucharistic service on Easter, on the feast of the Resurrection of Christ, the holy Pascha, that the bishop or the priest doesn’t give his own homily, but reads the homily of St. John Chrysostom, the Paschal homily. Well, Fr. John Parker took this Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, and he wrote a homily for the beginning of Great Lent, that when we start off this season of fasting, moving toward the holy Pascha, he made a homily patterned exactly after the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom to be used at the beginning.

So I thought I would share this with those who listen to Ancient Faith Radio. It is really very inspiring and very moving, very instructive, and so what I will do now: I will read the homily of St. John Chrysostom that is read on Pascha, the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom. First I will read that, and then when I finish I will read the homily for the beginning of Great Lent that Fr. John Parker wrote that patterns St. Chrysostom’s homily for Easter.

The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom

If anyone be devout and loves of God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have labored long in fasting,
Let him now receive his recompense.

If any has worked from the very first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
If any have waited and tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness;

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first;
He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has worked from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last,
And cares for the first;
And to the one he gives,
And upon the other he bestows gifts.
And he both accepts the deeds,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
And receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival.
You sober and you heedless, honor the day.
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is fully laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Savior’s death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has destroyed it.

By descending into Sheol, He made Sheol captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hades, said he, was embittered, when it encountered You in the lower regions.

Hades was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
Hades took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, [and] encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

And so Fr. John Parker, knowing this wonderful Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, he wrote one following it, in its pattern, in its style, to be proclaimed at the beginning of the Great Lenten season. Let us now listen to what Fr. John has written.

If anyone be devout and love God,
Let him commence this radiant fast with joy!
If anyone be a wise servant,
Let him, rejoicing, enter now into the school of repentance.

We who have wallowed long in sin,
Let us now begin our return.
If anyone has strayed from the first hour,
Let him today repent with zeal.
If anyone has sinned from the third hour,
Let him with gratitude embrace the fast.
If anyone has fled God from the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings about his prompt return;
Because he shall in nowise be turned away therefrom.
If anyone has indulged the flesh since the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing God alone and trusting in His mercy.
And if anyone has turned away only at the eleventh hour,
Let him also not hesitate to turn back with haste.

For the Lord, who is longsuffering and full of compassion and mercy, will accept the last even as the first.
He restores him who repents at the first hour,
As He does him who turns back at the eleventh.
And He shows mercy upon the last,
And He cares for the first;
And to the one He gives,
And upon the other He bestows gifts.
And He both accepts the confession,
And welcomes the intention,
And honors the contrite heart and rejoices in the return.

Wherefore, enter all of you into the holiness of your Lord;
Offer your repentance,
Both the last, and likewise the first.
You rich and poor together, repent, for today we stand outside the closed gates of paradise.
You sober and you heedless, prostrate yourselves before your King!
Return to the Lord today, both you who have sinned with knowledge and you who have done so in ignorance.

Your pantries are full; empty them to the hungry.
The belly enslaves us, let no one be dominated by it.
Enter all of you into the Great Fast;
Stripped of heavenly wealth by sin, all draw near to God’s rich loving-kindness!
Let no one despair in his sinfulness,
For the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
Weep all of you for your iniquities,
And draw near to the life-giving Cross of our Lord.
Let no one put confidence in the flesh,
For the Devil has deceived us thereby, and therewith enslaves us to sin.

By turning from God, we are made captives.
We have called good evil and evil good,
And put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Woe to those who put darkness for light, and light for darkness!

We are embittered, for we are banned from Eden.
We are embittered, for it is we who have mocked God.
We are embittered, for now we shall surely die.
We are embittered, for we have succumbed to the serpent.
We are embittered, for we are fettered in chains.
We partook of a fruit, and we met the deceiver.
We were entrusted with paradise, but we chose Hell.
Our eyes were opened to see the nakedness of sin.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver us!
O Lord, make haste to help us!

This is the acceptable time,;let us repent!
This is the day of salvation; let us crucify the passions!
The end is at hand and destruction hangs over us!
The end draws near; let us come again to our senses!
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand; what first-fruit shall we offer?
Let us delay not, lest we remain dead in the grave, sold under sin!
For God desires not the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live!
So, let us choose life, and live, for the mercy of God endures forever!
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Thank you, Fr. John, for your beautiful words to begin the Great Lenten season. A blessed, peaceful, fruitful Lenten fast to you all.