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Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women

On the Second Sunday after Pascha we commemorate the myrrh-bearing women who came to anoint Christ’s body very early in the morning of the Resurrection. We heard this account (Mark 16:1-8) read at the beginning of the Paschal matins:
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted. And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: He is risen; He is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see Him, as He said unto you. And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Last Sunday we commemorated the touching of the Saviour by the Apostle Thomas which occurred eight days after the Resurrection. Thomas Sunday falls on the Sunday after Pascha, but on Myrrh-bearers’ Sunday we go ‘back in time’ to commemorate events that occurred on the actual morning of the Resurrection.

The myrrh-bearers are those women disciples of Christ who stood with His Mother at the time of the crucifixion and came to anoint Christ’s body with sweet-smelling spices. Myrrh is the fragrant dried resin of a tree that is produced in a similar way to frankincense; the tree is slashed and the trees bleed the liquid resin which is then dried in the sun. In Orthodoxy, myrrh is not burnt as incense but it is used in preparing the sacred Chrism.

The myrrh-bearing women were the first witnesses to the bodily resurrection of Christ. On this Sunday, we also commemorate Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemos the secret disciple because they prepared Christ’s body for burial and laid it in a new tomb.

We do not know all the names of the myrrh-bearers but of those whose names are known, the first is the Theotokos who many of the Fathers tell us is the ‘Mother of James and Joses’ mentioned in the Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40. These two men were the sons of Saint Joseph the Betrothed by a previous marriage so the Theotokos is their stepmother. The Orthodox Church has always taught that the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, was a virgin before, during and after childbirth so she is not, of course, the biological mother of James and Joses.

Saint Gregory Palamas, in his homily for this Sunday, teaches that it was the Archangel Gabriel that announced the Resurrection of Christ to the Mother of God, just as he had proclaimed to her the good tidings of the Annunciation:

When the Theotokos, together with Mary Magdalene, heard the Good News of the resurrection from the angel, only she understood the meaning of the words. In the same way now when, in the company of the other women, she met her Son and God, she was the first of them all to see and recognize the risen Lord, and falling down before Him she grasped His feet and became His apostle to the apostles.[1]

The Fathers teach us the myrrh-bearers were apostles to the apostles; the word ‘apostle’ means ‘messenger’ or ‘one who is sent forth’. The myrrh-bearers therefore were sent forth by the angel (Mark 16:7) to preach the good news of his Resurrection to the apostles as we hear in the hymns of the Pentecostarion:

Rising up early and coming with earnestness unto Thy tomb, the myrrh-bearers sought for Thee so as to anoint Thine immaculate Body, O Christ. And having been informed by the words of the Angel, they preached to the Apostles the tokens of joy: that the Author of our salvation is risen, having despoiled death and granting the world eternal life and great mercy.[2]

The other myrrh-bearers whose names have come down to us are Saint Mary Magdalene; Mary the wife of Clopas; Joanna, wife of Chouza; Salome the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary and Martha the sisters of Lazarus; and Susanna.

The fact that the myrrh-bearers have a Sunday dedicated to them is significant for a number of reasons. Christ is referred to as the New Adam because by His incarnation He renewed and recreated Adam’s nature. Christ appeared first to women because it was fitting that just as Eve was the first person to see Adam, so a woman should be the first to see the risen Christ, the New Adam. Saint Ambrose of Milan also refers to Eve when he says: ‘because death had before issued through the mouth of a woman, life is restored through the mouth of a woman’ (cf. John 20:18).

The fact that the women came to anoint Christ’s body, but found the tomb empty is also significant especially in our time when many western Christians do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. The myrrh-bearers fully expected to find Christ’s Body still in the tomb which is why they brought with them myrrh and sweet-smelling spices. On not finding Christ’s body in the tomb they became the first witnesses of Christ’s bodily resurrection.

The dedication of the myrrh-bearers is also an example for us. When Christ was betrayed we hear in the Gospel that ‘all his disciples forsook him and fled' (Mark 14:50). The Apostle Peter actually denied Christ three times when questioned. In contrast, the women disciples remained with Christ during his crucifixion together with the Theotokos and the Apostle John the Theologian.

