St. John Chrysostom - Homily on Genesis - 01 (intro)

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Conversation I

An Exhortation at the Beginning of Holy Lent

I rejoice and am made glad, seeing now how the Church of God is adorned with a multitude of her children, and how all of you have flocked here with great joy. When I look at your bright faces, I find in them the clearest evidence of your spiritual joy, just as the wise one said: “I rejoice in my heart, my face blossoms” (Prov. 15:13). Therefore, I also got up today with great zeal, wanting to share this spiritual joy with you, and at the same time wishing to be the herald of the coming of the Holy Forty Days for you, as a cure for our souls.

The Lord, common to all of us, as a father who loves his children, gave us healing in holy fasting, wishing to cleanse us from the sins we may have committed at any time. So, let no one grieve, let no one be sad, but rejoice, be glad, and glorify the Guardian of our souls, who opened this wonderful path for us, and receive its coming with great joy! Let the Hellenes be ashamed, let the Jews be put to shame, seeing with what joyful readiness we welcome its advance, and let them know by this very fact what a difference there is between us and them. Let them call drunkenness and every kind of unbridledness and shamelessness feasts and celebrations, as this is what they usually do at these times.  But the Church of God - in spite of them - calls fasting and contempt (of the pleasures) of the stomach, and all the virtues that follow from them, a feast. And this is a true feast, where there is the salvation of souls, where there is peace and harmony, from which all worldly splendor is banished, where there is no screaming, no noise, no cooks rushing to and fro, no slaughter of animals, but instead of all this reigns perfect calmness, silence, love, joy, peace, meekness, and innumerable blessings. 

It is this feast, I say, that we will talk about a little with your love, asking you in advance to listen to our words with complete calmness, so that you can go home from here, bearing good fruit. We gather here not simply and not in vain, not only so that one may speak, the other may applaud the words of the first, and then everyone may disperse from here, but so that we might say something useful and necessary for your salvation, and you might receive fruit and great benefit from our words, leaving here with that same fruit.

The Church is a spiritual hospital, and those who come here should receive appropriate medicines, apply them to their wounds, and leave here in that state. But the one who hears, without fulfilling it in deeds, will not receive any benefit. Listen to the blessed Paul about this, who says: “For the hearers of the law are not righteous before God, but the doers of the law ... will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). And Christ, in his sermon, said: “Not all who say to me: Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven: but those who do the will of my Father, which is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Therefore, beloved, knowing that it will be of no use to us to hear unless it is followed by action, let us not be only hearers, but also doers, so that the works corresponding to the words will serve as the foundation of the animated word. Open the bowels of your soul and accept this word about fasting. As those who are preparing to receive a chaste and beautiful bride decorate the bridal chamber on all sides with veils, cleanse the whole house, do not let a single worthless maidservant into it, and then bring the bride into the bridal rest, so do I wish that you, having cleansed your soul and bid farewell to amusements and all intemperance, would receive with open arms the mother of all blessings and the teacher of chastity and all virtue, that is, fasting, so that you also may enjoy great pleasure, as it (fasting) brings the proper and appropriate medicine for you.

Doctors, when they intend to give medicine to those who want to purify their rotten and spoiled juices, order them to abstain from ordinary food, so that it does not prevent the medicine from acting and exerting its strength; all the more so when we are preparing to receive this spiritual medicine, that is the benefit from fasting, we must purify our mind by abstinence and lighten the soul, so that it, being mired in intemperance, does not make fasting useless and fruitless for us.

2. I see that our words seem strange to many; but, I beg you, let us not recklessly be servants to habit, but let us organize our lives in accordance with reason. Indeed, will it be of any use to us if we spend the whole day in gluttony and drunkenness? What do I say: use? On the contrary, (from this will come) great harm and irreparable evil.

