This week, as the Paschal season begins to wind down, I want to reflect a bit on the journey we have all been on for the last three months or so through Lent, Pascha, and the Afterfeast of Pascha.
My own Lenten journey was particularly fruitful this year. I had a better time with fasting than I have had in many years. I worked to actively engage God through my personal prayer life and through the many services the church provides to refresh our hearts and strengthen our spirits. I truly felt the magnificent brightness of our Lord’s resurrection on Pascha. Yet somehow, as we approach the apodosis of Pascha, I felt like I missed something and, upon reflection, I realized I missed one of the major points of the entire cycle.
The “ah-ha” moment was when I realized how interconnected the Lenten period and the Paschal afterfeast really are. There is an idea that the brightness of our Paschal celebration must match the depths of our Lenten labors and it’s true. The Resurrection, the central point of Christianity, should shine through us throughout the year, but especially after we have gone through the ‘bright sadness” of Lent. This idea of the Paschal brightness, though, blinded me to the fact that it is in the Paschal season, not during Lent, that the Church shows us the greatest challenge of Christian life over and over again.
Now, I am not going to say at this point that Lent is easy, because it isn’t. The Church also uses Lent to provide an ongoing catechesis for the faithful. Over and over we deny ourselves; less sleep, less food, more services, longer services, physical labor (I think my legs might still be sore from the Canon of St. Andrew), and in doing these things we learn what it means to deny ourselves and follow Christ. We celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the restoration of icons, giving us visual representations that show the ongoing connection of Christ’s church and affirm the iconographic nature of us all, being made in the image and likeness of God. We celebrate St. Gregory Palamas, who helped define the concept of theosis, the goal of Christian life. We celebrate the Precious and Life-Giving Cross, a reminder that “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:38) This cross, the hinge of Lent, demonstrates the crux of Orthodox Christian life, right faith leading us into right worship. We celebrate St. John Climacus, whose work “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” shows us why we must choose to continually take up that Cross and follow Christ. We celebrate St. Mary of Egypt, one who gave in to all of her passions and actively worked to corrupt others and then gave herself up to God’s grace and actively worked to root out all of those passions. We then participate in the timeless nature of the Church as we do not merely remember the events of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, but live them up to the Pascha where we then bathe ourselves in the light of the Eternal Resurrection. This seven week period provides a kind of intensive course in what it means to be an Orthodox Christian and how one lives a normative Christian life.
The Paschaltide then continues this timeless aspect as we read through the Acts of the Apostles and we celebrate the miracles of the risen Christ. We celebrate Bright Week where we re-serve the Paschal feast over and over as a foretaste of Paradise, we join Thomas in his beautiful disbelief crying out the glory of the risen Christ, we shout with the Myrrh-bearers the joy of the of the empty tomb, we embrace the healing of the Paralytic as we ourselves embrace the healing of human nature, we drink deeply of living water as the Samaritan woman, and we walk renewed like the Blind Man as we see the light hidden by humanity’s fall. Hidden in all this brightness, though, is the greatest challenge of all. Will we, as we are released from the communal rigors of Lent, follow the example of Thomas, the Myrrh-bearers, the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, and the Blind Man, and choose Christ?
That is why I think that perhaps I had it wrong all along. Lent is difficult, but the expectations are pretty clear. The intensity of these draws us together as a community and that makes it easier to work through the rigors of Lent. We draw strength from each other as we struggle to mediate our salvation. When all of that is suddenly gone, though, it becomes much more difficult to maintain that focus. All of the sudden the expectations are not as clear, everyone is doing something different, and the lines of the struggle are not written so clearly on all of our faces. This is the time of year, when our feasting and freedom insulate us, that the church calls us over and over to live the lessons of Lent. Choose Christ. Choose Christ. Choose Christ.
P.S. It strikes me that Paschal Apocalypse would be an excellent name for a Christian Heavy Metal band, so if anyone chooses to make use of it…you’re welcome.