Lent = Life

This is not a new article but it predates this blog. I post it below in honor of the Feast of the Cross.

And [Jesus] said to them all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

In the verse above Jesus gives us, in broad strokes, the shape of Christian life. Any person who intends to be a Christian must follow this path: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. It sounds difficult doesn’t it; denial, crosses, following someone else instead of charting your own course. It certainly doesn’t seem like a recipe for the joie de vivre each of us hopes for. And yet the Church, indeed Christ Himself, insists on this way. Why? Is it because being a Christian is supposed to make you miserable? It may sometimes seem that way, but no. As it turns out self-denial, cross-bearing, and following is a recipe for joy. If this seems strange to us it is because we are addicted to poisonous ways of thinking and acting that deaden our spirit and keep us from being truly awake and alive in this life. Just as a person addicted to heroin can’t believe that he will be happier without the drug we can’t believe that virtue will be more enjoyable and life giving than our small vices. This leaves us at war with ourselves because what we really want deep down is to have joy and peace but that deep desire is smothered by our habituation to the easy comfort of ordinary sins. The path Jesus lays out for us is designed to flush the toxin of pleasurable but meaningless sin from our system so that we can become truly, fully, alive; sharing in the boundless energy of God’s holy Light, human in the fullest sense of the word. What does this look like in everyday life? Through Great Lent the Church shows us by demonstration.

Deny yourself: During the first week of Lent we sing the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete in which we remind ourselves that we have not kept ourselves clothed in the garment of Light which originally clothed Adam and Eve and which we receive at our baptism. Instead of cherishing this gift of grace we have torn up our wedding garment and cast it aside by indulging sinful passions such as over-eating/drinking, lustful thoughts or actions, pride, greed, jealousy, bitterness, and gossip. Because this is the situation in which we find ourselves we must learn not to be ruled by sinful or excessive appetites of the mind and body before we can “come after” Christ. We do this by denying ourselves the privilege of rich foods, being extra mindful of our words, and giving ourselves to prayer with prostrations that deny us physical comfort.

Take up your cross: The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross marks the halfway point in our Lenten journey. For the first half of Lent the words of our hymns and prayers speak often about our sinfulness and the urgency of repentance. From the Feast of the Cross forward we will begin to focus on Christ’s life and work here on earth. This is by design. Once we have tamed the unruly and sinful habits of mind and body that prevent our spirit from reaching out to God we can turn our eyes to Christ and learn to imitate His way of life. When we study Christ’s life an important thing for us to notice is not the miracles He performed but that He always conformed His own will to the will of the Father. Not once did Jesus make a choice that deviated from His Father’s will. The cross of Christ was the molding of his own human will to the will of the Father and what He had to bear as a consequence of that choice. So it is in our life. The cross is not the consequence of past sinful choices, or physical/emotional impairment. The cross is our decision to bend our own will to conform to the will of God and whatever we must bear, for good or ill, as a result of our decision. Fine you say, but how do I conform my own will to the will of God? How do I know what God’s will is for my life? The prophet Micah tells us: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”(Micah 6:8) Jesus says much the same thing in the parable of the last judgment (sheep and goats Matthew 25) which we read in preparation for Great Lent. Live with integrity. Be merciful. Stay close to the Church and work out your salvation in fear and trembling.

Follow Me: Once we have shed the burden of unruly desires and urges and taken up our cross then we are able to follow Christ. This is Holy Week and Pascha. During Holy Week we remember the suffering of our Lord, his betrayal, crucifixion, and death. We too must go to through suffering and death, there is no way around it, but having imitated Christ in His obedience to the Father we cannot be held captive by death. We pass through death to new life: Pascha! Because Christ broke the power of sin and death we are not slaves to those evil forces and they cannot prevent us from having full, perfect, and everlasting joy. We are free!

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself take up his cross and follow me.” Through the ministrations of Great Lent the Church is trying to give us the strength and guidance we need to say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to come after Him. Ultimately the Church is trying to lead us to the joy of the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven but along the way we taste of that goodness and we share in that Kingdom which is prepared for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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Walking Backwards to Paradise

We have now begun our Lenten journey. All the fasting advice one could possibly use has been given and it’s time to practice what we’ve learned. But it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on what is going on behind the mechanism of fasting. What, in other words, does fasting do?

On Saturday we baptized my youngest son. One of the prayers in the service asks that God will take the child from being a creature of the body and make him/her a creature of the spirit. The prayer is not suggesting that the spirit (or soul) is good and the body is bad. On the contrary, our bodies are God-given. The prayer is pointing out that there is a problem in the way our body and our spirit relate to each other. In essence the problem is this; we are the opposite of the way we are made to be. The soul is the primary faculty by which we experience God and communicate with Him and so is supposed to rule over the body and guide it in a way that is pleasing to God. However, our experience is that our bodies are often in charge instead. We act in ways that are intended to satisfy our physical desires – more sleep, more food, more sex, more sitting – and our soul remains neglected. In such a state it is not surprising that God often seems distant and hard to know; our knower isn’t working properly and we aren’t even trying to fix it. But how do you fix it? How do you awaken the soul, reestablish communication with God, and put your whole self back in good order? This is where fasting, and asceticism more generally, come in.

We cannot simply stop being the way we are. The soul cannot be compelled to rouse itself or the body to humble itself simply by will. We have become creatures of the body and so it is with our bodies that we will have to begin. When the Church gives us a fasting rule it is imposing on us a mode of life that recalls, at least in form, the way we were in Paradise before the fall. We are being asked to embrace an order that is God-given but none-the-less foreign to our fallen experience so that in the silence created by the body’s abdication of the throne of our life the soul can begin to hear again the still, small voice of God calling to it. In this way we learn to recognize the voice of the Master which is necessary if we are going to be sheep in His pasture. But what if there isn’t any silence? What if there’s just the noise of our body grousing about these unpleasant strictures? Even in this there is hope for the soul. By resisting order and clinging to disorder we expose it to the light and are better able to see ourselves how far we have fallen. This becomes an opportunity for increased humility and repentance. Either way, fasting becomes an instrument by which God helps us to repent and, hopefully, to restore in us the form He gave us in the beginning; inviting us again to the gates of Paradise which were shut against us so long ago, only to find them open and our Savior beckoning us to come and walk with Him in the cool of the day.