As soon as the mind is darkened from the immoderate use of wine, then immediately, at the very beginning and at the first step, the benefits of fasting cease. What is more unpleasant, tell me, what is more vile than those people who, drinking wine until midnight, in the morning, at sunrise, emit such a smell as if they were loaded with fresh wine? They turn out to be unpleasant to those who meet them, contemptible in the eyes of slaves, ridiculous to everyone who knows anything about decency, and most importantly, such intemperance and untimely and disastrous immoderation incur the wrath of God. “The drunkards…” it is said, “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10). What could be more pitiful than these people who, for a short and disastrous pleasure, are thrown out of the threshold of the Kingdom?

But let it not be that any of those gathered here are carried away by this passion; on the contrary, so that all of us, having spent the present day with all wisdom and chastity, and having freed ourselves from the storm and excitement that drunkenness usually produces, may enter into the harbor of our souls, that is, fasting, and may receive in abundance the blessings bestowed upon us. As intemperance in food is the cause and source of innumerable evils for the human race, so fasting and contempt (of the pleasures) of the stomach have always been the cause of untold benefits for us.

Having created man in the beginning and knowing that this medicine is very necessary for him for spiritual salvation, God immediately and at the very beginning gave the first-created man the following commandment: «From every tree in the garden you shall eat, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.» (Gen. 2:16-17). The words “Eat this, but do not eat that” created a kind of fast. But man, instead of keeping the commandment, transgressed it; succumbing to gluttony, he showed disobedience and was condemned to death.

The crafty demon and enemy of our race, when he saw that the first-created man was living a carefree life in Paradise, and, clothed with flesh, was living on earth like an angel, decided to seduce and drag him to his downfall with the promise of even greater blessings, and thus deprived him of what he already possessed. This is what it means not to stay within your limits, but to strive for more. Pointing to this, the wise man said: “But the envy of the devil brought death into the world” (Wisdom 2:24). Have you seen, beloved, how death came from intemperance in the beginning?

See how later Divine Scripture constantly condemns entertainment and says - in one place: "And the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (Ex. 32: 6), and in another: "He ate, drank, kicked, and grew fat... and the beloved one turned away ”(Deut. 32:15). And by this the inhabitants of Sodom, above their other crimes, brought upon themselves the inexorable wrath of God. Listen to what the prophet says: "This is the iniquity of Sodom ... as in the satiety of bread ... is your love of pleasure» (Ezek.16:49). (This vice) is, as it were, the source and root of all evil.

3. Do you see the harm that comes from intemperance? Look now at the beneficial effects of fasting. After spending forty days in fasting, the great Moses was honored to receive the tablets of the Law; when, having descended from the mountain, he saw the iniquity of the people, he threw these tablets, which he had just received with such effort, and broke them, considering it inappropriate to communicate the commandments of the Lord to the people, who were drunk and acting lawlessly. Therefore, this wonderful prophet had to fast for another forty days in order to be worthy to receive them again from above and bring (to the people) the tablets broken because of their iniquity (Ex. 24:18).

And the great Elijah fasted for the same number of days and escaped the dominion of death, ascended on a fiery chariot “as it were into heaven”, and has not experienced death to this day (2 Kings 2:1,11). And the man of desires, having fasted many days, was rewarded with that wonderful vision (Dan. 10:3); he also tamed the fury of the lions and turned it into the meekness of sheep (Dan. 6:16-23, 14:30-39), not changing their nature, but changing their disposition, while their bestiality remained the same. And the Ninevites, by fasting, turned away the Lord's decree, forcing dumb animals to fast along with people, and thus, having put away their evil deeds, disposed the Lord of the universe to philanthropy (Jon. 3: 7).

But why should I turn to slaves (after all, we can count many others who became famous for fasting both in the Old and in the New Testament), when I ought to point to our universal Lord? For our Lord Jesus Christ himself, after a forty-day fast, entered into a struggle with the devil and gave us all the example that we should arm ourselves with this same fast and, having gained strength through this, enter into a struggle with the devil (Matt. 4:2).

