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Lent: A Journey Towards Reality

by Drew 0 Comments
Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Doman courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Astonishment of Sisoes, Meteora Monastery, circa 16th cent. Public Domain courtesy OrthodoxWiki.org

Let’s begin with two generals and a monk. 

The legend goes that when Julius Caesar was a young man, serving a minor government post in Spain, he happened upon a statue of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who laid waste to just about the whole world. When he saw the statue he burst into tears, grieving that he had accomplished so little in his time. When Alexander was his age, after all, he had already conquered the known world. Caesar immediately resigned and returned to Rome, seeking higher position and glory – which he found, of course – but in doing so he destroyed the Republic and was betrayed and murdered by his friends.

Next, the monk. If you go to some monasteries and churches in Greece, you might see an icon of an old man in a beard bowing down before a pile of bones. The old man is a saint, Saint Sisoes the Great, called a “desert father” because of his years spent living in great discipline and solitude in the Egyptian desert. The icon depicts Sisoes on his knees before the bones of Alexander the Great, the unparalleled conqueror, and weeping, saying: “O death, who can evade you?”

For Caesar, the memory of Alexander elicited envy and determination to achieve.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar before the statue of Alexander by Joseph-Marie Vien, 18th century. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For Sisoes, the simple monk that history barely remembers, it stirred up humility and a sense of spiritual zeal.

Ash Wednesday is a day that Christians, like Abba Sisoes, dare to remember our deaths. At the beginning of Lent – a 40 day season of preparation modeled on Jesus’ own time of temptation in the desert – the church puts ashes on our foreheads, calls us to repent, and reminds us that we came from dust and will return to it.

This is a very countercultural act.

We live in a world terrified of death, which is to say a world that is uncomfortable with reality. Products and politicians, commercials and a thousand different hucksters promise us we can evade death if we buy this or vote for them or read that. Cosmetic companies and surgeons say they can liberate us from wrinkles and sags; the commercial on TV promises us that if we take this or that pill we can perform like our 18-year-old selves.

We see this in our language, too.  Pay attention to this, if haven’t already noticed it.  We use a wide variety of euphemisms to avoid saying the “d-word” – we say so-and-so “passed away” or “left us” or “went to be with Jesus” instead of saying ‘died’ or ‘dead’ or some other iteration of death.

For all her flaws, which are legion, at least the church is honest about this. Like that desert saint, we are bold to say, “O death, who can evade you?” as we put on ashes and journey toward the cross.

There is a remarkable freedom in this. What the world misses is what the gospel proclaims: that to really live you must die to yourself; to discover our purpose we must become servants of God.  The call and challenge of Jesus tells us truest joy is found – not in fast cars and money or golf or large houses or incredible sex or decadent dessert or Super Bowl tickets – but in taking up a cross and following Jesus. Jesus did not die so we could “believe in him” and go about our lives as we see fit. Christ died and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and come to share His very life.

Ash-Wednesday-crossWe cannot outrun death. In giving our lives, though, to the one whom death could not hold, death loses its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).  So we recieve ashes and remember our mortality, not because God wants us morbid and morose, but because we know we have spent too many hours trying to deny reality: we are not God.  We are not immortal.  We do not hold life and death in our hands.

Thankfully, we know the One who does.

The waters of baptism wash away the ashes of death.  We are raised with Christ! Death’s power is fleeting, make no mistake, but we also know all too well that on this side of the Kingdom death behaves with the vengeance of a jilted lover.

And so Lent begins, and we again take a 40 day journey back to reality.

Lent reminds us that the only greatness that counts is sainthood.  Every great conqueror is now topsoil, but holiness does not decompose.  Those great exemplars of faith, like Abba Sisoes the Great and his desert brethren, repose incandescent in the great cloud of witnesses which surrounds us.

Ash Wednesday thus offers us a stark choice:

We can continue chase immortality, celebrity, and grandeur with Caesar and Alexander

or

we can take the journey back to reality, embrace our finitude, admit our need for God’s embrace, and discover the only path to life.

This Lent, may Sisoes the Great and all the company of saints who have conquered temptation, fought the good fight, and finished the race inspire us to walk closer to Christ, more transparent to his gracious reign.

Let’s close with a prayer:

God, you know better than we
the temptations that will bring us down.
Grant that our love for you may protect us
from all foolish and corrupting desire.