The actions of the myrrh-bearing women are an example for us, particularly when we desire to approach the Holy Mysteries. The Venerable Bede teaches:

The spices which the women bring signify the scent of virtue, and the sweetness of prayers through which we ought to approach the Altar. The rolling back of the stone alludes to the revealing of the Holy Mysteries which were concealed by the veil of the letter of the law written on stone; this covering has now been taken away, the dead body of the Lord is not found, but the living body is preached… Let us then, following the example of the devout women, whenever we approach the Heavenly Mysteries, either because of the presence of the angels or from reverence to the Sacred Offering, bow our faces to the earth with humility recollecting that we are but dust and ashes.

We hear in the hymns of the Church that the myrrh-bearers followed in Christ’s steps with zeal and did not abandon Him even after His death on the Cross. Let us therefore emulate their faith and zeal pouring forth tears of repentance as they did tears of grief; let us pray that with them we might be counted worthy of the endless joy of the Resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven.

[1] Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2014) p. 148-14
[2] The Pentecostarion (Brookline: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1990) p.107

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Relationship Between Old and New Testament Pascha

By Bishop Alexander of Buenos Aires


The Old Testament Law, according to the words of the holy Apostle Paul, was a "children's guide to Christ" and "a shadow of good things to come" (Gal. 3:24, Heb. 10:1); in other words, the purpose of the Old Law was to prepare the Israelite people for the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, as the Old Testament prophecies for the most part speak of the Messiah, so the most important events were foreshadowings of New Testament events, referring to the life of the Saviour and of the Christian Church. 

In this regard the Old Testament feast of Pascha (Passover) has a particularly important significance. This feast was inaugurated at the time of the Prophet Moses (1,300 B.C), on the occasion of the deliverance through their Angel of the Israelite firstborn from destruction and of the saving of the Jewish peoples from slavery in Egypt. From Moses' time, the Jews counted the feast of Pascha as especially holy.

Thus, the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ suffered, died on the Cross and rose from the dead during the festal days of Passover constitutes an indication from God concerning the deep, internal bond between these two great events. The Apostles pointed out this connection in their epistles, and especially the Apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that the Old Testament events which are commemorated by the festival of the Jewish Passover, indicated aforetime the spiritual rebirth of mankind, which would come about as a result of the Resurrection of Christ. So that we can see the bond between the two Paschas, let us set the events of the Old and the New Covenants in parallel.

In the Old Testament, we have the sacrifice of the spotless paschal lamb and the anointing with its blood of the lintels of the doors of the houses, where the Israelites lived, as a consequence of which the Angel passed over these houses and the Jewish firstborn were saved (it is from this that we have the word Passover, which derives from "to pass over," Exodus, chapter 12); in the New Covenant, we have the sacrifice on the Cross of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, by Whose blood, the new firstborn, the Christians, are saved (1 Peter 1:19). In the Old: the miraculous crossing by the Jews of the Red Sea and their deliverance from slavery in Egypt; in the New: Baptism in water and deliverance from slavery to the devil. Furthermore, in the Old Testament: the granting on the fiftieth day after the exodus from Egypt of the Law on Mount Sinai and the conclusion of a covenant (a bond) between God and the Chosen People; in the New: the descent of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after Pascha and the establishment of a new covenant between God and the faithful. In the Old: the miraculous provision of food by God as manna. In the New: the eating of the Heavenly Bread, the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Old Testament: the forty year wandering in the wilderness and the various experiences through which the Jewish people were strengthened in their faith in God; in the New Testament: the experiences which the Christian meets in his life and which strengthen him in faith and in the virtues. In the Old: the raising up of the bronze serpent, glancing upon which the Jews were saved from snake bite; in the New: by the power of the Cross we are delivered from the pangs inflicted by the spiritual snake, the devil. Finally, in the Old Testament: the Jews' taking possession of the Land of Promise; in the New Testament: the promise to the faithful of a new heavens and a new earth, wherein righteousness abides (2 Peter 3:13).

From this comparison of the paschal events, we see how the events of the Old Testament Passover foretold great spiritual changes in the life of mankind. The beginning of these saving events was laid by the death upon the Cross and by the Resurrection from the dead of the Saviour of the world.

Therefore, the Apostles, celebrating the new Pascha, cried out: "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!" (1 Cor. 5:7).

