THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
I still recall the excitement I felt as a youth growing up in Boston (and even now as an adult!) when attending a professional sports event. Wearing the home jersey, the actual trip to the arena, the multitudes of people all there for the same reason, the lights and sounds, and the actual match between two rival teams all add to the joyfulness and enthusiasm produced by such an electrifying experience. Naturally, the pinnacle of all this is the anticipated victory of the home team.
Before the Christian lies yet another thrilling experience that occurs in the privacy of one’s own heart – the ongoing spiritual struggle against evil. During the Great and Holy Fast, which we shall enter on February 23, the Church explains the reasoning behind our abstinence from quantities and certain kinds of food, one of the major activities of preparation for the Christian believer. The hymnography of the Church is highly didactic and powerful, speaking directly to the issue at hand. What does it say?
Let us set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover. (Triodion, Sunday Vespers of Forgiveness)
This “spiritual combat”, as the hymnographer calls it, is a state of constant vigilance that accompanies the Christian not only during Lent but throughout the entire ecclesiastical year and certainly throughout his entire life. However, it is during the Great Fast that the Christian becomes more fully cognizant of this spiritual struggle. Through food fasting, intensified prayer, more frequent attendance at church services, the sacrament of Confession and Holy Communion, accelerated reading and meditation of Scripture and other spiritual writings, and almsgiving, we train our bodies and souls and simultaneously compete in the arena of spiritual virtue, as all athletes do in their respective sports. The intensity by which we participate in the spiritual life is dependent upon us and our inner disposition. As we “psych up” ourselves to attend a Steelers or Penguins game and then experience the thrill that such a match brings, so it is incumbent upon us to do the same in the stadium of virtues.
As with any competition, the goal is one – victory. And so it is with our combat against evil, as St. Paul acknowledges when he observes from his prison in Rome: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (2 Timothy 4.7,8). For the Christian though, there are minor victories along the way that lead to the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God, even if these lesser triumphs end in what the world perceives as failure. What can such an enigmatic statement mean? In order to understand, we need to draw our attention to the fact that the aforementioned troparion makes reference three times to the notion of gladness and joy.
The joyfulness of the spiritual life begins with fellowship in the Holy Spirit. In the arena called life, with all its ups and downs, its losses and gains, its heartaches and triumphs, we have the freedom to choose to be with God or not be with God. This fellowship with God becomes for the Christian the cause of an inner bliss unlike any happiness known to man. This blessed joy (in Greek, μακαριότης; in Hebrew, אוֹשֶר) is the joy felt by the holy martyrs of the Church who, in their suffering and trials, gained victories for themselves on a daily basis, sharing the joy of companionship with God with others who believed in the Lord through them. This same joy of fellowship with God was shared by the faithful widow who, out of her poverty, gladly put into the Temple treasury her two mites (cf. Luke 21.1-4). The fleeting joys of worldly honor and glory can in no viable way match up to the magnanimity and permanent character of this humble and authentic gladness in God.
This joy in the Holy Spirit is rooted in a deep faith and awareness of God’s constant presence in our lives. It is the realization that the Lord is in full control of life with all its complexities and challenges, despite the harmful choices we make when we abuse the gift of free will He gave to us. Suffering was never meant to be abolished by God, certainly not in this fallen world. However, through Christ, suffering takes on a whole new meaning, a positive value, which draws man to embrace God and reverse the trend toward human independence and self-sufficiency. In other words, man, through his suffering, learns to become more dependent on the divine will and less dependent on his own will, an invaluable lesson that cannot otherwise be learned when the soul is not in agony or under duress. Even the Beatitudes, or Μακαρισμοί, spoken by Jesus to the multitudes (cf. Matthew 5. 3-12; Luke 6.20-26) affirm an inner joyfulness and peacefulness in God precisely when man is persecuted or ill-treated, because it is then that man assimilates the way of Christ to His own life, sharing in the joy of the Resurrection, the same joy and peace harbored inwardly by the Lord Jesus even at Golgotha.
So in our various ascetical exercises during Holy Lent, our goal is to attain Great and Holy Week – to walk with our Lord toward His passion, His crucifixion, and His three-day resurrection, and to share in the life-altering blessings that participation in this exhilarating and meaningful journey offers. Arrival at God’s Kingdom, our final destination, is the ultimate victory for the man and woman of faith, but this triumph is enhanced and made possible when we share the fellowship of the Holy Spirit throughout our lives, winning victories over the Evil One by rejoicing daily in God’s merciful love and goodness. The playoffs in sports are always exciting, but to enter the playoffs, one must compete during the season, which typically is an indication of how the end will turn out. And the joy of God that is kept within the human heart makes life beautiful and meaningful because we are never alone and because we keep company with the Lord. By sharing this fellowship with us, God redefines our lives, not according to the standards of the fallen world, but in terms of the divine touchstone.
Lest we believe that the solemnity which characterizes Holy Lent is a somber time for the Christian in which he engages in an unhealthy self-deprecation and punishment that leads nowhere, the Church reminds us of the inherent joy of the Fast. In prayerful self-examination and contemplation, our minds are drawn like that of the Prodigal Son to a nostalgia of being once again with our heavenly Father. We are confronted, usually painfully, with the repugnant filth and senselessness of our sins, to which we have surrendered our lives and to which we have given entitlement to rule our present and our future. During Lent, the Lord’s grace – welling up inside of us and coupled with our own physical weakness resulting from the fast, not to mention the desperation that we may feel – reveals to us the divine image ingrained upon our hearts, making us more mindful of our true identity. Man’s vocation is not to be a slave of sin, but a master of his own life, because his identity derives from God and not from anyone else or from himself! In fellowship with the Lord, man comes to realize the bliss of never being alone again and of being accepted by God despite his faults and shortcomings. The joy is that man begins to live life fully once again and begins making progress toward the Kingdom.
As we traverse the course of the Great and Holy Fast, journeying toward Golgotha and the glorious Empty Tomb, let us seek out each day, prayerfully and diligently, those subtle moments in life in which God manifests his genuine love and exposes to us our true identity. May God’s joy in our lives be our peace, our glory, and our triumph over the imperfections of the world … and may it be our Enemy’s worst defeat. Amen. (+)
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