Fasting, Forgiveness, and Avatar

OrthoAnalyika Shownotes: 14 February 2010

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An Epistle to Kick-off the Fast


Catechetical Homily On the Commencement of Holy and Great Lent


By God’s Mercy Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch

To the Plenitude of the Church

Grace and Peace be to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Together with our Prayer, Blessing, and Forgiveness

Beloved brothers and sisters, children in the Lord,

Tomorrow, we enter the period of Holy and Great Lent. In the Lenten vespers of Forgiveness chanted this evening, we shall hear the sacred hymnographer urging us to “begin the time of fasting with joy, submitting ourselves to spiritual struggle” in preparing to welcome the great Passion and joyful Resurrection of our divine-human Lord.

Therefore, what is demanded is a joyful disposition in order to embrace fervently the spiritual struggle of this period of contrition in purification and prayerfulness. Fasting, abstinence, frugality, restriction of personal desires, intense prayer, confession, and similar ascetic elements are essential to the period of Great Lent and should not be considered burdensome obligations or unbearable duties that result in despondency or dejection. When doctors recommend diet or exercise as necessary prerequisites for psychosomatic health and vigor, the first advice they offer by way of a mandatory condition of success is a pleasant mental disposition, which includes smiling and positive thinking. The same also applies to the spiritual period of fasting that opens before us. Great Lent should be regarded as an invaluable divine gift. It is a sacred time of divine grace, which seeks to detach us from things material, lowly and corrupt in order to attract us toward things superior, wholesome and spiritual. It is a unique opportunity to remove from the soul every passion, to rid the body of everything superfluous, harmful and mortal. Accordingly, then, it is a time of immense rejoicing and gladness. A genuine feast and exhilaration!

Nevertheless, my beloved children, the fasting expected of us by the Church, as well as the abstinence, frugality, restriction of personal desires and unnecessary pleasures or expenses, literally constitute a prescription for salvation. This is especially true this year, when our world has experienced a global economic crisis, filled with imminent danger of bankruptcy not only for individuals and companies, but also for entire nations throughout the planet, with destructive consequences in skyrocketing unemployment, the creation of entire hosts of people plagued by poverty, depression, social turmoil, increase in crime, and other such tragedies. Great Lent instructs us to journey daily with a little less, without the arrogance of extravagance, waste and display. It encourages us to surrender all forms of greed and ignore the challenges of commercial advertising, which constantly promotes new and false necessities. It incites us to limit ourselves to what is absolutely essential and necessary in an attitude of dignified, deliberate simplicity. We are not to be a consuming or compulsive herd of thoughtless and heartless individuals, but a society of sensitive and caring persons, sharing with and supporting our “neighbor” that is in poverty or recession. Finally, Great Lent informs us about patience and tolerance in moments of smaller or larger deprivation, while simultaneously emphasizing the need to seek God’s assistance and mercy, placing our complete trust in His affectionate providence. That is how Christ envisions Great Lent. That is how the Saints lived Great Lent. That is how the Church Fathers undertook the struggle of Great Lent. That is how our faith has traditionally understood Great Lent. That is how the Church of Constantinople, in its wide experience and unceasing vigilance, has always projected and proclaimed Great Lent, and particularly in the current global circumstances.

In sharing these pastoral thoughts and words from the historical and holy Phanar, we extend to all of you our paternal prayer and spiritual blessing for a fruitful journey through the period of Great Lent.

Holy and Great Lent 2010

+ Bartholomew,

Fervent supplicant before God



Question: Why should I forgive someone who did something really bad?
Answer: Christ is pretty clear on this one when He says (right after giving us the “Our Father”): “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (St. Matthew 6: 14-15).

Is God really setting a condition on forgiveness? Why would He refuse to forgive us? It is sin that separates us from the unity and perfection that is God. When we refuse to forgive, we are not like a righteous judge who decides to mete out justice instead of mercy: we are the sinful fool who choses pride over repentance. We have allowed another person’s folly to distract us from our pursuit of holiness. We have trumped their sin by our own.

In our Forgiveness Service, we forgive one another in imitation of God’s own forgiveness of us. God is so unlike us – can you imagine Him allowing our actions – no matter how hateful – to pull Him from His peace, love, and holiness? This is not possible: He is the unchangeable source of peace, love, and holiness. We must imitate this with our own immutable devotion to peace and perfection.

Some worry that forgiveness implies that we pretend that nothing ever happened. This is foolishness. Forgiveness allows you to see the effects of bad behavior in the full light of rationality; in a logic founded on love (rather than spite or selfishness). The granting of forgiveness does not imply the granting of trust or forgetfulness; it is simply the intentional removal of anything that diminishes the love that you feel for the person that did you wrong. It is often difficult to forgive and to love in this way, but it is the way of perfection, and it is made possible only through our life in the God-man Jesus Christ.


Fun classes on Orthodox Spirituality resume next week in Woonsocket.

New services here: Small Vespers, All-night Vigil, and the tipping point passed by the Great Prokimen.

Ecumenical Travels: meeting an interesting (but fallen) god.

Fun with Fasting (and dealing with the inevitable curveballs).

Got to see two movies last week: “The Lightning Thief” and Avatar. Also managed to eat good burritos on each date. “The Lightning Thief” was good enough. Hopefully it will get more kids interested in Greek Mythology and the classics. We’ll see.

Thoughts about the movie “Avatar.”

Beautiful movie. Predictable story (similar to Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas): soldier infiltrates culture, falls in love with it, and goes native. For our purposes, it also has strong spiritual themes, most notably:

1) The idea of communion and unity with other rational creatures and with all of creation.

