Before beginning his earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ, “led up by the Spirit” (Matt. 4:1), wandered in the desert for 40 days, fasting, praying, and finally being tempted by the devil with the enticement of food, force, and fortune. One might think that, with his resolve fortified by the Scriptures, in Jesus a second John the Baptist had come to Judaea, but not so. Soon the people would complain, “We mourned to you, and you did not weep” (Luke 7:32). In response, Christ rebuked them, saying, “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:33–34)
Jesus’ preparation in the wilderness highlights the vital role of asceticism for spiritual reinforcement in the Christian life. Thus, Christians traditionally fast and pray for the 40 days of Lent to imitate him and bear witness, as did Israel for 40 years in the desert, that, as Christ answered the devil, “man shall not live by bread alone; but … by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). Moreover, at the end of Lent, Christians dramatically enter into the last week of Christ’s life before his crucifixion during Holy Week, often increasing the austerity of their ascetic practice. Yet all of it, even the long, dark shadow of the Cross, points forward to the abundant and incomprehensible joy of the Resurrection. Light so shines from the empty tomb as to enlighten our wilderness wandering during Lent in what the Orthodox priest and theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann called a “bright sadness.”
Ascetic self-denial is not an end in itself, because Christians have always affirmed the goodness of the created world, our bodily life included. The Resurrection is the ultimate proof that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), when that part of the world the Son of God assumed—his humanity, body and soul—rose victorious and whole from the grave. As Pope St. Leo the Great preached, “Since, therefore, by our forty days’ observance we have wished to bring about this effect, that we should feel something of the Cross at the time of the Lord’s Passion, we must strive to be found partakers also of Christ’s Resurrection, and ‘pass from death unto life,’ while we are in this body.” While “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ … the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), in Christ’s Resurrection we and the world are raised to one another anew.
The earliest Christians, despite their own austere asceticism, understood that the paschal message of salvation—“Christ is risen!”—could not be limited to an individualistic or purely spiritual conception. St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred by wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum in AD 110, warned the Church in Smyrna about the Gnostics—heretical Christians who denied the value of the material world—who “care nothing about love: they have no concern for widows or orphans, for the oppressed, for those in prison or released, for the hungry or the thirsty. They hold aloof from the Eucharist … because they refuse to admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ … which, in his goodness, the Father raised [from the dead].” For St. Ignatius, care for the poor and the marginalized, the sacramental communion of Christians through the “one bread” by which we become “one body” (1 Cor. 10:17) with one another, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, are all part of the seamless garment of love that distinguishes true fidelity to the Gospel from the error of the Gnostics. If we believe that Christ is risen, one partakes of his risen body and blood through the Eucharist. And if we, through the Eucharist, become restored to right relations with our brothers and sisters in Christ, so also we should go out to the world as bearers of that Resurrected life to those living the very tragedy with which we, through our Lenten asceticism, cultivate the “bright sadness” of solidarity.
Ancient Christians were often poor and persecuted themselves. Where did they get anything to give to others? How were they enabled to live out that care for the marginalized that characterizes the love of God? The second-century Christian spiritual fable the Shepherd of Hermas exhorts us: “Work that which is good, and of thy labors, which God giveth thee, give to all that are in want freely.” Through work, albeit now in the midst of “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18),we increase the wealth of the world. Furthermore, “work,” wrote the Reformed theologian Lester DeKoster, “is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others.” Put another way, it is an essential means through which we love our neighbors, giving our time, talent, and labor in order to better the lives of others, only providing for ourselves when we have served the interests of others. As Adam Smith noted, in economic exchange with our neighbors, we “never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” In this way we serve the needs of others and earn a surplus through which we can “give to all that are in want freely.”
For some, Holy Week just means an extra day off work on Friday. Lent is a matter of fad diets, and Easter is no Great and Holy Pascha but something more like Thanksgiving Jr.—a time to eat a big meal with family while hopefully avoiding any sensitive conversation topics. It can be more a chore to endure than a celebration of new life. But this stands in antithesis to its truest, deepest meaning, that “in Christ Jesus” what matters above all is “new creation” (Gal. 6:15). Through the passion of the Cross and his Holy Resurrection, Christ Jesus became the “firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5) that we, through baptism, through asceticism, even through the self-giving love of our mundane and monotonous daily work—yes, even through our economic life!—might be born anew by the Spirit as well, and not only us, but the world through us in Christ, who gave his life “for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
Kalo Pascha! Happy Easter to all.