We continue our reflections on the services of the first three days of the Great and Holy Week—Great and Holy Monday, Great and Holy Tuesday, and Great and Holy Wednesday—and today we want to pay attention to one of the images that is used throughout the services, from the very beginning of the Great and Holy Week on Monday right up through the first three days until we come to the service of the Mystical Supper on Thursday. We have to point out that, at the reading of the gospel at the first Bridegroom service for Great and Holy Monday, done on Sunday night, we have the gospel reading at the matins, and then again the next day at the vespers, which is a Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. It’s very interesting that the very first words at the gospel reading at the matins on Monday refers to a fig tree, and this is what we hear, the first words that we hear at the gospel for Holy Week on Monday matins.
In the morning, as he (Jesus) was returning to the city, he was hungry and, seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it, and he found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And the fig tree withered up at once, and the disciples saw it and they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly I say to you: If you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to this fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive if you have faith. Whatever you ask in prayer, believing in me, you will receive.”
Of course, in St. John’s gospel, the Lord says, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask now in my name, and whatever you ask in my name I will give you.” Now, to ask in Christ’s name means according to him, according to his teaching, according to his commandments, according to his interpretation of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, according to him in everything he says and everything he does; that’s what it means, “in his name.” It doesn’t mean just adding “We ask this in Jesus’ name” to whatever we pray; it means our prayer has to be according to Jesus.
It’s interesting that at that first reading, you begin there with this fig tree, and then the reading goes on for 45 verses, and in that particular reading, you have the readings about Jesus’ clash with the leaders of the people. Then you have Jesus asking questions of those leaders of the people—the scribes, the Pharisees, the high priests, the lawyers—and answering them back, and he says, “Truly I say to you: The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. John the Baptist came; you didn’t listen to him. Tax collectors and harlots did believe John, and when you saw it, even after that you did not repent and believe.” Then you have the parable about the householder and the vineyard, about bringing forth fruit: the time of fruit draws near, the owner of the vineyard comes, the lord, and the servants and the tenants, they want that fruit and they kill those whom the lord sends. Finally he sends his own son, they kill the son also, and then the lord comes and makes them die the miserable death for rejecting the son, who is… “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” “It was the Lord’s doing, marvelous in our eyes.” And then the Lord says, “I will tell you: The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits thereof.”
And then, at the vespers on the evening, or sometimes read in late morning, on Monday of the Great and Holy Week, you have at the vespers the gospel is Matthew 24:3-35, also a very long reading. This is the reading about the end of the ages, the signs of the coming and the close of the age and how false christs and anti-Christs will come, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet. That’s very important: the end is not yet. When nation rises against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famine, earthquake, [in diverse places]—all this is but the beginning of the [last things]; it is not the end. We’ll see that the end is when the people themselves [apostatize], when the believers no longer believe, when false prophets come up, when most people’s love grows cold, where you have the abomination of the desolation standing in the holy places, where the Church itself is filled with blasphemy and sacrilege: that’s when the end comes. And Daniel is quoted and so on.
So Jesus goes through all these apocalyptic signs and wonders in the Matthew apocalyptic texts, and then he says, at the very end:
The Son of Man will come in the heavens, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on clouds with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, gather all the elect from the four winds, and from one end of heaven to the other.
Then it ends, again, with a reference to the fig tree.
From the fig tree, learn its lesson (Jesus says). As soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all of these things, you know that he is near, at the very gate. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
Then, as the week continues, this very same chapters are read at the services, about nobody knowing the day and the hour, and even the Son of Man does not reveal it. Then you have the parables of the Last Judgment, and you have the parables of the talents, and you have the parables of the vineyard, you have the parables of the Bridegroom and the virgins. You have to be ready at any hour to enter in. You have to have your lamps burning. You have to pray to receive the garment from the Lord that we can enter. All these things come in there.
Then they tell how we will be judged, and we will be judged basically by not producing the fruits of repentance, as John the Baptist put it, because John the Baptist himself, in Luke’s gospel, says, when he’s announcing the coming of Christ, “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance. Now the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” And you have the same imagery in St. John’s gospel, where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Without me, you can do nothing.” And these branches have to bring forth fruit, and the Lord God prunes them; he cuts them so that they would bring forth more fruit. But those branches [which] do not bring forth fruit, have only leaves, they are cut down and they’re thrown into the oven and they are burned, because they did not receive the gifts of grace from God and the power of the Spirit that God gives to those who have faith in him and believe in him.
