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Prot. Nº 36 /2012D
Damascus 31 January 2012
Letter of H. B. Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch and All the East,
of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
for Great and Holy Lent 2012
“Enter into your room and ...shut your door.”(Matthew 6: 6)
To our dear brother bishops, members of the Holy Synod,
the superiors general,
our sons, the priests and deacons,
and all the sons and daughters of the parishes and eparchies
of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church
in Arab countries and throughout the world,
quadragesimal greetings with my affection,
prayer and apostolic blessing!
“Enter into your room and…shut your door.” That is the call that Jesus Christ addressed to his disciples. It is the same call that I address to the sons and daughters of our Melkite Greek Catholic Church at the beginning of this blessed period of Great Lent that is opening wide its doors to us. That is what we we sing during Sunday Orthros from the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican right up until Palm Sunday, “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of life, for my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple, bearing the temple of my body all defiled. But in thy compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of thy mercy.”
This call is one of several such that Jesus Christ once addressed to his disciples. Today he addresses it to us during this “time of salvation,” calling us to deepen our spiritual life. To respond to these calls, monks used to leave their monasteries on Clean Monday, otherwise known as Monks’ Monday, to go into retreat in eremitical solitude, to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation.
I cite here some texts of Holy Scripture, as an introduction to this letter and to serve as topics of spiritual meditation for the days of Great and Holy Lent.
“Jesus departed into a solitary place and there prayed.” (Mark 1: 35)
“‘Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place and rest a while.’” (Mark 6: 31)
“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2: 19)
“[Jesus] continued all night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6: 12)
“And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.” (Luke 7: 37-38)
“As he was alone praying, his disciples were with him.” (Luke 9: 18)
“[Jesus] went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.” (Luke 9: 28b-29)
“If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14: 23)
“O that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest.” (Psalm 55: 6)
“I will hear what God the LORD will speak.” (Psalm 85: 8a)
“My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God and they shall be my people.” (Ezekiel 37: 27)
“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19: 11-13)
“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish's belly,… ‘When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.’(Jonah 2: 1, 7-9)
In the Liturgy we hear continual, repeated calls to quiet and inner silence. “Let all mortal flesh keep silent.” (Holy Saturday, troparion sung instead of the Cherubic Hymn) “Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.” (Introduction to the anaphora)
The advice that Saint Basil gives for celebrating the Liturgy is very eloquent. Here is an extract:
“Do not begin the service if you are nursing a grudge at heart against anyone, lest the Paraclete abandon you.
Judge no-one. Do not quarrel while ministering. Persevere in church, prayer and reading until it is time to celebrate the divine mysteries.
Stand before the holy altar with a pure, penitent heart. Do not look to one side or the other, but rather stand before the heavenly King.
Do not hurry through your prayer. Do not abridge it to make time for worldly business. Pay no regard to people's faces, but rather direct your heart completely to the King enthroned before you with the angels attending him.”
On the basis of all that, we should like to underline the importance of external or bodily expressions of these recommendations: that is, calmness in prayers, tone of voice, and chanting the Epistle and the Gospel, that should be sung in a reflective and pious way. Similarly, we should like to emphasise that the prayers that are called secret, and which we have suggested be prayed aloud, should not be chanted, but prayed reverently, “mystikos,” according to the Greek expression, and followed by the doxology chanted aloud.
We should like to emphasise also the importance of meditation, solitude and silent spiritual retreats. It is advisable to conduct these in convents and monasteries during Great Lent, to experience times of meditation, contemplation and liturgical service in community and alone.
We should like to invite everyone to intensify reading the word of God(lectio divina), during the period of Great Lent and in groups, pastoral meetings, or evangelical sharing after reading. That is the subject of Propositiones 2 and 3 of the Synod for the Middle East, given below:
“Propositio 2 The Word of God
The Word of God is the soul and foundation of Christian life and of all pastoral work; we hope that every family would own a Bible.
