That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts…And that ye put on the new man. (Eph. 4:22-24)
Great Lent is often described as a journey. If we examine what is involved in making a journey we shall readily agree that the comparison is justified. It may also help us to focus on what it is we are expected to be doing during these forty days. Most people relish the thought of going on a journey, and if we are able to regard Great Lent as the wonderful opportunity that it is, we shall receive positive benefit from it, and will not waste time in "waiting it out," acting as though we are temporarily stuck in a trap of restrictions: "don't do this," "don't eat that."
are certain aspects to be considered before setting out on a journey, which may
even determine its success or failure. It is necessary to have at least some
idea of one's destination, the more specific the better; it is useful to have a
map or guide to point out the shortest or most efficient routes. In order to
reach the destination, which is the very purpose of a journey (we are not
speaking here of pleasure-trips), one must concentrate on making some sort of
progress. Above all, one must realize that a journey implies action, action
which results in the change from one location to another.
How is this similar to Great Lent? Great Lent is a journey to Pascha, to the Resurrection of Christ. But we shall not reach it if we do not attain in some measure the resurrection of our own souls. For this reason, during these forty days a task is set before us to effect a change in ourselves from one spiritual state to another. This is variously expressed in the Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers as a transformation from the carnal man to the spiritual man, the change from bondage to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life. The holy Apostle Paul describes it as taking off the old man and putting on the new. This then, defines the purpose of our journey, the means by which we shall attain our destination.
At the outset of the Israelites' journey to the Promised Land, God gave them a set of instructions; He gave them the Ten Commandments to follow. But they hardened their hearts; they murmured against God and were disobedient to His commandments. As a result they wandered the desert for forty years, and none of those who set out on the journey from Egypt reached the destination except Joshua.
Like the Israelites, we too begin our journey in Egypt, in bondage to our passions. And we are also given certain instructions. In the Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday we are presented with three guiding principles: to forgive others their sins, that our Heavenly Father might forgive us our sins; to fast, not as the hypocrites but to be seen by God alone; and to lay up our treasures in heaven. To these we might add the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, for there our Lord lays out for us the commandments of a Christian life.
We read in the Scriptures that God's commandments are "spirit and life;" they have the power to effect that change in our souls which is the purpose of our journey. Unless we follow them, however, we are in danger of spending time wandering aimlessly in the desert, and all our fasting and prostrations will be to no avail.
In his excellent book, The Arena, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes, "A person who neglects the commandments ruins himself and remains in a carnal and worldly state, in a fallen condition," but the doer of the commandments is saved, for "they restore a dead soul to life." A destination is never reached on good intentions alone. Through the Scriptures we are constantly being edified and admonished, inspired and urged to take action in order to effect the change from the old man to the new, a change indispensable for our salvation.
The Psalmist wrote: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Ps. 118:105). It is impossible to make a journey in darkness, but in following Christ's commandments we can be enlightened and find our way. We must be careful, however, not to be fooled by the illusory light of our fallen nature, the righteousness of our old man; this can only serve to lead us into greater darkness and to estrange our souls still further from Christ. The great hierarch of the Church, St. Gregory Palamas, prayed constantly, "Lord, enlighten my darkness . ,, We, too, sing with the Church in the First Week of Lent: "Illumine me, for I am darkened by the delusion of the adversary; that, walking in the light of Thy commandments I may come in purity unto the saving dawn of Thy Resurrection."
Perhaps we try to follow the commandments. The rich young ruler of the Gospel also claimed to abide by the commandments, but when told by the Lord, "Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor...and come...follow Me" (Mark 10:21), he was unable to obey. What kind of riche s are holding us back from making progress on our journey? St. Peter said to the Lord, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee" (Matt. 19:27). These apostles were not rich. What did they leave? They left behind what was natural to them: their work, their kinsmen, their "natural man"; in a word, they denied themselves. This is at the heart of the commandments. And this we must do, for "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him" (I Cor. 2:14).
Let us, therefore, concentrate each day on making some progress in our lenten journey. Leaving behind our old man--who is filled with self-opinion, arrogance and continually grieves the Holy Spirit--let us hasten to put on the new man who is clothed in patience, humility and love. If we make this effort according to our strength, at the end of these forty days, we shall, with God's mercy, behold Christ, "radiant with the inaccessible light of the Resurrection, and shall hear Him saying clearly Rejoice! as we sing the hymn of victory."
Fr. John Ocana
St. Herman of Alaska Mission Parish
Palo Alto, CA