When You Pray
Fasting, fasting, fasting. Great and Holy Lent starts tomorrow on Clean-Pure Monday. Perhaps, hopefully, you’ve thought about Lent, and if you have, what did you think about? Fasting? Probably because many of us have reduced Lent to fasting. Fasting from meat, starting on Meatfare last Sunday. Fasting from dairy starting today on Cheesefare Sunday. Fasting from sweets, soft drinks and all sorts of other stuff that we decide for ourselves, often instead of following the fast prescribed by the Church. Sometimes we are literally obsessed with fasting and we forget that fasting is only a tool to help us on our Lenten journey to Pascha. We forget that there exist two other major, more important things we need to work on during Great Lent. The first is almsgiving but we’re not going to talk about that today. We’re going to discuss the most important one today and that is prayer.
Prayer, prayer, prayer! Today’s Gospel reading for Cheesefare Sunday is Matthew 6:14-21 and yesterday’s Gospel reading is the Saturday of Cheesefare comes right before today’s. In verses 1-13 Jesus gives instructions on prayer similar to His instructions on fasting. First, just like with fasting and almsgiving, Jesus says, “Whenever you pray” (v.5). In other words, He doesn’t say “if you fast” or “if you give alms” or “if you pray.” Rather, He says, “whenever you pray,” the implication is that we must pray, we must talk to God, we must direct all our hopes, trials, fears and thanks toward Him who is in Heaven. Prayer is not really a choice if we call ourselves Christians, followers of Christ. “Whenever” also implies not just sometimes when we pray, but at all times. So, the instruction that follows is to be applied every time we pray.
Second, He says don’t practice your piety before other people (vv.1,2,3,4,5,6,16,17,18). Piety is what we do because of our faith in God. Piety is how we act-out or practice our beliefs. Fasting, almsgiving and prayer are pious acts, but if we do them in a manner that is meant to draw attention to ourselves, then pride has entered into our piety, and pride ruins everything. Because when pray to be seen by others to be praying, then we are no longer giving glory to God but rather to ourselves. We have made ourselves into an idol. The word idolatry literally means “worship of self.”
Pray, pray, pray. Instead of parading our prayer before others, Jesus tells us to go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (v.6). On one level the secret room implies going to someplace in our home or even at work that provides solitude, alone time with God, without any distractions. Hopefully, we all have altars in our home, and each person has an altar in their own room, whether that’s a bedroom or an office. At least once every day we should go to that room with that altar and shut that door to just pray and not do anything else. One a deeper level, the Church Fathers and Saints have traditionally interpreted this secret room as our heart. If we believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we are a temple of the living God, then God the Holy Spirit and God’s Son Jesus Christ live within us mystically, supernaturally.
The place where we go to meet God in prayer is in our heart. There is no way for us to get our head into our heart unless we go someplace quite without distraction. On top of that however, we also need to quiet our mind and our heart. We do that by standing in silence before God, becoming aware of our thoughts and either dismissing them or offering them up to God. In that silence we also become aware of the emotions and the passions that fill our heart. Those also need to be offered up to God and healed. That is why the Sacrament of Confession is so important and necessary because that’s how we do mental, emotional and spiritual house cleaning in which the priest helps us allow God to unclutter our heart, mind and soul. Without out the Sacrament of Confession it is very difficult to pray with a heart drowning in emotion and the passions, with a mind crowded by all sorts of thoughts and with a soul in need of forgiveness.
Pray, pray, pray! Thirdly, Jesus says, 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. This instruction is directed to those who are like Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazaros, when it comes to prayer. Some of us approach prayer like it’s a task or a duty that must be done just like everything else on our checklist. Let’s get through it and get it done and get on to the next thing. But prayer is not something we just get through. Prayer is about slowing down and doing nothing else, to be like Martha’s sister who sat at Jesus’ feet and just listened. Therefore, prayer is not a monologue in which we drone on and on telling God everything that we want Him to do for us. Prayer is not about reading prayer after prayer and psalm after psalm from the Orthodox Prayerbook. God already knows what we need before we ask Him. The real question is do we know what we need according to God’s perspective?
Pray, pray, pray! Fourthly and finally, Jesus does not only tell us how to pray but He gives us a prayer to pray. That prayer of course is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father,” the quintessential prayer of Christians. We don’t have time today to go into an extensive review and explanation of the Lord’s Prayer. But let’s review it and make a few points. “Our Father” (v.9). God is not only the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He adopted us as His children when we were baptized and chrismated. He is not just Father “Patros or Patir” but “Abba”, “Baba”, “Daddy”, near and dear to us.
“Your kingdom come” (v.10). The kingdom of God is not just a future heaven but a present reality on earth. When we pray, either alone at home, before a meal with our family, with a person in need, or together at Church, we are entering into the Kingdom of Heaven that is already on earth but we also make it stronger when we pray. “Your will be done” (v.10). Prayer is about discovering God’s will in order to do it. Prayer is not about telling God to do what we want done. “Give us our daily bread” (v.11). In the early Church, the Eucharist was celebrated daily, today it is celebrated on Sunday’s and weekdays. God cannot give us our daily bread unless we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
“Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (v.12). Today’s Gospel passage started with this verse, 14“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This is why Cheesefare Sunday is also called Forgiveness Sunday and why every parish holds Forgiveness Vespers this evening before we enter Great Lent tomorrow.
“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” (v.13). Does God tempt us? The short answer is yes or at least He allows it. But as the Apostle Paul says, God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength in order to endure it, or He will provide a way out away from it (1Cor.10:13). This He does to help us grow and mature. “From evil” should be translated as “from the evil one” because the evil one, Satan, the devil is real and he’s ready to take anyone down at any time. We must be aware and ready and careful because Satan is cunning and crafty.
In conclusion, let us remember to pray, pray, pray, every day, may times a day. It’s not if you pray but whenever you pray. Let us remember to pray without pride in secret. Let us seek to be physically alone in prayer but not lonely in prayer, knowing that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are just inside the door of our heart. We must go to meet them there. Let us remember to pray like Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, waiting silently for His word and His will to be given to us. And finally, let us remember to pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Amen!