The Synod Fathers encourage daily reading of and meditation on the Word of God, especially lectio divina, and the creation of a website about the Bible, including Catholic explanations and commentaries which are easily understood by the faithful. We would also like to see the preparation of an introductory booklet to the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, offering a simple way to read the Bible.
They also encourage eparchies / dioceses and parishes to introduce and promote Bible study sessions in which the Word of God is meditated upon and explained in a manner that answers the questions of the faithful, so as to help them to become more familiar with the Scriptures, deepening their spirituality and strengthen their apostolic and missionary commitment.
Propositio 3 A Biblical Pastoral Programme
The synod Fathers urgently recommend that work be undertaken to place the two Testaments of Holy Scripture at the centre of our Christian life by encouraging the faithful to proclaim them, read them, meditate on them, interpret them in the light of Christ and celebrate them liturgically, as did the first Christian communities.
We propose that a Year of the Bible be proclaimed after due preparation and that it be followed by an annual Week of the Bible.”
It is important to train young people and invite them to silence, quietness, especially on trips and youth camps and to lower the volume of singing during meetings and parish activities.
It is also important to emphasise Christian asceticism, mysticism, self-control, singleness of life, which can all lead to mystical or spiritual inner experience and help Christian maturation and spiritual growth.
Canon Law invites seminarians to increase their intimacy and even familiarity with Christ, meditation on the word of God, spiritual guidance, life in Christ, examination of conscience, prayerfulness and contemplation. These recommendations are similarly addressed to priests, monks and nuns, but can be practised also by lay-persons. (See canon 346 of the Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches.)
We invite everyone, clergy and faithful, to make a personal spiritual retreat during Great Lent.
On this occasion we reiterate a desire very dear to our heart, for our masculine and feminine religious orders to set aside a house for spiritual retreats, with a suitable ambiance for spiritual guidance, confession, Lenten services, preaching, and liturgical services including the Divine Liturgy, celebrated in all their splendour.
The deepening of spiritual life, to which we invite everyone on the occasion of Great Lent, is an effectual way of overcoming the modern maladies mentioned in the Lineamenta for the Synod on the New Evangelization, to be held in October 2012, where we find,
“Traces of a secularized way of looking at life can be seen in the daily lives of many Christians, who are oftentimes influenced, if not completely conditioned, by the culture of images with its models and opposing forces. Temptations to superficiality and self-centredness, arising from a predominating hedonistic and consumer-oriented mentality, are not easily overcome. The ‘death of God,’announced decades ago by so many intellectuals, has given way to an unproductive cult of the individual. A real possibility exists that the fundamental elements of explaining the faith might be lost, which will then lead to not only spiritual atrophy and emptiness of heart, but also, on the other extreme, substitute forms of religious affiliation and a vague sense of the spiritual. In such situations, the new evangelization is seen as the needed impetus for weary and worn-out communities to help them rediscover the joy of the Christian experience, to find again ‘the love you had at first’which was lost (Revelation 2:4) and to emphasize the true meaning of freedom in the search for truth. (No. 6, para. 3)”
The Holy Father, Benedict XVI often invites to silence in his letters and exhortations, and in his words to crowds attending Mass, after the Gospel reading, sermon and reception of Holy Communion.
How desirable it would be to introduce moments of silence into the Divine Liturgy, liturgical prayers, sacraments, meetings for various pastoral activities, pastoral councils and committees, and for us to read and meditate on the word of God together, followed by spiritual sharing to help us mutually enrich one another by an exchange of spiritual experiences!
