Finding Grace in Great Lent

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Fr. Geoff serves the Akathist to the Theotokos in the Small Chapel at Lent

Well, we’re approaching the end of the first week of Great Lent in 2018. God’s been good, very good to us. And the season of Great Lent is rewarding! Let me relate a little of what is happening in the parish and what God is doing in our lives.

Beauty and Charity

Just in time for Great Lent, our re-covered Gospel Book arrived. It was covered by an Orthodox monastery in Belarus, and it is a gorgeously beautiful covering.

Gospel Book enthroned on the altar

Gospel Book enthroned on the altar

I was absolutely delighted when I saw it.

It is fitting to glorify God in His sanctuary to the best of our means and ability. The church building is an icon of the congregation—it is a representation of the “kingdom of God” which is “within you all” and “within our midst” (Luke 17:21). Scripture says that each one of the faithful receives “the beauty of God” (Isaiah 61:3). Being beautified by God is your destiny! And the house of God is an image of you, so it ought to be beautiful.

I know there are some who might say, “This money ought to have been spent on the poor.” But helping those in need and beautifying God’s house are not opposed! We’re Orthodox—we’re not the Church of the either-or, we’re the Church of the both-and—we both beautify God’s house and help those in need.

Which leads us to almsgiving, which is completely appropriate for this Lenten season. Back during the Nativity Fast, I recommended three particular charities you might want to consider for some of your charitable donations. I’ll mention them again:

  • The Barnabus Fund is established to help persecuted Christians in war-torn countries.
  • Lighthouse Australia runs a very effective program to help homeless Melbourne youth get back on their feet.
  • Effective Altruism Australia points to charities that alleviates the greatest amount of poverty for each dollar spent (primarily in African nations).

Please do consider charitable giving during this Lenten period. Doing so will help combat the “love of money” which “stabs” some with “many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).

New Catechumens

In the ancient Church, Lent was when catechumens were instructed. These days, we don’t typically make the catechumens wait nearly so long. But it was our joy to welcome two young men to the catechumenate.

Fr. Geoff with our two newest catechumens

Fr. Geoff with our two newest catechumens

Each step someone takes toward Christ is a step towards realising the presence of God in their lives.

Coming from a western background, I was always taught that if you educate someone, then they will understand and be led to belief. But when I came to Orthodoxy, I learned that it is the experience of God that leads to understanding.

How can a fish know water when it has never felt air? How can a young couple fall in love without spending time together? It is our experience that leads to understanding. And these two young men are embarking on a wonderful journey to discover both intimacy and awe in the presence of the personal-yet-transcendent God.

Chaplaincy at Monash

Fr. Geoff welcomes a new Monash student

Fr. Geoff welcomes a Monash University student

During the week I serve as a Chaplain within Monash University. Coinciding with the first week of Great Lent was Monash University’s Orientation Week. This week many students spent their very first moments here at University.

We from The Good Shepherd parish welcome all students to Monash University and are delighted that you have come to this great seat of learning. We also welcome faculty, staff and other employees that work so hard to allow this campus to thrive.

You will all be in our prayers. The Good Shepherd has a prayer team of more than twenty people who pray daily for the students at Monash.

If I can be of service to any Monash University student, please contact me.

Fasting

Church Tradition instructs the faithful to fast during this period of Great Lent. Fasting consists in giving up some types of food, and making some reduction to our portion sizes. (And remember, fasting is not for everyone!)

This mild form of fasting creates a temporary “weakness” in our body. It interrupts the impression we have of being the “master of our own world,” and reminds us of our mortality.

A traditional Lenten meal

A meal in the Lenten tradition

Along with weakness comes hunger. The small amount of physical hunger we suffer during Great Lent is designed to fuel our spiritual hunger, longing and dependence on God.

It’s good to remind ourselves of the true meaning of fasting.

Along with all these positive aspects, sometimes we might become a little, shall we say, “edgy.” When we're a little tired and a little hungry, it’s easy to have a short temper. The anti-dote is prayer.

If you’re joining the Church’s fast, please make sure that you’re also joining in the Church’s Lenten Prayers. If you’re a little edgy, do ensure you’re praying the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim.

