INTRODUCTION TO LENT, BY METROPOLITAN ANTHONY OF SOUROZH – A talk given to the London Group of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius on Saturday 17th February 1968.
Contrary to what we may think or feel, Lent is a time of joy, because it is a time when we come back to life. It is a time when we shake off what is bad and dead in us in order to become able to live, and to live with all the vastness, and all the depth, and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy in Lent, we will make of it a monstrous caricature, a time when in God’s own name we make our life a misery. This notion of joy connected with effort, with ascetical endeavour, with strenuous effort indeed, may seem strange, and yet it runs through the whole of our spiritual life, the life of the Church and the life of the Gospel, because the kingdom of God is to be conquered. It is not something which is simply given to those who leisurely, lazily wait for it to come. For those who would wait for it in that spirit, it will come indeed: it will come at the heart of night; it will come like the Judgement of God, like the thief who comes when he is not expected, like the bridegroom, who comes when the foolish virgins are asleep. This is not the way in which we would expect the Kingdom and Judgement. And here again we must recapture an attitude of mind which we can’t even conjure out of our depth, something which has become strangely alien to us: the joyful expectation of the Day of the Lord in spite of the fact that we know that this day will be a day of judgement. It is striking to hear in church that we are proclaiming the Gospel, the gladdening news, of judgement, but we are proclaiming that the Day of the Lord is not fear but hope and together with the Spirit the Church can say “Come Lord Jesus and come soon”. As long as we are incapable of speaking in those terms we are missing something important in our Christian consciousness. We are still, whatever we may say, pagans dressed up in evangelic garments. We are still people for whom God is a God outside, for whom His coming is darkness and fear, whose judgement is not our redemption but our condemnation, for whom meeting Him is a dread event and not the event we long and live for. Unless we realise this, then Lent cannot be a joy, because it is strenuous and confronts us with judgement and responsibility – because we must judge ourselves in order to change and to become able to meet the Day of the Lord, the glorious Resurrection, with an open heart, with an open faith, ready to rejoice that He has come. Yet every coming of the Lord is judgement.
The Fathers draw a parallel between Christ and Noah, and they say that the presence of Noah among his generation was at the same time condemnation and salvation. It was condemnation because the presence of one man who had remained faithful, of one only man who could be a saint of God, was evidence that that was possible and that those who were sinners, those who had rejected God and turned away from Him, could have done otherwise. So the presence of the righteous one was judgement and condemnation upon his time. Yet it was also the salvation of his time, because he was the only one thanks to whom God looked with mercy on man. And the same is true of the coming of the Lord.
There is another joy also in judgement. Judgement is not something that falls upon us from the outside. The day will come when we will stand before God and be judged, but as long as our pilgrimage continues, as long as we live in the process of becoming, as long as there is ahead of us this road that leads us to the full stature of Christ, which is our vocation, judgement must be pronounced by ourselves. There is a continual dialogue within ourselves throughout our life. You remember the parable in which Christ says, “Make your peace with your adversary as long as you are on the way”, and some of the spiritual writers have seen in the adversary not the devil indeed, with whom we cannot make our peace, with whom we are not to come to terms, but our conscience, which throughout life walks apace with us, which at no moment leaves us in peace. It is in continuous dialogue with us, gainsaying at every moment, and with whom we must come to terms, because otherwise a moment will come when we will reach the judge and then this adversary will be an accuser against us, and we will stand condemned.
So that, on the road, the judgement is one which goes on continuously within ourselves, a dialogue, a dialectical tension between our thoughts and our emotions and our feelings and our actions which stand in judgement before us and before whom we stand in judgement. But in this respect we very often walk in darkness, and this darkness is the result of our darkened mind, of our darkened heart, of the darkening of our eye, that should be clear. And it is only if the Lord Himself sheds his light into our soul, upon our life, that we can begin to see what is wrong and what is right in it.
There is a remarkable passage in the writings of John of Kronstadt, a Russian priest of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, in which he says that God does not reveal to us the ugliness of our souls unless He can espy in us sufficient faith and sufficient hope for us not to be broken by the vision of our own sins. In other words, whenever we see ourselves with our dark side, as this knowledge of ourselves increases, as we can understand ourselves more in the light of God, that is, in the light of the divine judgement, it means two things: it means that we sadly discover our own ugliness indeed, but we can rejoice at the same time, because God has granted us His trust. He has entrusted to us a new knowledge of ourselves as we are, as He always saw us and as at times He did not allow us to see ourselves because we could not bear the sight of truth. And here again judgement becomes joy, because although we discover what is wrong, yet the discovery is conditioned by the knowledge that God has seen enough faith, enough hope and enough fortitude in us to allow us to see, because He knows that we now can act. All that is important if we want to understand that joy and Lent can go together. Otherwise the continued, the insistent effort of the Church, of the work of God, to make us aware of what is wrong in us can lead to despair and to darkening. And then when we have come low enough we are incapable of meeting the Resurrection of Christ with joy, because then we realise, or we imagine we realise, that this has nothing to do with us. We are in darkness, He is in light. Nothing appears to us but our judgement and condemnation at the very moment when we should emerge out of darkness into the saving act of God which is both our judgement and our salvation.
