Sunday, February 18, 2007

lent and legalism

I suppose I probably read or heard this somewhere along the way, but it came into my head the other day that there's a good picture of salvation in the Orthodox experience of Pascha (Easter). Of course, that should go without saying, but I have in mind a particular juxtaposition.

Orthodox Lent (and really the whole annual fasting cycle) is just about the most rigorous general fasting practice (to be distinguished from specialized monastic rules) in Christendom. Another way of putting this is, Western Christianity has scaled back its fasting practice from Church Tradition, to the point where it is barely token in Roman Catholicism and all but vanished in Protestantism. To over-simplify, we eat vegan for the whole period of Lent, plus cutting back the number of meals to one or two per day and some days abstaining from food altogether. There are more detailed specifications, and with all the available options, substitutes, checking ingredients, etc., it's easy, especially as a newbie, to get wrapped up in the mechanics and lose sight of the purpose. It's also easy to become critical of those who don't fast as rigorously, or self-satisfied with how strenuous one's own practice is.

Fast-forward to Pascha, the end of Lent (well, technically Lent ends at Palm Sunday, but the rigorous fasting continues for one more week). In every Orthodox church around the world, the same homily is read every year, and has been read consistently over the centuries--the paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom. St. John preached some long sermons, many of which have been collected into several-hundred-page commentaries on the various books of the Bible. But this one's comparatively short and sweet. I suspect that at least part of the reason it's repeated every year is that it's hard to improve on. Perhaps a smaller part of the reason is that you always know what's coming. One thing about Lent is everything's done in view of what comes at the end. You know, from the first day of the fast, that at the end you will hear these words:
If any have laboured long in fasting,
Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.

For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

We never feel satisfied that we've fasted perfectly. Each year we strive to do better than the last. Each year we face our own pride and sinfulness. We work to bring our bodies into submission, and to match our physical obedience with spiritual. But when all is said and done, we never earn God's favor. We never can, and that's not even the point. All are welcomed at the feast, however much they've stumbled, however late they've started, even if they haven't fasted at all. We don't do this to pull ourselves into heaven by our own bootstraps. It's an expression of our love for Christ, or it's nothing. The challenge is to remember that as we proceed.

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