Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
The grace of abstinence, radiant with the light of God, shines this day upon us more brightly than the sun; illumining our souls, it drives away the clouds of sinful passions. Embracing it with joy, let us all run with good courage, and finish its course rejoicing; and filled with gladness let us cry to Christ: Sanctify those who complete the Fast with faith, O loving Lord. (Monday Vespers in the Fifth Week).
Leaving aside Holy Week for a moment, we now have less than two weeks remaining in Great Lent. That means that we are two-thirds of the way through the Lenten season. These last two weeks, therefore, can be likened to something of a “stretch run” leading us to the “finish line.” In a race, the good runner will never be content with merely finishing, especially if that means limping over the finish line and collapsing in a state of total exhaustion. The good runner will finish with a “kick” that brings him to the finish line with a final burst of energy that will arise out of a mysterious inner reserve that will surprise his opponents and perhaps even himself. This would be a medal or a crown fully deserved.
We could apply such an image to ourselves as we struggle to “complete the course of the Fast” (Prayer before the Ambo in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts). We too struggle to complete the “stretch run” of the last third of Great Lent, strengthened by a sense of perseverance and commitment to the Lord and His Church that draws upon a mysterious inner reserve that is, in turn, nourished by the grace of God, and not only the strength of our autonomous selves. I am sure that no one wants to crawl toward the end of Great Lent, or turn Great Lent into an endurance test that we force ourselves to complete with a grim smile and clenched teeth. We further hope to experience a sense of gladness rather than the expected exhaustion, or at least the mingling of the two. This image of the race has its scriptural foundations: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” And, as in the arena, we too are surrounded by a large throng, but in this case it is a “great cloud of witnesses.” As runners, of course, will not compete burdened by any weight, so we too are exhorted to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (For the entire passage, see HEB. 12:1-2)
The Apostle Paul transforms the “games” of the ancient world, with some of its events into a further image of perseverance and ascetical effort, so as to encourage all Christians to “fight the good fight:”
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (I COR. 9:25-27)
We have other images taken from the world in order to describe what we like to call today – somewhat artificially - our “spiritual lives:”
Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlists him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to take the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything. (II TIM. 2:3-7)
Why do athletes, or soldiers, or farmers – as in the images employed by the Apostle Paul from his immediate environment – work so much harder and with such great dedication for their goals; while Christians are often lukewarm, indifferent, or only mildly interested in the pursuit of their goal which is communion and fellowship with God?! Is it because the goal seems less immediate or, to state that question another way, more abstract? Is it because we believe that God “loves” us whether we are committed to the Christian life or not?
Those types of questions are never easy to answer. However, what we can do is expend the effort needed to be genuine “co-workers” with God in the pursuit of “taking Lent seriously” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s phrase) as we enter its “stretch run” and try and live up to that exalted title of “Orthodox Christian.”