St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, A Pan-Orthodox Christian Mission Parish, Murphy, North Carolina

Some thoughts on Lent

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

On March 3, Fr. James was invited to deliver a homily at a Community Lenten Service at St. William’s Catholic Church. The text he was asked to speak from was Matthew 20:17-28. What follows is that homily. Many thanks to St. William’s and its pastor, Fr. George Kloster, for their gracious invitation and hospitality.

When we read the Gospels, we are sometimes struck by passages that stop us in our tracks, that make us sit back and think. Some of these passages are hard, and express truth that is uncomfortable and even frightening. Other passages strike us as riddles, puzzles with solutions that are not readily apparent, such as Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence”. And yet others are statements that are plain and simple, but are undeniably at odds with how each one of us lives our day to day life.

Our Gospel today is one of those plainspoken passages. From its very opening, it presents a stark and uncomfortable contradiction. “The Son of Man is going to Jerusalem,” says Jesus, “to die.” This is not the first time that Jesus has told his disciples what the near future holds, nor is it the first time that the disciples seem not to have heard him. Sometimes we wonder how the disciples seem to be able to completely miss what our Lord is telling them. If we think about it, though, we see that their apparently deliberate disregard of the statement is a reaction that we ourselves sometimes show, a natural human desire to see the bright side of things.

So it was with the Apostles. They could not imagine Jesus dead, much less crucified. He was the Messiah. Surely, they thought, an army of angels would come and rescue him, and drive the Romans from Jerusalem. All would be well, so well that it was time to talk about truly important matters, like, say, who would get the seat of honor in the Kingdom. Who would sit on His right and on His left?

Now we read this, and we tend to be kind of hard on John and James, whose mother asked the question, but the truth is this: that precise question was in the mind of each and every one of the apostles. They were mad at John and James not for thinking about it, but because they asked before the others worked up the courage to raise the subject.

And why not? If we are honest with ourselves, that question, in one form or another, occupies the mind of each of us. Indeed, our entire society is built on the premise that success is paramount. Being first is critical. Being the winner is the mark of a well lived life. We work hard, we compete hard, and if we are truly successful we leave others in our dust. We annihilate our enemies, we wipe out our opposition, we destroy our adversaries. Indeed, if we imagine our world as a pyramid, the most successful, most powerful people will be those at the very top of the pyramid. The closer to the top you are, the more honored and respected you are. Those below you are not as good, not as smart, not as worthy.

Yet here the Gospel does what it so often does – it turns our reality on its head. “To be honored in the Kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “you must be a servant to all.” To be great, you must be a slave. To be the first, you must be the last.

A 20th century Russian saint, Elder Sophrony, pondering this passage, said that the Kingdom of God can indeed be pictured as a pyramid, with Christ Himself at the tip. But, said the Elder, the pyramid is inverted. It is upside down, pointed downward, and from His place on the tip Christ supports the entire world. The task of a Christian, said Sophrony, is to dive downwards: down into humility, down into obedience, down into prayer for the world and everyone in it. By submerging ourselves into the virtues of the Kingdom of God, we strive to come ever closer to Christ, ever farther down into the pyramid, where we join ourselves and our prayers to Christ.

The Kingdom is like that. Those who are honored in the Kingdom of God are those who forgive, so that they themselves will be forgiven. They are those who give away treasures of the world so that they will amass spiritual treasure. They are those who offer the other cheek, who love and pray for their enemies, who humble themselves before all. I will be the first to agree that these are challenging standards. The Gospel writer does not mince words. The path to salvation is a narrow one. But I tell you this — we can walk the narrow path, if we walk it in love.

By love, I am not speaking of passionate love, as we see it in movies and on television. We know that love, true love, as it is expressed every day in our life, is not simply a warm and fuzzy emotion. We know that love that is true, love that lasts, is founded on sacrifice. If you are married, you accept boundaries on your behavior that a single person may not have to accept. If you are a parent, you sacrifice for your children without a second thought. If you are a child, you sacrifice for your parents, and accept their discipline. If you are a Christian, you will sacrifice for the love of God.

And now, in the season of Lent, we think about sacrificing, about giving something up. But just as love is sacrifice, sacrifice that is made without love is no sacrifice at all. In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom told the faithful in Constantinople that they could fast from food during Lent, as was expected of them, but that it meant nothing if they did not also fast from sin: from anger, from judgment, from hatred. Lent is not found in the simple act of going without. Properly done, going without, or giving up something, is the outward sign of an inward spiritual sacrifice.

I say that because, properly viewed, Lent forces us to look within ourselves, and honestly assess the sins and passions that govern each one of us. It invites us to engage our Lord with our whole selves: body, mind and soul. Lent forces us to look closely at Christ, to remember His suffering, and to remember His eternal love. It forces us to confront just how cold our own love may have become. And recollecting that, Lent offers us an opportunity to do as Elder Sophrony speaks of, to dive downward into obedience, into humility, into love, and thus to become closer to our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There is another image that comes to mind. In the 7th century after Christ there lived a man we know as St. Isaac of Ninevah. Isaac grew up on the coast of the Red Sea, and as a child he saw men diving for pearls in the ocean. The pearl divers, without air tanks or any kind of life support, would sail small boats out onto the sea, where they would dive for pearls. They were buffeted by waves, they were menaced by sharks, they often dove so deep that the air, indeed, their very life, was almost crushed out of them, all so that they could collect that one, perfect pearl from which they derived their livelihood, their very substance. Years later, reflecting on the Gospel lesson of the pearl of great price, he brought those same images to mind in the context of Great Lent.

If pearls could be collected by simply walking along the beach, Isaac said, then they would have no value. Any person, without effort or thought, could simply pick up a pearl. But pearls, he said, are collected only with great labor. A Christian, said Isaac, must be like the pearl diver, and must sacrifice for the sake of the wondrous pearl. The Christian will be buffeted by the cares and worries of life. The Christian will be menaced by sin and passion, by evil both within and without. The Christian life, said Isaac, is arduous and requires dedication and sacrifice and single minded determination.

Lent is like that. Lent invites us to leave our comfortable day to day life, marked by unquestioning acceptance of the values of the world, and instead to undertake a journey fueled by love. With love we dive down: down past self interest, down past distraction, down past abiding sin, down past failure of prayer, down past worldly values, down past selfishness. We pray, we worship, we sacrifice; and from these struggles, small as they may be, grace comes upon us.

Out of our small love, we find the greatest love.

Out of our small struggles we find enormous rewards.

Out of our descent into our soul we find the King of Glory.

In our tradition, during Great Lent we add a particular prayer to our morning and evening prayers during the week. It is a prayer written by St. Ephraim of Syria in the 4th century, and it perfectly expresses the lesson we have learned:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to all ages.

Together, let us resolve to continue our Lenten journey, to embark anew into prayer, into worship, into watchfulness, into service, into love. If we do that, our celebration of Pascha, of Easter, of the Great Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ will be unimaginably sweet, joy beyond describing.

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