Great Lent, my beloved brethren, begins today and will be completed in forty days on the Friday of Lazarus. As our Church introduces us to this blessed arena of spiritual struggles and virtues, whose main weapon is the weapon of fasting, together with the accompanying weapons of almsgiving, prayer, personal struggle and the mysteries, it is an opportunity to deepen a little the way we will emerge from this struggle, to complete productively, creatively and spiritually the journey of the forty days that stretch before us.
This journey has an analogy in the treasures of the Old Testament. The analogy is the journey of the people of Israel from Egypt to the Land of Promise, with one difference: it did not take place over the course of forty days but forty years. That journey, as recorded in the Book of Exodus and completed in the Book of Joshua the son of Nun, lasted forty years.
If I’m not mistaken, the Israelites had been enslaved for five generations after Joseph in Egypt, and after terrible drama and intense repression they wanted to leave and return to their own country. They embarked with Moses as their leader after a dizzying adventure and their journey brought them to what Exodus calls “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This is what Moses promised them.
Let us look at some of the features of this journey and try to find corresponding analogies with our brief forty day journey in this blessed wilderness of Great Lent.
The first similarity is that they walked through the wilderness as a people. They did not try to escape slavery as individuals, but all together as a nation. They collected and aggregated together, they were given a leader, and everyone embarked on their journey. Imagine a caravan of thousands of people with the common sense that they were the chosen people of God and they were related as a nation. They all left Egypt together and journeyed across the wilderness. And we similarly are one people, the people of God. Together we are the Church.
If we all embark on this journey together we will also arrive together. We should not sense that we are alone in our struggle, that we will go through the process alone and emerge victorious without caring what happens to other people. Our salvation, our struggle, is social and done within the secret Body of the Church, together. Not only as many as we are now, or only those who confess that they constitute the Church, but even those that are within God’s embrace perhaps without themselves realizing it.
Just as God Himself “wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,” in the same way we, the New Israel, should want to leave the Egypt of this world, the worldly mindset, the passions, the ephemeral, falsehood and deceit, and to pass through the wilderness of our struggle to reach the place promised by God, in contact and communication with His saints, in His sensible kingdom, in the meeting of His person, in the Resurrection.
Therefore, the first similarity is that in our struggle during the fast we do what we do with the sense that we are doing it together. This is why we begin with the Service of Forgiveness, that we may reconcile. We are divided, we are cold, we have our differences, and we place everything aside as one body, one people, and we embark on our journey, forgiven, reconciled, as brethren, with the sense that altogether we need our salvation.
The second similarity can be found if you take the opportunity during these days to read the first chapters, especially the fifth and sixth, of the Book of Exodus. There you will find compelling dialogues reciprocated between God and Moses. You will see that Moses invokes a bunch of excuses to not respond to the honor of being called by God to lead the people of Israel and be their guide. Eventually God convinces him. He convinces him and prepares him. Initially, God reveals to Moses His name. After Moses asked, “Who are You?” He responded, “I am He Who is, Who exists, the source of life and existence, Who is I am by nature and essence.”
God then gives Him the ability to work wonders, personal signs to convince the Israelites away from their twisted ways, their selfishness, setbacks, defects, weaknesses, distrust, misery and groaning, as we find throughout their journey. He thus gave these two gifts to Moses as well as a blessing to be their leader. So they embarked on their journey with a guide. What does this mean for us?
We cannot fight the struggle of Great Lent or the struggle of the wilderness of this life without having a spiritual guide. This is both the tradition and proven experience of the Church. And this guide is not merely a guide, but also a father.
He must be a man of prayer, who converses with God. To be a man who has boldness before God, even though he may be a stutterer or not well spoken, as Exodus tells us about Moses, and he may not be externally gifted, but who is called and appointed by God to lead us on the journey.
He is our spiritual father. We have great need to have a spiritual father. To be our father, our teacher, our guide, to be our intermediate with God, to hold us by the hand along our journey. Perhaps in our times God has not given us such a gift. Often we complain, rightly perhaps, that there are not many such spiritual fathers.
Let us bring this concern to prayer, and make an effort and struggle to find such a man to teach us five to ten secrets about the spiritual life, and supplement our inadequate prayers with his prayers. This is his job.
Let us experience the miracle of the return of the waters of the sea, that our thoughts, doubts, obstacles, temptations and difficulties may sink and drown. Therefore the third similarity of our journey of Great Lent is with the miraculous passage through the Red Sea of the difficulties and obstacles we meet.
The Book of Exodus tells us that eventually Moses became the leader and guide, being in reality led by God, for God went before them. And how did the presence of God appear? In two ways. During the day He appeared as a cloud, and at night as a pillar of fire. During the day He draped them with a cloud, giving them the sweetness and warmth of the divine presence, and at night He gave them light in the darkness that they may find their way and progress in their journey. We also need such an alliance in our sense of the divine presence in our struggle, not that we are struggling alone, but that we have strength from above.
