Is Lent Still Relevant in the Age of Technology?
Part of St. Mary's Lenten Lecture Series 2003
Delivered at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Sunday, March 28, 2003
Much emphasis has been placed on the progress of human civilization, especially in the last 400 years, in what is commonly called the “Age of Invention.” Many closely-held beliefs and practices have been discarded as outdated. People of the current age consider themselves the smartest and most advanced humans who have ever lived. Trumpeting their accomplishments, they are challenging everything, especially their beliefs about God. Movements have surfaced to change church practice in light of this “new” information. Perhaps Lent is no longer of any use? This meditation will explore what Scripture and the Church Fathers might be saying in response to them. Could the divinely-inspired authors and the Fathers have anticipated our current situation? Is Lent really still useful?
For a few minutes, let’s consider how much humans have accomplished in our times. The world has shrunk with the advent of air travel: most populated areas of the world can be reached in just a few hours by air. Almost everyone in America owns a personal automobile. A network of roads – federal, state and local -- millions of miles long spreads out from one end of the country to the other. Communications are free-flowing and instantaneous. We carry around tiny radio transceivers – cell phones – that can connect us instantly to other phones anywhere in the world. Email and the Internet have changed the way we work and live. Medical advances are stunning. Infections that used to kill are now treated with a few doses of medication. Life-saving surgeries are routine. Pharmacies stock drugs, even over the counter drugs, which only a few years ago would have been considered miracle cures for deadly diseases. Many diseases that claimed millions of victims – like Smallpox – have been eradicated. Education is now a right. Higher education is routine. The western democracies have generated wealth on a scale never before heard of. There are stable governments that provide a high level of freedom and protection to their citizens. We have the “American Dream,” the dream to own a home, a dream that many will realize. Our government provides us with drinkable water, delivered right to where we live, that is available 24 hours a day. We have an abundance of food and energy and extensive systems for distributing them. By any worldly account, we are wealthy.
With all of these accomplishments has come a pronounced arrogance. Defined in our own terms, we have come to believe that we are in a constant state of improvement, of “evolution”, leading to a time when we will possess all knowledge and be able to solve any problem that we are presented with. My purpose in pointing out these things is to argue that we have developed a sense of self-reliance that permeates everything we do.
It is easy to feel safe, secure and protected. It is easy to feel almost untouchable. But don’t believe it! As Jesus said: “RSV Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” That is a promise you can bank on!
We sometimes carry our self-reliance into the Church. I offer as an example, some of my own experiences I had in my last parish before coming to the Antiochian Archdiocese. I am not criticizing my brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather pointing out that I too was seduced into being self-reliant.
In America, we have developed keen sense of marketing. We view people as consumers to whom we sell ideas, activities and products. “If only we can market our selves properly,” the argument goes, “we will be successful in whatever we try to do.” This is the height of self-reliance: we control our own destinies through our own actions.
In my prior parish, we figured that we could market the Gospel just like we do everything else. Instead of allowing God to draw people to us, we wanted to expose more people to the Gospel and “let God do the rest.” As we looked around our parish, we saw what we thought were problems with the number and demographics of people attending Church functions. I say we because I’m not sure that God had any problem with the way things were.
Like any good marketers, we needed market research and we created a survey. When we asked people why they didn’t participate, we were able to group their answers into two categories. The most frequent and first listed ones were the “busy life” answers. Work and children’s activities such as sports topped the list of objections. The second set of answers given was the “relevance” ones. They said that the Church had failed to make itself “relevant” – it has not explained why it is important. They were unconvinced that there is anything important going on in the Church. It was as if the Church was last, being given only what resources were left after time and energy are allocated to everything else.
We responded to these objections using the tools of our age. We tried to accommodate people by scheduling activities during those times when nothing else is going on. We designed the activities to be fun and attractive to the largest number of people possible. Sometimes, we created a division between “social” activities and “religious” ones. Events were structured to have a “balance” of both. We didn’t mind if they came “only” for the social activities.
We thought that once we had people inside the building, we could then share the Gospel with them. If we could only find a way to explain the faith to them in terms they could understand, they would participate.
Guess what? Though we were well intentioned, we failed, and miserably at that! It turns out that the Church belongs to God, and he builds it as he sees fit. He doesn’t seem all that concerned about numbers of people. As the Psalmist says, “RSV Psalm 127:1 Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.”