Here again, we just say: No one can save himself. We cannot be saved by our works. Only God can save us, but when we accept the salvation of God, when we recognize God, when we keep his commandments, then we will bring forth fruit in abundance that will show that we are being saved by faith and by grace. And those fruits are only produced by faith and by grace, but those works have to be done, and practically every literary part of the Bible says this. The proverbs say it, the psalms say it, the prophets say it, St. Paul says it, the apocalypse of John says it—that we will answer for the works that we have produced, according to our works, because our works show whether or not we accept the baptismal garment, the robe of life, from our Savior, and then live according to his power and his grace and his glory by faith and grace. These are the readings that you have during these particular days.
Now, this imagery of the fig tree: It is in these services, in just many, many different ways, and the main kontakion—the troparia and kontakia are the main [hymns] of any service; that’s their names in Greek—and in our Church you have this imagery of the fig tree being used over and again throughout these days. For example, you have this being said:
O brethren, let us flee from the fruitlessness of the fig tree and understand the meaning of this example. May we not be withered as it once was, when he who loves mankind came to it in hunger.
The fig tree that has no fruit. Then it says:
Those who are barren of good actions are like the fig tree. Let us avoid its fruitlessness, lest we be dried up as it once was, prefiguring the synagogue that was covered with leaves but bore no fruit.
And then you have:
May the reproach of the fig tree not overtake thee, but make haste, my soul, and from the soil of thy heart bear good fruit for the Christ, thy Creator, and offer it to him in repentance.
And then you have, again, this imagery of the fig tree. Let me just here find another one.
O brethren, let us fear the punishment of the fig tree, withered because it was unfruitful. Let us bring worthy fruits of repentance (that’s John the Baptist’s words) unto Christ, who grants us his great mercy.
And then you have it also again in the services in this way. Let me just find this warning against not being cut down with the fig tree. It’s the kontakion at the Tuesday matins.
Think, O wretched soul, upon the hour of the end. Recall with fear how the fig tree was cut down. Work diligently with the talent that is given to thee. Be vigilant and cry aloud: May we not be left outside the bridal chamber of Christ!
So you see how these are woven together: the fig tree, the fruit, the parable of the talents, the producing fruit, multiplying the gifts, that we are not left of what?—out of the bridal chamber of Christ. And then the oikos that goes with this main hymn, it says this:
Why are you slothful, O my wretched soul? Why do you waste the days in thinking of unprofitable cares? Why are you busy with the things that pass away? The last hour is at hand, and we shall soon be parted from all that is here.
So you have that imagery of the end again.
While there is still time, return to soberness and cry: I have sinned against thee, O my Savior! Do not cut me down like the unfruitful fig tree, but, O Christ, in thy compassion, take pity on me as I call out in fear to thee: May we not be left outside the bridal chamber of Christ!
So we have this imagery of the fig tree right from the beginning and through all of these services.
Just one commentary that we can make about this fig tree and how it is understood: This is what many of our holy Fathers and saints say about it. It’s really something that we must think about. They tell us that when we think about this fig tree that has no fruit, that is barren and therefore is cursed by the Lord, and then [he] even said that it should be cut down… Now you have also in the New Testament some time where the apostles say, “Don’t cut it down yet. Let’s cultivate it a little bit more, put some more manure on it, and maybe it’ll bring forth fruit at some possible time.” But in any case, if there is fruitlessness, it means we don’t accept the grace of God and we don’t believe in him, because if we did, the fruit of the Holy Spirit would be abounding in us, the fruit worthy of repentance.
And again, we can quote Galatians 5:22: “Love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, fidelity, self-control.” These are the things that we would have to show that we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance, and the fruit that our Lord God is asking from us that we cannot produce by ourselves, but we can produce by believing in him and living by his grace and his power and receiving his Holy Spirit and living by his Holy Spirit and not by the multitude of the evil demons that possess us in this world.
Now, the holy Fathers make a very interesting interpretation. This is what they say: That fig tree had leaves, and maybe even we could say that the leaves were very beautiful, that they were very nice, they were very stately. But that tree had no fruit. Now, the holy Fathers will say: In order for a fruit tree, like a fig tree, to bear fruit, it has to have leaves. Leaves are absolutely necessary. If the fruit tree doesn’t have any leaves, it can never bear fruit, but leaves are not enough. The tree can’t just have leaves, however beautiful it might look. It’s got to bear fruit. And there the holy Fathers even add a kind of a comment that trees that are not fruit-bearing, they usually grow very high and they’re very beautiful, but trees that are fruit-bearing, like a fig tree, they’re usually low to the ground; they are stumpy, so to speak, and the more fruit that they produce, the more the branches are bent over close to the ground. The Fathers use that as an imagery of humility. The word “humility” comes from the word “humus,” which means earth.
