Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
As we prepare to follow our Lord to His Cross and empty tomb in Great Lent, we must learn to see ourselves in Adam and Eve, who stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into a world that remains enslaved to the fear of death. We have all followed them in abusing God’s great blessings in order to fulfill our self-centered desires, and made ourselves and others miserable as a result. During Great Lent, we will follow the path that leads back to Paradise. As the Lord offered up Himself on the Cross, He said to the penitent thief, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me today in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43) Hades and the grave could not contain the Savior Who entered fully into death, 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 joy of His empty tomb extends to us as we anticipate “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
Our first parents refused to fulfill their calling to become more like God in holiness and instead diminished themselves and the entire creation. We participate in the Savior’s restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness when we receive the garment of light through baptism. 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.
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 many ways. We often 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, we often prefer to head the other way.
We all need Great Lent as a stark reminder that we are very far from uniting ourselves to the New Adam Who has fulfilled our vocation to become like God in holiness. The only way to pursue that eternal goal is to take intentional steps to become more like the One Who has opened up Paradise through His glorious resurrection. As St. Paul taught, we must we “put on the armor of light” and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That means mindfully offering our energy, time, and attention to what fuels our growth in a life pleasing to God. It means refusing to offer our energy, time, and attention to whatever makes us less like Christ. Lent calls us to invest ourselves so fully in prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will have nothing left for “the works of darkness.”
Doing so has nothing in common with the vain hypocrisy of merely going through the motions of religion to gain the praise of people. In order to return to Paradise, we must conform ourselves to Christ in humility as we forgive others from our hearts. 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 reject Christ’s healing of our souls. If His merciful love does not become characteristic of us, then we have no part in His fulfillment of the human person. Like other spiritual disciplines, forgiveness is a difficult struggle and a process. But if we refuse even to begin it, or to return to its path after we have strayed from it, then we choose satisfying our own passions over participating in our Lord’s salvation.
Because it is so hard to forgive, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting to help us gain strength to redirect our deepest desires for fulfillment in God. Our first parents’ refusal to restrain their desire for food according to God’s command brought corruption to the world. By struggling to abstain from rich food and large portions without drawing attention to ourselves during Lent, we learn how weak we are before our own self-centered desires. Those whose health does not allow them to fast from food can easily find other ways to deny their passions in spiritually beneficial ways. Seeing our own brokenness more clearly should help us grow in patience and understanding for our neighbors, especially those who have wronged us. Fasting strengthens our ability to forgive by helping us see how enslaved we remain to distorted desires that lead to words and deeds that harm other people. Pride makes forgiveness impossible, but the humility fueled by fasting enables it. In Forgiveness Vespers, we ask for and extend forgiveness to one another personally. Since we are members together of the Body of Christ, we weaken one another when we do not pursue the healing of our souls as fully as we can. We do not have to give personal offense in order to fall short of the high calling to manifest together the life of Christ. We must all acquire the humility to see that the sickness of our souls weakens our relationship with other people, especially fellow members of the Church. As sinners, we all stand in need of one another’s forgiveness.
Generosity with our resources, time, and attention is also a necessary dimension of our Lenten journey. 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 amounts to a form of idolatry that will strengthen our passions and tempt us to hate those who we think are standing between us and the fulfillment of the corrupt desires of our hearts. In order to share in Christ’s mercy, we must extend mercy to others as we share our resources, time, and attention for the good of our neighbors. By limiting self-centeredness in order to help the living icons of the Savior we encounter every day, we open ourselves to the healing of our souls as we lay up treasures in heaven.
Above all, we must remember to be especially patient 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 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?”
Lent provides many opportunities to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” That is a calling we all need to embrace as fully as possible in order to accept the great dignity of beloved sons and daughters called to return to Paradise through His Passion. If we undertake the struggle to pray, fast, give, and forgive with integrity, we will learn quickly that much of the corruption of the old Adam is still within us. That should help us see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same mercy that we ask from God. Otherwise, we will remain outside of Paradise and refuse to accept our restoration through the New Adam’s victory over sin and death. We must humble ourselves and forgive one another if we are to acquire the spiritual strength to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Forgiveness simply must become characteristic of us if we want to find the healing of our souls this Lent in preparation to enter into the joy of Pascha.