This translation appeared in The Shepherd, Volume XX, April 2000

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Sunday of Saint John Climacus


On the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate Saint John Climacus. Saint John lived in sixth century Egypt and entered the monastic life as a teenager spending nineteen years in obedience to the Elder Martyrius. He was then given a blessing to live in solitude and lived forty years as a hermit Saint John’s solitary life ended when he was chosen to become abbot of the monastery at Mount Sinai. It was there that Saint John wrote his famous book The Ladder of Divine Ascent which consists of thirty steps – each step being a homily on a particular aspect of the spiritual life. St. John is named ‘of the Ladder’ or ‘Climacus’ (a Latinisation of the Greek word for ‘ladder’) after his important work.

The Ladder was written as a guide for monastics, but it is not a rulebook only applicable to monks. In fact, it is not a rulebook at all!  St. John uses practical examples to illustrate his points and explores the psychology of the spiritual life in a way that is easily readable for both monastics and laypeople.

As traditional Orthodox Christians we understand the importance of trying to live the ascetical life; struggling against the passions by asceticism (lit. ‘training’) is essential if we want to consider ourselves to be Genuine Orthodox Christians. Christ Himself says: ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?’ (Matt. 6:25) Saint Philaret of New York explains:

People forget that the path of Christianity is indeed an ascetical labour. Last Sunday we heard how the Lord said: ‘He that would come after Me, let him take up his cross, deny himself and follow Me.’ The Lord said this with the greatest emphasis. Therefore, the Christian must be one who takes up his cross, and his life, likewise, must be an ascetic labour of bearing that cross. Whatever the outward circumstances of his life, be he monk, or layman, it is no consequence. In either case, if he does not force himself to mount upwards, then, of a certainty, he will fall lower and lower.[1]

The Sunday of the Cross, that Saint Philaret refers to above, falls between the commemoration of two great monastic saints: Saint Gregory Palamas and Saint John of the Ladder. Both these saints were great ascetics from their youth and although they lived many centuries apart, they both struggled in similar fashion and both stressed the necessity of asceticism and unceasing prayer in order to achieve vision of God. We hear this in the sessional hymn to Saint John sung after Ode Three in Matins:

Shining with the glory of the virtues, thou hast made thine abode in heaven, and in holiness thou hast ascended to the boundless depths of divine vision. Thou hast exposed to mockery all the snares of the demons, protecting mankind from their cruel violence. Now, O John, thou blest ladder of the virtues, thou intercedest that thy servants may all be saved.

The divine vision referred to above is the enlightenment of the highest part of the soul (nous) through which we attain spiritual knowledge. The Greek word theoria that we have translated as ‘divine vision’ is often translated as ‘contemplation’. 

There are different stages of divine vision and the theology involved is quite complicated. Simply put, in order for the nous to be illumined by divine vision, it must be purified by keeping the Gospel Commandments. Most of us are still struggling against the sins and passions and we are very far from illumination – let alone the higher aspects of divine vision. For this reason Saint John, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, gives a lot of guidance on how to overcome sins and passions because without purifying ourselves from lust, anger, hatred, greed and the rest of the passions we can never ascend to divine vision. This principle is summarized in the saying of Saint Isaac the Syrian: ‘purity sees God’.

The first step in The Ladder is entitled  ‘on renunciation of the world’. Lay people are not required to renounce the world but they should struggle against covetousness and renounce worldy ways of thinking. Saint John Climacus teaches that by despising material possessions a layperson will be delivered from quarrels; a covetous monk, on the other hand, will ‘fight to death for a needle’.[2] He continues:

Some people living carelessly in the world have asked me: ‘We have wives and are beset with social cares, and how can we lead the solitary life?’ I replied to them: ‘Do all the good you can; do not speak evil of anyone; do not steal from anyone; do not lie to anyone; do not be arrogant towards anyone; do not hate anyone; do not be absent from the divine services; be compassionate to the needy; do not offend anyone; do not wreck another man’s domestic happiness and be content with what your own wives can give you. If you behave in this way, you will not be far from the Kingdom of Heaven. [3]

The Ladder is much more than a manual for monks; Saint John’s insight into human behaviour and the spiritual life is invaluable. The Ladder not only gives us an insight into our true spiritual state but also sets out the treatment needed in order to progress in the spiritual life.