Two Kinds of Wisdom
There are two kinds of wisdom: human and divine. Up to this point, we have been discussing the wisdom of this Technological Age which is of the human kind. Human wisdom is based on what we call the “common sense” – that way of thinking that reasonable people share automatically. Even though we were not trying to empty Christ of his power, human wisdom is what led us to attempt use modern techniques of event marketing to bring people to Church.
There is a problem with human wisdom: it is flawed. St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians: “RSV 1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; 27 but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption;”
This turns the world upside-down – or right-side-up – depending on your point of view. The wise man, the scholar, the debater: God has made their wisdom foolish.
Where does that leave us? Though we are unable of our own accord to comprehend the things of God, God can reveal his wisdom to us. He has made the wise things of the world foolish, so we can turn only to him for help. He does this by giving us the gift of Himself – his Holy Sprit –whom Jesus says is our councilor and our teacher, who will “teach us all things” (St. John 14:26)
St. Paul continues his first letter to the Corinthians:
“RSV 1 Corinthians 2:1 When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him," 10 God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. 14 The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.”
In this age, the literal interpretation of this passage as “God teaching us” has been reduced to metaphor. People are reluctant to believe it. Some years ago, I was having a friendly discussion with one of my fellow parishioners about the “realities” of life. She remarked that she felt that somehow what went on in the sanctuary during the liturgy wasn’t reality, but rather that the outside world was real. Just the opposite is true: what happens in the liturgy is reality; it is the outside world that is false! We say: “Blessed art thou, O Lord, teach me thy statues.”
Reliance on God
The acquisition of spiritual knowledge is unlike anything else that we do. Since we are unable to enlighten ourselves, we must fully rely on God. What we know of God is revealed to us by him. “Blessed art thou, O Lord, teach me thy statues.” We could have tried all day long to talk people into being Christians, but it would have been to no avail. The more we would try to explain the mysteries to them, the further away we would drive them. Why is this?
St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived between 580 and 662, says it is essential to understand that it is God who teaches us. St. Maximos is a great father of the Church, and speaking to monks who dedicated their lives to coming close to God, full-time. Friends, even though he lived 13 centuries ago, we are not smarter and more advanced than St. Maximos. He said, “Who enlightened you with faith in the holy, coessential and adorable Trinity? Or who made known to you the incarnate dispensation of one of the Holy Trinity? Who taught you about the inner essences of incorporeal beings, or about the origin and consummation of the visible world, or about the resurrection from the dead and eternal life, or about the glory of the kingdom of heaven and the dreadful judgment? Was it not the grace of Christ dwelling in you, which is the pledge of the Holy Spirit? What is greater than this grace? What is more noble than this wisdom and knowledge? What is more lofty than these promises?” (Fourth Century on Love, #77, Philokalia vol. II, p. 110)
The mechanism by which we know, the way we are certain of what we know, is by faith. St. Paul says: “RSV Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This theme is all through Scripture, Liturgy and the Church Fathers. St. Maximos concurs: “To the devout believer God gives something more sure than any proof: the recognition and the faith that He substantively is. Faith is true knowledge, the principals of which are beyond rational demonstration; for faith makes real for us things beyond intellect and reason.” (First Century on Theology, #9, Philokalia vol. II, p. 116). Faith, too, is a gift of God. We cannot procure it on our own. God must move first.
Wisdom of the human kind leads to self-reliance. Especially now, we are confident in our abilities to manipulate our environment and control our lives. The further our technology advances, the bigger our self-reliance gets. Self-reliance is always dangerous.
Rather than being at unique point in history, we are really repeating what has already happened. We are not the first society to become so wealthy and so self-reliant that we have forgotten God. St. John the Evangelist records the words of Christ, to be given to the Church at Laoidica, in the book of Revelation: Jesus Christ says: “RSV Revelation 3:17 "For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing;’ not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that “you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”
Laodicea was famous for manufacturing a healing salve and sales of it were, no doubt, very successful. The Laodicians had become wealthy and self-reliant and with that self-reliance also apathy. And like us, they did not believe that they were in need of anything. Christ said to them: “…you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” He counseled them to “buy from me gold refined by fire, that you may be rich, and white garments to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see.” What he is really saying is, “all that stuff you created, and accumulated and you thought was important: it isn’t. And don’t rely on your own ‘salve’ to heal you. Get from me what you truly need.”
