Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (Eph. 5:14)
By the mercy of the Lord we are again in the arena of the holy fast and repentance! Some of us who together with us last year set out to confession and the holy meal have been taken by the angel of death and stand now before the altar of the righteous God, but we still stand before the alter of mercy! Behind them or before them the doors of the King’s palace have already closed, but before us they stand open! Their fate, perhaps, has already been permanently decided, but ours is still in our own hands! Let us thank the Lord that we have not perished with our sins and has again given us all means for repentance!
How and with what do we thank Him? With the rigorous and faithful usage of these very means for our salvation. Speaking such I do not suppose, brothers, that anyone of you carried out past Lents completely not in a Christian way, even more so that anyone has withdrawn from the Holy Mysteries of the Church, but, oppositely, I suppose that every one of you has come to the holy altar for the receiving of the forgiveness of sins and the mysterious unification with our Lord and Savior through the communion of His body and blood. I also think that all of this, every time, does possesses fruit for the soul and leaves beneficial traces throughout your whole life… But, my brothers, disregarding all of this, allow me to ask you now one question. Repeatedly coming to the spiritual hospital and going through the whole program of heart treatment and repeatedly leaving the Church of God, apparently, justified and healed, did you feel, at least one time, completely healthy spiritually? And if you did feel healthy, did that precious feeling last long?… I don’t hereby suppose that you, after seven days of preparation* and abstinence, suddenly have become completely sinless (this holy lot is for those who have already delivered themselves from the bonds of flesh and blood [i.e., died]). But you must have been more free from sin after that; there must have happened a decisive change for the better in you. The light of Grace in your soul must have been like the morning sun, arising higher and higher, driving away the clouds of confusion, drying all of the streams of sensuality, in order to, finally, bring about a full day of knowing God and piety. Is this how it was with you? Have you noticed in yourself, after the podvig of fasting and repentance, a permanent removal from the world, an approach to God, and a weakening and disappearance of previous bad habits, substituting them with good and Christian habits? It is not hard to answer this question if all this has happened in you and continues to happen. A person, recovered from a serious illness, will readily say that he is healthy. But is it not true, my brothers, that for many of us it is extremely hard to answer the question of we have become healthy in spirit and conscience? Many, on the contrary, must admit with sorrow, as the ancient Israelites, that the opposite happens, “We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!” (Jer. 8:15). Before every fast, confession, and communion we hoped to receive, through them, spiritual health and we accept these Mysteries with joy. However, up to the present we have remained the same as we were previously: our souls are cold to the good and incline to the evil; previous passions have the same power and, often, more; our conscience has the same wounds and our heart has the same burden; and our inner man is completely dead or extremely weak. “We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!”
What, then, does this mean? “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jer. 8:22) questioned at one time the prophet, seeing the continuance of the sickly state of the Israelites. Likewise, I will ask you, brothers, taking into account the same unhealed state of your souls. “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” Has the all-healing Hand of God really been shortened and the Mysteries of the Holy Church lost their power? Or have pastors of the Church, pronouncing absolution over us, not pronounced it from their heart? No! What is forgiven won’t be remembered here and there unless you, yourselves, revive it again with the repetition of previous sins! Or did the Savior, giving you His flesh and blood, give you something foreign and not the true thing? No, He will not turn away from His own flesh and blood if only you are able to preserve this gift… Many people, similar to you, even more serious sinners, using the very same methods, were able to cleanse themselves from all the uncleanliness of sin and recover completely from hellish leprosy and become holy and pleasing to God and now are preparing to finish their earthly existence in peace or are already enjoying the grace of forgiveness in the Kingdom of Glory. But you, brothers, using many times the very same methods remain, up to now, on the bed of spiritual death or drag the pitiful remains of the spiritual life into the bonds of sin! What does this mean?…
Was it not of the same thing, brothers, about which at one time that same prophet complained while gazing at the desperate state of Babylon? Babylon, he says, is falling; its day of judgment and sentence is close and inevitable. But who is to blame? Did Babylon lack the means for the aversion of disaster? Was there not treatment and bandages for the wound? They have all been used but without use, “we would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed” (Jer. 51:9). So, maybe, brothers, our guardian angels, before the throne of the justice of God, long ago foretold of us, “Your wisdom, O Lord, appointed us to guard their souls and bodies and to direct and strengthen them on the path to heaven. You, Yourself, can see if we have omitted anything which could enlighten their mights, awaken and warm their hearts, and to prevent their feet from walking on the path to death. But what good can all means to salvation, all our efforts and care do to them when they either reject them in pride or use them with haste,” that is, “we would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed.” She was not healed because she fell in love with her sinful wounds, contantly irritates them with new iniquities, and decided to live and die in her sins.
