But we all‚ with our face having been unveiled‚ having beheld the glory of the Lord as in a mirror‚ are being changed into the same image from glory to glory‚ even as by the Lord Spirit. (2Co 3:18)
Coming back home the other day‚ I observed with great joy that some trees on my street started to blossom. I was immediately moved to think: the winter is over‚ spring is here! All the cold weather‚ all the snow and the ice is gone. But‚ the thought continued‚ if we won’t pass through winter we couldn’t appreciate spring in its fullness.
One of the most beautiful celebrations in Japan is the cherry blossom festival. People gather from afar to be part of it. One of the most interesting things about it is that there is not fixed celebration date dictated by the secular calendar or astronomy. The festival takes place whenever the cherry trees are good and ready. So part of this entire spectacle is the great anticipation during the winter when‚ while suffering the cold and the bare land‚ the Japanese think of the amazing sight of the cherry blossom of spring. This hope‚ kindled through the winter‚ makes the festivities so much more meaningful. If the cherry-trees would blossom every day people would get tired of them and forget what it is like not to have them.
The life we live today is full of everything; nothing is missing from our table. We don’t know what hunger is‚ we don’t even know what it is not having meat even for one day. This was not the case for many generations before us‚ during the war‚ the depression and so on. We live in abundance‚ and there is nothing wrong with that‚ but at the same time‚ if we don’t pay attention, it can make us lazy and ungrateful.
An easy cure is the prescribed fasting discipline of the Orthodox Church. With two days a week of fasting and four major fasting periods‚ the Church asks us to meditate upon all we have‚ by giving them away‚ temporarily.
But fasting is not only about food. From a spiritual perspective the same apply. We are born under grace; we are part of the One Holy Church of Christ since infancy. We have received the gift of Baptism as children and we have partaken in Christ’s Body ever-since. The Resurrection of Christ is for many of us something of the past‚ something that was done for us and we enjoy its fruits today. We don’t know anymore what is like to wait for the moment when the time “is ripe”‚ to long for the coming of the Messiah. For us the Anointed One is here already. But He should never be perceived as One from the past‚ but a very actual presence. The cycle of Feasts and Fasting helps us in this respect reminding us every year of the immediacy of all the events that happened for our salvation. The great self chosen discipline of the Lent is forcing us‚ spoiled children as we are‚ to realize what great things have already been done for us and how many things we are taking for granted.
The expectation set forth by the Great Lent has enormous transforming power. If we could just let ourselves be embarked in this journey we could be molded into God’s shape‚ we could be ascending towards His likeness through the means the Church is offering us: repentance‚ prayer‚ fasting and charity.
But you might very well say I don’t need transformation‚ I’m as good as I can get. A losing proposition. That is exactly what the self-righteous Pharisee said‚ and yet‚ God loved more the sinful but repentant Publican.
The comfort of our lives is a great brake in our development as Christians. It gives us a false impression of achievement. The American dream is liberty and the pursuit of happiness‚ right? We are free today‚ to a certain extent‚ we are happy‚ most of us‚ so many times we don’t see any need for more and we stop our engines midway. Oppression and hunger‚ material or spiritual‚ on the other hand‚ is a stimulant. Think of the Greek Church during the Turks‚ how it has survived miraculously and did not cease to give Saints to God. Think about the Church under the Communist regime and the martyrs that never gave up hope. Also look today how many people from the Orthodox majority in those countries attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays. The statistics are downright depressing. All this happens because freedom is misunderstood and abundance becomes the expression of happiness and the very goal of life.
But St. Seraphim of Sarov says that the goal of life is acquiring the Holy Spirit. Live a life full of the true Spirit and your dreams of liberty and happiness will be attained for eternity. If we want this to become reality we have to break from the false sense of achievement that our prosperity is inducing on us‚ and realize that we are far from our target in a true spiritual sense.
We have to acknowledge our shortcomings‚ get rid of the mask of pride and unveil the humility residing in the image of Christ within us. God emptied Himself of His glory and has shown us that under His ineffable glory‚ that can be very intimidating‚ lays great love for mankind; love that allowed Him to go as far as to sacrifice Himself so we can have life.
Our goal should be the same‚ to empty ourselves of the vain glory of spurious achievement whispering in our years: you’re good‚ you’re smart‚ you’re spiritual‚ and realize that the poor man underneath our mask needs help to grow in Christ.
This is the gift of Lent‚ a true image of ourselves that we receive through contrition‚ a truthful reflection showing clearly how poor in Spirit we are and how hungry our soul is for God. With a clear understanding of our shortcomings the prayers will feel more natural‚ not long anymore‚ not boring‚ not someone else’s words‚ but real life giving water for a thirsty soul. Loving the others will also come natural when we take down our armor of arrogance‚ because in humility we’ll recognize that we are not superior to our brothers and sisters‚ but we are all equal under God‚ equal in weaknesses‚ equal in sin‚ equal in needing the mercy of God.
Fasting can change us‚ can make us blossom like cherry trees in the spring‚ growing in appreciation of what is in front of us‚ but we are too busy otherwise to notice. “The springtime of the Fast has dawned‚ the flower of repentance has begun to open…” (Aposticha‚ Vespers on Wednesday of Cheesefare Week). Embrace the gift of Lent with its spiritual discipline‚ confess your sins‚ pray more‚ love more‚ forgive more and a new world of meaning will open calling you higher and higher‚ closer to God. Amin