“Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship O Master. And Thy holy resurrection we glorify.”
On Ash Wednesday of this year I read the postings of a someone I think in her early twenties. She had attended services in the morning, and from what she said of herself I would take it she is Roman Catholic. Whether she is, is not all that relevant. What is, is her assertion that the penitential aspect of Lent really caused her no pause; what did was “from dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” Thinking about death really bothered her. As death is not our appointed end, it should bother us. But at the same time, can we really practice repentance without thinking about death. Well, at least the proper kind of death.
This Sunday marks the midpoint of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross, and it sets before us one of the central elements of our Faith, that which we are to glory in, namely the Passion of our God. Lent is a time that we focus primarily, however, not on repentance as contrition and compunction, but on life, and what we need to obtain it. Met. Anthony Bloom noted that every disciple must die, and that at some point if the disciple does not die, he is no disciple. This death may not be the one of St. Stephen, or St. Paul, or St. Peter, but it is a death nonetheless. We turn our soul away from what we think is life, and turn it to the life of our teacher, that is, to Life in Christ. Thus by the cross the world is crucified to us, and we should be thus to the world. Lent is a reorientation away from the life of the disordered passions, which arise from corruption, sin and death, and into the new life granted by Christ. When my students read The Way of the Pilgrim they recoil from the pilgrim’s regimen of saying the Jesus Prayer thousands of times a day. They liken this to the prayers of the heathen who think they will be heard by their frequent repetitions. My wards miss the point. The Pilgrim is not doing this because he thinks God will eventually listen to him, for he knows that were he to say the prayer but once without hesitation, and with purity of heart, it is enough (this is repeatedly stated in the Pilgrim’s textbook, The Philokalia). What the Pilgrim is doing is reorienting his mind, repenting his mind, toward Christ. How often we awaken with songs in our head that we cannot get out (this morning it is the Lorica of St. Patrick, for some reason); this is what the Pilgrim is hoping for on a grand scale. The Epistle reading for this past Saturday out of Hebrews calls attention to how the letter’s recipients identified with St. Paul in his chains, and that they gave up their own worldly possessions so that his ministry (Christ’s ministry) would be sustained. The Orthodox Church urges at all times that Christians give to the poor and needy, and especially so at Lent. This is part of turning our gaze, or reorienting our soul (of refocusing our nous, as Fr. Andrew Damick reminded me last week) toward new life. This life is present now, and not just in the world to come, not just after our present physical body has returned to the dust.
Thinking about death really means that we think properly about this present life and its goods. God has given us all good things to enjoy, and this world was created for us to enjoy and cultivate, it was given to us as Sacrament. Lent calls us to think about the world in this way, and not in the way we are so accustomed to think about it: this world is here for my consumption. It is the misuse of this world’s goods that turns us from Life, and it is to this death we should be dying.