Coming Home to God:
The Meaning of the Lenten and Paschal Season
From beginning to end the lenten and paschal services of this special season in the Church’s life call us to return to God our Father. The theme of the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) runs through the entire season. The simple fact is that we have ruined our lives and our world. We have polluted the air, the water and the earth beneath our feet. The birds and the fish, the plants and the animals, grieve because of human evil. We have abandoned communion with God and have gone off on our own, following our own ideas, enacting our own plans. And the result? Through our reckless wasting of the gifts given us by God, we have stripped ourselves of our original and fundamental dignity, glory, wisdom, beauty and strength: we have lost our legacy as God’s children. And the whole cosmos suffers with us in our affliction.
People feel unhappy and they don’t know why. They feel that something is wrong, but they can’t put their finger on what. They feel uneasy, confused, frustrated, alienated and estranged – and they can’t explain it. They have everything and yet they want more; and when they get it, they are still empty and dissatisfied. They want fulfillment and it never seems to come. Everything is fine and yet everything is wrong. Here in America, this is almost a national disease. It is covered over by frantic activity and endless running around; it is buried in activities and events; it is drowned out by television programs and football games. But when the movement stops and the dial is turned off and everything is quiet…..then the dread sets in, the meaninglessness of it all, the boredom and the fear. Why is this so? Because, as the Church tells us, we are really not at home. We are in exile. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God our Father in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick and some of us are already dead.
“Our hearts are made for God,” St. Augustine said more than 1500 years ago, “and we will be forever restless until we rest in him.” Our lives are made for God and we will be unsatisfied, unfulfilled and frustrated until we find our home with Him. Nothing in this fallen world can, of itself, bring us the peace that we seek. God alone can do that because He alone is our home. And we are His. The lenten and paschal season is given to us by the Church as the time for the our conscious return to our true home in God, the God who has – in His amazing love for us – forgiven us and embraced us in the crucifixion of Christ Jesus our Lord and granted us the possibility of eternal life in His rising from the dead.
– adapted from Father Thomas Hopko’s book, The Lenten Spring
THE VICTORY OF SUFFERING LOVE
The incarnation, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem celebrated at Christmas, is already an act of salvation. The Word of God, in taking human flesh and taking up our broken humanity into Himself, restores us. Christ saves us by experiencing from within, as one of us, all that we suffer both outwardly and inwardly through living in a sinful world. But in a fallen and sinful world, His love had to reach out yet further. Because of the tragic presence of sin and evil, the work of our restoration by Christ was to prove infinitely more costly. A sacrificial act of healing was required, a sacrifice such as only a suffering and crucified God could offer.
The incarnation is an act of identification and sharing: God saves us by identifying Himself with us, by knowing our human experience from the inside. The Cross signifies, in the most stark and uncompromising manner, that this act of sharing is carried to its utmost limits. Jesus Christ, our companion, shares not only in the fullness of human life but also in the fullness of human death. “Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4) – all our grief, all our sorrows. Such is the message of the Cross to each one of us. However far I have to travel through the valley of the shadow of death, I am never alone. I have a companion. And this companion is not only a man as I am, but also true God from true God. At the moment of Christ’s deepest humiliation on the Cross, looking upon Christ crucified, I see not only a suffering man, but suffering God.
Christ’s death upon the Cross is not a failure which was somehow put right afterwards by His resurrection. In itself, the death upon the Cross is a victory. The victory of what? There can be only one answer: the victory of suffering love. “Love is as strong as death….many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs 8:6-7). The Cross shows us a love that is as strong as death, a love that is even stronger. And so Christ’s death upon the Cross is truly, as the Liturgy of St. Basil describes it, a “life-creating death.”
The crucifixion is itself a victory! But on great and holy Friday, the victory is hidden, whereas on Easter morning it is made manifest. Christ rises from the dead and by His rising delivers us from anxiety and terror: the victory of the Cross is confirmed, love is shown openly to be stronger than hatred and evil and life to be stronger than death. God Himself has died and risen from the dead and so there is no more death: even death has been filled with God. Because Christ is risen, we need no longer be afraid of any dark or evil force in the universe. As we proclaim each year at the Paschal Resurrection service in the words St. John Chrysostom: “Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free! Christ is risen and the angels rejoice!”
– Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, excerpted from his book, The Orthodox Way