Great Lent: The first day
"But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face." (MATT. 6:17)
"But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (ROM. 13:14)
A bit cold today to begin "the springtime of the fast." Yet, perhaps as something of a blessed coincidence, it will begin to warm up outside once we begin to "warm up" inside and our cold hearts begin to "thaw out" by the fire of divine grace. The process of warming up to the presence of this "holy fire" is called repentance. And Great Lent is the School of Repentance. Not only our "attendance" in this school, but our attentiveness to Christ the Teacher is essential. As members of a consumer society, we can bring a mentality of "picking and choosing" to the words of Christ according to our desires and "tastes." That may mean that we are interested in some of the teachings of Jesus, but it would hardly be indicative of believing in Him as the "Lord and Master of our lives" (Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim).
We heard both of the recorded texts above at the Divine Liturgy yesterday as parts of the Epistle and Gospel readings. On the eve of Great Lent these words are well-timed as scriptural reminders of the meaning and purpose of Great Lent. How can we "make no provision for the flesh" unless we fast? How can we resist the impulses to "gratify its desires" without the practice of abstinence? The "flesh" in this context is not limited to food, drink, sex, and acquisitiveness, powerful as these impulses are in preoccuping our minds and hearts at the expense of our focus on God. For the Apostle Paul, "flesh" has the broader meaning of our alienation from God, be it through conscious disobedience or sheer indifference. The "works of the flesh" imply the misuse of our intellectual and imaginative capabilities:
Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party strife, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. (GAL. 5:19-21)
If we indeed "put on the Lord Jesus Christ," then clearly the "works of the flesh" just enumerated hardly conform to such a claim. We return again to the practice of fasting as the means to liberate us from these temptations that not only surround us, but which may have ensnared us in moments of weakness and lack of vigilance. That may be a slow and even painful process, but one worth struggling through. All of our passions and desires are like addictions that hold us in their grip, and breaking through any addiction is hard work demanding first and foremost that the addictive behavior itself be stopped. Gluttony is much more concrete than envy or party strife; but both are "passions" that work through the "flesh." The goal is to be a vessel of the Spirit of God, united to the Body of Christ through both our faith and works. Then the Resurrection of Christ becomes actualized in our own personal lives. That is true freedom.
In a fascinating article in which he explains the Apostle Paul's use of such terms as "flesh," "body," "soul," heart," "intellect," etc., Fr. John Romanides summarized the contrast/conflict between a fleshly existence and a spiritual existence in this manner:
Unity with God in the Spirit, through the body of Christ in the life of love, is life and brings salvation and perfection. Separation of man's spirit from the divine life in the body of Christ is slavery to the powers of death and corruption used by the devil to destroy the works of God. The life of the Spirit is unity and love. The life according to the flesh is disunity and disolution in death and corruption.
The choice is simple: life or death. It is the required effort that leads to life that is daunting. That is why even Christians make excuses as to why such effort is not necessary: "God/Jesus loves me just as I am." "As long as I accept Jesus into my heart as my personal Savior, I will be saved." "Human works are of no real importance." This is the religious version of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" with a happy ending: for we will all be saved, anyway! Somehow there is an empty ring to all of this. Having succumbed to the flesh, we need to struggle in order to save our "soma/body" (a term that biblically means the human person restored to God). Again, from Fr. Romanides:
Before sharing in the life of Christ, one must first become an actual soma/body by being liberated from the devil in passing through a death to the ways of this world and living according to the "spirit."
Our ascetical "efforts" are sustained and completed by the grace of God. We are saved by God alone, not by our efforts. But we have been admonished to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (PHIL. 2:12-13) As we move toward the paschal mystery of our Lord's Death and Resurrection, the period of Great Lent is a gift that allows us that blessed opportunity.