[1] Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery) (Brookline: HTM, 1991) p. xxxii
[2] The Ladder of Divine Ascent p. 123
[3] The Ladder of Divine Ascent p. 9

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamas


On the Second Sunday of Great Lent we commemorate Saint Gregory Palamas, the Archbishop of Thessalonica. Saint Gregory Palamas is particularly renowned for his defence of traditional Orthodox monasticism and the Church's teaching concerning grace against the attacks of Barlaam and Acindynus. The heresies promoted by these two men led to the Orthodox Church condemning their teachings at various councils in the middle of the fourteenth century. This dispute is called the hesychastic controversy by historians. The word ‘hesychasm’ comes from the Greek word for ‘quiet’ or ‘silence’.

The original Greek texts dealing with this subject are very complicated but, simply put, both Barlaam and Acindynus taught that the grace of God is created and also objected to the spiritual practices of Orthodox monasticism. These opponents of Saint Gregory were heavily influenced by Roman Catholic teachings concerning grace. Indeed, following his condemnation at the Orthodox council of 1341, Barlaam converted to Roman Catholicism and was made a bishop. Barlaam is not a particularly famous historical figure, his most memorable contribution was to coin the phrase ‘navel gazing’ which he used to mock the monks of the Holy Mountain.

Saint Gregory, himself a monk of the Holy Mountain, vigorously defended traditional Orthodox monasticism and in particular the importance of physical and mental stillness in prayer. This physical stillness was what Barlaam attacked with his accusation of 'navel gazing'. 

Saint Gregory, in accordance with the earlier Church Fathers, taught that these practices of prayer, stillness and the guarding of the thoughts lead to union with God through partaking in His uncreated energies. The aim of the Christian life to become gods by grace – the transformation that the saints have undergone.

Saint Gregory, expressing clearly the mind of the Church, taught that grace is uncreated and is the uncreated energies of God. Barlaam and Acindynus, on the other hand, taught that grace was created energy, a position that ultimately leads to complete atheism because a created energy is clear evidence of a created essence. In other words, a belief in created grace necessitates a belief in a created God.

In contrast, the Church Fathers have always taught that God is God is unknowable and unapproachable in His essence or ‘God-ness'. However, it’s possible to see God by the energies that come from God. These energies are not small pieces of God or little packets of holiness that God makes for us; these energies are God and are uncreated because God is uncreated. These uncreated energies of God are called grace. God’s energies are not limited by time or space; He acts through His energies to support His creation.

As an illustration we can think about the sun; its rays shine and we feel them and see them. However, the sun’s rays are not small suns that are thrown at us from the sky ­– the sun doesn’t become less hot, or less bright, when it shines on us! We know that the sun we feel on our skin is simply energy from the sun. We are partaking of the energy of the sun but we are not actually feeling the sun itself in its essence or ‘sun-ness.’ If we felt even 1% of the sun’s essence we would be destroyed by the heat! So we can say that the sun’s essence is unapproachable, but its energies are approachable.

However this analogy with the sun is not quite correct because God’s energies are not ‘God-waves’  – they are God. They are, however, not God’s essence but his energies. In contrast, the energy that comes from the sun is not ‘sun’, but the light and energy of the sun.

In summary, God’s energies are God, but they are not His essence. God’s essence is beyond all names, manifestation and participation. God's energies, on the other hand, are divine, uncreated and communicable; if they were not, they would not be God Himself, and would be unable to deify us and unite us with Him.

Saint Gregory Palamas often used the example of the light that the Apostles saw on Mount Tabor when Christ was transfigured to illustrate the uncreated nature of God’s energies. The Light on Tabor was God’s energy appearing as Light – this Light is therefore uncreated because God’s essence is uncreated.

Barlaam, on the other hand, believed the Light of Transfiguration to be created, and considered it inferior to the reasoning and logical thoughts of the philosophers. He thought that the ancient philosophers were superior to the Prophets and Apostles because grace (being created in his opinion) is always inferior to knowledge and learning. The correct Orthodox teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas is summarized in the Ikos read during matins on the Second Sunday of Great Lent:

Thou wast seen on earth as an angelic messenger, proclaiming unto mortal men the mysteries of God. Endowed with a human mind and flesh, yet speaking with the voice of the bodiless powers, thou didst astonish us, O herald of God, and didst persuade us to cry to thee such things as these:

Rejoice, thou through whom darkness is dispelled. Rejoice, thou through whom the light hath returned.
Rejoice, messenger of the uncreated Godhead. Rejoice, reprover of created folly.
Rejoice, thou who didst teach the unattainable height of God's nature. Rejoice, thou who didst teach that His energies are a depth hard to contemplate.
Rejoice, thou who didst proclaim God’s glory. Rejoice, thou who didst expose the opinions of evildoers.
Rejoice, thou luminary that hast shown us the Sun. Rejoice, wine bowl filled with nectar.
Rejoice, thou through whom the truth hath shone forth. Rejoice, thou through whom falsehood was darkened.
Rejoice, O herald of grace!

