Bearing One’s Cross to Follow Christ

“The third Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated to the veneration of the life-giving Cross […] According to the ancient tradition of Constantinople, this was the Sunday at which catechumens preparing to be baptized on that Easter would be enrolled, accompanied by their sponsors. The Byzantine tradition has to this day preserved the practice of praying for ‘those preparing for illumination’ at a special litany added to the Presanctified Liturgy, following the litany for the catechumens, beginning in the week following the Sunday of the Cross.”    (Archimandrite Job Getcha, The Typikon Decoded, p 191)

On the 3rd Sunday 0f Great Lent we read as our Gospel lesson Mark 8:34-9:1.

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD) tells us to be a Christian is not only to take up the cross but also:

“For to truly follow the Savior is this: To aim at sinlessness and His perfection, to adorn and compose the soul before the mirror of Christ’s perfection, and to arrange everything in our lives to reflect that image.”      (Clement of Alexandria, The One Who Knows God, p 30)

Salvation and the Worth of a Soul

Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215AD) writes:

“…Salvation does not depend on external things – whether there be many or few, small or large, shiny or dull, valuable or cheap. Rather, salvation depends upon the virtues of the soul – faith, hope, love, brotherhood, knowledge, meekness, humility, and truth. The reward for these is salvation.”

(The One Who Knows God, p 26)

Our salvation is not dependent on how many icons we own or venerate, how many prayer books we have, how many things we’ve donated to the church, or on the authenticity of the cross we wear, on having a prayer rope, on how many books we’ve read, on how big our icon corner or wall is, nor on any other number of things.  Salvation is a matter of the heart.  We can have a right relationship with God even if we own nothing.

Doing Good for Goodness’s Sake

Clement Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD), writing in the late Second Century  offers us an understanding of what should motivate a true Christian’s behavior:

“Likewise, some believers exercise self-restraint only because of the promise of reward or out of the fear of God. Of course, this kind of self-restraint is a start. It’s the basis of knowledge, and it’s the first step towards something better. It’s an effort after perfection. For it is said that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. (Prov. 1:7) But the perfect man ‘bears all things’ and ‘endures all things’ out of love. (1 Cor. 13:7) He does it ‘not to please man, but God.’ (1 Thess. 2:4) Although praise may follow him as a result, he does not do things to receive praise. He does them for the benefit of those who do the praising. He also does them to set an example for others. To put it another way, the person who merely controls his wrong desires is not truly a moderate man. The true man of moderation is one who has also mastered good attributes. He has acquired the great things that come from knowledge. He produces godly qualities as the fruit of this knowledge.”    (The One Who Knows God, pg. 59)

Great Lent: Something Greater than Food

Scholar Eric Osborn notes that Clement of Alexandria thought that for the believer, choosing the Kingdom of God means recognizing the existence of  something more valuable than all wealth and and pleasure and even more valuable than the necessities of human life including food.   To live by such a belief and such a value system is not easy for ‘the world’ want our loyalty and wants us to believe there is nothing beyond this world so that there is nothing more valuable than the things of this world.

“Clement refers to Scripture to support his appeal for a life of ascetic simplicity, and he bases that appeal on two principles. First, there is a good superior to food, money, and pleasure for which human beings must eagerly search. Second, reason and sobriety (or moderation) are goods in themselves. Clement warns of the dangers of the rich man’s delicacies and the coming of destruction of gluttons (Prov. 23:3; 1 Cor. 6:13). But love (agape) is a heavenly food, a banquet of the Logos which will never end and endures forever. This is the beatitude of those who will eat their bread in the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 13; Luke 14:15).” (The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pg. 118)

Lent gives us pause.

Do we really pursue the Kingdom as superior to food, money, sex and pleasure?  Are we willing to lay aside a pursuit of these things in order to attain God’s Kingdom?  Or do we pursue the Kingdom only as long as we can also pursue the things of this world?  Do we relegate the Kingdom to being only one goal among the many things we want?  Is the Kingdom valuable to us only as long as we also are able to purse those things which really matter to our lives on earth – comfort, happiness, enough to eat and drink?  Are we willing to sacrifice the comforts and pleasures of life to be children of the Kingdom?

