We are getting ready to leave the season of Theophany (Epiphany) and enter into Great Lent. Both the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox traditions provide a specific “pre-Lent” time of preparation. There is great wisdom here. As human beings, we are designed to move from one activity or emphasis to another via a time of transition. Transition is designed to, first, keep the best of the past (even the worst can be the best if we submit it to Christ) and bring it into union with “things to come,” forming a unified journey of wholeness. Transition also, secondly, gives us the opportunity to ready ourselves for the “new thing” that God desires to do in our life. We can look/walk forward.
The pre-Lenten transition is a time designed to encourage us to embrace the truth that our inner life and outer life affect one another – what we do affects what we believe (our operative convictions) and what we believe affects what we do (our words and deeds). In the middle of this relationship of mutual affect, the Holy Tradition says, needs to be a specific discipline of life that is life-giving in both directions. There are inner disciplines that are designed to transform our words and deeds and outer disciplines that are designed to transform our inner life (thoughts, emotions, will, desires, etc.). There are four disciplines that, during the pre-Lenten mini-season, we are encouraged to begin to practice an observe throughout Lent. They are:
1 &2)Increased reading of Scripture and prayer that are designed to prepare us to die with Christ and be raised with Christ in the particular area of our life where it’s is needed and/or continue to establish that area where such dying and rising has already taken place.
3)Fasting to address the all too powerful domination of our bodily appetites that hinder our growth in Christ.
4)Almsgiving – pouring out our life in some specific way on behalf of the poor and needy.
These four disciplines are, in fact, ways in which we take the admonition of the apostles seriously:
“Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” (James 4.7-10).
The result is spiritual transformation in the Holy Spirit in due time. This is the reason we endeavor with all the strength that is in us to embrace the Holy Tradition in sincerity and truth – that we might begin to reign with Christ even now in the time of our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).
With all of this in mind, I include in this post a reflection from the devotional series I have recommended many times before, “Dynamis.”
1 Peter 4:1-11, especially vss. 1, 2: “…he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.”
Earlier in this Epistle, Saint Peter declared that Christ suffered death “…in the flesh… ” purposely: “…to bring us to God…” (1 Pt. 3:18). Now, when he says, “…with the same mind…” (1 Pt. 4:1), he urges us to embrace an intention similar to the Lord’s.
Be sure to note this expression of his, to ‘suffer in the flesh,’ which should not be applied solely to martyrs or confessors, for a vital truth would be lost. Suffering is common to everyone, having many forms: persecution, injury, disease, financial reverses, even withdrawal from specific sins, vices, and indulgence. While Saint Peter’s primary concern throughout this First Epistle is with direct, physical persecution; still he knew that ‘suffering in the flesh’ includes far more than afflictions imposed on Christ’s holy martyrs and confessors (vss. 2-6). He knew well the ‘suffering in the flesh’ that comes whenever one indulges in or approves sinful living as ‘normal’ or acceptable, but then for Christ’s sake, withdraws and ceases to “…run…in the same flood of dissipation…” (vs. 4). Learn from Saint Peter about the kind of ‘suffering in the flesh’ that comes when we withdraw from the “…flood of dissipation…” (vs. 4).
The chief Apostle here focuses on the sufferings that come to us when we have “…ceased from sin…” (vs. 1). As we would expect, the Apostle counsels us no longer living “…in the flesh for the lusts of men…” (vs. 2). We should avoid “…lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties and abominable idolatries” (vs. 3), having determined to withdraw from all indulgence. Then, he turns to the social isolation that follows when we no longer run “…in the same flood of dissipation…” (vs. 4). As The Orthodox Study Bible notes, Saint Peter referred to vices prevalent in Asia Minor “…where excessive drinking, along with unspeakable practices took place in connection with the worship of various deities….” But these vices are well-known today even though they are not part of the worship of deities as in the first century!
Even as a fledgling disciple, Saint Peter had learned from Christ the captivating power of a sinful mind: “…from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, at evil eye, blasphemy. pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mk. 7:21-23).
Saint John of Sinai adds other insights to those of the Lord Jesus and Saint Peter, and he commends the pain of struggling for chastity and purity, both in our inner and outer life, especially now that we have vital hope of ceasing from sin (see 1 Pt. 4:1-2). Thus, “…purity means that we put on the angelic nature. Purity is the longed-for house of Christ and the earthly heaven of the heart. Purity is a supernatural denial of nature….He is pure…[who] expels fleshly love with divine love, and…has extinguished the fire of passion by the fire of Heaven.”
Saint John’s thought is not limited to sexual purity, which the ‘modern’ ear hears: “Chastity is the name which is common to all the virtues.” In the struggle to gain purity, God’s Spirit helps us take the steps that necessarily bring pain: observe the passions, understand them, repent seriously, confess deeply, accept bodily hungers, abandon self-reliance, and struggle for unceasing prayer. As, Saint John adds, “Let no one thoroughly trained in purity attribute its attainment to himself. For it is impossible for anyone to conquer his own nature. When nature is defeated, it should be recognized that this is due to the presence of Him Who is above nature.” Indeed, we do not endure such necessary sufferings apart from God, but, rather, in Him.
I am caught in the depths of sins. O Savior, draw me out of passion, and save me!
Let us heed the exhortation as we make our way to Great Lent.