The early Christians observed with a great degree of devotion the days of Christ’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. I often like to imagine what it would be like to have been an early Christian, particularly amongst the throngs of people who saw Jesus preaching and performing miracles and then, suddenly, to have him disappear. I imagine in many ways this would create a great degree of dissonance; first, to have the person who did all these great things suddenly, and shamefully, be taken away by guards and unceremoniously crucified; secondly, to find myself filled with a sudden fear that the religious elite might soon come after me; and thirdly, waiting in hope and with fear for my life that the world will suddenly turn upside down and everything be washed in a burning fire of God’s judgement – at any angle, I’d likely be thinking, “Will I be next?”
I make no pretense, the early Christian movement was an apocalyptic one. Somewhat removed from modern expressions such as what we’ve seen in Waco, Texas or any number of the movements that came about during the Second Great awakening; the apocalyptism of Christianity is that same kind that brought about the book of Revelation. Lent, in some ways, can be seen in such a manner – a period of great fear and trembling as we await the revelation of the resurrection; yet, why that fear? Why all this talk of sin and repentance? Have we personally done something so wrong that we might as well be struck by lightning and be incinerated so something so little as taking a pen home from the office either accidentally or on purpose? Not so much.
In the first reading today we are assured:
“[You] are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you– for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment– the statutes, and the ordinances– that I am commanding you today.”
– Deuteronomy 7:6-11
Earlier on in that particular chapter, after being delivered from Egypt and into the Holy Land, the Jewish peoples are given some advice from Moses on the very real threats that might assail them if they start interacting too much with their neighbors. Far from being any kind of encouragement for xenophobia, what God is doing here is setting Eir people apart and making them recognize their own uniqueness in a vast sea of different tribes and peoples and cultures. French sociologist Émile Durkheim in writing about the dichotomy between the sacred and profane, that humans don’t simply exist; they belong. From the beginning of life, they are bound to communities: to a family or clan, a town, a church, or a political party. These social templates and ties are important to the individual as well as to the collective. He furthermore observes that the center of pre-modern religions is the worship of the totem and centers around a single sacred figure which governs all aspects of clan life. In the above reading, apart from Moses leading them, the only thing that the Jews had to go on as their totem was God’s Word – and that was all they could trust.
In the second reading, we have Paul speaking to an individual known to us as Titus who would become an early Christian leader and one of Paul’s companions. He is believed to be a gentile whom Paul converted to Christianity and, according to pious tradition, was consecrated as Bishop on the Island of Crete. Titus himself was a Greek, supposedly from Antioch, who function as Paul’s secretary and would later be sent to organize the collection of alms for the Christians in Jerusalem. He would be remembered as a peacemaker, administrator, missionary, and one of the first of the gentile converts.
Giving advice to Titus, Paul writes about God’s providence and what is required of Christian leadership:
“Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that is in accordance with godliness, in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies, promised before the ages began– in due time he revealed his word through the proclamation with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior, To Titus, my loyal child in the faith we share: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you: someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious. For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled. He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able both to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it. There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth. To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”
– Titus 1:1-16
From a superficial glance, these words of advice echo throughout all scripture as models of good behavior and largely fulfil what we would call today virtue ethic. Yet, couched into this message, Paul brings up the famous Empimenides Paradox – to a Cretan, no less! Now, why is this significant? On one level, Paul was definitely a well-educated man with more than a passing knowledge of Hellenic thought and from the first glance it can seem to be a mere rhetorical device used to encourage Titus in keeping track on how well-behaved the communities in his charge should be. Yet, for us, I think it could refer more to that process of metanoia spoken of before where we must be constantly on our guard to be sure that we don’t, vulgarly speaking, bullshit ourselves into thinking that we’re more pure or holy than those around us.
It’s very easy, particularly in times of reflection and withdrawal, to start thinking that we’ve made it and rest on our laurels. According to Epimenides paradox, we have the assumption that liars only make false statements and so the statement attributed to Epimenides is by virtue false and cannot be accepted. This, I think, is a useful as a mode of self-analysis when thinking of our own faults. The moment we think, “I’ve got this handled” we should look deeper and see if that is really the case. Similarly, if we assume that the statement in the paradox is true, we still must conclude that the statement then is false and cannot be accepted.
In my personal life, I’m rather much a fan of the Socratic method of questioning as a way of starting to analyze whether or not something important I’m about to engage in is useful to me or could help me in my own development. First, I must clarify my thinking. I often do this by placing myself before an icon of the Christ and engaging in a dialogue, with him asking, “Why do you say that’ or ‘Let’s explore this a little more’. As I continue, I see him challenging me, like he did his apostles saying, ‘Is that the case always?’, or, ‘Is there a particular reason why you think this is true?’ and so forth. If I find myself in error or doubt, further meditation either personally or with the aid of scripture is often my default, as well as talking to fellow pilgrims on the path. This is definitely an engaging process, but ultimately a very fruitful and contemplative way of engaging my religiosity.
The Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes a lot about the process of engaged spirituality and the effects is has on consciousness teaching that the ‘psyche’ – far from the Freudian or modern psychoanalytic perspective – denotes the spiritual element of one’s existence. In our daily lives we are assailed by a bombardment of thoughts, images, words, noises, and preconceptions which in the Hesychast tradition of Orthodox monasticism are referred to as logismoi, or ‘thoughts’, though probably best defined as ‘intrusive thoughts’. Most people are unaware that these thoughts are nothing but images of material and worldly things – these are the images that, while we’re in the desert we must remove. The above example of Socratic questioning and meditation is a great example of how to start analyzing these thoughts and memories which, especially if we apply them to past experience, will suddenly reveal to us the need for repentance. But, it begs the question,’Repentance from what?’
Repentance, from the Greek μετάνοια, metanoia, “changing one’s mind”, found its way into modern psychology with the American thinker William James. He used it to refer to a fundamental and stable change in an individual’s life-orientation. Famous psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung developed the usage to indicate a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself from conflict, ultimately resulting in a melt-down and subsequent vision of what actually needs to be done. In many cases, this mirrors the actual spiritual process as handed down to us through scripture and the writings of holy women and men throughout the history of Christianity as well as in gnosticism.
In Gnostic teaching, Christ took a human form (Jesus), to teach humanity how to achieve Gnosis. The ultimate end of all Gnosis is μετάνοια metanoia, or repentance—undoing the sin of material existence and returning to Pleroma.In the Johannite Eucharist we find a reference to this in the Penitential Rite of the Johannite Eucharist, “We stand here immortal, the image of your own Eternity; yet often we find ourselves clothed in the garment of separation, forgetful of the Glory of our Heritage, the Light dim from the closing of our hearts.” Repentance, then, is not so much a move away from something, rather it is a reorientation, as is later revealed in the Johannite Eucharistic prayer, “When we engage the Divine Beloved in the person of our fellow human beings, we see the Kingdom of Heaven manifest where it has always been – spread over the whole of the Earth. When we engage the Divine Beloved in the person of ourselves, we see the Kingdom of Heaven manifest where it has always been, within us.” Instead of a turning away, repentance is actually a turning toward God’s love – far from an act of deprecation, it becomes a powerful act whereby we can realize ourselves for who we are in Christ – and that revelation can be scary for some, put is the first stage of the purification which we are undergoing.
As at the start of Epiphany, we once again see Jesus coming toward the Jordan River, within sight the radical and tempestuous John the Baptist stands amidst a crowd of his disciples with the Beloved Disciple looking on and declares:
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
– John 1:29-34
Amongst the early Christians then as now, Lent is often a period in which those who are about to receive the sacrament of baptism prepare for the mystery which they are about to receive. This period of silence, away from the fanfare of the rest of the liturgical year, might be a little confusing particularly if those who are about to be initiated came to the community during other times of the year such as Christmastide when everything is joyous, well-lit and decorated to the nines. One of the earliest documents of the early Christian community, the Didache, advises:
“Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way: After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water… Before the baptism, both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.”
– Didache 7.1, 7.4
‘After first explaining all things’ would refer to the time during this season that the one to be baptized would be taught personally, either by a priest or Bishop, about Christian morality and what would be expected of them as they would become part of the community of the faithful. In many ways, John could be seen as the prototype of the one who would prepare the way for initiation. Prior to Christ’s baptism, John had already amassed a large following with his call to repentance which seemingly contrasted the experience of Temple worship.
Important to the Gospel reading is the idea of sacrifice. In the Temple period in which Jesus lived, at any time a number of sacrifices would be made in the courts of the Temple ranging from doves, to sheep, to even throngs of cattle. Yet, here comes the Lamb of God who would ultimately become sacrificed by the very institutions of the land both secular and religious. For us, during this time, it may be worthy to think of sacrifice. What parts of our lives are we willing to sacrifice in order to more fully experience the Sacred Flame? While many give up chocolates or television or social media as a sacrifice during this period; what are the internal things that we are willing to give up?
There are a variety of ‘thoughts’ or ‘logoismoi’ that we encounter on a daily basis that may obfuscate our relationship with Godhead and one another. Perhaps we hold grudges and dwell on the Schadenfreude of those we personally dislike – they had it coming after all, right? How about the homeless person on the street, shouldn’t they just get a job? How about dwelling on that debt you’re still owed from middle school? All of these are examples of logoismoi or thoughts that can distract us from living a truly Christlike life. As the Didache suggests, here are some commandments that can easily be put into creative practice that can help you sacrifice the thoughts which come from your false sense of self:
Give to every one who asks you, and don’t ask for it back.
Do not speak evil of others; do not bear grudges.
[Speech] should not be false nor empty, but fulfilled by action.
Do not have designs against your neighbor.
Hate no one; correct some, pray for others, and some you should love more than your own life.
Some of these might be easier than others, but still try them out. If you give something, don’t ask for it back, instead view it as a form of alms-giving even if it’s to a friend. When the urge arises to gossip, perhaps step back and try to imagine what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes when they find out what things were being spoken about them. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, or otherwise in daily speech try to talk about meaningful things – forget the small talk. Hating no one can be hard or easy – that person who cut you off in traffic a while back isn’t as bad as you think they are, and chances are you’ve done the same in the past. Also, don’t forget the fundamental – love. Love your neighbor as yourself, love God, and most importantly remember to love one another as Christ has loved us, by such a way we slowly but surely may be known as disciples.