Saint Gregory was present at the councils of 1341 and 1347 which condemned the belief that grace is created. The opponents of Saint Gregory continued their attacks on him, but his Orthodox theology was confirmed once and for all at a synod in Constantinople in 1351. Saint Gregory reposed in peace in 1359.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

‘Lead us not into Temptation’: The Pope and the Lord’s Prayer

Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man: But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed (James 1:13-14).

Pope Francis caused some controversy recently by unofficially approving a new translation of the Lord’s Prayer. The new translation changes ‘lead us not into temptation to ‘do not let us fall into temptation’. The BBC reported as follows

The pontiff said France's Roman Catholic Church was now using the new wording "do not let us fall into temptation" as an alternative, and something similar should be used worldwide. "Do not let me fall into temptation because it is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell," he told TV2000, an Italian Catholic TV channel. “A father does not do that, a father helps you to get up immediately." 

Obviously, whichever translation the Pope wishes to use is up to him – it is not really any of our business. Nevertheless, the issues that he raises are worth exploring to make sure that we understand the Orthodox Church’s teaching on the Lord’s Prayer correctly.

Modernism

The Pope is a modernizer, but this particular change in translation seems harmless enough; he is only trying to make the prayer easier to understand. However, the problem with modernizing Christianity is that eventually we run out of road. There is only so far Christianity can be simplified before the result turns into a parody of the faith.

The Pope is right when he says that people are confused by the phrase ‘lead us not into temptation’. We would suggest, however, that the answer is not to change the prayer itself but to educate people as to its true meaning.

Removing ‘difficult’ parts of church services does not actually achieve anything. The Church of England has removed all reference to the devil from its new baptism service. No wonder that only 25% of British Christians believe that the devil exists! The Roman Catholic Church has not modernized as much, but is following a similar road. Below, a Roman Catholic journalist describes the new baptism service:

The modern version is more joy-filled, but it’s also vaguer and, in a way, babyish by comparison. It begins like this: ‘The celebrant greets all present, and especially the parents and godparents, reminding them briefly of the joy with which the parents welcomed this child as a gift from God, the source of life, who now wishes to bestow his own life on this little one.’

The reason we use ‘lead us not into temptation’ is because it is an accurate translation and the traditional one. We do not needlessly modernize our traditional Orthodox services because the Church is always up to date. The Church is a living, breathing theanthropic organism that is constantly being renewed by the Holy Spirit ­­– She is not a theological museum or a fossilized institution unable to change. It is vital though that changes or additions must be made by the Church and in accordance with traditional Orthodox teachings.

Temptations and Trials

The Greek word peirasmos, which is traditionally translated as ‘temptation’, has two meanings in modern English. The first meaning is that of a test or trial sent by God to help us spiritually. The second meaning is a suggestion from the devil that is pleasurable and results in sin if we consent to it. Below, Saint Maximus the Confessor explains the difference between the two meanings of the word ‘temptation’:

Temptation willingly accepted creates distress in the soul, but clearly produces pleasure in the senses. A trial undergone contrary to our wishes produces pleasure in the soul but distress in the flesh. I think that when Our Lord and God was teaching his disciples how to pray and said, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ (Matt. 6:13), He was teaching them to pray that they should reject the kind of temptation which we accept willingly, that is, to pray that they should not be abandoned to the experience of temptations which, when willingly accepted, lead to intended pleasures.[1]
 
Tests and trials from God are the temptations that Saint James the Brother of God says we should suffer gladly: ‘Rejoice when we fall into divers temptations” (Jas. 1:2). Moreover, these temptations bring their own reward: ‘Blessed is the man that endureth temptations: for he shall receive the crown of life” (cf. Jas. 1:12). Saint Paul also refers to these temptations or trials when he says:
 
For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons (Heb. 12: 6-8).

The trials that Saint Paul refers to above lead to heavenly crowns. However, in bearing these trials patiently we are not alone. Saint Paul also says: ‘Christ, in that He himself has suffered being tempted, is able to help them that are tempted’ (cf. Heb. 2:18). The chastening that the Apostle Paul speaks of can be very difficult to endure especially when children are suffering. Having said this, our first recourse when enduring some form of trial should be to repent of the sins that we have committed; by doing this we will, as Saint Gregory Palamas explains, be delivered from sorrows and trials:

Yet if we sorrow over our sins rather than over the harm we suffer, we shall not only gain salvation and eternal redemption, but also deliverance from fleeting temptations. Why has our life become painful, sorrowful, violent and fraught with disorder? Surely because we have transgressed the commandment and thrown ourselves into the forbidden temptation, sin. If now we cleanse ourselves from all iniquity by repenting, we shall need more moderate temptations here, and in time we shall return to the life free from sorrows and trials. [2]

Suggestions from the devil that result in sin, if we consent to them, are not sent from God. These demonic temptations are those of which the Apostle James speaks: ‘Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man’ (Jas. 1:13).  

To summarize, the problem with the Pope’s new translation is that it implies that all temptations are falls into sin and takes no account of the other meanings of the word peirasmos. Spiritual trials can be saving – we see this in the lives of the saints.

Most of us will never be called to suffer physically for the faith, but we are all called to resist the temptations caused by the demons. This spiritual struggle, in which we work in synergy with God, will bring us a heavenly reward as Saint Gregory Palamas explains:

Those who have a right faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who show their faith through works and are prudent, or else cleanse themselves through repentance and confession from the stains of the sins we have mentioned and perform their opposite virtues, self-control, chastity, love, almsgiving, justice and truth, will all rise again to hear from the heavenly King Himself, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ [3]

Does God tempt us?

God does not entice us into sin. We can choose to agree to the suggestions of the demons or reject them. God allows us to do this because stopping us from falling into temptation would deny us our free will. We would no longer be children of God but would be slaves.

We fall into sin when we choose not to follow the Gospel commandments. God does not, as the Pope says, ‘throw us into temptations’ or tempt us in such a way that we can lose the salvation that we are striving to work out with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12). This confusion that the Pope expresses is not new. Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain addresses it below:

Many unlearned and insecure people fall into various thoughts concerning God: that God supposedly throws us into temptations. For this reason, the Apostle James solved the problem for us, saying: Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempts He any man. But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. [4]

It is true that the devil seeks to devour us (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). God sometimes permits him to subject us to trials as we hear in the Gospel: ‘Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat (Lk. 22:31).

These trials lead the righteous to greater glory so that they might shine even more brightly acting, at the same time, as a beacon of light for us. But trials are not just profitable for the saints. Below, Saint Gregory Palamas describes how everyone was spiritually profited when Christ calmed the storm by His word alone (Matt. 14: 24-33):

Trials are not only profitable for those such as Job, Peter, Paul and their like, whose faith is perfect, but when they overtake those who are imperfect they make them perfect. Here not only Peter, not only the other disciples, who were still imperfect, but everyone in the boat found such great benefit for their faith from this temptation, that they came and worshipped Jesus, saying, ‘Of a truth Thou art the Son of God.’ [5]

There are many reasons that we suffer trials and temptations, and it is not easy to distinguish between them. Judas and the Apostle Peter fell into temptations for very different reasons: Judas because of greed, and Peter because of presumption. Nevertheless in these temptations, the disposition of their hearts was manifest. The Apostle Peter wept tears of repentance, but Judas went and hanged himself.

Saint Theodore the Ascetic attributes St. Peter’s denial of Christ due to his lack of help from God even though he was willing and ready to die for Christ. This temporary abandonment by God brought St. Peter to even greater faith. Judas, on the other hand, was not abandoned by God but chose to ignore this help.

Trials, therefore, occur for a number of reasons according to the providence of God as Saint Maximus the Confessor explains below:

Trials are sent to some so as to take away past sins, to others so as to eradicate sins now being committed, and to yet others so as to forestall sins which may be committed in the future. These are distinct from the trials that arise in order to test men in the way that Job was tested. [6]

‘As we forgive our debtors'
It is impossible to resist temptations by prayer and asceticism if we harbour hatred in our hearts for our neighbour. When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer to not be led into temptation we have previously asked to be forgiven our debts. If we fail to forgive others, God will not forgive our sins (cf. Matt. 6:15). In fact, as Saint Maximus the Confessor explains below, we shall actually be delivered to temptations if we do not show forgiveness to our neighbour:

Scripture makes us see how the one who does not perfectly forgive those who offend him and who does not present to God a heart purified of rancour and shining with the light of reconciliation with one’s neighbour will lose the grace of the blessings for which he prays. Moreover, by a just judgment, he will be delivered over to temptation and to evil in order to learn how to cleanse himself of his fault by cancelling his complaints against another. [7]

We can see this link clearly between forgiveness and a successful endurance of temptations in the life of the Martyr Nicephorus. Saint Nicephorus lived in the Antioch in the third century. He was a great friend of the priest Sapricius, but due to some disagreement their friendship turned into hatred. After a while, Saint Nicephorus repented and asked Sapricius’ forgiveness, but the latter refused to forgive him. Some time later, during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Valerian, the priest Sapricius was brought before the judges and tortured to make him deny his Christian faith. Sapricius, however, remained steadfast. On his way to martyrdom he was greeted by Nicephorus who again asked his forgiveness by saying with tears: ‘O martyr of Christ, forgive me if I have sinned against you in any way.’ The priest, however, remained unmoved. Seeing his hardness of heart, the Grace of God withdrew from Sapricius and he agreed to offer sacrifice to the idols. Saint Nicephorus then said to the executioner: ‘I am a Christian, and I believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. Execute me in place of Sapricius.’ The governor decided to free Sapricius and behead Nicephorus instead. Saint Nicephorus therefore received a martyr’s crown and is commemorated on the 9th February.

Lead’ or ‘fall’?

We have seen that temptations can only be resisted if we do not have hatred in our hearts of our neighbour. However, we still need to explain why the Orthodox Church accurately translates the Greek or Latin as ‘lead as not into temptation’ rather than ‘let us not fall into temptation’.

The word ‘lead’ is used instead of ‘fall’ for a number of reasons. Firstly, as we have already discussed, temptations are not necessarily ‘falls’. Temptations when endured for love of God and neighbour result in heavenly crowns. ‘Falls’ on the other hand are quite different. The word ‘fall’ in Orthodoxy is most often used to describe sins of a sexual nature in but it can refer to any temptation that generates sins.

These falls are the result of our own failings, in succumbing to the desires of our fallen human nature. Falls are not saving but temptations can be. God does not, as the Pope describes, ‘throw us into these temptations’ to see how we fall and then leave us there. We place ourselves in these situations that are not unto salvation. God is a loving God, but we need to repent in order to be able to reach the hand that God is stretching out to help us.

We use the word 'lead' because we  Christ is  both our Shepherd and our Leader. Saint Maximus the Confessor explains the benefits we receive when we accept Christ as our Leader and Shepherd and fulfil the Father’s will:

Christ, who has overcome the world, is our Leader. He arms us with the laws of the commandments, and by enabling us to reject the passions He unites us in pure love with nature itself. Being the bread of life, of wisdom, spiritual knowledge and righteousness, He arouses in us an insatiable desire for Himself. If we fulfil the Father’s will He makes us co-worshippers with the angels, when in our conduct we imitate them as we should and so conform to the heavenly state. He then leads us up still further on the supreme ascent of divine truth to the Father of lights, and makes us share in the divine nature through participation by grace in the Holy Spirit.[8] 
 
Even though we are members of Christ's little flock and confess Christ as our Leader, temptations are still inevitable in life.  In the Old Testament, God led the Israelites through the wilderness with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He saved them in the Red Sea and fed them with manna in the wilderness for forty years. Even though they were miraculously led by God, the Israelites still underwent temptations.
 
When we suffer temptations or trials we need to recall the words of Christ: ‘He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved (Matt. 24:13). Christ Himself was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil (Matt. 4:1). If we truly believe Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11) then we must journey through this earthly wilderness of life with certain faith that although Christ is our Leader and we have to follow Him through temptations, although these may cause us to stumble, they will not cause us to lose our salvation if we have faith and show love for God and neighbour.

But deliver us from the evil one

Blessed Augustine explains that ‘God Himself does not lead, but permits men to be led into temptation whom He has deprived of His assistance’. When we pray the Father to ‘lead us not into temptation’ we are asking for his assistance in temptations. St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain explains:

This only should we ask: that He might give us the strength to conquer the tempter until the very end. For this is what lead us not into temptation means, that God might not let us fall defeated into the throat of the noetic dragon. In the same way, in another place the Lord tells us: Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation, namely, be alert and constantly praying, so as not to fall into temptation; that is, so as not to be conquered by temptation, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.[9]

Our need for God’s assistance is made clear in the next clause of the Lord’s Prayer. In the Orthodox version of the Lord’s Prayer, we say ‘deliver us from the evil one’ rather than simply ‘deliver us from evil’ as the Roman Catholic Church uses. Why is this? The Fathers are quite clear that phrase ‘evil one’ refers to the devil and does not refer to evil in general. Saint Cyril of Alexandria says that the phrases ‘lead us not into temptation’ and ‘deliver us from the evil one’ are connected:

With these words Luke concludes the prayer; but Matthew is found to add ‘but deliver us from the evil one’. There is a certain close connection in the clauses for it plainly follows that if men are not led into temptation, they are also delivered from the evil one. Quite possibly, if someone were to say that ‘not being led into it’ is, in fact, the same as ‘being delivered from it’ he would not be in error.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa goes a step further, when he says that the word ‘temptation’ could be used to refer to the evil one:

It seems to me that the Lord calls the evil one by many names according to the distinctions between the evil actions. He names him variously: devil, Beelzebub, Mammon, prince of this world, murderer of man, father of lies, and other such things. Perhaps, therefore, here again one of the names devised for is him is ‘temptation’, and the juxtaposition of clauses confirms this assertion. For after saying, ‘Lead us not into temptation’, He adds that we should be delivered from evil, as if both words meant the same. For if a man who does not enter into temptation is quite removed from evil, and if one who has fallen into temptation is necessarily mixed up with evil, then temptation and the evil one mean one and the same thing. [10]

Both these saints are speaking of the temptations that damage our souls rather than the physical afflictions and trials. Regarding those bodily temptations and trials, we pray that God will deliver us from them. If they do come, we pray that we may be pleasing unto Him in the midst of these trials, accepting them with thanksgiving and treat blessings recalling the words of the Apostle Peter:

For even to this were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously: Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed (I Pet. 2: 21-24).

We must not cause temptations

Finally, we should strive to ensure that we are not the cause of temptations. Christ says: ‘Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh' (Matt. 18:7). Saint Cyril of Alexandria classifies these kinds of offences into two groups: those caused by heretics and those we cause by our passionate actions.

In order to combat the temptations caused by heretics who seek to draw us away from the Orthodox Faith and the exactness of sacred doctrines we should learn as much as we can about Orthodoxy. Doing this will not only help us resist the temptations caused by heretics but it will also ensure that we are not, unknowingly, promoting some heresy ourselves thereby wounding the conscience of our fellow Christians (cf. 1. Cor. 8:12).

The second type of offences to which Saint Cyril refers consists of mean and annoying actions, fits of anger (whether on good grounds or without justification), insults, slanders and other similar actions. Often we hurt those who love us most by our careless actions and thoughtless behaviour. We must be careful not to be the cause of temptations to our neighbour by placing stumbling blocks in their way (cf. Rom. 14:13).

Being Orthodox is about struggling to live our lives in repentance and love for our neighbour. If we strive to do this, and preserve our Orthodox Faith, no temptation can separate us from God unless we choose to separate ourselves from God. St. Paul teaches: ‘God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it’ (1. Cor. 10:13).


[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth Vol. 2 (trans. G.E.H. Palmer, P. Sherrard, K. Ware) (London: Faber and Faber, 1981) p. 232-233
[2] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies (trans. C. Veniamin) (Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009) p.257
[3] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies pp. 210-211
[4] Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (trans. G. Dokos) (Thessalonika, Uncut Mountain Press, 2006) p.74
[5] Saint Gregory Palamas, The Homilies pp. 255-256
[6] The Philokalia Vol. 2 p.73
[7] Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings (trans. G. C. Berthold) (London: SPCK, 1985) p.116-117
[8] The Philokalia Vol.2 pp. 303-304
[9] Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Concerning Frequent Communion of the Immaculate Mysteries of Christ (trans. G. Dokos) (Thessalonika, Uncut Mountain Press, 2006) p.78
[10] Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer (trans. H.C. Graef) (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) pp.82-83