Yes, we very much need to go deep. We need to plunge into our souls, into our inner sanctum, our inner altar. We have such need of moments of calm, quietness (shekinah), meditation, silence and listening. That is what I emphasised in the preface to the (Arabic) booklet entitled, Eastern Prayers for the season of Great Lent, as can be seen from the following extract,
“The prayers of this booklet are a guide for the way of bodily repentance through fasting, abstinence and self-control, and the ways of spiritual repentance (metanoia), according to what our conscience, illuminated by the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, inspires. These practices are aimed at sanctifying soul and body through prayer, purification, repentance, confession, spiritual elevation towards God and unity with him in love, neighbourly love, service, reception of the Holy Mysteries (sacraments), practice of the virtues of faith, hope and charity, alms-giving, acts of corporal and spiritual compassion.
We have chosen troparia from the whole time of Lent to serve as a spiritual ladder to the height of the Resurrection.
This booklet may be useful at parish meetings, in family catechism and spiritual retreats and so forth.”
(The Arabic text is available through the Paulist Press.)
Our spiritual and corporal illnesses need to be cured by prayer and fasting. Fasting is a gracious time, a time of salvation.
In the current tragic situation of our Arab countries, especially Syria, we invite our priests and faithful to make this Lenten season a time of prayer and intercession and repentance for peace, solidarity, unity, harmony, dialogue and respect among citizens. God protect our Arab countries, especially Syria. May the Saviour grant that this Lenten time lead us to the true joy of the Resurrection and Life!
With the Church, we sing, “Brothers and sisters, let us not pray with the mind of the Pharisee! For he who vaunts himself shall be brought low. Let us rather be humble and cry with contrite heart like the publican, ‘God have mercy on us sinners.’”
We wish everyone a Holy Lent!
With my affection, blessing and prayer,
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem
Selection of texts from our Letter for Lent 2004
1. The Canon of Great and Holy Lent
As I do every year, I should like to refer to the Canon of Holy Lent, according to the ancient, original discipline as follows:
- The days of fasting and abstinence are Wednesday and Friday of Meatfare Week before Cheesefare Week and Monday through Friday of the weeks of Great Lent and of Great and Holy Week, unless one of those days coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March)
- Great and Holy Saturday is the only Saturday on which one must keep a fast. It is forbidden to fast on the other Saturdays of the year, because Saturday (Sabbath) is a holy day linked with the day of the Resurrection (Sunday)
- Days of abstinence are for the whole time of Great Lent, including Sundays and during all of Holy Week, unless the Annunciation falls then, except for Palm Sunday, when fish may be eaten.
- Abstinence is abstinence from meat and gravy, dairy products, eggs, milk, cheese and butter, whilst fish is permitted on some days: 25 March and Palm Sunday. Wine and oil are permitted on certain days.
- Our Holy Synods have more than once dealt with the question of fasting and abstinence, especially between 1949-54. General guidance was given, above all, after Vatican II, that each local bishop organise the discipline of fasting and abstinence suitable to his eparchy.
- Despite different dispensations which were put in place for different situations in life, the discipline of fasting according to the old, Eastern tradition remains firm and, thank God, fairly well practised in many monastic religious institutions, among the clergy and faithful.
2. The Meaning of Fasting and Abstinence
- Fasting is abstinence from any food and drink from midnight until Vespers. So the person fasting eats a single meal a day after Vespers or after the Liturgy of the Presanctified, or at midday after the Festal or Sunday Liturgy.
- Eucharistic or sacramental fasting in its deepest meaning is linked to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and to Holy Communion. According to the ancient tradition, anyone presenting himself for Holy Communion should have fasted by abstaining from all food and drink.
- In fact, communion finishes or brings to a close the fast. One can say that it breaks the fast, whether after a day of fasting or during Great Lent. In that case the person fasting ends his day and his fast by celebrating the Presanctified Liturgy, which is the service of Vespers with solemn communion. In the same way, the Fasts of the Preparation for Christ mas and for Epiphany end with the Di vine Liturgy, pre ceded by the service of Vespers. In the same way, the fast of the last three days of Great and Holy Week ends with Paschal Communion on Easter morning.
- Abstinence is abstinence from meat and gravy, dairy products, eggs, milk, cheese and butter, whilst fish is permitted on some days: 25 March and Palm Sunday. Wine and oil are permitted on certain days.