Clement sees love, which is to guide all that Christians do, as a food of the Kingdom.  Instead of pursuing our own interests and what might be valuable to us, love inspires us to be more concerned about what is good for others.  Loving others means putting them ahead of our own (self) interest and pursuits, working for them to find entrance into the Kingdom of God, rather than pursuing our self interest.

Great Lent challenges  us to think about where our heart is.   Do we love even the food we eat more than we love God?  Can we deny ourselves food for a few weeks in order to recognize how love is a food which we can feast on?  During Lent we can take some of the money we would normally spend on feeding ourselves and use it to buy food for the poor, hungry and needy.  This is making love our food.  It is affirming that the Kingdom of God is more important than our bellies.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”(Luke 12:32-34)

Converting to Christ

Justin martyrJustin  Martyr (100-165) contrasted his life before and after his conversion to Christ in terms of peace and violence: We who [once] delighted in war, in the slaughter of one another and in every other kind of iniquity have in every part of the world converted our weapons into instruments of peace: our swords into ploughshares, our spears into farmer’s tools [Isa 2:4], and now we cultivate piety, justice, brotherly charity, faith, and hope, which we derive from the Father through the crucified Savior. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 110)

Clement AlexandriaClement of Alexandria (about 150-215) said of the Christian life: If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are his laws? You shall not kill; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also [Matt. 5:38]…The Church is am army that sheds no blood. (Protrepticus, 10-11)”

(Mark J. Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?, pg. 79)

Confession: Overcoming the Error of Silence

Christ came into the world to save sinners, calling all of us to repentance – to a recognition that we are alienated from God and need to change our lives in order to accept the reconciliation which God is offering to us.   Confession of sins is one way which the Church has offered to us to experience the forgiveness of God.  There is an abundance of literature in Orthodoxy regarding repentance and confession.  The Lenten season we are now in is an entire season (some literature calls Lent a “school”) of repentance.  So while we work through our repentance during Lent – and this takes place both before and after our actual confession – here are some thoughts from the Orthodox tradition on overcoming sin in our lives.

Abba Isaac in the desert fathers tradition says:

“My brother, if you err in something, do not tell a lie because you are ashamed, but make a prostration and say: ‘Forgive me,’ and your error will be immediately forgiven. Do not have different words in your mouth than you have in your heart, for God is not mocked, but sees all: both things hidden and things in the open, Therefore, do not hide any of your temptations, or any concern, or any desire, or even a simple thought; but freely confess them to your Abba. Whatever you hear from him, take care to carry it out, performing it with sincerity. For, then, the battle will be easier for you. The evil spirits find joy nowhere else but in the man who keeps his thoughts silent, whether they be good or bad.” (The Evergentinos: Volume 2, pg. 134)

St. Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 211AD) says:

“Though men’s actions are ten thousand in number, there are only two sources of all sin: ignorance and inability. Both of these depend on ourselves. Either we will not learn, or we will not restrain our lust. If one does not learn, he does not judge well. If he does not restrain his lust, he cannot comply with right judgments. If someone is deceived in his mind, he will be unable to act correctly, even though he is quite capable of doing what he mistakenly knows. Another man may be capable of judging what is required of him, but he will not stay pure if he does not have the power to do what is right. So there are two remedies to sin. The first type of sin needs knowledge and clear proof from the testimony of the Scriptures. The other type of sin needs the training according to the Logos. This training is regulated by the discipline of faith and fear. Both disciplines develop into perfect love. The completeness of the one who knows God is twofold: It is part contemplation, and it is part action.” (The One Who Knows God, pgs.119-120)

Self-control“Nor does the Christian practice self-control simply for the healthful benefits to the body. Furthermore, an uncultured  man who has never tasted pleasures is not necessarily practicing self-control. Many who have led such lives lose all self-control when they finally taste pleasures for the first time. These are the ones who are only restrained by law and fear. But upon finding a favorable opportunity, they abandon good. But true self control, desirable for its own sake, is perfected through knowledge. It is ever enduring, making the man the lord and master of himself. So the one who knows God is moderate and free from fleshly desires. He is incapable of being dissolved by pleasures and pains. The source of these virtues is love. (Col. 3:14)”   (Clement of Alexandria – d. ca 215AD, The One who Knows God, pg. 97)

What is Prayer? (VII)

This is the 11th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is What is Prayer? (VI).