How many times did the Lord say, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted”? How many times did he say, “Learn from me, for I am meek and I am lowly in heart, I am humble in heart”? How many times do we hear in psalms and in the gospels about God loving the humble and the meek and the broken-hearted and so on? They are the ones who produce fruit, not the high and the mighty who grow tall and look so beautiful and are adorned so wonderfully but have only leaves; they have only leaves. So the Fathers like to make a difference between fruitless trees and fruit-bearing trees, and they say how the fruit-bearing tree is a humble looking tree, and the trees that normally don’t have fruit, they’re often very high and very noble and very beautiful and so on; their leaves can be even marvelous—but they’re still fruitless.
Then the Fathers go on to say: But the fruit tree, the tree that has to bear fruit, still has to have its leaves. There have to be leaves on that tree. And the leaves are necessary in order for the fruit to come, because if the tree does not have good, healthy leaves, if the tree is sick, if the tree is somehow undernourished or old or whatever it might be to the tree, then it will not bear good fruit. So it’s got to have leaves. We’re not against leaves, they would say in some sense. No, leaves are fine, terrific, and if you’re not a fruit tree and you have only leaves, that’s great, and we will glorify you like the cedars of Lebanon or whatever that are not fruit trees; they’re beautiful and we can see how marvelous they are, but it’s a tragedy if a fruit-bearing tree has only leaves. So it has to have leaves; we have to have leaves in order to bear fruit.
Then they would say: But what are these leaves? What do these leaves mean on the fruit-bearing tree? And this is what they say to us Christians and generally to people who identify themselves as believers. The holy Fathers say this, unanimously, as a matter of fact, and not only the Fathers: the Desert Mothers like Syncletica, she says this exactly in so many words in her sayings of the Desert Fathers, three of whom are Mothers—Syncletica, Theodora, and Sarah—but in their teachings about humility and about fruit-bearing, they say you can only bear fruit when you’re humble, but you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be healthy, and you have to have these good leaves, because without the leaves: no fruit. And if the fruit is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, what are the leaves?
Here the saints would tell us: The leaves signify liturgical worship and ascetical practices. They signify worship and asceticism. So let’s think about that. All of the saints of our Church interpreting the holy Scriptures say: Liturgy and worship and beautiful services and singing and buildings and icons and vestments and candles—all of those things are marvelous things, and they’re absolutely necessary. They’re necessary to the Christian faith. You have to have real worship in spirit and truth that is befitting God, and you have to have liturgical worship services that are able to bring us into the realities of the divine life, but they say immediately that they’re not enough. In fact, they’re not even an end in themselves.
The beauty of the Church’s liturgy is for the sake of bearing fruit. It’s for the sake of bearing fruit. Its purpose is to make the body strong and the vine strong so that it could bear fruit in due season, and not receive the curse of the Lord. So, they say, if a church has only beautiful worship services, and, of course, we Orthodox claim we’ve got the most beautiful of anybody in every way, following the Bible and the teachings of the old covenant about the tabernacle and the temple and the vestments and the candles and the altar and the incense and then even again the icons and the icon of Mary on her seat with Christ as a living mercy-seat—all this is just so beautiful, but when it becomes an end in itself and then that’s what we live for and we live just to decorate churches and to show them off and to bring people to come and say, “Oh, how beautiful,” but we’re not producing the fruit that that liturgy is supposed to produce in our life, then all our participation in the liturgy and even in the sacraments and even in the holy Eucharist is unto our condemnation and judgment. It doesn’t save us, so it’s not enough to have beautiful liturgy.
And even if we dare to speak about the non-Orthodox churches… For example, some of these new mega-churches, they have all these bands and they sing and they have choirs and it’s moving and it’s fantastic and everybody gets emotional and so on, and you can’t say that it’s useless or ugly or whatever—it’s certainly good—but if it’s only entertainment, if it’s not really worship, if it’s not really for the sake of bearing fruit, then it condemns us. Then the very truth of what is said and revealed condemns us, because we are, in fact, worshiping a means and not an end. And all the holy Fathers teach this. Liturgical rituals, rites, sacraments—they are means to an end, but the end is communion with God. Keeping the commandments, becoming deified, living by the Holy Spirit in every single moment of our life, taking up our crosses, serving the poor and the needy—those are the fruits that have to come from all of this.
So if we just have beautiful services and beautiful churches and beautiful icons and beautiful vestments and beautiful properties and all that stuff, it could be to our condemnation and judgment. St. John Chrysostom even went so far as to say: No one ever was condemned to hell for not decorating a church building. The decorations are still beautiful and John had a beautiful church and that beauty is important, but not as an end in itself.
