by Fr. George Shalhoub
Pastor of St. Mary Orthodox Church at the 4th Sunday of Great Lent
Sts. Constantine and Helen Sunday Vesper Service


Dearly beloved in the Lord Jesus,


We are in the fourth Sunday of Lent in which the church calls us to be an instrument of peace, hope, and love for a troubled world. For this very reason our Holy church invites us to fast and pray more than at any other time throughout the year. For as the scripture says, there is a time and a place for everything under the sun.. During this period of great Lent, we are called to join together with Christ during His passion and enter into His suffering as we prepare ourselves to celebrate the greatest gift given to man … Christ’s resurrection. However, many of us during this great fasting period seem to get caught up in self deprivation and view lent as a time of punishment or a burden that we must endure for forty days. Rather, we should see this period as a time of great joy. Christ taught the disciples that when you fast, anoint your head, wash your face, and be cheerful. Lent is a time to give glory to God, not a time to impress people with how much torment our bodies can take. The questions we need to constantly remind ourselves of is "What is the purpose of my fasting?" and "What is it that awaits me?" The answer is HOPE IN GOD, hope in the risen Lord, and hope for my daily life which enables me to hope in my own resurrection at Christ’s second coming (I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come). St. Clement of Alexandria stated, "Hope indeed, which holds faith together as it’s soul, is the blood of faith. Once hope is extinguished, then the life principle of faith expires as when blood is drawn from the vain."

The holy scripture reminds us all that we have come into being not by circumstance or evolution, but by precise desire and shared life and this understanding and belief makes us alive because God has placed His own breath in both you and I. For this reason only we become a living being. Our life is no less than the breath of God. Therefore, the question that must be raised today is; "If I have in me the breath of God, being made in His image and likeness, then what does this say of my character and behavior as a human being?" God intends us to be totally nobel and totally good, because God is totally noble and good and He made us to be like Himself. However, because of our own disobedience, we have taken on a spirit unknown to God … the spirit of the flesh. Within each of us dwells the fruits of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the flesh. Unlike God we have the potential to Love or to hate, to be faithful or unfaithful, to show goodness or jealousy. We could either be filled with Hope or become hopeless or despaired. Because of our sinful nature we are constantly fighting sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, jealousy, hatred, rage, selfish ambition, dissention, faction, envy, and many assorted dysfunction’s unknown to God. St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of sin as the "deprivation of goodness". The devil in our world today was once the greatest of the angels, but fell away from the goodness with which he was created. Our challenge as Christians is to behave in a manner that characterizes the image of Christ in us. In his book, "Living the Faith," Fr. Stanley Harakas, reminds us that "our old nature is put off in baptism and that we are henceforth called to act according to the new nature which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of God". He goes on to say that "Christians should therefore be motivated by compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and above all else, love."

The Sunday of Orthodoxy teaches us about our salvation as we honor the icon to remember how God became man to dwell among us. The incarnation restores the human nature to it’s original created capacity. At our baptism we hear the prayer "as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Therefore, we are invited to actualize that image in our own individual life. His love is deposited in me and you for hope. "God is Love" writes St. John the Evangelist (I John 4:16) and the saint whom we come to honor today St. John the Ladder sees hope closely related to love. He writes " Hope is the power behind love. Hope is what causes us to look forward to the reward of love. Hope is an abundance of hidden treasure. It is the abundant assurance of the riches in store for us. It is a rest from labor, a doorway of love. It lifts despair and is the image of what is not yet present. When hope fails, so does love. Struggles are bound by it, labors depend on it, and mercy lies all around it. Hope comes from the experience of the Lord’s gifts, and someone with no such experience must be ever in doubt. Hope is destroyed by anger, for hope does not disappoint and the angry man has no grace." St. Gregory of Nyssa reminds us of this when he said, "The heavens were not made in God’s image, nor were the stars, nor the sun, but you alone are a copy of God." In that image is our human glory and our greatest hope. Paul Evdikimov explains this well when he writes; "Created in the image and likeness of God, we possess a central orientation that determines us."

Beloved, Great Lent is an important period to reinforce our identity as a Human being embodied in hope which is the cornerstone for stability of the family, successful marriages, aid to raise good children to create a better society. We live in a world in which our identity has been confused and changed with the change of fads, and the risk here is that American Christianity is translucent as fads and customs and designs. Our Holy Church reminds us that we are more better off than we think we are because we are fashioned after the image and likeness of God who raises us up and adores us more that he adores his own angels. Yet some of us feel unloved, deprived, victimized and many of our lives seem to go nowhere and some us feel the world closing in on us. Tonight, you can rise and break out by claiming what you have, it is no less than God himself. He made you for hope. Hope requires desire — hope must be built on patience — hope needs commitment. "Hope obtains it’s power from faith in a living and loving God, whose Kingdom in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit transends this world and gives life eternal." This quotation comes from Fr. Stanley Harakas in his book Living the Faith. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God and our own suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope and the hope of God does not disappoint us." (Roman 5:2-5) You are indeed made for hope. Amen.