With the fire of abstinence let us all burn up the thorns of the passions that assault us, and with streams of tears let us put out the flame that shall never be quenched; and let us cry aloud to Him Who shall come to judge the whole earth: O Savior and all-merciful Lord, guard us uncondemned and grant us the forgiveness of our sins. Great Lent, the Third Week, Monday, Matins Sessional Hymn, Tone 8
Our services contain numerous exhortations and explanations about how to live the way of life; their poetry, especially when they are sung, touching the soul in sublime ways.
This hymn is an amazing example of one of the favorite poetical themes of our hymns – juxtaposing opposites, by taking some aspect of scripture and looking at it from a different perspective which is useful for our instruction and edification.
We sing a request for fire to BURN UP our passions. One does not usually think of fire in this way.
In scripture, fire is often used to allude to strong, “hot” passions, such as anger, hate, lust, and all passions of the flesh which burn within us. For instance, when the man with the demoniac boy described the pitiful state of his son, he said:
“Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic, and suffereth grievously; for oft-times he falleth into the fire, and off-times into the water.” (Mat 17:15)
The fire represents these “hot sins” and the water “worldly sins” such as acquisitiveness, distractions and vanity.
St Andrew of Crete vividly describes fiery sins in his Great Canon, when he refers to Esau as Edom (which is translated “red”):
“Esau was called Edom for his extreme passion of madness for women. For ever burning with incontinence and stained with pleasures, he was named Edom which means a red-hot sin-loving soul.” (Great Canon, Tuesday, Ode 4)
Abstinence is not generally thought of as a “fire”, but rather as something which cools it and starves it. After our Lord healed the demoniac boy, his disciples asked why they could not expel the demon. His answer is a main reason why we fast:
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast it out? (20) And he saith unto them, Because of your little faith: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (21) But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting. (Mat 17:19-21)
This hymn looks at fire in a wholly different way, but not without precedent. Here, abstinence is referred to with the same vehemence as we would describe “hot” sins which often overpower the soul with their hot ferocity. Here abstinence is overpowering fire!
How can such a thing be? Only if we fast with desire. When the soul is aflame with fiery sins, it is taken away, and thinks of nothing else when the flame is burning. So it should be with our fasting.
If we fast haphazardly, occasionally, with numerous “exemptions” due to “circumstances”, then we are not burning our sins with fasting. We fool ourselves. If fasting can burn out fire, it must be even hotter than fire; if we fast inconsistently, or without strong resolution, then our fasting is only lukewarm, and lukewarmness is good for nothing in the spiritual life, and even causes our condemnation.
“So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth.” (Rev 3:16)
This hymn calls the passions “thorns”; no thorn is part of the vine of Christ. In the end, that which does not abide in Christ will be burned:
If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. (John 15:6)
Brothers and sisters! With our fasting, we have the opportunity to burn our passions before they burn us! If our abstinence is as fire, we are fulfilling the scripture:
If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire. (1Corinthians 3:15)
Let us pass through the fire now, at a time of our own choosing! Our abstinence is difficult, and indeed, we suffer loss, but with this loss, we burn away our passions, so that in the end, we will not be burned.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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