In actuality, brothers, how do we use the spiritual treatments? How do we take up the most decisive of them, confession and Holy Communion? We, almost everyone, set about to them as to a temporary means and not as a decisive measure. We look at the holiest Mystery as a pious rite, beneficial in some aspects, and not as a Mystery of renewal, which must regenerate us for our whole life. And, therefore, we take them up, although with preparation (but on the surface, not penetrating to the depths of our soul, to the root of the evil living in us), and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, although with awe, with little thought about the extreme actions which must take place in us. We depart from the altar of Grace with good thoughts but by no means with the firm resolution to change our lives completely; in short, we prepare, confess, and commune unto the cleansing of past sins not thinking about the abandonment of sinful behavior in the future, the blessed, eternal life in heaven, or the life of good deeds in the time here on earth. Can we wait for decisive healing once and for all when we completely do not think about that healing?
And this is how it is for the best people among us. What can be said about the others who confess and commune? They interrupt for a few days their ordinary affairs and occupations, go to Church during that time, then a few minutes spent on confession, next a few minutes for communion, and finally a few pious thoughts and heartfelt sighs-and this is all, all of the sacrifice to God! And next? An immediate return to the previous affairs, again the very same type of life, again the previous amusements, the very same sinful pleasures, the very same service to the most shameful passions. Tell me, what can be expected after such, I could say, fleeting preparation and communion? Perhaps just momentary fruits and this is what happens: a few animals during that time are saved from the slaughter, a few bad habits remain during that time without satisfaction, the mouth does not say the former shameful words, the glance does not wander for a little time on the delights of the world, and the heart, not suppressed by cares, begins to beat peacefully. But then evil, temporarily constrained, even more reveals itself and grows furious. With those who superficially repent, takes place just the same as with the sick after incorrect treatment: the sickness becomes fiercer and fiercer.
You can feel yourselves, brothers, that I am not misinterpreting things, not exaggerating our guilt but depicting the situation as it is. Why am I describing this? Because now, again is opening the session of spiritual treatment. If we go according to the unreasonable former way then we will only reach the former goal, that is, we will reach no goal. Again the wounds of the conscience will be temporarily closed only to be opened further; again we will put off the burden of sin only to once again bend under it even lower. What then, finally, will be the outcome of such actions? The fact that we, undergoing treatment throughout our lives, in the end, die in our sins. And for some this misfortune is still, perhaps, not so near: they will have a few more Great Fasts for the healing of their souls, but for a few the judgment is already written (Psalms 149:9) and “the Judge standeth before the door” (James 5:9). I mean to say, brothers, that, however limited our number is, there are people who are standing here now for whom, without a doubt, the approaching Lent comes for the last time. Who are those doomed victims of death? Perhaps you, listener, least thinking about this now, perhaps me, telling you of this terrible but saving, for all of us, truth…
And so, brothers, let us now unite in heartfelt desire for our salvation. Let us each step into the arena of repentance as if it opened before us for the first and last time. And it truly will be for us the first and last time if we during the fast completely change and leave forever our sinful life. For, no matter how many times you have repented before, if you still have not been healed in soul then you will be healed now for the first time. And the one who receives health, if he doesn’t lose it, will not need to receive it again but only keep it and strengthen it.
O Lord and Master of our lives! The doctor of our souls and bodies! You, Who again have opened the door of repentance to us the unworthy! Lead us, Yourself, with your all-mighty right hand out from the Egypt of spiritual slavery and lead us into the desert of the holy fast! No matter what awaits us in that desert, we give our souls and hearts to You. Direct us with the pillar of cloud or fire, feed us with manna or cause us to drink in measure only lead us into the heavenly Canaan of purity and piety! Amen.
St. Innocent (Borisov), Archbishop of Kherson
*Russian: govenie- the period of preparation for communion involving fasting, prayer, going to services, and confession.