As we begin the Holy Fast of Great Lent, we are once again this year confronted with seven weeks (including Holy Week) of reflection, prayer and action. What does it mean for each of us to be followers of Jesus Christ who suffered on earth, died on the cross, and was resurrected and ascended into heaven? That is our journey, too—suffering, death and eternal life with Christ in heaven. How can we face whatever suffering God is permitting us to experience, whatever pattern of death we must face, whatever conclusion awaits us after death? HOW can we endure all of this?
We endure because just as the Holy Eucharist we have just received has been pre-sanctified, so have each of our lives been blessed and pre-sanctified by the presence of Christ. The experience of receiving the Holy Eucharist empowers us to be sanctified. We become the pre-sanctified ones. The experience of Great Lent helps each of us to become holy. How can we become holy? Do we drive ourselves into holiness through sustained fasting and prayer and almsgiving? I think not. The Church offers us guidelines, but leaves to each person the decision of how to observe Great Lent—HOW to endure. However, we do have a responsibility to prepare ourselves to be holy and to be ready when we are called to serve the Church or people in need, as we surely will be, even if we cannot know now the precise nature of that call that will come in the future.
During all of the Mondays to Fridays of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church takes its opening readings from the book of Isaiah, beginning with his vision, his calling and his response. The Church has indeed chosen a remarkable place for each of us to begin Lent—with this prophet in the year of King Uzziah’s death in 740 B.C., as, and I quote from Chapter 6. The quotation is taken from the outstanding 2009 publication of A New English Translation of the Septuagint—a translation from the original Hebrew to Greek begun about 250 B.C.—edited by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, and available as a book or free as an easy to consult, complete Old Testament on the web at: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/.
“I saw the Lord,” said Isaiah, “sitting on a throne, lofty and raised up, and the house was full of glory. And seraphim stood around him; the one had six wings and the [other] had six wings, and with two [wings] they covered their face, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And they cried out one to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Sabaoth [that is, the mighty Lord of all armies]; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ And the lintel was raised at the voice with which they cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, ‘O wretched that I am! I am stunned; for being a man and having unclean lips, I live among a people having unclean lips, and I have seen the King, the Lord Sabaoth, with my eyes!’”
“Then one of the seraphim was sent to me, and he had in his hand a live coal that he had taken from the altar with the tongs. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips, and it will take away your lawlessness and purify your sins.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go to this people?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go . . .’”
Now, Isaiah’s mission was not a success because the people did not listen. But Isaiah, who probably lived most of his life in Jerusalem and was married and had at least two sons, did listen to the Lord and carry out what the Lord had asked him to do—that was all he could do, and all we can do when we are called.
This evening as we received the Holy Eucharist we too were purified from our sins, just as was Isaiah, even in the midst of his and our awareness of being unworthy to receive such a gift of forgiveness. All we have to do—but it is a difficult thing to do—is if we hear the Lord guiding us to some task to respond with the same words as Isaiah: “Here am I; send me.” Now, we cannot expect our temple here to be filled with smoke and angels—although that might happen someday – or maybe it does happen and we just don’t see it. Nor do we have to hear an audible voice telling us which task we should tackle. However, we do need to listen carefully to what the Lord is saying to us in our prayer times, in our reading of the Bible, in our jobs or unemployment or retirement, and in our relationships within our families and with others in the present moment.
My wife, Sylvia, and I have found that we do need to examine our lives, especially as we grow older; and we find it necessary to pace ourselves, and to accept only those tasks to which the Lord calls us. A book that we have found helpful is The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. He concludes his Preface with these words: [In her book, Gravity and Grace, p. 132.] “The philosopher Simone Weil describes how two prisoners in adjoining cells learn, over a very long period of time, to talk to each other by tapping on the wall. ‘The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication,’ she writes. ‘Every separation is a link.’”
“This book,” writes Stephen Grosz, “is about that wall. It’s about our desire to talk, to understand and be understood. It’s also about listening to each other, not just the words but the gaps in between. What I’m describing here isn’t a magical process,” he says. “It’s something that is part of our everyday lives—we tap, we listen.”
That is precisely what Isaiah was doing—tapping and listening—when he was overwhelmed by the presence of God. We too can tap and listen and endure. Stephen Grosz is right to point out that: “Change can only take place in the here and now. This is important because trying to change the past only leave us feeling helpless, depressed” (p. 114). Grosz concludes his chapter titled “Changing” with the words: “Psychoanalysts are fond of pointing out that the past is alive in the present. But the future,” he writes, “is alive in the present too. The future is not some place we’re going to, but an idea in our mind now. It is something we’re creating, that in turn creates us.” Grosz claims that: “The future is a fantasy that shapes our present.” However, I don’t personally see “the future” as “a fantasy.” I see the future as God’s plan for my life and your life that we are each seeking to fulfil.
Let me conclude with a reflection from the Yale University scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan, an authority on the history of Christianity. For most of his life Professor Pelikan was a Lutheran and an ordained pastor in that tradition. However, his study of Christian history convinced him of the truth of Orthodoxy; and at the age of 65, along with his wife, he became an Orthodox Christian. Professor Pelikan sought to link his own personal and theological insights with the Tradition of the Church. He concluded his book, The Vindication of Tradition, with the words of the German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “What you have as heritage,/Take now as task;/For thus you will make it your own!” Isn’t that beautiful? “What you have as heritage,/Take now as task;/For thus you will make it your own!”
That is precisely the challenge that confronts each of us this Lent to “take now as task” what we have been given “as heritage” and to make that heritage and Tradition of Lent a part of our own contemporary experience of life. That is HOW we can endure—to build up our very own personal experience of Lent. Our goal is to be prepared as the prophet Isaiah was to receive the Lord when He calls each of us again and again to different tasks throughout our lives.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn