“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
14 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 16 “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Poon Paregentan, Eve of Great Lent), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Poon Paregentan (Բուն Բարեկենդան), which means “joyous living,” is a celebration day on the eve of Great Lent (Մեծ Պահք). It recalls the life for which we were created, the joy of paradise and communion with God. In the Garden we live in the joy God intended for us without shame, knowing him face to face. The entire season of Great Lent recalls paradise, the return to Eden, as our path of salvation leads us back to that place of union with our Creator. So every year we use this 40-day period to recalibrate ourselves and take a closer look at the path on which we have been placed at baptism. Functionally, Poon Paregentan is a way to remove any luxurious foods from the house, such as meat and dairy, in order to prepare for the fast of Great Lent.
In the Gospel reading for Sunday, Jesus refers to what can be thought of as a Lenten triad of spiritual discipline: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
What is prayer? Why pray? Consider Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane for hours, or his all-night prayer on the mountain (Luke 6:12). Why would Jesus, the Son of God, need to appeal to his Father all night long? What insights or needs did the Son of God have which would require hours of continuous supplication? The Father knows all of our situations and desires before we even ask, so the point of prayer must be more than simply asking for stuff, or to “move” God to do something with the right words or the right amount of prayer. The reason Jesus prayed as much as he did was because his one desire was to be in communion with the Father. Keep in mind, communion is more than something placed on your tongue during Badarak. Communion is when your life and the life another share a common existence. Prayer, then, is primarily about uniting ourselves with God, to share or participate in his existence. In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray,
That they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (17:21)
Not only does prayer create communion, a shared existence between God and us, but also between us and with those for whom we pray. That is why it is a good practice to pray for our enemies. It is difficult to harbor bitterness or ill will toward someone for whom we are praying.
Prayer takes on different forms, two of the broadest categories being liturgical prayer and inner prayer. In liturgical prayer, we unite our concerns and ourselves to the prayer of the whole Church, to the eternal prayer of Christ, the Holy Mother of God, the saints, and to the brothers and sisters of our own church community. Whether it’s praying together in a liturgical setting, composing a prayer in writing, speaking with God from the heart, or even a period of silence dedicated to God, the ideal is to create a habit of prayer where praise and reorienting ourselves toward God become a natural and regular part of our lives.
The struggle of our faith seems to be the tension between our will and God’s will. Do our prayers often reflect our will rather than God’s will? That is, do they reflect the model of the Lord’s Prayer, or do they significantly deviate from it? The Lord’s Prayer, and the Gospel itself as “good news,” hinges on forgiveness. Does our desire for personal justice create a barrier for true forgiveness to take place? What about our feelings? Shouldn’t they be considered as we withhold or delay forgiveness? Should we just ignore the pain that comes from wounds inflicted by others? Jesus is aware of our pain, which is why earlier in the Lord’s Prayer he asks us to lay aside our will for God’s will. Admittedly, easier said than done, and again, the ongoing struggle and tension of our faith.
Recommended practices during Great Lent: 1) The 24 short prayers known as I Confess with Faith by the great Catholicos, St. Nersess Shnorhali. 2) The renowned Book of Prayers composed by the 10th century Armenian mystic and monk, St. Gregory of Narek, captures the spirit and essence of Armenian Orthodox spirituality, theology, and belief. 3) The hours (Zhamerkootyoon) of the Armenian Church offer an opportunity to join our voices together and pray communally. 4) The Armenian Church has preserved the ancient custom of lighting candles, sometimes in front of an icon, accompanied by a prayer for a loved one that has passed, petitioning God for a special need, or asking for the intercession of a particular saint. 5) During Badarak, attempt to make the Kiss of Peace more meaningful as we prayerfully sing,
This Church has now become one soul, the kiss is given for a full bond, the enmity has been removed, and love is spread over us all.
In the Gospels, Jesus is never shy about telling us to renounce everything. Here are a few examples of what can be considered the “cost” of discipleship, the difficult, high standard to which every baptized member of the Church is called to live, a life only possible with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit dwelling in each of us.
Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-33)
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
The very first of the eight Beatitudes is about renouncing one’s self for the sake of the Kingdom of God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
St. Luke offers another version of the Beatitudes, this time Jesus only using the word poor:
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
Extravagant indulgences, not necessarily evil in and of themselves, cloud our perception of God as the one who sustains us. By crowding our lives with non-essentials and vain amusements, be they food, gadgets, chemicals, amusements, addictions, neurotic busy-ness, or chronic self-absorption, we try to fill spiritual voids with material things, most of the time not even aware that is what we are doing. Which is why the Church thoughtfully and strategically provides spiritual disciplines for our benefit. More than just giving something up, fasting is about paring away temporary “clutter” so that we are able to more plainly recognize God in the world, in people, and in our very own lives.
Rather than simply ask, “What should I give up this year?” ask the following questions: What can I relinquish to simplify my life and make it more Christ-like? What is holding me back from devoting myself more wholeheartedly to the Lord? In what am I overindulging? What is sucking up time that I could better use for more Christian pursuits? How am I spending my money? What will it take to stop myself from being my own master? These questions can also be asked on behalf of the parish community. As to the examples of Jesus teaching us to renounce everything, which is the spirit of fasting, perhaps instead of giving things up for ourselves, we should think in terms of giving things away to others, whether it be material, financial, spiritual, or otherwise.
It’s perfectly fine to follow a vegan diet throughout Great Lent, but thoughtful, prayerful answers to these questions will lead us, as individuals as well as a parish community, to the true meaning of Lenten fasting: to help us reestablish, in the words of St. Paul, “undivided devotion to the Lord.” Otherwise we are in danger of missing the point of fasting, of missing a real opportunity to mature in our faith. For example, do we ever focus on food even more during Great Lent than other times of the year? Are we really fasting if we serve copious and luxurious amounts of Armenian food as long as it is vegan? If we eat a vegan diet and are still not transformed, then what is the use? Fasting is not meant to be a rule for the sake of obeying a tradition, and neither is God impressed if we abstain from meat. In the words of St. John Chrysostom,
What good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fish, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters.
As we fast together as a community, as a family, reflect on the “food” which is essential for us. Meditate on your dependence on God. Think of those with whom you need to reconcile. As we share the Kiss of Peace during Badarak, forgive someone in your heart, and perhaps even contact them directly to set things right. Ultimately, fasting get us – i.e. our egos, attachments, agendas, worries, false priorities – out of the way from what God wants to do in our lives. It forces us to become poor, to “renounce everything” as Jesus said in Luke chapter 14, and to authentically live the “cost” discipleship which takes effort, practice, and ultimately, help from the Holy Spirit.
Read Isaiah 58:1-14 and reflect on the true spirit of fasting. Meditate on how Isaiah’s description of fasting directly connects with prayer and almsgiving.
Almsgiving is Mercy
Just as holy as prayer and just as venerable as fasting is almsgiving. The Armenian word for almsgiving «nղորմութիւն,» which means mercy, typically conjures up images of withholding harm or punishment toward an offender, or pity toward those who are weaker. Instead, the Armenian notion of mercy encompasses the idea of charity in the sense of self-giving, or sacrificial love. Therefore, when we sing, Der Voghormya, it is not a request for God to have pity on us or to withhold deserved punishment. We are asking God to love us, to be kind to us, to help us, to hear and accept our prayers, to share himself with us. We are asking the Lord to pour the chrism of himself onto us, to make things easier, to smooth things over and fill in the cracks just as a balm or oil would do. And so, mercy, or almsgiving, is about showing charity, practical care, and serving others with compassion. St. Nerses Shnorhali tells us,
Mercy is a voluntary sadness that comes into being at the troubles of strangers. It is born of love, in the same way that being stingy is born of hatred.
