Monday, March 07, 2011

Lent and the Church.

I'd like to offer some more thoughts on the start of Lent, taking as a theme the focus on reconciliation inherent in the service of Forgiveness Vespers with which Byzantine Christians start this season. Beginning Lent with a rite of forgiveness is a reminder that this season has a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension - Lent is not simply a time when we think about repairing and strengthening our relationship with God, it's also a time to repair and strengthen our relationships with one another. Lent is thus an inescapably communal experience, one lived out within the context of a Christian community made up of saints and sinners.

The imperfection of life within the Church is plainly visible, not simply on account of press coverage of clergy sexual abuse and other crimes committed by church leaders, but also in the experience of virtually any practicing Christian. I don't think I'm being cynical or pessimistic in suggesting that anyone who has lived in the Church has probably been hurt in some way - given the inherent frailties, shortcomings, and sins of the Church's human members, could it be otherwise? Nevertheless, it is precisely within the Church that we are called to work out our salvation.

Father Stephen Freeman touches on at least some of these issues in reflections posted earlier today on his excellent and often provocative blog Glory to God for All Things. Though I hope that you'll read the entire post, here are some excerpts:
I have sometimes said (in a light-hearted manner) that God gave us the Church to keep us honest. The truth is, that God gave us the Church that we might be saved. The failure to see why and how the Church is the ark of salvation is a failure to understand some of the most fundamental parts of our Christian faith – and often a failure which transforms Christianity into an ersatz religion that knows nothing of the Church.

. . .

The Church exists by the grace of God and is dependent for its very existence on the love of each for each and the love of each for all. Forgiveness is not a moral act – it is an existential act. Goodness, meekness, kindness, generosity and the like are matters of our true existence and not the mere moral obedience to some outward norm.

The Scriptures teach us that “God is love.” We ourselves only exist to the extent that “we are love,” and so Christ gives us His Church – the locus and the very nexus of His love.

. . .

St. Paul tells us in his writings that “God made [Christ] to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ” (2 Cor 5:21). That same “exchange” is continually happening in our lives. The Church is the locus of this change (or certainly the arena in which it takes place). Thus every gathering of the Church, whether for Eucharist or for Council, inevitable means an assembly of sinners, those who, at best, have become righteous with the righteousness of Christ (though not their own).

My experience of life in the Church is that I am not only in the company of sinners such as myself, but that those very encounters are not occasions of lamentation, but occasions in which love, forgiveness, kindness and generosity, etc., are the only way forward. It is not for nothing that we find constant exhortation to such virtues within the epistles of the New Testament. A local Church either embraces Christ’s way of the Cross, or it becomes just one more outpost of hell.
For some further thoughts, here is an excerpt from a Forgiveness Sunday sermon given by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh:
. . . [O]ver the course of this [first week of Lent], let us reflect upon ourselves one last time, let us look at one another, and become reconciled to one another. Peace and reconciliation does not mean that [our] problems have ceased to exist. Christ came into the world in order to reconcile the world to Him and in Himself, with God, and we know at what cost He did so: helpless, wounded, defenseless, he gave Himself up to us, saying: do what you will, and when you have performed the ultimate evil, you will see that My love was unwavering, that it was there in time of joy and in time of piercing pain, but that it remained, always, love.

This is the example which we can, and which we must follow, if we want to be Christ's own. Forgiveness begins at the moment we say to one another: I know how fragile you are, how deeply you wound me, and because I am wounded, because I am a victim - sometimes a guilty victim, and sometimes an innocent one - I can turn to God and from the depths of my pain and suffering, shame, and sometimes despair, can say to the Lord: Lord, forgive him! He knows not what he does! If he only knew how his words wound me, if he only knew how much destruction he is bringing into my life, he would not be doing it. But he is blind, he is immature, he is fragile; yet I accept and welcome him, I will carry him/her as the good shepherd carries the lost sheep, for we are all lost sheep of Christ's flock. Or I will carry him/her/them as Christ carried the cross: even unto death, unto crucified love, when we receive the power to forgive everything, because we have agreed to forgive everything and anything that might be done to us.

Thus, let us enter into Great Lent, as people moving out of utter darkness into dusky semi-darkness, and from the dusk into the light, with joy and light in our hearts, having shaken the dust from our feet, loosing and casting off all of the entanglements that keep us in thrall: in thrall to greed, envy terror, fear, envy, in thrall to mutual misunderstanding, self-absorption - for we live imprisoned by ourselves, while God has called us to be free.

Then we will see that step-by-step, we are crossing, as it were, a great sea, from the shore of utter darkness and semidarkness, into the Divine Light. Along the way we will encounter the Crucifixion. At the end of the journey, day will come, and we will face Divine Love in its tragic perfection, before it overcomes us with inexpressible glory and joy. First the Passion, first the Cross - then the miracle of the Resurrection. We must enter into the one and the other - together with Christ we must enter into His Passion, and together with him enter into the great rest and the brilliant light of the Resurrection.
Prayers for all readers at the start of Lent. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was taken inside Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Church in Hamtramck, Michigan (source).


Post a Comment

<< Home