I will be reducing my posting this Lent. Today, I’ll very quickly contribute an excerpt from a meditation by the distinguished liturgist Fr Robert Taft, SJ, published in Worship 57.2 (1983). Fr Taft reminds us that Christ is with us, but he has also gone to the Father (“… you will see me no more” Jn 16.16): “We are in this ‘little while’ of vigil before the parousia, both in the Presence while awaiting it.” He writes, “Lent presents the polarity of wait and arrival, history and eschatology, and this is seen in the fasting and liturgy of Lent.” So we fast as a church.
But we also fast as individuals. As Fr Schmemann reminded us, Lent is a gift, for it “gives back to me this essential – the essential layer of life.” Lent is not a punishment whose agony (we might imagine) will impress God and persuade him to absolve us. But to receive this gift, we do have to let God change our priorities, and we must leave behind “so many little things and affairs that transform my whole life into empty noise, into a kind of traveling without knowing where.” The joy of Tabor, Fr Taft says, is at the top of a mountain. If we are realistic, we will know that it is often a very hard climb. Rough as it might be, though, we can always trust that we do not climb alone. Christ is going before us, and we must never concentrate on our own guilt and sinfulness rather than the hope of the Gospel.
Here is Fr Taft:
Fasting is demanded not only by the nature of the church, but also by human nature. This is the ascetic fast, fast in the church. Christ fasted in preparation for his ministry (Mt 4:2) and it is only by fasting that certain devils are mastered (Mt 17:21). It is by food that Satan seduced Adam and Eve. Hence ascetic fasting is the radical symbol of our lenten stance before God. It is the renunciation, the exorcising of Satan by accepting the paradox that one who does not eat dies, but that only he who loses his life shall find it, for it is not by bread alone that one lives. By its very radicalness, at least in symbolic intention, it leads to freedom because it is true mortification, that is, death to self by the abandonment of what is considered necessary for life. The refusal of submission to necessity is freedom, which is of the essence of all true life in Christ.
Thus there is nothing unnatural or degrading about asceticism when put in the context of tradition. There is no denial of human values here for the Christians who in faith know what they are. In the words of Origen, the Christ-life is a participation in the mystery of the church, and the mystery of the church is a nuptial mystery, a mystery of total fidelity through uniting love. But the only ultimately proof is final fidelity throughout time, and this means death to self, to egoism; and its means patience; and it means pain. This is why for centuries the church called “saint” and celebrated liturgically no one who was not a martyr. Martyrdom was proof of holiness not because of stoicism or because there is any value in pain, but because it was a sign of lasting love unto the end. As Chrysostom said, charity without martyrdom can make disciples, martyrs without charity, never.
We can’t all be martyrs, but we can and must all give witness to our enduring love. And so the church began to assimilate to the martyrs and call “saint” those who through askesis had died to self in order to live for Christ, for the total Christ which is every man and woman. In this we see the deep human value of asceticism: openness to others is the beginning of growth, and death to self is the condition of that openness. Of course it is hard to die to self when we don’t know who we are – a very special modern problem – but this should not deter us, for in opening ourselves to the Christ in others we discover who we are in the deepest sense of the word, far more deeply than by the superficial path of self-affirmation that comes from the insecurity of an undetermined self-image.
Lent, therefore, like the baptism for which it originally prepared, should bring us face to face with the mystery of death, and therefore with self, for death is the one thing we must all do alone. Just as it is an error to think of any aspect of Christian life as a static event, so too death. Death is not a door through which we shall once pass, but a passage we enter physically at birth, and mystically in Christ at baptism: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”