“O Son of God,
do a miracle for me
and change my heart.
Thy having taken flesh
to redeem me
was more difficult
than to transform
(Irish, 15th Century)
Some people are intrinsically kind and nice, but I’m not one of them. When I was three or four, a relative told me I was just like Oscar the Grouch, the grumpy Muppet on Sesame Street that lives in a trash can. When I was ten, my Protestant youth leaders cast me as the xenophobic Innkeeper’s Wife in their modern Christmas pageant retelling; my character didn’t want to help those strangers, none other than Mary the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed. I’ve often wondered if my youth group leaders had seen something in my character to prompt this casting decision.
In the getting-to-know-you games during freshman orientation at college, we were asked to introduce ourselves with a descriptive adjective beginning with the same letter as our name. “I’m Cynthia and I’m cantankerous,” I’d offered. In another activity, we were supposed to tell the group something about ourselves in one sentence. “I hate these stupid games.” That’s how I bonded with my new friends, although I hadn’t anticipated that quip would follow me for the next twenty years.
I was aware that these responses were less than ideal. For a long time before I became Orthodox I used to pray, “Lord, change my heart of stone into a heart of flesh.” I had based my prayer on a verse from the Prophet Ezekiel: “I shall give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I shall take the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh . . .” (Ch. 36: 26). For years, my own campaign toward self-improvement yielded few results. I wasn’t able to make myself a better person.
Fr. Stephen Freeman has said that the Christian life is not a moral project. He often says, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good, but in order to make dead men live.” St. Paul himself, writing to the Romans, declared that baptism makes us “dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:11).
That’s why I take such joy in the Paschal troparion—“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”—because I know it applies to the hollow shell of my own life. I know that some days I live like Oscar the Muppet in a metaphorical garbage can. A pre-communion prayer by St. John Chrysostom could have been written for me: “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that thou should enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and thou hast not a fitting place in me to lay thy head . . .” Some days my life is more ruinous than others. When I receive Holy Communion, I pray that the Holy Mysteries may be “unto the healing of soul and body.”
The Irish devotional poem quoted above reminds me that the purpose of the Incarnation is the victory of the resurrection, and that victory can be realized in my own life. Becoming Orthodox hasn’t suddenly made me kind and patient. My automatic responses still tend toward cranky and irritable, but as I attend services, participate in the Sacraments, and continue to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, Lord willing, I have become somewhat less so. Every Sunday is a reminder of Pascha just as we continue to celebrate Pascha for forty days: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Freeman, Fr. Stephen. “The Death of the Moral Man.” Glory To God. Podcast Transcript. Ancient Faith Radio. 22 October 2012. Web. http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/freeman/the_death_of_the_moral_man/print
The Northumbria Community. Celtic Daily Prayer. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco- Harper Collins, 2002. Print. p. 247.
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