His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver
Forty days after His glorious resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into the heavens. Before His ascension, He had promised His disciples that He would return after His initial departure. Actually, Jesus had mentioned His departure and His glorious return many times during the three years of His public ministry.
As the Book of Acts records, on the day of His ascension two men in white apparel were standing near the Apostles and the other eye-witnesses who were watching the event. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven."
The first Christian communities in the days of the Apostles and immediately after the Apostolic era lived with the fervent anticipation of the return of Jesus in their lifetime. Even the Apostles themselves expected His return very soon. This belief was held in large measure because of the Lord's words to the Apostle Peter when the two were walking together after His resurrection. It was at the time when John the Evangelist was walking slightly behind them. After the Lord had informed Peter of his impending martyr's death, Peter turned for a moment toward John and asked Jesus, "But Lord, what about this man?" Jesus replied, "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow me."
Yet John clarified the incident when he wrote in his gospel about that particular discussion. It was necessary for him to keep the record accurate; for the body of believers was repeating the statement that John was to remain alive until the Lord's return. John wrote, "Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die." Yet Jesus had not said this, but "If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?" John was so concerned with the accuracy of this statement of the Lord that he repeated it at the end of his gospel.
However, the belief persisted throughout the Christian communities that John would still be alive upon the return of Christ. Even the Apostle Paul seemed to have given credence to the saying about John. This is probably why he wrote to Timothy, his disciple, saying, "...keep this commandment without spot until our Lord Jesus Christ's appearing." He wrote virtually the same thing to his other disciple, Titus, telling him that the followers of Christ should live righteous and godly lives because they were anticipating "... the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." Besides Paul, Peter and James also wrote about the Parousia or the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in their epistles, as if it were to be soon.
There were no discernible changes in the world, even after the lifesaving, cosmic events of the death and the resurrection of Christ. The Roman Empire remained intact and controlled all of the known world. However, with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 AD, many of the faithful equated this destruction and their suffering with the prophecies of Christ as recorded in Saint Matthew's gospel (24:1-22) about the end of the age. Many of them did not enter into marriage. Others gave all they had to the Church and lived as brothers and sisters in the various Christian communities, identifying themselves as members of the family of God and the Body of Christ. Still others, most of whom are unknown in the Church today, but certainly known to God, went out into the wilderness throughout the Middle East, Asia Minor, and northern Africa where they lived as hermits, praying unceasingly, and waiting in caves and in the crevasses of the earth for the end to come. It was not the desire for Christians to continue to live in the world in the face of the tyranny of Rome and the subjugation of thousands by the military might of the pagan empire. They preferred to be with Christ, and their expectations centered on Christ.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish community was in shambles. The religious practices and the strict adherence to the Jewish faith had come to a sudden stop with the destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the people to different parts of the known world. The Christians also found themselves under tragic circumstances. Rome's grip upon the world continued unabated.
Yet even in the face of all this, the Apostles, greatly empowered by the Holy Spirit, continued to preach and to teach of Christ and His coming Kingdom. They established new communities wherever they went and continued to convert many to the faith. As conditions settled down after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Christians there began to receive the help which was so desperately needed from Paul the Apostle and many others. The Apostle Paul's love for his people was so great that wherever he went, he received donations and gifts for the "saints in Jerusalem."
In all of this adversity and destruction, what was it that kept the members of the Church fervently committed to Christ and His promises? Many wondrous signs and miracles took place. People were healed of severe infirmities; some were also raised from the dead. The Holy Spirit was manifesting His presence and power among the people, strengthening them in their faith. The mighty works performed by the Apostles in the name of Jesus Christ gave courage and determination to the people to be persistent in the faith. Eye-witnesses of the resurrected Lord and of the great day of Pentecost who were yet alive confirmed the reality and the truth of the Christian faith. In the face of those glorious events, the unifying strength of Christ was experienced throughout the expanding Christian communities.
The hope, then, of the soon return of Jesus Christ continued to dominate the hearts of the people who were looking forward to this event with joyful anticipation. They reminded one another to be watchful and to be vigilant like the five wise virgins in the parable. The Lord Jesus was to appear. "Maranatha" was the watchword. They repeated it often: "O, Lord, come!"
As time passed, the realization began to set in that it was not the time for Christ's return. His prophecies in the holy gospels had not yet come to pass. They recalled that when the disciples asked the Lord about the signs before the end, His response included many events which had not as yet been fulfilled. The destruction of Jerusalem misled them. There were to be many other events that were to occur in the heavens, as well as on the earth. They recalled also that Jesus said, "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming."