-Collect for the First Sunday in Lent, from the New Zealand Prayer Book)

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The Other Side of Progress

Early on in his storied career as a pastor, bishop, ecumenist, and missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures entitled, “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress.”  In the first lecture, he makes the following observation:

The true reading of history seems to be this, that every new increase of man’s mastery over earth and sea and sky opens up possibilities not only of nobler good, but also of baser and more horrible evil, and that even those movements of social progress which can point to real achievement in the bettering of society have to be put side by side with these equally real movements of degeneration which have sometimes actually arisen out of the same social improvements.

Any Christian view of the state should always be heavily chastened by the doctrine of sin, which should keep our faith in progress (which, in modern democracies, often trumps faith in God) in proper check.  Newbigin invites us to something more nuanced than much contemporary political discourse: a view that is neither triumphalist nor fatalist, but one which recognizes that even within the brightest moments of human achievement, seeds of real evil can be planted.

One would think that the goddess Progress might have been slain after two World Wars and countless atrocities, but methinks she is a hard deity to bury.

 

 

From Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History by Lesslie Newbigin, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 16.

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A Prayer From Libya: Dancing With the Angels

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St. Thalassios the Libyan

St. Thalassios was the abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Libya and a contemporary of the great 7th century figure St. Maximos the Confessor.  In volume II of the Philokalia, we find a stirring prayer included in his treatise On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect:

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.  We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.  O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.  For Thou camest to save us who were lost.  Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.  Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.  Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou has broken the ranks of impure demons.  Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.  Amen.”

As a Wesleyan, I am quite drawn to the Orthodox language of “those who are being saved” (and of course, such language is Pauline also).  The emphasis on salvation as a path rather than an achievement is sadly overlooked in much of the Western church.

I also love the image of Jesus victoriously dancing after the resurrection, and bidding all to join in his “blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.”  I know many Christians for whom Jesus and dancing are opposites!

I was reminded of one of my favorite hymns, The Lord of the Dance, which I was blessed to hear in worship this past Sunday. No, not the Irish dancing guy.  But here are some Irish guys, not dancing, but singing it quite well:

It also seems appropriate to offer a prayer from Libya asking for deliverance from destructive passions, which have been on display so tragically in Libya and across the Middle East.  May Christ, the Lord of the Dance, free us from love of self and slavery to sin, and may he teach us instead to join in the blessed, eternal, life-giving dance.

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“Have you met the Lord today?”

In his brief but potent book The Lord’s Supper, Martin Marty has some too-close-to-home comments about the presence of the preacher at the Table.  Describing the preaching that takes place before the meal, he comments,

If you are unfortunate, you will get a book review, a comment on world affairs, some how-to advice for personal success, or some doctrinal comment about the word.  A good homily or sermon relentlessly plumbs a text and lets its depths reach you…preachers are fallible, but this meal is also for them and for their forgiveness, including forgiveness for sins they may demonstrate in the very act of preaching.  And yet we call what they are doing “preaching the word of God.”

…[Afterwords,] someone asks, “Have you met the Lord today?”  “Yes,” you say, “in the stumbling words of a laborious preacher.”

Thanks, Dr. Marty, for the reassurance that God can be met in bumbling, flawed folks like me.  And thanks be to God, who uses our weakness for His greater glory. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)

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“The Beast in Me”: Johnny Cash on Sin and Human Frailty

by Drew 5 Comments

The beast in me,
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.
Restless by day and by night,
Rants and rages at the stars.
God help the beast in me.

The beast in me,
Has had to learn to live with pain.
And how to shelter from the rain.
And in the twinkling of an eye,
Might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.

Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it’s just a teddy bear.
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air.
And that is when I must beware,
Of the beast in me.

-Johnny Cash

 

No, I’m not suggesting that Christians are werewolves.  There is something to this concept, though; earlier spiritual writers spoke of “the shadow side” (like St. John of the Cross).  We have the capacity to be angels or beasts.  Judging by everything around us in contemporary North America, most of us are choosing the beast over what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

This sense – a Christian sense – that something in us must be restrained, caged, is profoundly unpopular these days.  We have mistaken license for liberty, and we’ve traded the freedom to be children of God for slavery to our basest whims.  Modern culture, psychology in particular, would deny that this “beast” is real.  They say don’t “repress,” don’t “hold back,” “be real.”  Surely we are spiralling downward so rapidly that we can’t help but soon realize that the world’s definition of “real” is a facade, a complete fraud.

To be who God has called us to be, there is some necessary trimming, some things that must be left behind, rejected, forsaken.  Christians call this freedom.  But, contra many of the evangelicals in our midst, the turn to Christ is not accomplished in one glorious moment.  It’s a daily affair.  Daily we die to self, we live into our baptism and must be born a new.  The beast is caged, but he still roars.  May God help the beast in all of us.

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