Friday, March 19, 2010

Connecting the Cross to Discipleship

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Thirty Third Day

As we continue to journey towards Our Lord's Cross as the goal of Great Lent, we need to remind ourselves of how the Lord connected His Cross with our lives of discipleship. First, Christ revealed to His immediate disciples that though He is indeed the Messiah, He will shockingly be a suffering Messiah:

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (MK. 8:31)

This was following St. Peter's confession of faith - "You are the Christ" (MK. 8:29) - when Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do men say that I am?" (Mk. 8:27) With his characteristic impetuosity, St. Peter had the audacity to "rebuke" Christ for this prophecy, only to be rebuked in return with the scathing words: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." (MK. 8:32-33) Yet, not being deterred by the obtuseness of the disciples, Christ continued teaching them, and here He drew the connection between His Cross and what true discipleship will entail for those who will accept the suffering Messiah:

And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (MK. 8:34)

One almost feels an impulse to wince at these words. And not only due to our failure to take these words to heart and fulfill them. For at the most basic level of our existence, self-denial has to be considered at the very least "counter intuitive." It goes against our biological make-up which is instinctively defensive and self-enhancing. The impulse of our "selfish gene" drives us toward a self-centeredness that does not include an inclination toward denial. There is, then, a great deal of truth in what someone once said to me: "Christianity is about transcending our biology." Clearly, self-denial is very difficult. Especially when our lives are driven by the twin impulses of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. And that dual principle of life is hammered into us from our earliest conscious moments. But then, when we consciously embrace the Christian Faith, we learn that on some level, at least, we need to practice self-denial!

Our Christian "worldview" reveals to us that the world is both "very good" and "fallen." Human sin and death have entered the world to undermine our appreciation of the world's inherent goodness. Therefore, as Christians we are further challenged by the awareness of living simultaneously in God's world - the world that He loved to the point of sending His only-begotten Son into it for our salvation (JN. 3:16); and "this world" that the same Evangelist John once and for all characterized with an unsentimental, if not brutal honesty:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. (I JN. 2:16)

All of that "lust" that attracts us and ensnares us in our fallen human nature on the levels of both body and soul; and the accompanying "pride" that turns us into boastful, arrogant and self-reliant caricatures of a human being made "in the image and likeness of God;" are precisely the formidable temptations that have us shaking our heads when we hear the Lord teach us about self-denial. Truly, this teaching is itself a cross! Yet, the Lord makes the impossible possible by the grace of God. Christ never seeks to burden us with oppressive and unrealizable demands that only cause frustration and guilt because they cannot be fulfilled. The same Lord who taught about self-denial also uttered the following words of great consolation:

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (MATT. 11:28-29)

There is no contradiction here. Over time the heavy yoke of lust and pride, fueled by the principle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, becomes the real burden of life. Dissatisfaction, cynicism, existential anxiety, and sheer emptiness are the eventual fruits of "this world" and the false pursuits that St. John so thoroughly exposed. Our restless and weary souls, worn out and exhausted by the endless pursuit of lust and pride, can find rest in "the gentle and lowly" Christ - and yet He is ignored as if His words are a threat to crush us! Or at least to take the "fun" out of life. That is a bitter lesson that may take time to assimilate. To ignore the words of Christ is to succumb to the illusion of "self-enhancement" at the expense of our relationship with God and neighbor. Then we will have merely allowed ourselves to be deceived as little children being enticed with candy by an ominous figure with unspeakable intentions. (Think of Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the enticement of "turkish delight" from the bad witch):

"For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?" (MK. 8:36-37)

St. John described "this world" as it is. And that means that it is impossible not to face temptation on a daily basis. In fact, the "law" of daily temptation is as fixed as the law of gravity. It is unavoidable, inescapable and inevitable. That is why our spiritual tradition teaches us that we are not morally responsible for the mere fact of being tempted. Our responsibility begins when we make a choice as to how to react to any given temptation. And our life in the Church prepares us to make the choice to repulse temptation and avoid the pitfalls of sin. Otherwise, once temptation and sin are consciously engaged and embraced, they become full-blown "passions." These self-generated passions are then our personal "crosses" that cause us grief in the effort to wrench them out or our minds and hearts.

Speaking personally, I would describe this daily struggle in the following manner: When I wake up in the morning, I am preparing for a new day in which I will simultaneously encounter God's world which is "very good," and the fallen world - "this world" - as described by St. John and cited above. I hope to prove to be "eucharistic" towards God's world by being thankful and rejoicing in the gift of life. However, I know that without a doubt I will be tempted during the course of the day. These temptations may be major or minor. They may be obvious or subtle. But they will come. In other words, I am entering a "spiritual minefield." I must navigate and negotiate that dangerous terrain with great care, for a misstep in one direction or another is to "detonate" a particular temptation of that spiritual minefield and suffer the consequences. Admittedly, I must acknowledge that there is an undeniable inevitability to some of those missteps. At the same time, I also know that if I sincerely repent of my sins, and confess them honestly, I can be forgiven by the grace of God.

Be that as it may, I therefore need to ask myself on a daily basis: Am I prepared? Am I equipped? Am I ready to be vigilant? Through the grace-filled life of the Church I am actually prepared for that "spiritual warfare." To borrow Fr. Thomas Hopko's "four S's," I am equipped for that struggle with the Scriptures, the Services, the Sacraments, and the Saints. These, in turn, are aspects of an internalized "mine detector" that allows me to navigate that treacherous terrain with patient vigilance. But if these are the tools or weapons with which God is equipping me, then I must sharpen them by continuous use, or they become blunted or of little effect. I need to prayerfully read and study the Scriptures; attentively attend the liturgical services of the Church; participate in the Sacraments - especially of Confession and Communion - with regularity and with faith; and know the lives and writings of the great saints as living icons of holiness. If I fail to do so, the "sin" would then be in treating what God has entrusted me carelessly and indifferently. My level of responsibility is then far greater than that of the person outside of the Church who is basically reduced to his own inadequate resources. For the Lord said: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more." (LK. 12:47-48)

I believe that it will take a genuine "change of mind" to recognize that self-denial is the path toward liberation and true freedom. That means that we need to repent, for repentance means, precisely, a change of mind. Self-denial is difficult but not burdensome. It is the sign of true discipleship. It is taught to us by the Lord Himself. We are invited to enter into the potential riches of self-denial during Great Lent, and then carry what we learn - even if by the sweat of our brow - into life whatever season it may be. This is the way of Christ - the Giver of Life.

Fr. Steven

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