Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
As we prepare to begin our Lenten journey tomorrow, we remember today how Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into a world enslaved by death. They used God’s great blessings to fulfill their self-centered desires, and made themselves miserable as a result. The murder of their son by Abel by his brother Cain provides a vivid portrait of where the tragic path away from God leads for those created in His image and likeness.
During Great Lent, we follow the path that leads back to Paradise. In order to free 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 to the point of 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 shows 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. Upon being baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, we receive the Eucharist as participants in the Heavenly Banquet. Christ covers our nakedness and restores us to the dignity of beloved children of the Father.
He is able to do so as the New Adam Who 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, that is a goal we must never think that we have completed. So much of the corruption of the old Adam remains within us, for we remain enslaved to self-centered desire in so many ways. We do not live as those clothed with a robe of light, but prefer the pain and weaknesses of choosing our 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 why we all need Great Lent as a stark reminder of the importance of offering ourselves to the Lord Who offered up Himself on the Cross 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 the human person in God’s image and likeness. As St. Paul taught, we must struggle with our own distorted desires as we “put on the armor of light” and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” We must mindfully direct our energy, time, and attention to fueling growth in a life pleasing to God, and at the same time refuse to devote time, energy, and attention to whatever enslaves us to our passions. Lent calls us to invest ourselves so fully in prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will not have anything left to invest in “the works of darkness.”
Lent is definitely not about going through the motions of religion for their own sake. Instead, we must conform ourselves to Christ in humility from our hearts in order to follow Him through His Passion back to Paradise. 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) If we refuse to forgive others, then we refuse to unite ourselves to Christ. If His merciful love does not become characteristic of us, then we are not sharing in His healing of our souls. Like other spiritual disciplines, forgiveness is a difficult struggle and a process. If we refuse even to begin it, 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 refuse to forgive others, then we want no part in the Lord Who forgave even those who nailed Him to the Cross.
Because it is so hard to forgive, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting that help us gain strength to redirect our deepest desires for fulfillment in God. 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 grow in our awareness of how addicted we are to satisfying ourselves on our own terms. We learn to see our own weakness before our passions a bit more clearly, which should fuel our growth in patience and understanding for others in their struggles. Fasting strengthens our ability to forgive those who wrong us by helping us see that we are all weak before deeply rooted desires that lead to words and deeds that harm other people. Pride hinders forgiveness, but the humility fueled by fasting gets to the heart of the matter. As Christ warns, we must never make a show of our fasting in order to draw attention to ourselves or win the praise of others. Doing so destroys 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 follow our treasure, and those who we imagine stand between us and it will have no place in our hearts. By limiting self-centeredness in order to help others, if only with a kind word or a small gesture of friendship, we turn away at least a bit from serving only ourselves. If we want to display Christ’s mercy in our own lives, we must be generous with our resources, time, and attention as we relate to our neighbors
The Lenten journey calls 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 within us. Then we will see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same forgiveness that we ask 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 at Pascha.
Finally, remember to be especially patient, kind, and forgiving with one another throughout Lent. The more we seek to find healing from our passions, the more they will rear their ugly heads. Spiritual disciplines often bring our weaknesses to the surface, and anger at others is an appealing distraction from reckoning with our own sins. As St. John Chrysostom asked, “What good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?”