The Light in the Tunnel

The Lenten Sunday Gospel lessons from St. Mark (Mark 2:1-12, 8:34-9:1, 9:17-31, 10:32-45) help shape our understanding of what it is to be a disciple of Christ.  But also experience them as moving through an ever narrowing tunnel.

Each week of Great Lent, our way of life, our beliefs and perspectives are challenged by our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can properly understand how to follow Him.  Discipleship and discipline are completely interrelated.  Asceticism (i.e., self-denial, self-renunciation, self-control, self-emptying) is the necessary activity of the disciple.  If we are ever going to do the will of the Master, we have to know how to say no to our self, no to our self will.  Each week of Great Lent we are drawn deeper into that ever narrowing tunnel of self-denial.  And as Mark has it, that tunnel gets darker as we go deeper into it.  It gets darker because “the world” as Mark portrays it increasingly rejects Christ and pushes Him toward the crucifixion.  It gets darker because slowly even his family and followers and then even His disciples  abandon Him, betray Him, deny Him and flee from Him.

But also and always, there is a speck of light at the end of the tunnel – and there is an end to the tunnel!  We are drawn toward the Light, who is Christ.  Throughout Lent, we like the catechumens of ancient times continue to move toward Christ.  In fact this is our entire spiritual life even when not in Lent.  But to get to the Light, as we realize liturgically in the Church, we must pass through this painful and most narrow passage – the Gospel.  We end up on our hands and knees in the tomb of Christ.

There is no other way for us on this spiritual sojourn if we are to follow Christ because this is the way He walked, and then was carried.  We all must pass through that narrow and dark passage of the tomb of Christ.  We liturgically and literally in our parish pass into the narrowness of the entrance into the Tomb of Christ.  All of Great Lent and all of Holy Week lead to the darkness of the night – Christ asleep in the tomb, Christ in Hades.   We hope that God will arise and judge the earth.

Then in the middle of the night, in the midst of the darkness, the Light appears, the unfading, everlasting and gladsome Light which overcomes the night.  Christ the Light, risen from the Dead!  We have passed through the cross, through the tomb, through death, through Hades, into the never ending light of God’s Kingdom.  And the tombs which stink of death suddenly become the fount of life, the source of the resurrection, the font of baptism, the means of new birth, of regeneration, of access to God, to the Kingdom, to eternal life.

The tomb of Christ, his death and his burial, all become for every one of us passage into new life.  We enter through this narrow passage way in our own baptism, where we die with Christ and are buried with Him, and then are raised with Him to a new and unending life.  And each Pascha we are reminded of this journey, of our spiritual sojourn through the darkness of this world, through the cross and tomb into the joyful light of God’s Kingdom.  Our walk into the darkness of midnight is a reminder that we are but sojourners on earth, passing through on our way to the Kingdom of God.  And the night does pass away, and the darkness fades before the Light of Pascha and the New Day, the 8th Day, the Lord’s Day.  So too this world and our life on this earth will also pass away, and only that which God establishes will continue on forever.  So we live not for this world but in this world.  We live for the Kingdom of God which stands forever and which is not overcome by the darkness.

We are not blind to the fact that the world in which we live has not changed.  Life seems to go on as if there is no God and no resurrection.  The world is still awash in violence, disease, warfare, sin, lust, greed, disbelief and death.

It is we who believe who have been changed – for we now have light and hope and joy, despite whatever darkness there is in the world.  We by our faith are to be a light to the world.  We don’t shrink before the darkness and its threats, but rather we shine with the Light of Christ rather than curse the darkness.

Let us arise at the rising of the sun and bring to the Master a hymn instead of myrrh, and we shall see Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who causes life to dawn for all.

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Great Lent Posts in One PDF

40851218601_7af2ab919d_mAll of the 2018 posts related to Great Lent are now available in one document as a PDF, which you can find at Great Lent 2018 (PDF).

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Giving Satan Opportunity

33268195933_661cfa9dcc_nAs we come to the end of Great Lent, we realize that it is easy to give Satan opportunity to enter into our lives and tempt us away from Christ.  It can happen so naturally and mundanely that it has occurred before we realize what we have done.  We turn against those around us because we have lost sight of Christ and we come to believe falsely that “my” will is the most important thing in the world, and I become willing to sacrifice everyone around me to defend and preserve my self will.   In doing this we come to the fact that when we no longer are willing to let all we do be done in love for others (1 Corinthians 16:14), we have lost Christ.   If we have lost Christ, we no longer have anything to say to other Christians.

Whenever we become obsessed by some past event in which we perceive that we have been wronged, we give the devil ample opportunity to lead us toward greater temptation. We forget that our warfare is not with each other! We are to engage in spiritual warfare against the Enemy of our salvation and his willing hosts, the demons. When we remember wrongs, we fall prey to the Father of Lies and engage in combat with our fellow brothers and sisters.   (Joseph David Huneycutt, Defeating Sin: Overcoming Our Passions and Changing Forever, Kindle Loc. 924-27)

38195829935_4831a43b3b_nThe antidote for Christians to this sinful self-will is Christ Himself.   “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  In order for Christ to become human, He emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-7).  In order for  us to become fully human, we need also to empty ourselves and open our hearts to Christ abiding in us.   Here we realize that “the heart” of which the fathers speak isn’t the organ that pumps blood in our bodies, but refers to the spiritual reality that every person is capable of being a temple for God, or a dwelling place for Satan.  The choice is ours.

Understanding these things, enter within yourself by keeping watch over your thoughts, and scrutinize closely your intellect, captive and slave to sin as it is. Then discover, still more deeply within you than this, the serpent that nestles in the inner chambers of your soul and destroys you by attacking the most sensitive aspects of your soul. For truly the heart is an immeasurable abyss. If you have destroyed that serpent, have cleansed yourself of all inner lawlessness, and have expelled sin, you may boast in God of your purity; but if not, you should humble yourself because you are still a sinner and in need, and ask Christ to come to you on account of your secret sins.

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The whole Old and New Testament speaks of purity, and everyone, whether Jew or Greek, should long for purity even though not all can attain it. Purity of heart can be brought about only by Jesus; for He is authentic and absolute Truth, and without this Truth it is impossible to know the truth or to achieve salvation. (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 33655-64)

This is why we prayed daily throughout Great Lent:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.

Be An Example in Virtue

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  (John 13:15)

Many in religious leadership positions think they lead by giving direction and commandments to others.  But the desert fathers noted that the Christian way is to lead by example, which is so much more difficult.  We are to be models of virtue so that others can follow our example.   “… set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

An old man asked Abba Poemen, saying, “Some brethren dwell with me; does thou wish me to give them commandments?” And he said unto him, “No, but thou thyself must first do work, and if they wish to live, they will observe it and do it.” The old man said unto him, “Ought they also to wish me to govern them?” And Abba Poemen said unto him, “No, be unto them an example, and not a lawgiver.” (E. Wallis Budge, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, p. 108)

The Struggle to Keep the Fast

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom offers us some thoughts about how we can be a Christian even if we are imperfect.  His thinking applies to anything we do as Christians such as prayer and fasting.  We fail if we hold to a black and white, all or nothing thinking.  We can see Christ and still fall short of what we are to be – yet we can persist in following Him.  We are to thirst for righteousness even if our desire is not slaked.  

And so, there is a tension between the absoluteness of the vision–the perfect and only true Man, Christ–and the imperfect creatures that we are. In what way then can we say that we relate to Christ? I think we relate to Christ if we are open to his action; we relate to Christ if we long for him; we relate to Christ if we are in motion towards him.

And this is a very important thing. There is a passage in the writings of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, who says, we do not reach the Kingdom of God from victory to victory; more often from defeat to defeat. But, he says, it is those people–who after each defeat, instead of sitting down to bewail their misery, stand up and walk–that arrive.

And this a tension in which we all find ourselves. Unless we have a vision of the absolute, we cannot tend towards it. At the same time we must not despair of what we are, because we cannot judge our own condition; we can judge only one thing: the degree to which we long for fulfillment, the degree to which we long to be worthy of God, worthy of love, worthy of compassion–and worthy not because of any achievement of ours, but because of the longing, the hunger, and the trust that we can give to the Lord.”   (Churchianity vs. Christianity, p. 41, 43)

Sin is a Wound. Confession the Remedy.

“Do not be ashamed to enter again into the Church. Be ashamed when you sin. Do not be ashamed when you repent. Pay attention to what the devil did to you. These are two things: sin and repentance. Sin is a wound; repentance is a medicine. Just as there are for the body wounds and medicines, so for the soul are sins and repentance. However, sin has the shame  and repentance possesses the courage. I beg of you, pay careful attention to me, so you may not confuse the order and lose the benefit. There is a wound and there is a medicine, sin and repentance. Sin is the wound; repentance is the medicine. In the wound there is rottenness; the medicine cleanses the decay. The putrefaction, reproach, and mocking are caused by sin. However, courage, freedom, and the cleansing of sin accompany repentance. Pay attention carefully. After the sin comes the shame; courage follows repentance. Did you pay attention to what I said? Satan upsets the order; he gives the courage to sin and the shame to repentance. . . .  There exist a wound and a medicine. The wound has the rottenness; the medicine can cleans the decay. Could the decay be derived from the medicine, the cure from the wound? Do these things not have their own order and those things theirs? Is it possible for this to pass over to that, or that to this? Never!