Lent Can Help
Now Lent is more important than it ever was. The purpose of Lent is to create in us a silence so that we can hear the still small voice of God. In one of the hymns at the beginning of Great Lent, the Great Fast is likened to a great sea that we journey on, arriving at Pascha. But Lent is also like a great desert or wilderness that we enter so we can be purified and then taught by God. When we start our journey, we are laden with sin. We are lazy and our bellies are full; we are satiated – full to excess. We are selfish, thinking of ourselves, not of others.
The Church proscribes repentance and confession to remove our sin. Fasting from certain foods and activities is proscribed so we can use our resources to give alms to the poor and so we can pray. We increase the length and frequency of our liturgical prayer. These things remove the noise from our lives so we can hear the still, small voice of God speaking to us.
It is like the experience of the Prophet Elijah who traveled 40 days and 40 nights into the desert to be with God: “RSV 1 Kings 19:11 And he [the Lord] said, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD." And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"” When we reach the end of our Lenten journey, God will also say to us “What are you doing here?” We are here to be instructed by him.
God is the still small voice speaking to us in our hearts, for according to St. Maximos, God has hidden his entire Kingdom there. He says “If, as St. Paul says, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, and all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in Him, then all the treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge are hidden in our hearts. They are revealed to the heart in proportion to our purification by means of the commandments.” (Fourth Century on Love, #70, Philokalia vol. II, p. 109)
Everything we need to know is already within us. But what stops us? St. Maximos says “But if we are lazy and negligent, and if we do not cleanse ourselves from the passions which defile us, blinding our intellect and so preventing us from seeing the inner nature of these realities more clearly than the sun, let us blame ourselves and not deny the indwelling of grace.” (Fourth Century on Love, #77, Philokalia vol. II, p. 110) The riggers of Lent are designed to quite us and purify us so that we may hear God, understand Him, and be saved.
In this Technological Age, human accomplishments appear dazzling. Looking back across our understanding of history, we sense that we are making progress and figuring out how the world works. But, we are not really making progress. We are spinning our wheels, faster to be sure, but spinning them nonetheless because we fail to see our need for dependence on God. Instead of seeing our creator in all of our great successes, instead of seeing the glory of the One who gave us the capability to achieve these things, we see only our own glory. It is easy for us, even for us Christians, to be seduced by this age into relying on ourselves. The spirit of this age rewards self-sufficiency, but God punishes the self-sufficient to make them rely on him. Let us repent and not have need of this chastisement!
Lent is a powerful tool, honed over the centuries, for a powerful problem: self-reliance. “What an immense struggle it is to break the fetter binding us so strongly to material things and to acquire instead a state of holiness,” says St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (Theoretikon, Philokalia vol. II, p. 38). Did he not foresee our current state of affairs? Is the world really any different in substance now? One thing is for sure: our wired world allows us to sin at a level and in a quantity that the ancients could only dream of!
Lent is a call to rely on God. Over the centuries it has been proven to be useful. Lent systematically strips away the hedges of pleasure, denial of sin, selfishness and materialism leaving us to stand naked before God so he can clothe us. Of course, it is only a tool; it is not the end in itself. The end of our journey, the object of our affections is Christ. Christ is not weighed down by material things. Our goal is to be conformed to his image, a process which we call Theosis – the becoming one with God.
So let us go from this place with a resolve to fast, to pray, to give alms, to follow the commandments, to attend the liturgies and to realize that we are dependent on God not only for our existence, but for what we know of him as well. Let’s have faith in God, which means that we have distrust in ourselves!
If we ask God, we will receive from him. If we seek, we will find. If we knock, it will be opened to us. These are his promises.
Let us use Lent then to purify ourselves and come to depend on Christ. There is no other way, as he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Scripture quotes from The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version 1952 (RSV), the authorized revision of the American Standard Version of 1901, Copyright © 1946, 1952, 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
St. Maximos Confessor and St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic quotes from The Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, Volume Two, Translated from the Greek and edited by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, Paperback Edition, Copyright © 1981 by The Eling Trust, Published by Farber and Farber Limited, London, England, ISBN 0-571-15466-2