“Looking to the Higher Things as Stewards of God’s Blessings”

Sermon for the Salutations to the Holy Cross with His Eminence, Metropolitan Gerasimos
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church
March 13, 2024


“What did you give up for Lent.”  Growing up in a Catholic home, this is the question we would always ask each other at this time of the year.  Lent was a time to “give something up,” that is, deny ourselves something that we enjoyed eating.  As youngsters, this always involved some kind of food with lots of sugar in it: cookies, ice cream, cake and the like.  It was sort of a training for more mature fasting later in life, something like ascetical training wheels.

Unfortunately, in our Catholic community the idea took hold many years ago of fasting being something negative.  “Instead of giving something up, do something positive” is what we typically heard coming from the mouths of priests of a certain mindset.  I think we are finally beginning to move away from that mentality, but that thinking never did seem right to me because, after all, fasting is doing something positive.

The Practice of Christian Asceticism

To underscore the seriousness with which we must take the Christian discipline of fasting, all the more so the fasting of Great Lent, the Church in her wisdom prepares us through a gradual, step-by-step process, a sort of phasing in of it.  In the West this has now been left to the individual to decide for him or herself how to go about it, but the common discipline is still very marked in the East.  You, our Greek brothers and sisters, have already begun to abstain from meat, and next Sunday you will observe cheesefare before beginning Great Lent the following day on Clean Monday.  St. Philaret of Moscow explains it this way:

The approaching time of Lent calls us to temperance.  The holy Church has arranged these preparatory days by degrees, so that, little by little removing the heaviness of food and increasing our labors of prayer, it may raise us to the perfection of Lent and to its prolonged ascetical labors of repentance and prayer.[1]

So we see here the whole point of fasting: temperance, in order to lead us to repentance and a purified life of prayer.  What could be more positive than that?  Lent, in effect, is a time to sharpen our practice of its three-fold discipline that are really the marks of the devout Christian life in general: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  All three are necessary if we are to grow in God’s grace and, with the help of that grace, become capable of the happiness that He wishes for us.  Any one of these practices by itself could easily lead us off the path of humility to that of pride and self-importance.  We can feel pride and accomplishment in fasting if we do not have the humility to go to the aid of the poor; if we do not fast, we can spend hours in prayer but think ourselves better than others who do not pray.

Our father among the saints, St. John Chrysostom, is well known for his teaching on this point.  In a sermon on fasting, he asserts:

Don’t say to me: ‘I have fasted for so many days!  I have not eaten!  I have not drunk wine!  I have gone without bathing!’  Show me instead that, being wrathful, you became meek; and being cruel, you became compassionate to your fellow man.  If you are intoxicated with wrath, to what end do you afflict your flesh?  If you are filled with envy and covetousness, what benefit is there in drinking only water?  I am not concerned with what is on your table, but whether your evil disposition has been transformed.[2]

And so he can say elsewhere, with his typical sense of irony: “He is not rich who is surrounded by many possessions, but he who does not need many possessions; and he is not poor who possesses nothing, but he who requires many things.”[3]  He therefore concludes:

God has permitted you to possess much – not that you should spend it in fornication, and rich clothing, or in any other mode of luxury, but that you should distribute it to the needy.  … If [a rich man] then should spend upon himself more than he really needs, he will pay here after a heavy penalty.  For the things he has are not his own, but are the things of his fellow-servants.[4]

Stewards of God’s Gifts

And I would dare to add that they are “things of his fellow-servants” because they are first and foremost things of God.  That is, everything we have is a gift from God, on loan to us from God to use for His purposes.  In this sense we serve God as His stewards.  The steward is a particular kind of servant, the one to whom the master entrusts the administration of his goods.  The steward administers them, but they are not his own, they belong to his master.  And the master expects the steward to do so in a way that will give him an increase.  This, as we know, is a very familiar figure in our Lord’s parables, especially in the Gospel of St. Luke.  Stewardship of God’s gifts to us gives Him an increase when we use them to spread His love and light and the proclamation of the Good News of salvation.

Our stewardship of God’s gifts, then, is essentially a spirituality of gratitude.  We receive all of these blessings with the humble gratitude that recognizes that they are not really our own but are on loan to us from God.  These include the spiritual gifts, such as the gift of our faith, and the truths of our faith as taught by our Lord and handed down to us in the Church’s Tradition, and the very Liturgy that the Church has bequeathed to us, to guide us in the right worship of God, our highest and most sacred duty.  And it includes as well all of the material blessings with which God has gifted us. 

Our time, talent and treasure is meant to be put at the service of God and our neighbor through prayer, charity and almsgiving.  The environment that is the created order is, as Pope Francis so wisely refers it, our “common home”[5] – that is, not a resource to be exploited for one’s selfish gain and left destroyed, but the home that God has given to us as the place where we come into relationship with one another and, through that genuine human encounter, come to encounter Him and so “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).  Likewise, His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has taught us: “The protection of the natural environment and respect for our fellow man are two sides of the same coin.  It is inconceivable that one could be sincerely interested in man and to destroy his home, and vice-versa.”

Even our very bodies are a gift that God has given us to use for His purposes.  We are not to exploit and abuse our bodies for the purposes of pure pleasure without regard for the good of the other in God’s plan or for our own growth in holiness.  God made His human creation as male and female to image the nuptial mystery of His Son’s union with his bride, the Church.  The male-female complementarity of God’s creation is at the heart of the revelation He has given to us of His love for us, and it is through our bodies that we enter into relationship with one another, live out our vocations, and manifest this mystery in the time and space of this world.