The Orthodox Church prepares Lent by a series of preparatory weeks in which readings of the Gospel lead us step by step from the outer darkness, as it were, to the point of judgement.
I would like to remind you quickly of these stages. The first dramatic situation in which we are consists in the fact that we are blind and unaware of blindness. We are in the darkness and we are unaware that darkness is within and around us. Our eye is dark and darkens all that is inside us, while we remain unaware of it. The first reading of the Gospel that confronts us with this preparation for Lent is that of Bartimaeus, the blind man at the gate of Jericho, a man who either had lost his sight or was born blind, but who was left there in the darkness, in the outer darkness. There was no light for him; there was no life for him either and there was no joy for him, and he probably had come to terms with his distress. He continued to exist, as he could not live. He lived day after day thanks to the cold, indifferent charity of the passer-by, but something happened that made his misery dramatic and tragic; he lived in the time of Jesus. More than once he must have heard of this man of God who had come to the world, who was healing, renewing, people and things, a man who had opened the eyes of blind men, who had
given sight to the man born blind; and the presence of a possible salvation, of a possible yet impossible healing must have made his darkness even darker. Possible it was, if God came his way. Impossible it was, because how could he find the itinerant preacher and healer, who never was still, in the same place. How could a blind man keep pace with him? Darkness came into his awareness because there was a possibility to see. His despair became deeper than ever before, because there was hope. When Christ came near him he could ask for healing from the very depth of his despair and from the very depth of a total, passionate hope for salvation. The coming here of God had made him aware of darkness as he had not been before, of the tragedy in which he was, as he had not been before. This is the first step, which we must accept and which we find it so difficult to accept, to face our situation, not to console ourselves that we have got some sort of life within us that can replace divine life, but that we are in darkness as far as the light of God is concerned. And then we must do something about it.
First of all we must become aware of the fact that without light we are lost, because the darkness in which we are left is death, the absence of God. But when it comes to doing something, there are two things that stand in our way. First of all we do not act unless we are aware that we are in a desperate situation. If we are not aware that it is really a question for us of life and death, of the only thing that matters, we will do nothing. We will pray God to do something. We will hope that although we are not even praying, He will come and act. But it is only out of the sense of a deathly urgency that we can begin to act, like Bartimaeus, whom no-one could stop crying, shouting for help, because he knew that this was the decisive moment. Christ was passing by. In a minute He would have gone by and darkness would become permanent, irremediable.
Another thing that prevents us from doing something is that we are afraid of people. I remember a man in prison who told me how marvellous it was to be found out, because he said “As long as I had not been found out, I spent all my time, all my effort, to look as though I was all right. The moment I was caught I felt, ‘Now I can choose: I either remain what I was, a thief and a cheat, or else I can be free to become different and no-one will be surprised more than they were at the discovery that I was a thief’”. As long as you have appearances to cover up it is terribly difficult to change, and this is what the parable of Zacchaeus, which comes next after the Blind Man, brings out so clearly.
The problem of Zacchaeus was this: he wanted to see Christ. Would he take the risk of being ridiculed or not? To be ridiculous is a lot more difficult than to be disapproved of, because when we are sharply disapproved of we can hide behind our own pride. We feel that to stand up against the whole world, even if this world is so small that it is not worth even noticing. But to be laughed at, to be ridiculed, is something which is beyond the courage of many. Can you imagine a bank manager in a small town climbing a tree in the midst of a big crowd with all the boys whistling, pointing at him with their fingers, making cat-calls and the rest, for the sake of meeting Christ? Well, that was the position of Zacchaeus, the rich man. But for him again, meeting Christ was so essential, such a question of death and life, that he was prepared to discard the ridicule, the humiliation, attached to his action, because what he expected was too important – and he saw Christ. Yet there are two ways out of this dependence upon human opinion and human judgement. It is either what Zacchaeus did, the acceptance of humiliation, because it was essential for him to be saved, or a hardening of heart, the acceptance of pride that will rule out human judgement. But there is no third way. Otherwise there is the spontaneous oscillation in which we all are, knowing what is right, knowing what is wrong, and never deciding for either right or wrong, because whenever we turn to the wrong we are afraid of the judgement of God, whenever we turn to the right we are afraid of the judgement of men. Pride or humility are the only two ways in which we can come out of it.
To be continued