The Apostle reading today from Hebrews is an extract from a long list of the righteous in the Old Covenant who contended for the Faith through times of bitter persecution. The writer to the Hebrews describes these poignantly as those “of whom the world was not worthy.” (Hebrews 11:38) He writes thus because the Church in Rome (to which Hebrews was probably written) was beginning to experience the first of many bouts of systematic persecution. The Christians there needed to be strengthened to face the oncoming storm.
Throughout the Church’s history the story has not changed. It has been estimated that far more Christians have died for their faith in the last century than at any time previously, even allowing for the fact that there are more Christians around these days as compared with antiquity. The reasons for such persecutions have not changed. Simply put, some people hate God and, therefore, hate the people of God. But, why do they hate God? The reasons for this are complex in their showings but simple in their origins. The devil has been at war with God from his downfall and in this he has tried to drag down many vulnerable souls with him into hell. It is the passions of course that make us all vulnerable to such falls ... so we must unflinchingly contend against these temptations until our dying breath. We do not fight, however, on our own or miserably. We have Christ, we have the Church and in both we have each other. We are strongly empowered in our good fight, and in our relationship with Christ we have such joy and peace as the world cannot give. Jesus Himself taught concerning this:-
“Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
The normal experience, then, of being a Christian is both joy and struggle. There is a deep joy in knowing Christ but also a struggle against demonically inspired forces of violence and rebellion, inside us and outside us. These forces seek to challenge and undermine His just and gentle rule, both in our lives and in His world. All human beings experience this struggle but Christians additionally experience the grace, the power and the joy of being in Christ, a death-defeating Life that enables them to be victorious. This is the true Triumph of Orthodoxy that we celebrate today, the victory of our faith. The joyful struggle belongs to Great Lent; the struggling joy belongs to Pascha. Possessing both, we belong to Christ and not to the world.
We need, therefore, consciously, deliberately to live in Christ by the Spirit and to be dead to the world for the world’s sake. In doing this we square up against the world (that is ungodliness) in order to win the world (that is to save it). Of course, ungodliness won’t give up without a fight; which is why the normal state of Orthodox Christianity is persecution, both from within the Church sometimes and invariably from without. Jesus spoke of this struggle and this joy in these terms:-
“But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they may be sanctified by the truth.” (John 17:13-19)
Bearing in mind, therefore, that we do struggle against the “rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” ... as St. Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Ephesus (6:12) ... we all need to make this Great Lent our own personal “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” We shall do this by fasting, by almsgiving and by faithful prayer. We shall do this by repentance, by not concealing our sin before God or the Church, and by a strong taking hold of his unfailing mercy and compassion. We shall do this by reading the Scriptures, the Fathers and the Saints of the Church. Above all we shall do this by acquiring the Holy Spirit through loving sacrifice and the beauty of holiness. Moreover we are strengthened in all of these things by receiving Holy Communion regularly (the standard according to St. John Chrysostom is every Sunday!). By the time we reach Pascha our hearts should be bursting with joy and anticipation. Our lives will then be freer and stronger to engage in yet more battles against “sin, the world and the devil” in years to come.
One thing is for sure… the Christian life is definitely not boring!