The Christian believers soon began to accept that they were going to continue to live in the world. The Lord was not about to come and to gather them up. Yet they also knew that they could never become identified with the world; for one day the whole world would be consumed by fire. Suddenly they began to realize that something unexpected was happening in the world around them. Better days had come about. The Church was growing in increasing numbers. Their beliefs and the Church were now tolerated by the empire. In time, less than three hundred fifty years after Pentecost, the Christian Church would become the official religion of the converted and Christianized empire. The Church found a new freedom to develop in all Her expressions for the salvation of Her people. Still the Church never forgot that there would be an end to the age and that Her Lord would one day return to take Her with Him.
The belief, then, in the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus, His Parousia, would remain constant and the paramount eschatological tenet in the life of the Church. In the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in almost every worship service, the Lord's words of His coming Kingdom were to remain basic. From the year 381 AD and the Second Ecumenical Council, the confession of faith now known as the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed would allow the faithful to proclaim as in the days of the Apostles the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory, the future event before the consumation of the present age.
The Church grew and developed in Her primary years, the divinely established, living organism which can never be destroyed by any power antithetical to Her. This the Lord promised when He told His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to them, Who would abide with the Church forever. He also said that not even the power of Hades would ever be able to prevail against His Church.
The Holy Spirit, then, Who presides over the Church, gave direction to the divinely inspired Fathers in Her formative years to place the teaching of the Parousia at the core of the faith. In doing so, the Church to this day preserves the belief in the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the services of the Church which take place at the holiest time of the annual ecclesiastical cycle, the period called Triodion, Great Lent, and Holy Week, a duration of seventy days.
From the very beginning, then, and as we shall see further on, the Church has held this basic belief in the Parousia uninterruptedly down through the centuries to the present day. Although the people of the Church are reminded annually of the dreadful and terrifying latter-day events before the return of Christ, they also are ever mindful of the most wonderful and joyful events which shall occur thereafter with the beginning of the Eighth Day, the day of perfection. This wondrous day begins with the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Day of Holy Pascha. For one to experience this day, it is imperative for him and for her to prepare themselves properly.
In Her preservation of the teaching regarding the Second Coming of Christ, the Church uses the depiction which Christ gave Himself in His parable of the Ten Virgins and the Bridegroom. It is this most dramatic parable, which describes so simply, yet so eloquently, the events of the last days, the return of Jesus Christ, and the establishment of His eternal Kingdom. Many of the services of the Church during this seventy-day period allude to Christ as the Bridegroom. The meaningful prayers and hymns of the Triodion and of Great Lent are replete with the message of the coming Bridegroom to claim His Bride, the Church.
The days of preparation involving the three-week Triodion and Great Lent, lead the practicing believer through a symbolic spiritual wilderness for sixty-three days to the first service of Holy Week, which is called the Service of the Bridegroom, and which takes place every Palm Sunday evening in all the churches.
Throughout the penitential period of the Fast or Great Lent, the Church encourages Her people to increase their time of prayer, both private and corporate, while at the same time invites them to abstain and to fast from those things in life which identify one as belonging to the world. The purpose of this discipline is to strengthen one's spirit, so that the mind and the heart begin to dwell on the things not of this world. In this regard, the believer runs a parallel course to that which Christ traveled in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights before He went forth to be tempted by Satan.
Relative to the temptations which Christ faced, the practicing Christian is also expected to defeat the three temptations which Christ experienced and which identify one with the world: the temptations of pride, power, and possessions. In today's world, we would use the terms egotism or self-esteem, control, and unabated consumerism. In the temptations faced by Jesus, He was told by Satan to demonstrate His power by changing stones into bread to satisfy His hunger. The Lord was then tempted by pride when Satan said to Him that if He were the Son of God, that if He were to throw Himself from the pinnacle of the temple, He would not be hurt. For it is written that God would send His angels to bear Christ up, lest He dash His foot against a stone. Finally Satan took Jesus to a high mountain from where he showed to Him the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He said to Jesus, "All these things I will give you if you will fall down and worship me."
This temptation was, probably, not really an enticement for Jesus, since He knew that all things came from Him and that all things were in His hands, except the corruption His eyes saw because of fallen man who first had been victimized by Satan in the Garden of Eden. This last temptation revealed the fact that Satan never realized who Jesus really was. For Satan could never comprehend in his vainglory that Almighty God would so humble Himself to the point of becoming a man. Jesus, then, as the new Adam, overcame the three great temptations and Satan was gone.
In the iconographic image of the temptations, which Christ overcame, the Church instills in Her people the desire to acquire such spiritual strength through the discipline of prayer and fasting throughout the preparation period of Great Lent. The faithful are reminded of our first parents in the Garden who were first tempted by Satan with the very temptations which Satan used to tempt Christ. Adam and Eve failed the temptation of power by desiring to know the difference between good and evil. They failed the temptation of pride by desiring to be like God. And they failed the temptation of possessions because they desired to have it all, even the fruit of the one forbidden tree.
