The word “asceticism” is something of a mystery to our modern way of life. We have lived with such plenty and such amazing comfort and ease for so long that now we assume that all of life is meant to be pain (and even effort) free. Just consider our attitudes towards marriage. We assume that marriage is meant to “fulfill us” or “complete us” as if the Hollywood version of romantic love is actually a reality.
A recent article on the Christian view of marriage is titled “Marriage is a Lifetime of Suffering.” You won’t see that on any Hallmark card for wedding anniversaries anytime soon. And yet, the idea of salvific suffering is so foreign to us as to be actually offensive to many. But the Christian understanding of life and salvation can be summed up in this quote from Elder Sophrony of Sussex “…in this world there is nothing more difficult than to be saved.”
Look at our lesson today in Hebrews 2:2-10:
BRETHREN, if the message declared by angels was valid and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will. For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou carest for him? Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
St. Paul here tells us that Jesus Christ was made “perfect” THROUGH suffering (emphasis mine). Now, first, we have to deal with this word “perfect.” It isn’t that Jesus somehow lacked anything because He is God in the flesh so Paul isn’t saying Jesus needed to be made better. No, the word “perfect” here means “complete” or finished work.” The perfection comes in Him completing His task, His mission and He completed His mission THROUGH His suffering. And if we are going to complete our task, our mission to be made like Him it is going to be THROUGH suffering.
Ask any athlete who has won an Olympic Gold Medal. Ask any person who has achieved some great goal or reached the top of their field and they will tell you it has been through hard work, dedication, and effort. It has been won through suffering. Suffering the dismissal of other choices. Suffering the focused practice until your muscles ache and your face pours with sweat. Suffering hours of practice time, study, or exhaustive repetition until you get it “perfect.” All achievement comes through suffering.
And yet, the Lord’s suffering, just as our suffering, is temporary. But that which is won THROUGH suffering lasts forever. Look what St. Paul tells the Roman Christians about the hardships they were facing because of their faith: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) This salvific suffering is THE Orthodox Way of salvation. So we fast, we pray, and we give alms all in a lifelong effort to press the salvation of our souls deep into our everyday lives. To grab suffering which the rest of the world mindlessly and vigorously attempts to avoid and escape, and we embrace it to us as a dear friend, knowing the endurance of suffering brings perfection, salvation.
Today, are you suffering? Know it isn’t God’s will to make you unhappy or to be in pain, but it is God’s will, since we all face hardship and pain in our lives, to press you THROUGH this suffering moment to the spiritual health and perfect salvation on the other side of your suffering. We Orthodox on Purpose participate in the active choice of an ascetic Christian life precisely because we know “weeping endures for a moment, but joy comes in the morning!”