Now, the Fathers also say, almost shockingly, that the same thing is true about ascetical practices, like saying prayers, saying psalms, singing hymns—maybe not in church but by ourselves, in our heart or in our room—or fasting or abstaining from foods or keeping vigil or doing prostrations or mortifying our fleshly desires and passions, our sinful flesh with its passions and desires. And we’re not supposed to mortify our body—that’s a good thing. The holy Fathers say we don’t put to death our bodies; we put to death our carnal passions. There’s a big difference there, a very important one.
But what is amazing here and very important: the holy Fathers also compare ascetical practices to leaves. They’re necessary, but they’re only leaves, and they’re meant to contribute to producing fruit, this fruit of the Holy Spirit, the virtue, the God, the divine qualities in a person: that’s what ascetical practices are for. They’re not an end in themselves, and the holy Fathers… I think of two almost contemporary Russians, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov and St. Seraphim of Sarov, they are violent on this point. They say if we do ascetical practices without having as our goal the love of God and the love of neighbor and producing the fruits through our activities of love and charity and kindness and helping the poor and the needy and sharing our goods, then all those ascetical practices, they just send us right to hell. They even say things like: The devil has all the leaves, but none of the fruit.
They’ll say, for example: The devils are beautiful as angels; they’re splendid: they’re lucifer, they’re light-bearing. They turn ugly when they turn against God, because they destroy their own beauty, but their beauty is good and it was meant to bear fruit in service of God, glorifying God. That’s what the angels were made for. And then they say also that the devil never eats, the devil never sleeps, so if you’re fasting and you’re not eating, and if you’re not sleeping and keeping vigil, well, the devils are doing the same thing and they’re there with you. The devils are pure spirits, but they’re evil spirits and they have no fruits.
So what they say is: if we think that the purpose of our religion is in ascetical practices—and many Orthodox are very prone to this—St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, in his book, The Arena, which I always recommend when I get a chance—it’s a brutal book and some of it’s really harsh, but he makes that point, that if we only care about the external form of services, if we only care about singing the right tones and the right melody in the right way, if we only care about what kind of icons we have or what kind of frescoes we can show or what kind of properties we have, or if we only care about our prayer ropes and how many Jesus prayers we say and how many prayers we recite and how many psalms we sing, that can just condemn us, because those are means to an end. Then he says people can end up worshiping the means and denying the ends. Or, as St. Paul said already in the New Testament, the Pauline book Timothy, “We hold the form of piety and righteousness, but we do not bear fruit.” We hold the form but deny the power, deny the purpose.
So the Fathers are all in favor of liturgy, services, sacraments, rituals, hymnology, psalmody, beautiful ritual activities, because we’re bodies and we’re humans and we have to have all these things—nice chalices to have holy Communion—this is all very, very good and very marvelous, but its purpose is to produce the fruit—and ascetical practices, reading the Bible, saying our prayers, going to church, singing the psalms, doing prostrations, bowing down, practicing fasting and abstinence, keeping vigil, staying awake, doing all those ascetical practices that we do—but they have to be for the sake of the fruit. They cannot be understood as the faith itself or something that are ends in themselves or that something God would even be pleased about.
Certainly I think the teaching would be that God would be pleased with the leaves—as long as they bore fruit. So God would be very pleased with our various liturgical offices and services and sacraments and rituals and icons and songs, and God would be very pleased with our praying and our fasting and our psalmody and our keeping vigil and our mortification of our carnal passions through prayer and fasting and all those things. Yeah, those are necessary; Jesus himself says so: read the New Testament, and you will see. But how Jesus himself condemns those who make all these things an end in themselves, because they only have leaves.
So the leaves are very important, but we can’t only have leaves. We have to bear fruit, and if we don’t bear fruit, however many and abundant and even beautiful our leaves are, we will be cut down and cast off and thrown into the fire, because faith in God and the Gospel is not about rituals and songs and hymns and worship services as ends in themselves, and they’re not about ascetical practices as ends in themselves. They’re about producing the fruit, the fruit worthy of repentance, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. They’re about loving with the love which God in Christ has loved us. That’s what all of these things are for.
Now, without them, without these leaves, we’re not going to be able to do anything, because then we will not open ourselves to the grace of God. We will make ourselves incapable of bearing fruit. So we need the leaves in order to bear the fruit, but it’s the fruit that must be borne that we are totally interested in. And this is, it seems to me, clearly the reason why this fig tree becomes such an important theme in these first days of the Great and Holy Week.