SERMON BEFORE THE NATIVITY FAST
St. John of Kronstadt Cathedral, Gai City, 27.11.2022
Tomorrow is the beginning of the Nativity Fast, which will last until the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the 7th of January. This fast is not strict; we may have fish before the New Year, except on Wednesdays and Fridays. However, the main thing in a fast is not what we eat. We Christians, should understand what God wants from us. We should realize what He wants and what we should do.
The Lord says in the Bible, “Why do you bring all those goats and sheep as a sacrifice to me? Aren’t they are Mine? Everything in the world is Mine anyway.”1 Then He continues, “My son, give me your heart.”2 I do not need you to sacrifice a lamb or put up a candle. Or rather this is not the most important thing. He says, “My son, give me your heart.”
What does it mean, “My son, give me your heart?” Do you remember how the Lord in the Gospel judged the Pharisees who were obsessed with executing the external laws so meticulously? We eat this, but we do not eat that, we do this, but we do not do that. The Old Testament Pharisees had so many instructions and they observed them sincerely, as the Lord says, they “strained out a gnat.”3 They did this all for God’s sake. However, throughout all the Gospel they, who executed everything up to the smallest detail, do not make Him happy, but irritate Him instead. God Who is Love becomes irritated. Moreover, He becomes angry with them. God Who is Love… We are used to considering love as sentimentality and human kindness. Meanwhile God Who is Love encompasses more complicated hints and God Who is Love allows Himself to be angry with them and even scold them. He says the following words, “How long shall I be with you?”4 I am so tired of your hypocrisy. And He calls them hypocrites and Pharisees. In addition, he says the following phrase, “you are like whitewashed tombs.”5 Whitewash is said there, whitewash is a white paint. You are like whitewashed tombs, attractive from the outside and upholstered in velvet, but you are full of stench and decay inside.
The most frightening is that the Lord says this not only to the Pharisees. He says this to the contemporary Christians, if they live only by executing the external law and feel content with this. Moreover, they even admire themselves. Just like the Pharisee from the Gospel who prayed, “I thank You that I am not like other men: adulterers and sinners, alcoholics and fornicators, I am not like this, I am fine.”6 Everything is fine, except for his arrogance and pride. He admires himself.
In order to understand what God wants from us, He says, and I am repeating this, “My son, give me your heart.” He needs no external rites, no external acts, even though we have all of this in Church and the external Church ceremonies are blessed. Nevertheless, we should have an order of priorities. There should be an external compound, but it should be secondary. The main is our internal compound.
What is this, an internal compound? Again the Lord says in the Gospel, “If you look at a woman to lust for her you have already committed adultery with her. If you envy someone’s wealth you are already a murderer who can ignite his envy to such a degree that he may kill for this fortune.”7 This is why the Lord in the New Testament draws our attention to the fact that all our acts should be directed inwards. Even on the level of an idea or a thought, we should not allow sin to come into us.
Very often we look at this carelessly. I only allowed myself a thought. And so what? Wife, you should tell your husband what thought you allowed yourself to have and look him in the eye. Or you, husband, tell your wife what thought has flashed through your mind. It seems to pass swiftly, but you detained it and agreed with it. When people say a little betrayal or a small betrayal, what is the difference between them? Betrayal is betrayal. No matter whether it is small or big, you crossed the line and allowed yourself to commit it. If you did cross the line and allowed yourself a small betrayal today, tomorrow a big betrayal will follow the small one naturally. This is a natural law, as you have stepped across your consciousness.
This is why, you see, now, in the beginning of the fast, set yourself a goal; try to take control over your thoughts and sinful ideas. Then come to me in tears and say, “Nothing worked.” Catching a thought is like catching air. A thought is so subtle and light that it seems you are catching air as it slips through your fingers. Some people believe this is impossible, they put up with it and feel content with the external doing, they try to execute external rules at least. However, the Holy Fathers contradict them with their whole lives and say, “No, this is all possible. This is possible.” The Lord would have never given us unfeasible tasks. If He says, “cleanse the inside of you,” He cannot deliberately give us an unfeasible task. Therefore, this is partially possible. But this is the whole science of the Holy Fathers making us pure not only from outside but also from inside.
Our thoughts should be filled with prayer. In this case, nothing sinful will come into them. We will resemble a vessel, which is full up to the brim and nothing more can be poured in it. It is full and there is no empty space there. If our inside is filled with prayer, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Holy Theotokos…”
I want to ask you, we, being Christians, very often execute the moral law. We try not to drink alcohol, fornicate, steal, adulterate, deceive, and we try to work hard and earn an honest livelihood. And now I am asking you, did unfaithful communists do all the same things I have listed to you? They did it all. Everything I have listed, except for praying. What is the difference between us? We are called to execute not only the moral law, we are called for something more. We are called to reunite with God through prayer.
I come down to the issue of prayer on purpose, so you realize what the main thing in Church is. A Liturgy takes place and everyone should stop and forget where he has put or hasn’t put his candle, where he has turned or hasn’t turned to, and he should also forget everything and pray. The main thing is prayer. Surely, everything external exists and it should be, but the main thing is prayer. Our mind should be busy not with external activities but with prayer. The choir should think not about the notes, but about prayer, and the notes will come out of them naturally. If they think about notes, they will sing notes, but they will not have prayer and there will be a dissonance between the priest and the choir. This dissonance may also be between the priest and the parishioners who are at the church. Everyone should be in tune. Everyone should pray and everything will work naturally.
This is why, please, I would like to sparkle your zeal for prayer. Learn how to pray. Prayer is not an easy thing. Very often, we say, “I read” or “I sang,” but “I prayed” sounds in a different way. “I prayed” is not “I read,” “I sang,” or “I stood.” This is something different. This is a mystic state of a person who remains in a parallel world. This world becomes parallel for him and he stays there with Christ.
Sweetest Jesus, save us!
Congratulations on the beginning of the Nativity fast tomorrow! Do not overeat tonight as we always prepare for a fast in a way that we feel bad the next day. God blessed everything, but everything should have its measure. God does not forbid anything, however He forbids excessiveness. Elder Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia is one of my favorite saints. We often have a kind of religious fanaticism: this is prohibited and that is prohibited, and that is totally prohibited, and if you do this you will surely go to hell at once. One day Elder Porphyrios sat with his spiritual children and said, “What a loving God we have! He created the flavor of food and its smell in order to treat us with it and make us happy.” Satan did not create taste, neither did he create smell, but he created excessiveness. We may simply eat tasty food, enjoy it, stop in time, and glorify God. But satan created excessiveness so we overeat like pigs and serve the cult of food.
A person may wash himself with a fragrant soap and smell good. This is not a sin. But when we pay three wages for a bottle of perfume, this is excessive. And what about a simple observance of elementary principles of hygiene… Some people show fanaticism believing that one should not brush his teeth before the Eucharist… Can you imagine how a priest should receive your confession after this? Clean your teeth in the morning, rinse your mouth, and take the Body of Christ into your clean mouth. Fanaticism will surely invent something; it will make up some external perversions.
Well, I have bored you enough already. Forgive me.
1 ”To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” (Is. 1:11)
2 “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” (Pr. 23:26)
3 “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Mt.23:24)
4 “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you?” (Mt. 17:17)
5 “For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Mt. 23:27)
6 “God, I thank You that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.” (Lk. 18:11)
7 “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt. 5:28)
8 “Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.” (Mt 23:26)