During the penitential and yet spectacular and exciting period of Great Lent, which the people should eagerly desire to experience, there is one basic message and that is for the people of the Church to take control of their lives. Once they do this, then the anticipation of meeting Christ in a personal way and experiencing a taste of the coming Kingdom becomes basic and natural in their daily lives.
How did all this process begin regarding Great Lent and its expectations? It was Christ Himself Who established the process. He gave the formula for this Lenten season, the season in which we experience a joyful sorrow, sorrow that He left and anticipated joy that we will see Him again. To understand this process biblically, we must read the words of Saint Matthew in his Gospel. He writes the following:
"Then the disciples of John came to him saying, 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'Can the friends of the Bridegroom mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then, they will fast.'"
It is in this gospel quotation that we see and understand that Christ Himself establishes the connection between His impending departure from the world and the discipline of fasting with a new meaning. Fasting, in this regard, is a basic practice of the believing Christian to remind him that Jesus Christ will one day return in glory.
The benefits of fasting or abstinence are enormous. This does not have anything to do with the reasons many today use the discipline of fasting. For in our day, we see individuals fasting as a political tool or other type of protest, a way of losing extra pounds, or even as a desire to die. Christian fasting is blessed by God Himself for it is the message of the believer to God that he desires the eternal blessings that are to come rather than the finite blessings of this life. Its benefits include increased spiritual strength, true obedience to God, and total patience with one's fellow man. It assists the believer to take control of his lower appetites that involve the physical senses. The believer becomes mentally alert and sensitive to what is happening all around him. Moreover, his understanding of life is also expanded.
Spiritual fasting for the Christian believer, then, makes him more watchful and vigilant to the expectations which God has established for His people. Fasting to an Orthodox Christian is what physical and mental exercise are to a professional athlete who aspires to win the big title and the trophy. Fasting of mind and body to the Christian, based on the obedience of prayer, renews the health of the soul, which in most people is parched and possibly dying. The achievements experienced by the believer include spiritual grace and an inner peace and joy that no one can take away. It is this blessed state that allows one not only to focus on, but to continually be mindful of the heavenly blessings that Christ promises to His people. Christian fasting is the most effective weapon one can have next to prayer. The two together in the name of Jesus can do wonders. One day, His disciples asked Jesus why they could not heal a boy by expelling a demon from within him. They asked, "Why could we not cast it out?" The Lord's reply was, "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."
In the Gospels, Jesus instructs us to fast in secret. Why? Obviously, faith is an inner power; the real power of a person is in his spirit. This spiritual power is developed by the heart and the mind, which work in concert to strengthen the inner man. Man is energized and renewed by God esoterically, through his inner being and his inner heart. Anyone can have this kind of spiritual strength and power if he practices the Christian discipline of prayer and fasting. It is important to remember that many of God's most devout servants, who had the power of healing others because of their inner strength, were themselves physically infirm, such as Saint Paul the Apostle. Fasting, moreover, makes one realize that he is dependent on God, even if he may have no infirmities. He knows that without God, he can do nothing.
Increased prayer and fasting are encouraged by the Church during Great Lent as a means to purification and preparation. Both physical and spiritual purification are stressed so that the believer may feel prepared to experience a spectacular event, the event of the Lord's return. His Bride, the Church, is always in anticipation of the glorious return of Her Bridegroom. This anticipation is brought into focus during the first Divine Liturgy of Holy Week, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, which is celebrated on Holy Monday morning. The Gospel reading of the Liturgy, which is taken from Saint Matthew's Gospel (24:3-35) speaks of the disciples of the Lord asking Him when His return will take place, as well as the end of the world. Fasting and prayer, therefore, during this time of the year are not simply because it is Great Lent but because the Church is awaiting the return of Her Bridegroom.
In this eschatological theme of Great Lent, another basic truth is stressed which is that Christ will return as the Eternal Judge Who is to come with great power to judge all people. This is why it is imperative that the believing Christian should be prepared as much as possible through humility and repentance to come before God. At the same time, his desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Who died for the sins of the world never wanes.
The Supreme Sacrifice on the Cross established for the Church the mystery of Holy Eucharist. It is at each Divine Liturgy that the penitent and humble and obedient Christian is invited to receive the very Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of his sins and for the promise of eternal life. He does it in fulfillment of Christ's words at the Last Supper, which the Apostle Paul records most accurately saying, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you will proclaim the Lord's death till He comes."
