A Journey From the Outside In

Jason Peters offered up his standard fare of snarky, arrogantly self-satisfied Eastern Orthodox reflections over at Front Porch Republic on Ash Wednesday. (It’s an amusing read if you can get past his superiority, which he tries to pass off as humor.) In the midst of all that self-congratulatory superiority, he managed to say something quite profound.

His topic is Clean Monday – the first day of Lent on the Orthodox calendar. It is a day when one is encouraged to participate in an absolute fast (drinking water is acceptable). This year Easter on the Byzantine and Western calendar coincide, so the start of Lent also coincides within a couple of days. And with the beginning of Lent, the old question of why we fast and the old accusation of works salvation once again arise.

Of course, Lent is not about salvation, it is about repentance. Salvation is a gracious gift from God whereas our repentance is an act of gratitude in return. Peters is rather slow and meandering when getting to his point, so allow me to quote at length:

That first Monday in Lent can be unpleasant … But, oddly enough, by Tuesday the body already somehow enjoys its abstinence and even suffers it more easily. The mind, as usual, sharpens, the intention of the sol asserts itself more forcefully. You undergo a deliverance of sorts. … “Clean” is the right word so far as the body is concerned. Of course it must extend to the soul as well, but for the moment I am concerned only with the body, for it is the first to feel the bracing Lenten slap.

And that’s the proper order and direction of things – outside in; through the flesh, through the material world, to what’s inside it: the athletic penetration of the finite.

The fathers often compare Lent to an athletic event, or more specifically to the training that an athlete goes through in preparation for the event. As Peters’ goes on to observe, it is also a journey. The genius of Lent

is that it goes somewhere. It is a journey that, like any journey, starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. And, as always – as we learn from the Pentateuch and St. Augustine and Chaucer and Graham Greene – the purpose of the journey is transformation, of being worthy of the feast that awaits us. [Note that Peters does not say we are becoming worthy of salvation, but worthy of the feast. A proper time of feasting is predicated by a proper time of preparation: a fast.]

And I know, mostly from failure, that that doesn’t happen without intention. It doesn’t happen without our availing ourselves of the best-kept weight-loss program in the world. (You want to stay trim? Keep liturgical time vigilantly.)

This, as Prof. Peters says, is the journey from the outside in. It begins with forcing the body into a sort of submission that it does not like. And this external or physical act of submission can, for those who are vigilant, lead to a submission of the heart and a discovery of our true longing – our longing for God – of which our other lusts and desires are derivative.

So, have a blessed Lent … this forty days of bright sorrow by which we train to be ready to go with our Lord to the Garden of Gethsemane, to the hall of judgment, to Golgotha, and the tomb, and into the eternal glory of our life in Christ … have a blessed season of preparation, a blessed “putting to death” the deeds of the body, by which we will live, as St. Paul says in Romans 8:13.

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