As Great Lent has passed its mid-point, attention begins to move towards Holy Week itself and its very intense focus. It has been an unusual time for me, having traveled on two successive weekends to lead retreats. Travel is always disruptive, and absence from your own community creates a break in the normal continuity of the Fast. I have great sympathies for those whose jobs involve frequent travel. It adds a difficult wrinkle to spiritual discipline. My own thoughts have been largely focused on Pascha itself during this season. This has been as much a product of the questions of my own heart as of my speaking engagements. We fast towards a goal.
That goal is more than a linear finish line – it is eschatological. By that, I mean that it transcends time. Pascha is present in every moment of our existence and is that which shapes all of reality. The Lenten Fast is a means of entering Pascha and not just a means of preparing for something in the future.
St. Paul says:
I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
For St. Paul, every moment of his existence had become Christ’s Pascha. It is little wonder, then, that he was able to endure such persecution and suffering. He turns to the same image when he speaks of repentance:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)
This is more than an interesting turn of phrase. St. Paul is not saying, “Try not to sin.” To “put to death” the deeds of the body is more than moral striving – more than trying harder. He is pointing to a mechanism of a symbiotic or synergistic existence. Just as the life of Christ dwells in us, so the death of Christ dwells within as well.
I have always thought that this aspect of our spiritual life is the least understood. It is rooted in the reality of communion with Christ. It would be possible (theoretically) to live a perfectly moral life (not doing anything wrong) and yet fail to do what St. Paul is suggesting. The death of Christ working in us yields results of not sinning, but does so through our communion with Christ rather than our own independent efforts. It also has the benefit of focusing on Christ Himself rather than our moral successes or failures. If we do well in Christ, we rejoice in His strength. If we fail in Christ, we rejoice in His mercy. We cease to be the center of our own world.
In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” (this is the form used in the OCA). This is the single point of our life in Christ. To live in union with Him is also to die in union with Him, to breathe in union with Him, to love in union with Him, to forgive in union with Him, to fast in union with Him, to walk and act in union with Him at all times. “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me.”
The life that He lives in us is also His Pascha. Christ did not exempt Himself from suffering. If we live in union with Him we will not be exempted ourselves. When we ask of Christ, “Why am I suffering like this?” we could just as well ask, “Why are You suffering like this?” In union with Christ, my suffering becomes His suffering, and His suffering becomes mine.
The life of Christ is not an abstraction, something to be studied and dissected. It is the life of God in man. It’s for that reason that Christ is quite clear about the nature of the life which He offers. “Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his Cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24) There is no “life of Christ” that does not have this Paschal shape.
The mystery for us is that such a life is proper and true for human beings and in accordance with our nature. The life of Christ that is the life of God in man is the revealing of what it means to live in the image and likeness of God.
The Church’s movement through Great Lent to Pascha is a small, intentional embracing of the cruciform life of God in Christ. There are many fasts that are far more difficult and demanding. The fast borne by parents in their love for their children (or in their self-sacrificing love for each other) is certainly more demanding. The griefs that we endure through a lifetime are surely a more difficult fast.
Unlike the Fast of Lent, the sufferings within our lives are often involuntary. The character of those sufferings will never change unless they are borne in union with Christ. This is the greatest fast of all, and, doubtless the fast in which we fail most often. It is also that place where the deepest transformation of our lives occurs.
I have often thought that it is this understanding that lies beneath the words of the Last Prayer of the Elders of Optina. My favorite:
O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to Thy holy Will.
At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.
Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is sent down from Thee.
Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.
O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.
Glory to God for all things!