3. The Wisdom of Fasting
“The Holy Fathers of the Church consider Great Lent or the Great Fast of the Great Days as a carrying out of the tithe for God. Forty days is almost a tenth of the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. In fact, we read in the commandments, to carry out the tithe and receive blessing. (Deuteronomy 12:6-7) To that we add the Advent Fast, the Apostles’ Fast and the Dormition Fast. The different fasts fall in all four seasons of the year to sanctify the whole year. The Advent Fast is in autumn, the Great Fast of forty days is mostly in winter, the Apostles’ Fast is in late spring and the Fast of the Dormition in summer.
So the faithful Christian who observes the different fasts remains in a continuous relationship with the spiritual and ascetic exercises and in a spiritual watchfulness to enable the Holy Spirit to work in him. In the same way he keeps his fitness of soul and body together.
Many people seek out doctors and scientists to get information relevant for keeping their bodily good health but we should not be at all surprised to find that the wisdom of the Church in distributing the fasts is absolutely in agreement with medical instructions and even superior to their advice, for it is aimed at health of soul and body. So is fulfilled the saying of the great master Jesus, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33) And again he says, “It is written, man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Matthew 4:4) That was the reply of Jesus to the tempter in the desert. St. Paul says, explaining the true meaning of Lent, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31) And he also says, “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.” (I Corinthians 6:20)
4. The services of Great and Holy Lent
Presanctified Liturgy (Proagiasmena):In the Melkite Greek Catholic Church there has developed a widespread custom of celebrating the Presanctified Liturgy or Proagiasmena (Greek), at the end of Vespers on Wednesday and Friday of the fast, on the first two days of the first week of Lent and the first three days of Holy Week. On other days of the fast, our priests celebrate the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, with the Epistles and Gospels of the day.
Grand Compline:This service is celebrated on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and is also known under the name of the prayer, “Lord of hosts.”
Akathist service (Akathistos):This is celebrated on Friday evenings during the five weeks of the fast, in honour of the Most Holy Mother of God (Theotokos.)
The Liturgy of Saint Basil:This is celebrated on every Sunday of Lent, and on Holy and Great Thursday and on Holy Saturday.
Selection of texts from Services for Great and Holy Lent
For everyone’s spiritual welfare we give a choice of texts that may be used during Lent by persons by themselves or in activity meetings.
As mentioned above, a booklet has been published (in Arabic only) containing broad extracts from the whole Lenten period.
1. Lamplighting Psalms from Vespers of the Prodigal Son:
“I have sown sin in a land of life and innocence and have harvested the ears of thoughtlessness. I have gathered my actions into bundles of sheaves, but I have not placed them on the threshing floors of repentance. And now I pray to thee, O my God, for thou art the pre-eternal tiller of our fields. With the breath of thy loving-kindness, now winnow the grain of my actions, feed my soul with thy grace and forgiveness, gather me into thy heavenly granaries and save me.”
2. Sunday of the Prodigal Son – Kathisma after the First Ode of the Canon:
“Lord, hasten to open to me thy fatherly arms, for I have foolishly wasted my whole life; consider the inexhaustible treasury of thy pity, Saviour, despise not the poverty of my heart; to thee, Lord, I cry full of remorse: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against thee.”
3. Second Kathisma of Cheesefare Monday Matins (Tone 1):
“The doors of divine repentance are open for us; let us joyfully go in and purify our bodies. Let us abstain from the passions as we abstain from food, behaving as servants of Christ, who calls the world to the kingdom of heaven. Let us give the yearly tithe to the King of all, that we may lovingly behold his holy resurrection.”
4. Cheesefare Thursday Matins, 1st Canon (Tone 8), 4th hymn:
“Close thy mouth to fast, with a quiet conscience; O my soul, turn to the Lord, carrying out good deeds; offer him as a sweet-smelling incense, the food of virtue; and cry joyfully: All the works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord.”
