Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:
Christ is in our midst!
Since we are in the season of the Elevation of the Cross and we hear the words of Christ, "deny yourselves", we need to consider what the "self" is that we need to deny. Although it goes against the grain of our usual way of thinking, we must come to acknowledge that the "self" is not solid and unchanging. The self is in process like all created things. It is not immortal. Only God is. In fact, the "self" is changing moment by moment. Now I feel good, the next moment i feel bad. Today I have faith, tomorrow I am filled with doubt. At this hour I feel love for others, the next I feel selfish and miserly. The "self" can be easily caught in the traps of praise and criticism and be moved to drastically different states in the blink of an eye. And yet we spend our lives enslaved to this thing we call "self" in the implicit belief that is somehow unchanging and permanent.
It is this we must deny. This thing cobbled together from our hopes, fears, and desires cannot be the basis of the spiritual life. Christ shows us what it means to be an authentic human being, to be free even in the face of suffering, to rest in the only One that is solid and unchanging and that is God.
So, we must look deeper than the "self" to the image of God within. That is the solid ground of our being. It is the image bathed in baptismal waters and anointed with holy chrism that identifies and defines us. Asceticism is the clearing away of illusion and the removal of hindrances that keep us enslaved to the passionate and false "self" that rules us. The light already is shining, but our vision is clouded.
We also must remember that even the image of God in us is in process because it too is created. Human beings were created to be in process for although we were made in His image we are called to forever cultivate our "likeness" to God. Salvation is an eternal process to which we can contribute positively with every breath we take. That is the essence of the Orthodox Christian life.
"Deny yourselves" is a call to wake up and attend to the kingdom of heaven within.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Antony Hughes