Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
When the prodigal son returned home, he was surely filthy, malnourished, and at least half-naked. The father restored him to the family by clothing him with a robe, a ring, and sandals, and then celebrated his return with a great banquet. As we prepare to begin the Lenten journey tomorrow, we recall today how Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into a world enslaved by death. Like the prodigal son, they rejected their Father because they used His great blessings only to fulfill their self-centered desires, and made themselves miserable and weak as a result. The murder of their son by Abel by his brother Cain provides a vivid portrait of where the path away from God leads for those created in His image and likeness.
During Great Lent, we seek to follow a path that leads back to Paradise. In order to liberate us from slavery to death and to restore us to our proper dignity as His sons and daughters, our Lord offered up Himself on the Cross. That is when He said to the penitent thief, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me today in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) In doing so, He took upon Himself the full consequences of sin and entered into death. Hades and the grave could not contain Him, however, for He is not merely human but also God. The icon of Christ’s resurrection portrays Him lifting up Adam and Eve from their tombs. The Savior raises us up with Him so that we may participate already in the joy of the Kingdom as we anticipate “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
We become members of Christ’s Body when we receive the garment of light through baptism. Our first parents repudiated that divine glory when they chose to diminish themselves and the entire creation. St. Paul describes baptism as putting on Christ like an article of clothing, for “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) When we are baptized into His death, we rise up with Him into the new life of holiness for which He created us in the first place. Upon being baptized, we receive the Eucharist as participants in the Heavenly Banquet. Like the prodigal son, our nakedness is covered and we are restored fully as beloved children of the Father.
Our Savior is the New Adam Who, as the God-Man, has fulfilled our vocation to become like God in holiness. As we join ourselves to Him, He enables us to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. Because He is infinitely holy, however, that is a goal we should never think that we have completed, and too often we do not want to pursue it at all. Only a moment’s introspection shows that much of the corruption of the old Adam remains within us. We remain enslaved to the power of self-centered desire in so many ways. We typically do not live as those clothed with a robe of light, but prefer the pain and weaknesses of those who choose their own will over God’s. Instead of returning to Paradise through union in holiness with Christ, we often prefer to head the other way.
That is precisely why we need Great Lent as a stark reminder of the importance of offering ourselves to the Lord Who offered up Himself for our salvation. The only way to do that is to take intentional steps to become more like the One Who has restored and fulfilled what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness. As St. Paul taught, that involves us in a struggle with our own distorted desires, for we must “put on the armor of light” and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That means that we must mindfully direct our energy, time, and attention to fueling growth in a life pleasing to God, even as we refuse to devote time, energy, and attention to whatever enslaves us to our passions. Lent will provide us with many opportunities to invest ourselves so fully in prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will not have much left to invest in “the works of darkness.”
We must remember, however, that Lent is not about going through the motions of piety for their own sake. We must conform ourselves to Christ from our hearts in order to follow Him through His Passion back to Paradise. Today’s gospel lesson provides us with a severe test of whether we are doing that. The same Lord Who said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” tells us that we must forgive others their offenses against us if we want the Father to forgive our sins. (Lk. 23:34) The hard truth is that, if we refuse to forgive others, then we are not uniting ourselves to Christ. If His merciful love is not becoming characteristic of us, then we are not participating in His healing of our souls. Like other spiritual disciplines, forgiveness is often a struggle and a process. If we refuse even to begin the journey of forgiveness, or to get back on its path after we have strayed from it, then we direct ourselves away from Paradise and do our best to rip off the robe of light. If we stubbornly refuse to forgive others, then we show that we want no part in the Lord Whose forgiving love is most fully manifest in the Cross, from which He forgave even those who nailed Him to it.
Because we typically find it hard to forgive, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting that help us gain strength in redirecting our desires for fulfillment to union with God in holiness. Remember that sin came into the world through our first parents’ refusal to restrain their desire for food according to God’s command. By struggling to abstain from rich food and large portions, we will grow in our awareness of how addicted we are to satisfying ourselves on our own terms. We will see our own weakness before our passions a bit more clearly, which should fuel our growth in patience and empathy for others when they fall prey to self-centered desire. Fasting should strengthen our ability to forgive those who wrong us, for it helps us understand that we are all weak before the deeply rooted desires that so easily lead to words and deeds that harm other people. Because it is pride that hinders forgiveness, the humility fueled by fasting gets to the heart of the matter. The Savior warns, however, that we must not make a show of our fasting in order to draw attention to ourselves or win the praise of others. Doing so will destroy its healing power.
The same is true about generosity with our resources, time, and attention for the needy. If we invest everything in hopes of gaining the world’s riches, we will end up worshiping our vision of success in the world. That will only further enslave us to self-centered desire and incline us to hate those who stand in the way of our plans. Our hearts will follow our treasure, and those who stand between us and our treasure will have no place in our hearts. By limiting self-indulgence in order to help others, we turn away at least a bit from making the world our god. If we want to be the kind of people who display Christ’s mercy in our own lives, we simply must be generous with our neighbors. Remember that we serve Him in them.
The Lenten journey leads us back to Paradise through the Passion of our Lord. It is a calling to embrace as fully as possible the great dignity that He has restored to us through baptism as sons and daughters called to the celebration of the Heavenly Banquet. If we pray, fast, give, and forgive with integrity, our eyes will be opened to how much of the corruption of the old Adam is still with us. When that happens, we will see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same forgiveness that we so desperately need from God. The coming weeks are all about becoming more like Christ, for it is only by sharing more fully in His life that we will be able to enter into the joy of His great victory over death. That is why we all need to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”