In the previous blog, we encountered several different metaphors which St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) uses to describe prayer.  Here Chrysostom continues with more metaphors concerning prayer, and a note that a poor man who can pray is wealthier than the rich man who is deprived of prayer.

“Surely, prayer is a harbor for those caught in a storm; it is an anchor for those tossed by the waves; it is a staff for those who stumble.  Prayer is a treasure for the poor, security for the rich, a cure for the sick, a safeguard for those in good health.  It keeps our blessings inviolable and quickly changes our ills to good.

If temptation comes, it is easily repelled.  If loss of possessions or any of the other things which cause grief to our souls befall us, prayer is quick to drive them all away.  Prayer is a refuge from every sorrow, a basis for cheerfulness, a means for continual pleasure, a mother for our philosophy and way of life.  Even if the man who can pray with diligence is destitute of all things, he is richer than any other man.  Yet, one who has been robbed and deprived of prayer may sit on the very throne of a king, but he is poorer than the poorest man.”  (St. John Chrysostom, THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD, p 209-210)

By using such rich and varied metaphors, Chrysostom helps us move away from imagining that prayer is but a technique.  Prayer is many things and accomplishes many things in our lives.  Prayer involves our entire being, it is not just something we say, but something we believe and a relationship with our Creator.

“Isidore said:

‘Prayer is a work of the heart, not of the lips.  For God does not pay attention to the words of the one who is praying to him, but rather to his or her heart.  It is better to pray in the silence of the heart than to pray only with words, without the mind paying attention.

It is useless to pray when trust and hope are missing.

Our spirit contemplates God perfectly only if it is not obstructed by earthly anxieties.’”   (Defensor Grammaticus – 7th Cent – in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 367)

We come again to the notion that prayer is a way of life, not just one activity in which we occasionally engage.  In prayer we are conversing with God, an activity that ought to be present at every moment of our lives for we are always to remember God and His saving deeds.  I think especially of Psalm 106 and Psalm 107.

“To describe it with the boldest expression, payer is a conversation with God.

Even if we speak with a low voice, even if we whisper without opening the lips, even if we call to him only from the depths of the heart, our unspoken word always reaches God and God always hears.

Sometimes, however, besides speaking, we lift our head and raise our arms to heaven.

In this way we are underlining the desire that the spirit has for the spiritual world.  We are striving with the word to raise the body above the earth.  We are giving wings to the soul for it to reach the good things on high.”  (Clement of Alexandria in DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, p 366)

Next:  What is Prayer? (VIII)

Clement of Alexandria (B)

This is the 4th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog Clement of Alexandria (A).     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.  This is the conclusion of the blog looking at Clement of Alexandria (d. 215AD).   Clement was one of the first Christians to write enough about education as to give us a sense of what he saw as the goals of Christian education.   Basically Clement argued that we follow Christ by learning to live virtuously.

The content of religious education for Clement is the virtues, carefully taught and applied to each learner in each unique set of circumstances.  His plan is to form a system of wise discrimination in which each Christian’s failures are diagnosed and then the appropriate remedy in the form of training is applied (Geraldine Hodgson, Primitive Christian Education, p. 131).   Ultimately for Clement, the Christian community itself is the schoolhouse for learning.  Everything we see and experience and learn about in the Church becomes an encounter with Christ who is the Word of God, the right reason of the Father, and the true Educator of mankind  (Hodgson, p. 129).

Christ’s chief goal is to train and form our inner being (Clement, Christ the Educator, p. xiv). In Clement’s own words,

Let us call Him (that is Jesus), then, by the one title: Educator of little ones, an Educator who does not simply follow behind, but who leads the way, for His aim is to improve the soul, not just to instruct it; to guide to a life of virtue, not merely to one of knowledge…. As Teacher, He explains and reveals through instruction, but as Educator He is practical.  First He persuades men to form habits of life, then He encourages them to fulfill their duties by laying down clear-cut counsels and by holding up, for us who follow, examples of those who have erred in the past (Clement, p. 4).

