Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Lenten disciplines as a means of grace

 The most commonly observed discipline associated with the Lenten season--that of "giving up something"--is but a pale residue of the actual disciplines of fasting and self-denial that are the true emphases of the season. These disciplines are means of grace whereby we, in the words of Hebrews, "lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely" in order that we may "run with perserverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Rather than simply "giving up something" that we will all too eagerly take up again at the end of these forty days, Lent ought to be a time of serious self-examination, a time to look deep within ourselves to see what hinders our walk with Christ and resolve to give up that sinful habit, that wrongful attitude, that errant practice not for forty days, but from this time forward and forever. St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the true purpose of the Lenten fast.

What advantage is it if we have kept the fast, and not improved our conduct? If someone tells you, I have fasted the whole of Lent, let your answer be, I had an enemy and am now reconciled; I had a habit of reviling, and have left it off; I had a custom of swearing, and this evil propensity is checked. It is no use for a merchant to cross the seas, unless the merchant returns home laden with goods, nor is there any use in our fasting, if with the act itself, all further good good ceases. If our fasting has consisted merely in abstaining from meals, when Lent is ended our fast will have passed away. But if our fast consists in abstaining from sin, when the fast has come to an end the benefit will still remain and will lay up for us treasures in the heavens.

Easter is the joy that is set before us. But first we must crucify "the sin which clings so closely" and hinders our growing up into Christ. Lent is the season for confronting all the roadblocks that Satan puts in the way. The joy of the resurrection will be all the more glorious when celebrated with a heart in perfect harmony with the will our heavenly Father.

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth,
and formed me into a living being,
breathing into me the breath of life.
God honored me,
setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
and made me companion of the angels.
But Satan the deceiver,
using the serpent as instrument,
enticed me by food--
parted me from the glory of God,
and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of the earth.
But in compassion, O Savior, call me back again!

Byzantine Vespers

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The world's first sissy

Irony is a common device employed throughout the biblical narrative. With the account of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16), we see it employed from the very earliest beginnings. Here are two brothers, sons of Adam and Eve. Of Cain, her firstborn, Eve says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” From a post-Eden, that is, fallen, perspective, Cain certainly appears to be the more “manly” of the two siblings. He is “a worker of the ground.” Abel, conversely, follows the more soft-spoken and gentle path of “a keeper of sheep.”

Yet, a careful reading of all that has come before clues us in on the impending calamity. The ground that Cain works is cursed because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17). By working it, Cain is merely living out the implications and consequences of that curse. Abel, on the other hand, tends the sheep from whose “skin” came the “garments” which covered his parents’ shameful nakedness. Cain cultivates life under the curse; Abel seeks redemption from the curse.

It is apparent that Cain’s animosity toward Abel is festering long before the two make their respective offerings to God. Cain offers some of the fruit of the cursed ground that he has worked. Abel offers one of the firstborn of his flock. It is not God’s preference for animal carcasses over fruit that causes him to accept Abel’s offering and reject Cain’s. Rather, it is his requirement that every offering come from a pure heart. Cain’s offering of fruit from the cursed ground is indicative of a heart out of sync with the heart of God. He seeks not redemption from his fallen state but, rather, approval of his fallenness. He desires not to be conformed to God’s image, but to conform God to his image.

Abel, however, makes an offering from a heart fully devoted to God. His offering requires him to make a painful sacrifice. He must choose a spotless lamb, even before it is born, and raise it to maturity for the sole purpose of slaughtering it and presenting it to God as a burnt offering. Abel makes such an offering not because he was born with a pure heart, but because he realizes precisely the opposite is true. No less than his treacherous brother, Abel was born in sin. He realizes that redemption out of his fallen state requires sacrifice on his part, even the shedding of blood. Abel’s offering of the firstborn of his flock prefigures God’s own offering of Christ, the perfect Lamb, for the sins of the world.

Cain’s reaction to God’s rejection of his offering is all too typical of a fallen creature. He becomes angry and bitter. To be blunt, he whines and complains. How could God treat him so unfairly? But God sternly warns him that he is treading on dangerous ground. “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?” God asks him. “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Significant here is the structure of God’s warning to Cain. It harkens back again to the curse placed on Adam and Eve. But it was to Eve, not to Adam, that God spoke in a similar manner, saying, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). Thus Cain, the “worker of the ground,” finds himself seduced by a most dangerous mistress. What God is saying to him is, in essence, “Be a man, you little whiner! Turn away from sin and give your life back to me!”

Tragically, however, Cain does not heed God’s warning. He continues to cultivate his fallenness, allowing his bitterness and resentment to continue to fester. Contrary to Eve’s expectation, Cain is not a man. Refusing God’s gracious offer of redemption, he becomes the world’s first sissy. His enmity toward God manifests itself in enmity toward his brother; his enmity toward his brother results in murder; and murder results in his being sent away into the land of Nod, to wander aimlessly for his remaining years, in constant fear for his life.