Struggling in the Services

While fasting, prayer, self-examination and repentance are private activities, the public side of Great Lent are all the extra public services. The Church provides these services for our benefit. She has equipped us with sacred hymnography and liturgy written by men and women who knew God’s presence.

Take the service of Great Compline & St. Andrew’s Canon. St. Andrew wrote the hymnography for himself, for his own personal devotions. He wrote these hymns as medicine for his own soul. And when St. Andrew reposed, his followers discovered the hymns and realised what a spiritual treasure trove was theirs.

Vespers begins on Saturday evening at 5:00pm

Church Tradition has arranged this stunning spiritual material in a service that lasted this week for two hours. It was a real physical struggle for some people to stand, bow and prostrate for two hours. (And it’s okay to sit down for those who need to!) But the physical struggle is good for our soul. Our bodies and our souls are intimately connected. The Church’s services recognise this and bring healing medicine to body and soul.

But it’s not all struggle. Last night we were graced with uplifting hymns to the Theotokos (God-birther), the Virgin Mary, who, unique among all humans, was graced with bearing, nurturing, conceiving and raising God.

Deacon stands with smoking censer

As always, this service is so uplifting. The Church knows that in these days of struggle we also need the refreshment of The Akathist of Thanksgiving to the Theotokos.

I’m very glad that between 10 and 20 per cent of our membership regularly attend these Lenten Services. They are on offer for the faithful and for visitors alike, and I would encourage you to consider how you might benefit from also participating in the heavenly worship that is ours.

There was a lively discussion at the end of that service about why we so magnify Mary. I know it’s a very difficult thing for people from Protestant backgrounds to get their heads around. Protestantism conceives of us as individuals relating to God; whereas Orthodoxy conceives of us all being in communion, and having constant dialogue with every member of the Church, whether they be in heaven or on earth.

Fundamentally, we sing Mary’s praise because honour is due her. Listen to her words,

“… for behold, from now on, all generations shall call me blessed”

— Luke 1:48, EOB.

Now, read the Psalm she was quoting:

“I will cause your name to be remembered in all generations;
    therefore nations will praise you forever and ever”

— Psalm 45:17, ESV.

Where we read “nations,” the Apostles understood that its fulfilment was found in the Gentiles (the nations) who joined the Church. As a result, we are bound by Scriptural command to honour and remember Mary’s name forever and ever. 

Deacon Nicholas and choir lead faithful in worship

Orthodox Churches obey this scriptural injunction by remembering the Virgin Mary, in word, prayer and song during every service of the Church. She is an example and inspiration to us of living in physical union with God, which is the medicine the Church provides for our healing. Perhaps what I’m about to say will help illustrate this.

Experiencing God’s Grace

This week one of my parishioners asked me to relate his experience for your benefit.

Fr. Geoff reads the Gospel during the Akathist

Fr. Geoff reads the Gospel during the Akathist

His experience revolves around little-thought-like-things that the Church Fathers call, “logismoi.” Many of us experience them, even if we’re not aware of it. It’s like a constant talk-track in our mind generating fantasies or self-criticism or alternating between both.

He told me that he had been hearing from these thoughts an awful lot recently. One of the things these little-thought-like-things was saying, “God isn’t real. God doesn’t exist.” He had no solid come-back and it was undermining him.

But on Wednesday night he attended the Great Canon of St. Andrew & Great Compline and struggled through the service. The fasting, the prostrations, the self-examination of the service and even the two hours of standing was an effort. Yet he struggled through and said the “Jesus Prayer” as he drove home.

When he arrived at his house, he realised something was dramatically different within himself. He realised that the talk-track in his head was completely switched off. This stunned him, because he’d never known life without the talk-track. He had come to associate this talk track with, “himself.” And he realised that it wasn’t himself at all.

“Now,” he said to me, “I know God exists. I know His presence. Now I know I stand in prayer speaking to a friend.”

My parishioner experienced the grace of God’s presence this Lenten period. I pray that you too come to know Him. I pray for our catechumens, and all the faithful at The Good Shepherd, and all those whose hearts are already, perhaps unknowingly, being energised by the grace of our Lord.

 

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