5. Cheesefare Friday Matins, 2nd canon (Tone 6), 5th ode, 4th hymn:
“Fasting, prayer and weeping and our humble demeanour are the gifts we bear to him who condescended for us, that he might, in the Lenten season, grant us the forgiveness of our sins.”
6. Cheesefare Sunday (or Forgiveness Sunday), Lauds, 2nd sticheron (Tone 5):
“The arena of the virtues has been opened. Let all who wish to struggle for the prize now enter, girding themselves for the noble contest of the Fast; for those that strive lawfully are justly crowned. Taking up the armour of the cross, let us make war against the enemy. Let us have as our invincible rampart the faith, prayer as our breastplate, and as our helmet almsgiving; and as our sword let us use fasting that cuts away all evil from our heart. If we do this, we shall receive the true crown from Christ the King of all at the Day of Judgment.”
7. Sunday of Cheesefare, Lauds, 4th sticheron (Tone Six):
“The time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest and to gain the victory over the demonic powers. Let us put on the armour of abstinence and clothe ourselves in the glory of the angels. With boldness Moses spoke to the Creator, and he heard the voice of the invisible God. In thy love for man, O Lord, grant us with the same boldness to venerate thy passion and thy holy resurrection.”
8. Sunday of Cheesefare, Vespers, 3rd sticheron (Tone Two):
“Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the spirit, may we persevere with love and so be counted worthy to see the solemn passion of Christ our God and with great spiritual gladness to behold his holy Passover.”
9. First Monday of Lent, Matins, 3rd kathisma (Tone Two):
“Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendour of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the holy resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.”
10. First Tuesday of Lent, Matins First Canon, (Tone Two), 3rd hymn:
“Through fasting let us all ascend the mountain of virtuous action, forsaking the sensual temptations that creep upon the ground. Let us enter into the darkness of holy visions; by the divine and mystical ascent let us become godlike, and let us look only upon Christ our beloved in his beauty.”
11. The same, Another Canon, (Tone Five), 3rd hymn:
“Come, let us enter the inner chamber of our soul, offering prayers to the Lord and crying aloud: Our Father, who art in heaven, remit and forgive our debts, for thou alone art compassionate.”
12. The same, Canticle Nine, 3rd hymn:
“Come my soul, and by fasting ascend to heaven on the wings of the virtues, rising above the sin that creeps on the ground: take thy delight in visions of glory that lead thee to holiness, and through faith grow godlike.”
13. The same, Aposticha, (Tone Three):
“Let us begin, O ye peoples, the pure Fast that is our soul’s salvation. Let us serve the Lord with fear: let us anoint our heads with the oil of almsgiving, and let us wash our faces in the waters of purity; let us not use vain repetitions in our prayers, but as we have been taught, so let us cry: Our Father, who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses in thy love for mankind. (twice)”
14. First Wednesday of Lent, Vespers, 1st sticheron (Tone Eight):
“While fasting in the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God. (twice)”
15. First Friday of Lent, Vespers, 1st sticheron (Tone Five):
“Come, ye faithful, and in the light let us perform the works of God; let us walk honestly as in the day. Let us cast away every unjust accusation against our neighbour, not placing any cause of stumbling in his path. Let us lay aside the pleasures of the flesh, and increase the spiritual gifts of our soul. Let us give bread to those in need, and let us draw near unto Christ, crying in penitence: O our God, have mercy on us. (twice) ”
16. Friday, Sixth Week of Lent, 1st sticheron of Vespers (Tone One):
“Having completed the forty days that bring profit to our soul, we beseech thee in thy love for mankind, grant us also to behold the Holy Week of thy Passion, that in it we may glorify thy mighty acts and thine ineffable dispensation for our sakes, singing with one mind, O Lord, glory to thee.”
Translation from French: V. Chamberlain
Friday Vespers, at Lord I have cried.