But here, perhaps, someone with a sharp and lively mind will ask: why does the Lord fast for as many days as the slaves, and not more than them? This was done not simply and not in vain, but wisely and according to His inexpressible love of mankind. Lest they think that He appeared in an illusory manner and did not take on flesh, or did not have human nature, He fasted for the same number of days, and not more, and thus blocks the shameless mouths of those who are eager to argue. If even now, when it has already happened, they still dare to say this, then what would they not dare to say, if (the Lord) in His foresight had not taken the occasion (for disputes) away from them? Therefore, He deigned to fast no more, but as many days as the servants, in order to teach us by this very deed that He was clothed with the same flesh (as us) and was not alien to our nature.

4. So, it has become clear to us both from the example of the servants, and from the example of the Lord himself, that the power of fasting is great and there is much benefit from it for the soul. Therefore, I ask for your love so that, knowing the benefits of fasting, you will not be deprived of it through negligence, and at its onset you will not be sad, but rejoice and be glad, in accordance with the words of the blessed Paul: «For though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed» (2 Corinthians 4:16).

In fact, fasting is food for the soul, and just as bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul, gives it an easy flight, makes it able to rise on high and think about things above, and puts it above the pleasures and enjoyable things of this life. Just as light ships cross the seas more quickly, but those burdened with a large load sink, so fasting, making our mind lighter, helps to quickly cross the sea of ​this current life, to strive for heaven and heavenly things, and not to cherish the present, but to consider it more insignificant than shadows and sleepy dreams.

On the contrary, drunkenness and overeating, burdening the mind and fattening the body, make the soul a prisoner, overwhelm it from all sides and do not allow it to have a firm foundation in judgment, make it rush along the cliffs, and do everything to the detriment of its own salvation. Let us not, beloved, be heedless in arranging our salvation, but knowing how many evils flow from intemperance, let us try to avoid its harmful consequences.

Luxury is forbidden not only in the New Testament, where more wisdom is already required, where great deeds, great works, numerous rewards, and indescribable crowns are offered, but it was not allowed in the Old Testament either, when they were still in shadow, using a lamp and being enlightened little by little, like children, fed on milk. And lest you should think that we condemn amusements without reason, listen to the prophet who says: “For those who come in the day of evil ... sleeping on a bed of ivory and loving on their beds, eating goats from their flocks, and nourishing calves with milk from their herds; ... drinking strained wine and smearing themselves with the first ointments ... as if they were standing by, and not fleeing ”(Amos. 6: 3-6). Do you see how the prophet denounces luxury, speaking, moreover, to the Jews who were insensible and unreasonable, daily indulging in gluttony? And note the accuracy of the expressions: having denounced their immoderation in food and the use of wine, he then added: “as if they were standing by, and not as if they were fleeing,” showing by this that the pleasure (of food and wine) is limited only to the mouth and lips, and does not extend further.

Pleasure is short-lived and inconstant, but the sorrow from it is constant and endless. And he says this, knowing from experience: they are all "as if they were standing by", i.e. considered constant, "and not as if fleeing", i.e. flying away and not stopping for a minute. Such, after all, is everything human and carnal: as soon as it appears, it passes away. Such is merry-making, such is the glory and power of man, such is wealth, such is the well-being of the current life in general; it has nothing lasting in itself, nothing permanent, nothing solid, but rather runs away like a river and leaves those who cling to it empty-handed and with nothing.

On the contrary, the spiritual is not like that: it is firm and unshakable, not subject to change and enduring forever. How foolish would it be to exchange the unshakable for the vacillating, the eternal for the temporal, the permanent for the transient, and that which brings great joy in the age to come, for that which prepares great torment for us there?

Contemplating all this, beloved, and cherishing our salvation, let us despise fruitless and disastrous amusements; let us love fasting and all other wisdom, let us show a great change in life, and every day let us hasten to do good deeds, so that during the whole Holy Forty Days, having made a spiritual purchase and having collected great wealth of virtue, we may thus become worthy to come to the day of the Lord, to approach the Dread and Spiritual Meal with boldness, with a clear conscience to be partakers of indescribable and immortal blessings and to be filled with heavenly grace, through the prayers and intercession of those who are pleasing to Christ Himself, our man-loving God, to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power, and honor now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Translated by Kimberly Gleason

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