The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week, and the Resurrection

Our Metropolis is most Grateful to Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis for kindly granting us permission to publish excerpts from his new book “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”  Those interested in purchasing the text can do so by clicking HERE.

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Leaning on God When You Are in Agony 

And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” And there appeared to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him.

Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:43

(From the Gospel of the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Thursday Morning)

Jesus went to a place that was very familiar to Him—The Garden of Gethsemane.  He went with people whom He was comfortable with—His Disciples.  And He did something that was very familiar to Him—He prayed.  But this is where the comfort ended.  For in the prayers of this night, He confronted His own impending suffering and death.  He was about to do something that had never happened to anyone.  He was about to suffer as no man had ever suffered.

Jesus’ response to His situation was a very human response.  At the tomb of Lazarus, He shed human tears, as He mourned His friend who had died.  And in the Garden of Gethsemane, He shed the tears of fear and sorrow, as He meditated on His own impending death. 

His prayer cried out to God for deliverance and relief.  In confronting what was going to happen to Him, Jesus had the human emotion of wishing for the cup of suffering to pass from Him.  His overwhelming thought, even in the midst of personal suffering, however, was a desire to remain obedient to God, to place His trust in God.  So, immediately upon asking if the cup of suffering could be lifted, He placed it in the hands of God, leaving it up to God’s will and not His. 

Many times in life, we feel like Christ.  This is why Christ understands us.  He understands our pains because He lived them.  Many times in life, we wish for a “cup of suffering” to pass from us, or to leave us.  We beg and plead for God to take away pain and sorrow.  Many times the prayer ends there—we offer our plea, and we hope that He will offer deliverance. 

However, the most spiritually mature person will offer to God, in addition to a specific request, a humble surrender and submission to the will of God.  In Isaiah 55:8-9, we read, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Our requests may not be in line with God’s will for our lives.  So, we should always leave room for His will to be done.

If you are the parent of a young child, if that child had his or her way, he or she would probably want to eat pizza or French fries for every meal.  And of course, on occasion, we, as parents, grant this request.  But if we always granted that request, we would be irresponsible parents.  Children are free to make any requests they want, but at the end of the day, ideally, they acquiesce to the will of parents, who provide for them, guard them and have their best interests in mind.

The same thing applies to God.  Sometimes our will is in line with His. We desire something and He desires it for us.  There are other times when His will and our will are not in line, and this is where we have to trust and be obedient to His will, as our Father, our provider, our guardian. 

In Luke 22:44, we read that Jesus, “being in agony, He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.”  This depth of sorrow and stress is hard to comprehend.  We are told that in this moment, “an angel appeared from heaven, strengthening Him.” (Luke 22:43) 

One of the greatest comforts to us is knowing that God does not abandon us, especially in our moments of suffering.  Sometimes it takes great faith and trust to realize that He is right there with us, even when it feels like we are alone, or that He is far away.  We pray in the Divine Liturgy “For an angel of peace, a faithful guide, a guardian of our souls and bodies” to be with us at all times, to comfort us in our times of sorrow. 

I’ve seen several depictions of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling over a large rock, pouring out His sorrows.  I’ve seen some depictions where an angel is hovering above Him, in a posture of prayer, as if praying over Him.  And I’ve seen depictions where the angel is putting his arm around Him, embracing Him.  I bring these depictions to my mind in my moments of sorrow, that God sends His angels around me to comfort and protect me.  And many times, I have felt their “presence” and warmth.

At times in every life, we’ve all felt “agony.”  It is not necessarily the agony of impending pain and suffering, but the agony of a “cup” that we wish would pass from us.  When you are in agony, ask the Lord for His will to be done, and ask for comfort and strength from His angels to help you in whatever challenge is at hand. 

The One, Who at all times, and at every hour, both in Heaven and on earth, is worshipped, and glorified, O Christ, our God, long-suffering, plenteous in mercy and full of compassion, Who loves the righteous and is merciful to sinners, calling all to salvation, through the promise of blessings to come, accept our supplications in this present hour, and direct our lives according Your commandments.  Sanctify our souls; purify our bodies; set aright our minds; cleanse our thoughts; and deliver us from all affliction, evil and distress.  Surround us with Your Holy Angels, that guided and guarded by their interposition, we may attain the unity of faith the knowledge of Your ineffable glory.  For You are blessed unto the Ages of Ages.  Amen.  (Prayer of the Hours, offered at the Royal Hours on Good Friday Morning, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)

May God send His angels over you today!

 

The Format of This Book 
In the Orthodox Christian Church, the feast of the Resurrection is referred to as “Pascha”, rather than “Easter.”  The date of Pascha is calculated each year so that it falls after the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, provided that the feast of Passover has occurred.  This results many times in a difference in the dates that the Resurrection is celebrated between the Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations.  Roughly 20% of the time, both the Orthodox Church and the other churches celebrate the Resurrection on the same day.  About 20% of the time, the date is five weeks off.  And the rest of the time, the date is one week off. 
There is 19 Sunday (18 week) period of time each year in the Orthodox Church that surrounds the Feast of Pascha.  The first three weeks, including four Sundays, are called the Triodion, or pre-Lenten period.  The next forty days, which includes nearly six weeks and five Sundays, is called Great Lent.  In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on a Monday called Clean Monday, rather than Ash Wednesday, as it does in the other churches.  Great Lent ends on a Friday.
Holy Week follows Great Lent and it begins on a day called “Saturday of Lazarus.”  Palm Sunday follows, along with Great and Holy Week. The Feast of the Resurrection is called Pascha and it begins a forty day period of celebration.  After forty days, the church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension.  Ten days later (fifty days after the Resurrection), the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost.  The Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints.  This ends this cycle of “movable feasts” (called this because their date moves every year) which surround the feast of Pascha. The intention of this book is that it is to be read according to the Orthodox celebration of Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Pentecost in a given year.