Looking to the Higher Things

I elaborate on all of this in order to demonstrate how our Lenten disciplines are all directed toward moving us to an ever more authentic spirituality of stewardship, in order to set our minds and hearts on the higher things.  As lovers of our Lord Jesus Christ, our minds and hearts must be always with him, already longing for the life of heaven; and yet, we constantly feel the tug of attachment to the passing things of earth.

St. Philaret uses a provocative image of the body to teach us how fasting is to lead us constantly upward to the higher things.  In that same Sermon Against Intemperance, he says:

Don’t you see that your chest is higher than your stomach?  In the chest resides the heart that desires good and that feels love.  And above the chest is the head, crowned by the mind that contemplates truth, and the intellect that imagines all possibilities.[6]

We discipline the baser instincts in order to ennoble the higher ones innate in our human nature.  But those higher ones are always ennobled through encounter with the other, especially in acts of charity toward the poor.  Prayer sensitizes us to the presence of Christ hiding in the poor and the needy; fasting helps restrain impulses leading us to think only of our own desires; and almsgiving curbs that human instinct to give only to receive in return, and trains us in the true school of love, which is to give for the good of the other without regard for what one receives in return.  This, in turn, always turns out to be the greatest blessing.

This is a basic spiritual truth, common throughout the entire Christian world, taught in both East and West.  In addition to the example of the teaching of St. John Chrysostom in the East, we have that of St. Leo the Great in the West.  In his sermon on the virtue of charity, he explains how this virtue is at the heart of the Paschal Mystery for which Lent is meant to prepare us:

As we prepare to celebrate that greatest of all mysteries, by which the blood of Jesus Christ did away with our sins, let us first of all make ready the sacrificial offerings of works of mercy.  In this way we shall give to those who have sinned against us what God in his goodness has already given to us.

Let us now extend to the poor and those afflicted in different ways a more open-handed generosity, so that God may be thanked through many voices and the relief of the needy supported by our fasting.  No act of devotion on the part of the faithful gives God more pleasure than that which is lavished on his poor.  Where he finds charity with its loving concern, there he recognizes the reflection of his own fatherly care.[7]

Culmination in the Holy Eucharist

St. Leo speaks of the blood of Jesus Christ doing away with our sins.  Yes, a reference to Calvary, where he shed his blood in his self-sacrifice on the Holy Cross (which we happily venerate tonight) in our time and space to accomplish the work of our salvation.  But his blood continues to wash away our sins in the greatest gift of all that God gives us: the Body and Blood of His Only Begotten Son in the Most Holy Eucharist.

This, the Most Holy Eucharist, the very Body and Blood of our Savior made present on the altar, is, as both of our Churches teach, the source and summit of the Christian life.  As the Catholic Church’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council teaches, “[The Eucharistic] liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.”[8]  And in the words of Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, “The Eucharist is the center of the Church’s life.  Everything in the Church leads to the Eucharist, and all things flow from it.” [9]

This, then, is the culmination of the Christian life, God’s greatest gift to us that we are called to steward wisely and responsibly.  How do we do that?  You got it: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Everything I’ve said here applies to our reverence for this most sacred gift.  The Church, from apostolic times, has always observed a bodily fast before receiving Holy Communion.  The physical fast helps us to prepare for receiving this most precious gift worthily in our body, but it is meaningless – indeed, blasphemous – if we do not fast from sin in order to be properly disposed spiritually for it.  And the taking of a collection during the Liturgy is not a mere pragmatic convenience for gathering the funds necessary to pay the parish’s bills: it is a concrete, physical reminder that, without almsgiving, our communicating the Body and Blood of Christ would turn us into hypocrites.

What a lopsided exchange!  We offer to God our paltry gifts of bread and wine, and He returns them to us as the Body and Blood of His Divine Son!  As the priest prays in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

O Lord God Almighty … enable us to offer to You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins, and for the people’s transgressions; and deem us also worthy to find favor in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be pleasing to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may rest in us and upon these gifts here present, and upon Your people.

Likewise in the Roman Rite, the priest, after preparing the offerings on the altar, invites the people to pray with him: “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father.”


So, during this holy season of Lent, yes, let us “give up” something.  Let us give up, in order to learn how to give.  In fact, let us give God our all, sharing generously all of the spiritual and material gifts with which He has blessed us so that, with the help of His grace, our lives may be found as an acceptable sacrifice pleasing in His sight, and He may bring us to the peace, light and perfect happiness of His Kingdom, where He lives and reigns now and always, and forever and ever.  Amen.

[1] Saint Philaret of Moscow, Sermons on the Spiritual Life, Deacon Nicholas Kotar (trans.) (Riverside, California: Patristic Nectar Publications, 2020) p. 76.

[2] https://www.pappaspatristicinstitute.com/post/on-fasting-and-almsgiving-st-john-chrysostom

[3] St. John Chrysostom, Discourse 2 on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 4.

[4] St. John Chrysostom, Discourse 2 on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 4-5.

[5] Cf. Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’.

[6] Saint Philaret of Moscow, Sermons on the Spiritual Life, p. 78.

[7] Quoted in the Liturgy of the Hours, vol. II, Office of Readings for Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent.

[8] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10

[9] Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, vol. 2.