Monday of the Fifth Week of Matthew
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In the Gospel today, the Lord reproaches the Pharisees for distorting the meaning of the Sabbath rest:
At that time, Jesus went into the Jews’ synagogue: And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.- Matthew 12: 9-13
St. Theophan the Recluse points out that while the Pharisees’ insistence on not doing certain things kept them from doing good works on the Sabbath, now we have Orthodox believers who insist on doing certain things that lead them to desecrate Sunday, the Lord’s Day of the Resurrection:
…Not doing things kept the Pharisees from performing good works, whereas the things which Christians allow themselves are what lead them away from good works. On the eve of Sunday they go to the theater and then to some other entertainment. In the morning they oversleep and there is no time to go to church. There are several visits, then lunch, and in the evening again entertainment. Thus all their time is relegated to the belly and to pleasing other senses, and there is no time even to remember God and good works. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 138-139
Our 19th century Russian author here portrays the worldly aristocratic life depicted by Tolstoy in his novels: Theater, the opera, balls, dinner parties, frivolous social visits for gossip and flirting, etc. We might say, “Well, my boring, stressed-out existence bears no resemblance to that! I work all week, and I need my weekends for myself, to catch up on all the things I don’t have time for during the week and to have some fun with my friends in order to relax.”
But why does God allow us to fall into this meaningless existence, to run like rats on a wheel in this ceaseless round of superficial and hollow activity? Is it not because we do not give to God the time that God demands for Himself alone? When is the last time we looked honestly at our Sundays and remembered that from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday the day is set aside for three things: worship, rest, and good works? That to use it otherwise is still a sin? That on Judgment Day Christ will demand an account of how we will have used our Sundays?
A man giving me advice on how to attract people to my former parish once described to me, as a model for imitation, the grand entrance of a popular and wealthy priest into a noisy dance being held very late on a Saturday night, a dance, sad to say, organized by and attended only by Orthodox people: how this well-groomed, smiling man in his fine suit and Roman collar had gone from table to table like a politician running for office, being greeted with acclaim, the center of everyone’s attention and admiration. “They were just eating out of his hand,” my volunteer advisor said with awed voice. Perhaps it did not occur to him that he had witnessed, in approving silence, a priest blessing that which is forbidden by God and, if unconfessed and un-repented, could send this priest and his unfortunate flock to hell for all eternity. Perhaps this priest had forgotten that heaven, hell, and eternity are the proper business of priests.
The Orthodox rhythm of Sunday remains today the same as it ever was: Saturday evening is set aside for Vespers or Vigil at church, for quiet preparation of the soul for the Day of the Resurrection, and, whenever possible, preparation for Holy Communion. Sunday morning is set aside for returning to the church to attend Matins or the Hours, followed by the Divine Liturgy. On Sunday afternoon we rest and also spend time in God-pleasing activities such as a peaceful dinner with virtuous family and friends -those who provide a good example – with whom we can share God-pleasing conversation and sentiments, study, teaching our children the Law of God, visiting the elderly or ill house-bound brothers and sisters who cannot come to the church, volunteer work to care for the unfortunate, etc. On Sunday evening (not Saturday), or the evening of (not the evening before) feast days, is the time for parties, dances, and entertainment, but even these must always accord with tradition, modesty, and restraint, and are arranged for the sake of love, of community, of true friendship in Christ, and not for coarse pleasure.
Unavoidable limitations in our circumstances may cause us to alter this schedule and this agenda. We may live very far from church, for example, but that does not prevent us from reading services at home on Saturday night instead of going to parties or football games. We may have a vocation to help suffering man in the medical profession or other work that demands our attention occasionally on Sundays. But this does not prevent us from saying the Jesus Prayer and being mindful of the Lord when we have to work on Sundays. God knows our circumstances and our limits, and He also knows when we are being honest with ourselves and when we are lying to ourselves. Let us be honest with ourselves and ask the Lord to enlighten us as to what is truly unavoidable and what we pretend to be unavoidable in order to excuse our worldliness. Here is a test: When we think that some obligation – real or imagined – is forcing us out of a pious Sunday observance, do we feel oppressed by this world or relieved to be off the hook? Are we sad or glad? Think about it.
O most beloved Lord, most worthy and above-worthy object of all our love and devotion, Creator and disposer of all the days and hours of this life, enlighten us to keep Thy Day in holiness! Amen.
The Lord rests on the Seventh Day from the work of Creation.