But through our prayers, through the humility of our hearts, through the sweet depths of our internal longing, may we have this sense, that our struggle is under the cloud of the divine presence and the light of divine confirmation. In this way we will progress along the way of every phase in the arena of the struggle of Great Lent.
We are told they hungered, they grew tired and became weary. They saw the miracle, experienced the presence, they had Moses, they took solace, yet they still complained. How human! How natural! How unexpected! Yet for us it is also expected and natural that in our struggle, although we may see God’s blessings, at the first difficulty of the desert heat and its fruitlessness, we fall on our knees.
This is what happened with the Israelites, but God told them to not worry, for He was with them and near them and saw them and followed them and guided their footsteps. That He promised that He would lead them out of Egypt to the Land of Promise, and if they were hungry then He would feed them. So He sent them a flock of quails and spread around them manna from heaven to eat. The quails were the meat of worship. God also gives us the opportunities to worship Him. Such as with the blessed Complines, what a beautiful service! He gives us Presanctifieds every Wednesday and Friday, and the Salutations during this period. These rare hymns are not chanted any other time. He gives us the Solemn Vespers, the five Sundays of the fast, the beautiful feast of the Annunciation. He gives us such a cluster of powerful food and meat. Nothing else remains than for us to reach out and grab the opportunity, to open our mouths and begin to devour the message of divine truth, as presented in a concrete meaningful way.
But He also gives us the manna. It simply satisfies us. The heavenly manna satisfies the soul, because the heavenly manna is the Divine Eucharist. The heavenly manna is the mystery by which God nourishes His people, the New Israel. It can also nourish us. Our participation in the mysteries is necessary. If we have our Moses, our spiritual father, and his permission, if we have the internal craving and need in our soul, along with repentance, then let us not ignore this untapped treasure of heavenly manna, the Divine Eucharist, which gently falls on the ground of our soul and gives us miraculous satiety.
But God did not only give them food. They were thirsty afterwards. And miraculously God gave them water. He told Moses that with the same staff he struck the sea and parted it in order to pass through, to now strike the rock so it may gush forth water. Moses struck it, and it gushed forth water. This water quenched the thirst of the thirsty Israelites in the wilderness. Similarly water can quench the thirst of our souls with the staff of our own Moses.
And this is none other than the word of God. If we could listen to one thing during these days, to even slightly open our eyes and quench the thirst of our soul, let it be with either the spoken or possibly written word. There are many books, patristic books, even more modern books, also the service books, and if we can find some time to strike the rock of this unknown treasure, we will experience the miracle of the revelation of the divine word in our hearts, which are often harder than a rock.
The Israelites, although they continued on their journey, although they overcame obstacles, crossing through the Red Sea, being satiated in the ways mentioned, quenching the thirst of their souls, quenching the thirst of their bodies, soon after came to face an enemy, the Amalekites. And God performed His miracle.
Although Moses momentarily bends, God says to Him to not worry, for He would give the people of Israel the strength to defeat them. And though the Amelakites may not have been expected, and were many and threatening, and may possibly have exceeded the strength of their people, Moses was to raise his hands in the sign of the cross, and as long as his hands were horizontal in prayer in this symbolic position, then though they were few and weak, they would conquer the many and strong. And as the hands of Moses grew tired, they were upheld by Aaron and Hur, each holding a hand in the horizontal position of prayer which was a symbol of the cross, and in this way they defeated the enemy and triumphed, so they could continue along their journey to Mount Sinai.
We also, despite our fast, despite our good intentions, despite our studies, despite our participation in the mysteries, have the fearsome Amalek who seeks to fight us. This Amalek is our impassioned self. We bear a fallen nature full of beastly passions which currently sit in the corner, perhaps with a bit of our disdain, but in the quiet of the wilderness of the fast and this period we must see who will emerge.
Whoever fights the good fight of the fast will easily discover their unknown passions. In the wilderness they will lift their head, in the quiet they will raise their voice, in the apparent peace they will create turmoil. We must expect these passions.
The solution and answer is the sign of the cross and our prayer and divine intervention will give each of us the victory, without being scared or flinching or being intimidated, to be found victors against our passions. In this way like the Israelites we will arrive at Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God Himself lowers and gives in the midst of an atmosphere of earthquakes, shock and smoke the ten commandments. He reveals to them His will.
This also, my brethren, can happen in our own lives. It must happen. Journeying through the wilderness we must also arrive at and slowly climb our own Mount Sinai, and there we will receive the revelation of the divine will in our souls. Our struggle, our prayer, our faith, our trust in God, our good spiritual dependence in our own spiritual Moses, our participation in the mysteries, our hope in the miracle and divine intervention, all these together in the struggle of the fast, together with the struggle of almsgiving, together with the struggle that each of us will carry can eventually lead us to a successful conclusion, to victory, to the Land of Promise, to the blessing of God, to the joy and experience of the Resurrection.
After forty days we will have the help of God to complete the journey of Great Lent this year. That the experience of this journey will be given to us by God endlessly, the experience of seeking, the experience of divine manifestation, the experience of the miracle that it may be endless and perpetual with the experience of the joy of the divine Resurrection. Amen.