More Than a Donation
Normally thought of as money, food, or other donations given to the poor and needy, almsgiving is much more profound. Of course, it doesn’t exclude writing a check, donating to the Church, or placing money in a homeless person’s hand, but as disciples of Christ, we are called to get uncomfortable, to touch those who are in need, those from whom we avert our eyes, and get face to face with the pain and needs of others. Draw from your own suffering and wounds and walk with others through their trials. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (II Corinthians 1:3-5)
Show mercy toward those who are sick, rejected, inadequate, lonely, suicidal, addicted, and bullied. Then go beyond that: forgive enemies and welcome the stranger (odar/օտար). Fill in the cracks of the world, of people’s lives, with the oil of God’s mercy and love. That’s almsgiving. That’s the Gospel.
As a parish community and as individuals, is it enough to meet every Sunday and worship God during Holy Badarak, or does Badarak nourish and compel us to go out into our impoverished world and show mercy? Does God give us gifts, talents, and material resources for us to hoard, or are they given to us so we can lovingly share or even give them away? How can we rediscover the mission and work of the Armenian Church, both locally and globally, and as a result, what should be the most important qualities or priorities of our ministry and stewardship? On what things are we not focusing, or on what things do we focus a little too much?
St. John Chrysostom taught us well about wealth and luxury when he preached his second sermon on Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31):
And elsewhere the Scripture says, “Deprive not the poor of his living” (Sirach 4:1). To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others. By this we are taught that when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal. For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need…Therefore let us use our goods sparingly, as belonging to others, so that they may become our own. How shall we use them sparingly, as belonging to others? When we do not spend them beyond our needs, and do not spend for our needs only, but give equal shares into the hands of the poor. If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give an account of the funds which were entrusted to you…For you have obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well. If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs. (SVS Press, pp. 49-50, 55)
St. John is not saying we have to sell everything and give it to the poor. He is not speaking to monks, but to those who must find a Christian way of living in the world. Perhaps we cannot alter the economic and social organization in which we live, but what can we do now, outside of political programs, if we are to take the words of St. John Chrysostom seriously? What opportunities do we have as individuals? What can we regularly practice as parish communities? As the global Armenian Church?
Giving alms is not just a question of who does or does not have money. It’s about those who deserve mercy, and that is everyone. We are all suffering, we all carry wounds, and we all yearn for salvation and healing. In the words of our Savior, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and practice almsgiving. By doing so, we will have fullness of life and amass treasures in heaven.
For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life. (Tobit 12:9)
Treasures in Heaven
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not disciplines in “self-improvement,” but authentic spiritual living – the way of humility, repentance, and Christ-likeness – the path of authentic life and the pursuit of Truth. Rather than giving something up, fasting during Great Lent is about accumulating treasures in heaven. To “lay up” treasures in heaven requires time, wisdom, sacrifice, investment. It doesn’t happen overnight. In Krapar, the verb is kantsem, which means to amass or hoard. Paradoxically, the way to amass treasures in heaven is by giving away, by emptying ourselves, by renouncing everything, by becoming poor. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is the emblem of the life Jesus requires from us, a life in which we give the entirety of ourselves to God and to others.
A contemporary Orthodox priest and theologian commenting on Matthew 6:21, writes,
Christ said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” But we distort this and think it means, “Your treasure will be where your heart is.” We think that the thought is what matters. But Christ was quite materialist (wholistic) about the matter. Your treasure (your stuff) controls your thoughts. If you say you care about the poor, give them some of your stuff. If you don’t care about them, give them some of your stuff. If you give enough, over time you will come to care. The heart follows.
Our time is precious. So give away your love and friendship, listen to others, lift up those who are suffering, and when necessary, give of your possessions. Disentangle yourself from earthly “stuff” and attach yourself to the true Treasure, Jesus Christ. This is life as a citizen in God’s Kingdom, the life in which we experience his riches. St. Gregory of Narek believed this and so with him we pray to God,
You, who are more enriched by giving than receiving. Your treasure increases more by sharing than gathering. Your estate grows more by disbursing than collecting. Your stores pile up more by distributing than hoarding (Prayer 31).