|Lent Encyclical - February 7, 2009|
"Prayer is good with fasting and charity and almsgiving is better than storing gold - for charity and almsgiving delivers from death and it will purge away every sin. Those who practice it will have fullness of life." (Tobias 12: 8-9)
We extend our apostolic benediction, benevolent prayers and greetings to our brethren, His Beatitude Mor Baselius Thomas I, Catholicos of India, and their Eminences the Metropolitans; our spiritual children the reverend vicars, priests, monks, nuns, deacons and deaconesses, and our blessed Syrian Orthodox people all over the world. May the divine providence embrace them through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and St. Peter, chief of the apostles, and the rest of the Martyrs and Saints. Amen.
What a sublime wisdom uttered by the Archangel Rafael when addressing the righteous Tobias and his son Tobias! It summarizes the three pillars on which religion stands, namely fasting, prayer and charity. These are the duties of the believer who practices them to be saved from sin and in order to receive forgiveness of intrusions and eternal life. Thus, he will be like the wise man alluded to by the Lord Jesus saying:
"Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock; the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock." (Matthew 7: 24-25).
The wisdom of this man and his rationality were obvious when he put the commandments of the Lord into practice. He was not satisfied with being a passive believer listening to the word; rather, he mixed his faith with good deeds. In this respect, the apostle St. James writes: "you believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deed is useless?" (James 2: 19-20). Also, the apostle St. Peter affirms: "but just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do, for you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with a precious blood, a lamb without blemish or defect, the blood of Christ" (I Peter 1: 15, 18-19). With this precious blood, we have received gratuitously the grace of justification, sanctification and adoption amidst the holy Church founded by the Lord Jesus as a ladder bridging earth to the heavens. He granted her divine authority and made her guardian of the channels of divine graces that she grants her children by the practice of the seven holy sacraments.
Indeed, the holy Church is a mother to all and a teacher. She beseeches the guidance of the Holy Spirit who dwells in her. She directs us to practice the three religious duties: fasting, prayer and charity. As one of the Syriac doctors of the Church has expressed in prayer in the Ephremian meter which is recited in the evening prayer of the Great Lent:
ܨܘܡ ܨܘܡܐ ܕܐܪܒܥܝܢ ܝܘܡܝ̈ܢ : ܘܗܒ ܠܚܡܟ ܠܐܝܢܐ ܕܟܦܝܢ : ܘܨܠܐ ܒܝܘܡܐ ܫܒܥ ܙܒܢܝ̈ܢ : ܐܝܟ ܕܝܠܦܬ ܡܢ ܒܪ ܐܝܫܝ
which translates as follows: "Fast [O Believer] the forty days of the Great Lent and give your bread to the hungry; pray seven times daily as you have learned from the son of Jesse [i.e. David]. Prayer is good with fasting and charity and almsgiving is better than storing gold - for charity and almsgiving delivers from death and it will purge away every sin. Those who practice it will have fullness of life." (Tobias 12: 8-9)
The central component of our words here is charity. Charity with our neighbor is commended by natural law and recommended by divine law as well; people are all children of Adam and Eve, brothers sharing the goods of this earth. They have to love each others. After receiving the sufficient needs from their wealth, the rich shall fill the needs of the poor with their abundant goods; this is what natural law dictates. Our Lord Jesus Christ commends in His divine law that we shall love our neighbor as our selves (cf. Matthew 22: 29); our neighbor is every man who needs our help. The Lord sets a valuable rule about charity and deeds of mercy saying: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matthew 9: 13). In His sermon on the mountain, He says: "blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5: 7).
According to His divine teachings, inheriting the kingdom of heaven depends on actions of mercy. We shall all stand one day in front of His heavenly court and be answerable to the law of charity. The righteous will be called to inherit His kingdom forever; they will not be judged worthy of this kingdom because they spread the gospel, or endured the persecutions, or became martyrs for their faith, or made miracles in His name, or despised this world and worshipped Him day and night; rather, He will say to them:
"Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25: 34-36, 40).