He (The Word) educates us in fear of God, for this fear instructs us in the service of God, educates to the knowledge of truth, and guides by a path leading straight up to heaven…. The education that God gives is the imparting of the truth that will guide us correctly to the contemplation of God, and a description of holy deeds that endure forever…. so the Educator, in His concern for us, leads His children along a way of life that ensures salvation (Clement, p. 49-50).

According to Clement, religious education must not only instruct souls, it must form and improve them as well.  True education leads to virtues, not simply intellectual knowl­ed­ge.  It must provide not just facts but examples of how to live.   Education teaches us the fear of the Lord in order to lead us to heaven.  Its goal is the salvation of souls.  Clement was not alone in his understanding of Christ the Educator in terms of virtuous living.   Writing almost 50 years before Clement, St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 165AD) in his Apologies had taken the viewpoint that

Christ is preeminently the Teacher who enables his disciples to live rationally.  Taught by Christ, they become chaste (chapter 15), gentle, patient and free from anger (chapter 16), and obedient to civil authorities (chapter 17)” (Robert Sider,  The Gospel and its Proclamation, p. 70). 

In Clement of Alexandria, we see several of the goals for education found in the Holy Scriptures being emphasized.  Clement strongly believes instruction should focus on the fear of God, obedience to God’s teaching, and on holiness.  All of this results from the (new) relationship we now have with God in Jesus Christ.

Next:  St. John Chrysostom (A)

Clement of Alexandria (A)

This is the 3rd  blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is  A Curriculum Geared Toward each Believer.     This series  is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.

Apostle Philip instructs the Ethiopian

While no one Patristic writer left us a theology of education, we gain some insight from their writings about the purpose for religious education. “The term `Christian education,’ was first used by Clement of Rome (A.D. 96) in his letter to the Corinthians: `Your children should partake in Christian education.'”  (Elias Matsagouras, The Early Christian Fathers as Educators,  p. 27)   It has already been noted that the first Christ­ians did not establish specifically Christian schools for teaching their children.  They relied more on the community and life itself as the school for learning God’s ways.  They believed there was a certain knowle­d­ge which was specifically Christ­ian.  This knowledge is to be conveyed by life in the Church community.

Not until about 200 A.D. does another Clement, this one of Alexandria (d. ca 215AD), give us a vision for Christian education.   He focuses on the title frequently given to Christ in the New Testament – Teacher.  He wrote his book, THE EDUCA­TOR, to help form a person totally in the image of God.

Clement of Alexandria believed that anyone can be trained to regulate his thoughts, will, emotions and actions according to the teaching of Christ.  (Igino Giorgani, The Social Message of the Early Church Fathers  pp. 186-187;  see also Clement of Alexandria, p. 91).  However, before this training can take place, every human soul must be healed of the sickness of sin.

“In fact, if a person is sick, he cannot master any of the things taught him until he is first completely cured …  Just as our body needs a physician when it is sick, so, too, when we are weak, our soul needs the Educator to cure its ills.  Only then does it need the Teacher to guide it and develop its capacity to know, once it is made pure and capable of retaining the revelation of the Word.” (Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, p.  5)

For true education to take place,  there must be first the healing of the human made sick by sin.  This notion is found in the Old Testament.

When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and give rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance. (1 Kings 8:35-36)

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)  

Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me with Your generous Spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You.  (Psalms 51:12-13)

In each of these passages, we find first a forgiving encounter with the living God, and only then an ability to learn from the Lord.  This healing is accomplished in Jesus Christ, the true Educator.  Human nature itself is healed by Christ, in addition to the inner being of each person.  Christ Jesus, the Word of God, does not limit his activity to healing that which is infirm in us.  Christ the Educator, being perfect God, heals us by forgiving our sins.  Then as a man, Christ educates us in how to avoid sin  (Clement, p. 9). For us, “Salvation is the follow­ing of Christ” (Clement, p. 27).  Education becomes that sound training that teaches us how to follow Christ by living a virtuous life (Clement, p. 17).

Next:  Clement of Alexandria (B)