LENTEN REFLECTIONS BY VLADYKA MICHAEL
Archbishop of Cleveland
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church - Sobornopravna
GREAT LENT - A VIEW FROM THE CROSS
First Sunday of Lent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The season of Great Lent offers us an invaluable opportunity to renew ourselves in a way that contributes to spiritual growth, both as individuals and as a corporate body in the church.
Lent is meant to remind us of what is important in our lives, of where we are going and what our final destination will be. Through the somber spirit of the Lenten Liturgy with its prayers, melodies and colors, the church calls us to focus on the heart of our salvation - the Paschal Mystery, Christ's death and resurrection.
As we well know from our experience over the years of church-going, each Sunday of Lent carries with it a particular theme, aimed at helping us through the path of spiritual renewal, which prepares us for the celebration of the Lord's Passover. Lent is a time when we recall God's covenant with his people. A covenant is an agreement, an understanding, a pact, a promise. Throughout salvation history, God has shown his unfailing love many times, assuring us that even if we are unfaithful, he will always remain faithful.
Lent, called in the liturgical books, the "Great and Holy Forty Days," recalls for us the ancient biblical events which were an outward sign of God's everlasting covenant - the forty days of the universal flood, which culminated in a pact between God and Noah, that God will never again destroy the world because of the wickedness of human beings; the forty days which Moses spent on Mount Sinai, when he received the Tablets of the Law from God; the forty days during which the people of Israel sojourned in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land; and especially, the forty days which Our Lord himself spent praying in the desert, before he began his public ministry, which culminated in his sacrifice on Calvary, his death on the Cross, in which he ultimately paid the price for our sins, allowing human beings to, at last, have the potential for eternal life.
We will each reach our own "passover" one day, and the Lenten prayers and readings indeed remind us that we are merely sojourners in this world and that eventually, everything earthly will pass away and we ourselves will die. We are reminded of the words of Yahweh to Adam in the book of Genesis, read at vespers during Lent: "You shall return to the ground from which you were taken, because you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19). The sacred scriptures give us this sobering thought, but however, it does not mean that this material climax is an end to everything. We have an ultimate goal, heaven, and this is what Lent puts before us. It is an opportune time to consider these things, because our chance to live life eternally, beyond our own deaths, was given to us through Jesus' own death and his resurrection.
The first Sunday of Lent, since 842 CE, has commemorated the proper use of icons and religious images in churches. This day is often called the "Sunday of Orthodoxy" or the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" because of the great relief of peace that resulted from this restoration of images. It was a triumph, because many lives were lost and much blood shed on the part of faithful people of the church of that time. For those believers, replicas of the Cross and images of Our Lord and the saints were meaningful and important. It was a time when religion was practiced in an entirely different manner than today, and issues regarding the church's relationship with secular society made their way into each person's home and private life. Thus, to take a stand on a religious matter could often mean the loss of one's life or home or family. We do know the great seriousness of persecution for one's faith, because it was a matter all to familiar for our people in the last century, when believers were severely persecuted by the atheistic regime of the communism. For those who defended the use of icons in the ninth century, the experience was very similar.
In many Orthodox and Eastern Christian churches, there are solemn processions and services which commemorate the return of icons to the churches. The age-old anathemas are read once again, condemning all those who do not accept the true teaching of the church. The triumph of Orthodoxy is pronounced, and believers are filled with a sense of pride that they are Orthodox (and others are not). And yet, if this celebration is taken in a wrong, self-serving context, which it often is, if it emphasizes the exclusivity of being Orthodox, at the expense of others' sense of self-worth, the result is the exact opposite of what Lent would have us accomplish and of how the church recommends us to behave during this time of sorrow for our own sins and turning toward a future free from distractions which separate us from Christ. The purpose of Lent is to grow in a direction where we find ourselves more closely formed into the image of Christ, grafted, as it were, onto the wood of the Cross. A good method of measuring whether or not we are acting in a manner in which Christ would have us behave is to ask ourselves to what extent our actions place others in a situation of being excluded from the Body of Christ. No church, hierarch or individual has the capacity to judge who may or may not be grafted onto Christ.
The point during Lent, and on its first Sunday, is not to be triumphant in a self-righteous sense, or to rejoice over the fact that we feel ourselves better, or more correct that other Christians. There can be no such pride in the Christian faith or the family of God. The real triumph during Lent, will be the triumph of repentance, and this will only be a real victory if our lives are truly changed by the experience of the season and if our hearts are opened more and more to include others. The triumph God wants of each of us is to live more closely by his commandments and in particular, the commandment he gave us on the night before he died, that is, to love each another: "My children, I will be with you I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13:34). It is a triumph of God's will over our own wills which are scarred by self-pity, close-mindedness and personal interests. Lent invites us to pray with Jesus, "Father, not my will but your will be done" (Mt. 26:39; Mk. 14:36; Lk. 22: 42).
Turning away from self and towards God will naturally bring about a greater love for our neighbor. If we change our way of thinking and focus our thoughts on Jesus on the Cross, we automatically see a more global picture, one which includes our brothers and sisters for whom Christ likewise died. The view from the Cross is vast and universal. From high on Mt. Calvary and from the beams of the Cross, one can get the best view of the world and everyone in it. Sometimes, it may be difficult or indeed painful to mount the ladder leading to the Cross and to open our eyes to the view from there. It can be an extremely long climb which is reached only by continually placing one foot in front of the other and making ourselves complete the ascent. We may feel that we will never reach the top. When we do, however, we will discover the most beautiful panorama ever imaginable, and the landscape will include our brothers and sisters, whoever they may be and from wherever they have come, for whom Christ also surrendered himself on that Cross, many years ago.
It is the view from the Cross that we must keep before us on our Lenten journey and throughout the rest of our lives. We will all be quite surprised how far we will be able to see and we will not have to use telescopic lenses to take in everything. Christ will have become the vehicle through which our eyes are opened to the beauty of a life which is everlasting and a world which has no end.
May this Great Lenten season lead us all to the observation of the world from the Cross, illumined by the light of Christ's resurrection.
Yours in Christ,
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