As the practicing believer goes forth on this annual pilgrimage to the symbolic Jerusalem to meet the Lord at His Tomb through the special worship services, he will certainly encounter the scoffers of these latter days. They are more numerous than ever before. But they will not detract the obedient and devout Christian. Peter the Apostle speaks of them when he says that in the last days, people will cynically be asking, "Where is the promise of his coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation." They may not be using these very words, but their life-style, their behavior, their speech, their obsessions with the things of this world, will all witness to their unbelief, their cynicism, and their scorn.
Nevertheless, the faithful believer will persevere. He will go on with his fasting, his good deeds, his increased time in prayer. In a symbolic, yet in a very real way, the three-week period of the Triodion is the crossing by the people of God of the Red Sea from pagan Egypt into the wilderness of the Sinai. The forty days of spiritual toil and the traversing of one's penitential journey are symbolic, in a very real sense, of the ancient Israelites' forty-year sojourn in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula.This spiritual journey for the Christian is the time for him to leave behind all the excess baggage he may have brought from the secular world, as well as to shed all vestiges of rebellion and idolatry.
As the ancient Israelites zigzagged their way through Sinai, sometimes obedient to God, but at other times reverting to their pagan past and rebelling against God, in like manner the penitential Christian travels the difficult wilderness of the influences of the secular world, sometimes standing strong in his faith and sometimes falling. The Israelites could have reached the Promised Land much sooner than they did, had they traveled a more direct route. But God kept them in the Sinai for forty years, so that the generation which had come out of Egypt and which had been heavily tainted with idolatry and rebellion would not be able to enter the Promised Land. It was the second generation, those born in the wilderness of the Sinai, who were to enter.
In the very same way as Moses led his people, the Church leads Her children through the forty-day sojourn of Great Lent. For it takes at least this long for many of the faithful to discard the vanity and the concerns of this world and to be transformed. In this transformation, the faithful people of God become the newborn children from the secular wilderness who will be able to experience the joy of the Promised Land.
The additional and lengthy services, the periods of silence and introspection, the discipline of prostrations both in the services and in private prayer will help the repentant Christian to rid himself of impatience, anger, foul talk, and all the various expressions of rebellion against God, against others, and even against oneself. The struggling Christian must, after this intense discipline, be at peace with himself, with others, and especially with God.
Once the believer accomplishes these things, never by himself, but with the help of God, he will be able to climb the spiritual mountain, not only to peer into the Promised Land, as did Moses, but to enter it. This entrance into the land of promise is for the Christian the beginning of Holy Week and Pascha. At the first service of Holy Week, which is held on the evening of Palm Sunday, the faithful pilgrim of the forty-day struggle will hear the words of the parable as the icon of Christ comes forth from the sanctuary: "Behold the Bridegroom is Coming!" The believing Christian will follow in the footsteps of the Bridegroom throughout the holy services of that spiritually moving week. In so doing, he will experience, in a real way, as the original events continually reflect themselves down through the centuries, the public ministry of the Lord and the words regarding His return. He will relive in a dramatic way the Lord's betrayal, arrest, extreme suffering, painful and torturous death, and His burial, especially through the services of Holy Thursday and Holy Friday.
On the next day, the Holy and Great Sabbath, all of nature will observe a brief silence while the body of Jesus lies in the tomb. This silence will be experienced mostly by those who followed Jesus through the dramatic events of His passion in the holy services. They will be meditating on the final events of His earthly life. Then, on the first day of the week, which today is called Sunday, but which is the dawn of the Eighth Day, the day that knows no sunset, the words of the Lord will swell up like a fountain in their hearts, "Can the friends of the Bridegroom fast while the Bridegroom is with them?"
At the midnight services of Holy Saturday evening in the darkened churches throughout the Orthodox world, the celebrant will emerge from the sanctuary with lighted tapers chanting, "Come and receive light from the Unfading Light and glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead!" The new and glorious day of the Resurrection of Christ the Lord will shine forth with extreme joy and gladness. Although it will not have been the actual Parousia during the present year, it will definitely have the same spiritual glow that shone on the faces of the first Christians.
At the final service of this seventy-day period, called Agape, one of the hymns that will resound in the churches will announce:
"Come from that scene, O women, bearers of good tidings and say to Zion, 'Receive from us the tidings of joy of the Resurrection of Christ; Exult, rejoice and be glad, O Jerusalem, for you are beholding Christ the King as the Bridegroom coming forth from the Tomb!"'
The lengthy preparation and watchfulness of the believer during this holiest time of the year will not have been in vain; for in his inner heart he will remember the word, "Maranatha" which his Christian fore-bearers had in their hearts and on their lips. And in response to that expression of uncontainable joy, he will hear, in anticipation, the heart-stirring words of the Bridegroom of the Church ringing out for all the world and the heavens to hear: "Surely I am coming quickly! Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus! "