What we give as charity for the poor and needy, is considered as a loan for the Lord Jesus that we lend Him through the least of His brethren, the poor and needy on earth, so that we receive it back in heaven with a multiplied interest. For this reason, He told us: "store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matthew 6: 20)
The rich people of all times, those who have hardened hearts and stiff necks, those who rely on unstable wealth (I Timothy 6: 17) and are not merciful to their brethren whom they see bit by the dagger of times, will get the retribution of the rich man who did not have mercy on Lazarus the poor, according to the parable that the Lord Jesus told about Lazarus the poor who got into the heavenly bliss with Abraham while the rich was tortured in eternal fire screaming to his father Abraham saying:
"Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony in this fire". Abraham replied: "Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus receive bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony" (cf. Luke 16: 19-31).
This rich fool and his kinsmen will hear the voice of the Lord on the day of judgment saying to them:
"Depart from me, you who are cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me and I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me, then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25: 41-46)
He who has hardened his heart to the appeal of his brother and neighbor, will not find mercy in the fearful day of Judgment because "judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, if one of you says to him 'God, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed'; but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2: 13-17). Give alms from your possessions and do not turn your face away from any poor person and the face of God shall not be turned away from you." (Tobias 4: 7)
The Holy Bible with both Old and New Testaments is filled with famous verses to incite us to do charity and shows us the way to do it and the benefits we harvest from it. We confine our Biblical references to what we have cited above, dearly beloved, while we direct our minds to meditate the life of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth. Indeed, He is the rich one who voluntarily became poor and was born as a poor child. In order to save humanity, He was crucified also a poor person while He is the source of all richness. It is written about Him that "He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him" (Acts 10: 38). When going around the different places, He collected charity and donations to cover the material needs of His disciples, and He distributed to the poor as well (cf. John 13: 29).
The Lord fought against the vice called hypocrisy. He attacks the hypocrisy of many believers shown in improperly practiced fasting, prayer or charity. The Lord wants to uproot this vice from the hearts of his followers because it will otherwise corrupt these hearts and not allow the seeds of the gospel to grow. On charity, He says:
"Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret, then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you publicly" (Matthew 6: 1-4).
The Lord also teaches the necessity of sacrifice in charity; He wants us to invite the meek and needy to the feasts we have (cf. Luke 6: 24). The apostle St. Paul commands us to give with joy and abundantly: "whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly; each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver, as it is written: 'He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever'." (II Corinthians 9: 6, 7 and 9). He also said: "in everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: "It is more blessed to give than to receive". (Acts 20: 35).
Our holy Forefathers taught us that charity is not exclusively distributing material things to the needy, the sick, the burial of the dead and the like to assist in the requirements of the flesh; it comprises also the spiritual matters like forgiveness of sins, prayer for friends and foes alike, guiding sinners to virtue and bringing them closer to God almighty through true repentance, comforting those who are in grief and other deeds that lead man to salvation, and to the glory of the holy name of the Lord.
We ought, therefore, to cleanse our hearts from the impurities of sin through true repentance while we enter this great lent. We ought to confess to the Lord's priest and receive communion so that Christ dwells in us. We should dedicate the days of the great lent as directed by the holy Church, for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ and in obedience to His divine commandments. We shall refrain from committing sins and what causes it, while we remain in prayer, pouring our purified selves before God so that our prayers are lifted like incense of good smell before the divine court. We should mix our prayers and fasting with charity and almsgiving in assistance of the poor and needy so that we store up treasures in the heavens and be counted worthy with those who are called by the Lord to His kingdom for believing in Him and serving their lesser brothers with charity and deeds of mercy.
May the Lord bless you and accept your fasting, prayers and charity. May you be rewarded abundantly. May He pour on you and your families many gifts and graces so that we joyful celebrate His glorious resurrection in purity and holiness. May He have mercy on the souls of your faithful departed.
God bless you all with His grace, Amen. ܘܐܒܘܢ ܕܒܫܡܝ̈ܐ ܘܫܪܟܐ (Our Father Who art in heaven...)
Issued at our Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria
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