Let us now come to the sins of the soul. Sin has the shame, sin has the contempt and the infamy as its lot. Repentance has courage, repentance has fasting. Repentance procures righteousness. ‘First tell your transgression, so you may be justified’ and, ‘A righteous man accuses himself at the beginning of his speech.’”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom On Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 115)

Evil Imaginations

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.   (Genesis 6:5)

. . . the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.   (Genesis 8:21)

The Genesis account of the Great Flood begins and ends with God woefully acknowledging that the humans He created had a heart which was inclined toward imagining evil  even from when the human is quite young.  Before and after the Great Flood, nothing had changed in the humans.   Evil  is described in Scripture and Tradition as coming from within the human – from the imagination of the heart – not from Satan or demons.   Humans don’t need a great evil force to push us to do evil, we are quite capable on our own of imagining evil things and then doing them.

The Virgin Mary at the Annunciation sings a hymn in which she recognizes that God’s incarnation means the healing of the human heart.   “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts …” (Luke 1:51)  For the Theotokos that imagination of the human heart which has conjured up so much evil and caused so much grief for humanity has been blown away by God entering the human condition in the incarnation.

Jesus Himself points to the human heart as the source of all sin.  Christ teaches:

And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  (Mark 7:20-23)

The rabbis at the time of Jesus also taught that the origin of evil is not in Satan but rather evil resulted in the world from the presence of a wicked imagination (or desire) in the human heart.  The 2nd Century Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas repeats this rabbinical idea that evil in the world originates in the imagination of the human heart.  We both can conceive evil and bring it into existence.  This idea then is found repeatedly in Orthodox theologians.  St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 384AD) writes:

“Man was …. the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination: man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all  mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.”  (From Glory to Glory, pp 112-113)

St John Cassian (d. 435AD) says:

“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men. When we abandon our brothers for some apparently good reason, we do not eradicate the motives for dejection but merely exchange them, since the sickness which lies hidden within us will show itself again in other circumstances.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 2212-24)

A thousand years after those early Patristic writers, the Orthodox tradition continued to offer this same idea that human are the source of evil in the world.  So St Gregory Palamas (d. 1359) teaches:

“That evil which is evil in itself, namely sin, originates from us.  . . .  Just as illness was not created by God, although the creature who suffers from it was, so sin was not made by Him, although the rational soul created By Him willingly turns aside after it.  This soul was honored with free will and independent life, as without this honor it would have been pointless for it to be rational.”  (The Homilies, p 518)

In our daily Orthodox Vespers service we find a prayer asking God to deliver us from this evil imagining of our heart:

O Lord our God, Who bowed the heavens and came down for the salvation of the human race; look upon Your servants and Your inheritance; for to You, the awesome Judge, Who yet love mankind, have Your servants bowed their heads and submissively bent their necks, not waiting for help from men, but asking for Your mercy and looking confidently for Your salvation.   Guard them at all times, both during this present evening and in the approaching night, from every foe, from all adverse powers of the Devil, from vain thoughts, and from evil imaginations.

We pray every day at Vespers that God will deliver us from the evil imaginations of our heart.  We ask God to guard us against the evil that comes from within our hearts.   We ask God daily to prevent us from becoming the source of even more evil in the world.

Great Lent is our time to set a guard over our heart, so that we will not be inclined to evil.  This is something for which we pray throughout Lent:

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, nor to practice wicked deeds.” (Psalms 141:4)

 

Great Lent: To Soften the Heart, Not Empty the Belly

Lenten Rose

However, if we pay close attention to the Lenten prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings, we quickly realize that Lent is a time when we should put greater emphasis on others rather than on ourselves as we literally lay down our life for our neighbor.

The late Orthodox liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemman referred to Lent as the Lenten Spring, a new birth, where we turn away from the darkness of sin and once again turn back to God:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of forma, predominantly negative rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent-something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning.

This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may be open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

The grace has shown forth, O Lord!

The grace which illumines our soul.

This is the acceptable time!

This is the time of repentance!

Let us lay aside all the works of darkness

And put on the armor of light

That passing through the fast as through a great sea

We may reach the resurrection on the third day

Of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior, of our souls.

(Apostikha for Forgiveness Sunday)

(William C. Mills, Let Us Attend: Reflections of the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. V, IX-X, 1)

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal Amazon.com so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  (Genesis 28:12)

“Be at peace with your own soul; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The Ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”   (St. Isaac the Syrian, from Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 71)

The counter intuitive insight of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition is that to find one’s way to God’s Kingdom, one does not  look outside of one’s self – one doesn’t look to the heavens, but rather one has to learn how to go inward, into one’s heart and mind for there is where God has placed the way to Heaven.   God is not out there somewhere – distant, remote, transcendent – God is found within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within  you.”  (Luke 17:20-21)

As the Prophet Isaiah testifies:

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.  (Isaiah 57:15)