the mercy of God Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and
To the plenitude of the Church:
Grace and peace from our Saviour Christ,
Together with our own prayer, blessing, and forgiveness.
Our Holy Orthodox Church always reminds us that we must be disciplined in virtue, because our All-good Creator offered to the first-created the way of ascesis, namely the control of the desires, as a means of attaining to the likeness of God. This control of the desires, which is the basic task of ascesis, did not concern only the first-created, but is also realised by every Christian who continually struggles throughout his or her life.
However, our Holy Church, knowing that there exists within us a tendency to slacken and even to relinquish our ascetic disposition, has instituted particular periods of more intense ascetic struggle. These periods precede the great feasts and are periods of fasting, because God's commandment to the first-created was also a commandment to fast.
We have begun our entrance into the period of Holy and Great Lent, which is the principal ascetical period of the ecclesiastical year and constitutes our preparation to welcome the great feast of Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ and His victory over death, the darkest enemy of humanity.
The arena, then, of the virtues has been opened, as our Church chants. And we are invited, "all who wish to struggle for the prize, to enter, girding ourselves for the noble contest of the fast". Of course, fasting is not the only contest that we are called to undertake during this Great Lent. Nor is the purpose of ascesis for us to measure our achievements. The purpose of ascesis is to render our soul good; to replenish it with demonstrated love toward God and our fellow human beings. With trust in Divine Providence, with peace, faith and prayer, namely with rational communion with God.
This communion with God is primarily hindered by our shutting up within ourselves, our self-sufficiency, our introverted behaviour, our egocentrism, our arrogance, the Pharisaic mask of self-justification and self-satisfaction. This communion with God is enhanced by the opening of our heart toward our fellow human beings, by love, charity, compassion, sympathy, humility, and by the sense that we need the presence of the other in our life.
This is why Orthodox Christian ascesis does not, as mentioned, aim at the gathering of achievements for the increase of human vainglory, but at the increase of love and humility in the soul and of all its good intentions. An Orthodox Christian practicing ascesis knows that nothing can be achieved without the Grace of God, and consequently seeks exclusively to reach the spiritual condition that is pleasing to Divine Grace, namely the condition or selfless, peaceful, and humble love. An Orthodox Christian knows that even this condition is a gift from God, and therefore will always be humble and rejoice within the umbrage of this Divine Grace. Such a person knows well that if he becomes filled with pride, as did the Pharisee, if there is no continual struggle for humility, which is equivalent with the self knowledge of one's own weakness, as ascertained through ascesis, then this umbrage of Divine Grace will be lost and one will be reduced to the state of spiritual dryness and fruitlessness. Consequently, the more one receives grace, the more that same person perceives his or her own unworthiness for this divine gift and for its grandeur.
Behold, then, beloved children in the Lord, the straight path, which is indicated to us by our Holy Church. This path has been travelled successfully by thousands of faithful before us, and it is travelled even today by thousands of our brothers and sisters. Let us too enter this path. Let us too fight the good fight of selfless love, of fasting, of prayer, and of humility that raises us high, in order that we may receive in purity the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.