2) The recognition that this communion and unity on Earth has been destroyed by our sin.

Pandora is a Edenic paradise, whose rational stewards, the Na’vi, never fell. The plot is driven by the interaction between its civilization and representatives from that of the fallen earth. Those who are open to the positive influence of Pandora and the Na’vi are drawn to its beauty and long to become part of it. Those who cannot see it for what it is desire only to use it for their own selfish ends as they have with Earth.

At this level, the story is a super-sensual retelling of the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Perelandria. In it, two wicked men replace the evil corporation and mercenary army of Avatar, with Random playing the part of both Avatar’s scientists and main hero.

But Lewis was a Christian, and his Space Trilogy was thoroughly infused with his worldview. James Cameron, the creator of Avatar is not, and his work is thoroughly infused with a modern pagan worldview. The amazing thing to me was how close the stories the two men told were.

But the differences also show how stark –and important – the gap between them is. The real differences between the two do not really show up until the end. This is when Cameron’s pagan worldview really led him astray. In order to demonstrate the contrast, I would like to describe how an Orthodox Christian Cameron would have ended the movie (or, more humbly, how I would have recommended him to end it… and set himself up for a sequel).

1) During his time on Pandora, Jake would have been tempted to identify himself as his Na’vi avatar, but he would have realized that he could only really be whole and sanctified along with his real human body. This would have allowed the movie to teach the fundamental truth that when the body, soul, and spirit are separated, the resulting “person” is incomplete. This epiphany would occur when he was laid down next to his Na’vi avatar for the joining. The spirit of Pandora would gently rebuke Jake for his nativity, but would (successfully) entreat the Maker to restore Jake to fullness of health.

2) Rather than finding sanctification and unity through the spirit of Pandora, she would have told Jake about the war for the future of his own planet and race. He would have learned that, although the spirit of Earth was fallen and that communion there had been thereby destroyed, it was being restored through the Great Maker, whom the spirit of Pandora herself – along with all rational and good creatures – served. He would have helped to protect Pandora from the invaders (as in the movie), but the movie would have ended as Jake and the remaining scientists prepared to go home and join the insurgency to reclaim Earth for the Great Maker and restore unity and communion there.

3) Combining points one and two, the spirit of Pandora would have used the concept of the avatar to help Jake understand the amazing history of the leader of Earth’s insurgency; the Incarnate Maker, Christ (perhaps in the sequel, Jake would learn how the Christ is not just the Maker in a meatsuit, but a person both fully human and fully divine).

4) Jake and the scientists would have experienced a foretaste of communion with one another when they committed themselves to the insurgency; this would also have allowed them to experience unity with creation on Pandora (all creation is restored through Him), but without losing their human identities or joining an alien culture. Perhaps while experiencing that Communion, they would see how Grace was restored to unity with sanctified humanity through Christ (albeit still living in anticipation of the Great Remaking).

My viewing of Avatar was more charitable than other Christian commentators. I think this is because I believe that many pagan concepts find their true form in Orthodoxy. So even while explicitly rejecting Christianity (as he understands it), Cameron illuminated some fundamental truths. These are truths that many Christians themselves have never learned, but whose mystery awaits all who see the world in the light of Christ.

Vol’ya / Freedom Segment

Christian Leadership. Don’t fall into the trap of using the wisdom of the world (i.e. by exercising worldly leadership in a Christian context). Instead, take up the call to redeem the world around you. Start with your family and your parish. Fr. Basil Biberdorf’s blog “The Orthodox Leader” has gotten a lot of us thinking about this topic. I hope to share some thoughts on this over the next few weeks (in addition to his blog and my comments there, we have exchanged lots of e-mails on the topic). Here’s the first installment:


We are sometimes called to act when others don’t behave in a manner that we would like. Nor do we always know why. Do we throw the book at them, or do we find a pastoral solution? Here’s my call for a pastoral response, even in the face of incomplete information.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to develop the kind of love and understanding of the people we serve that would allow us to truly sympathize with them (to completely understand their circumstances and intentions)- but in humility we have to recognize that this will always be a work in progress. So what do we do? I think the Christian leader is called to do three things:

1) Be humble. Humility is huge because pride is part of the air we breath. It taints how we diagnose situations (for example, by leading us to assume that we have more influence than we do – and of making bad assumptions about the relative role of intention and circumstance in the offender’s decision-making) and how we respond to them (for example, by taking offense or getting depressed/anxious about their possible reactions).

2) Be loving. I don’t mean the warm and fuzzy romanticism that gets passed off as love in our fallen culture: I mean the kind of love that lives completely for others and their well being. This means that we take our own feelings completely out of the picture. This is a hard lesson: there are people who appear to love others, but really only do it for the feeling it gives themselves (i.e. either because it stokes their sense of duty or because they like being important/appreciated). A good gauge of how we are doing on this is how we react when no one notices or appreciates (or even demeans!) our work on their behalf. If we get upset or if it only spurns us to try harder, then we are loving ourselves, not the people we serve. If we dispassionately use their reaction as data so that we can improve the quality of our service to them, then we are heading in the right direction.

3) Take action… and ask for forgiveness when we make mistakes. As leaders, we have to act based on the information we have. The problem is that if we recognize our limitations and appreciate the damage a bad decision can do to people … we can easily be paralyzed by our doubt. But leaders must act – it is what they are chosen to do. So we measure things up, pray, consult one another, then take action (in love and humility). And when our decisions harm others, we ask forgiveness and work to make it right.

I have made many mistakes as I try to lead people towards Christ. I pray that the harm I have done be healed, and that those whom I have hurt forgive me. I am the chief of sinners.

God forgives. May He forgive us all.