Peering Into the Looming Lenten Dark

By Scott Cairns

I used to think that the popular notion of synergy came into usage out of a trendy, pop culture, new-age fuzziness. More recently, however, I’ve noticed how various forms of its Greek antecedent, synergía, crop up throughout the scriptures, from the Septuagint through the epistles. When the word shows up, it usually indicates that the patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets, apostles, and, potentially, the rest of us are all figured as co-workers — with God and with each other.

Even our worship, our liturgy, liturgía, is understood as our being participant in that efficacious and ongoing “work.”

The God-created world is an exceedingly wild place. Its weathers and its very makeup — its famously cranky geology — remain notoriously unpredictable. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad. And even setting aside the simply bad, there is also no shortage of downright evil, from which the good do not appear to be uniformly protected. For reasons that most often elude us, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

The blessings of both of these life-giving phenomena are poured upon all. The troubles of famine, flood, earthquake, and cruelty similarly visit all as well.

What kind of God is this?

Whether or not you think the world was initially created as the shaky sphere it is — a notoriously unstable crust skidding over a roiling swirl of molten rock — there’s no arguing that it isn’t something of a crap-shoot now. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, famine, flood — take your pick. It could be that the fragile earth itself has suffered from our dire, onetime disconnect from God. And lest we forget the human hand in our crap-shoot’s wealth of crap, we must add to that wild mix our own pathological history of aggression, murder, war, genocide, and — by all appearances — climate change.

And where, exactly, is our God in all of this?

Well, the story goes that He has descended into the very thick of it.

The story goes that He remains in the very thick of it.

In mystical synergía, He collaborates with His Body, now and ever. In appalling condescension, He remains Emmanuel, God with us. Whereas we had brought only death and brokenness and illness to the mix, He has brought life and wholeness and health.

We may recall that some among the first century Jews in Jerusalem — in particular those who believed Jesus to be the messiah — were both surprised and disappointed that He didn’t “redeem Israel” in quite the way they had assumed He would. The thief being crucified beside Christ was not simply baiting Jesus when he asked of Him, “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us”; he was probably thinking that if this bruised and bloodied man hanging beside him were truly God’s anointed, then any reasonable, self-respecting Christ would do just that — save Himself.

The Christ, in any case, had bigger fish to fry — enough to satisfy the multitudes.

Which was why He did not save Himself, but rather gave Himself.

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than he came simply to trump any of the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others in the complicated meantime. On the contrary and very strangely, He chose to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival — in Himself.

That is to say, He did not come here to undo our choices, but to move through them — with grace, no less — and to show us how we might likewise move. He apparently did not come to eclipse us, nor to overrule our persons.

On the contrary, He came to endow our persons with the same unending life, to enhance our very personhood.

What, then, has yet to be done? What — so far as you are concerned — is the nature of this odd-seeming isterímata that gives Saint Paul cause to rejoice even in the midst of suffering?

You’ll probably have to tell me.

I suspect that, just as each of us is unique in the eyes of our God Who loves us, each of us also will find a unique remedy for our separation from Him. Each of us will discover — and either will bear or will shirk — a unique cross.

What the fathers and mothers of the Church have taught me is that each of us will inevitably, in one or in a number of ways, partake of Christ’s suffering, and that these experiences will help us to apprehend all the more how we are both joined to Him and how we are joined to each other.

We may well have occasion to ask — as Christ Himself asked — that the cup be taken away, but we will fare far better if that request is followed by “yet not my will, but Your will be done.” We will fare far better if, like the Theotokos, we answer the call of the messenger by saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

As I write this, the Holy, Orthodox, Catholic, and Apostolic Church — that would be the one mystical Body of which we are all members, like it or not — is looking into the near future to enter the season we call Great Lent.

Admittedly, some of us may be doing so more deliberately than others, but to one extent or another we are all entering the preparation for the Feast of Feasts — Great and Holy Pascha — what many of us grew up calling Easter.

For those eight or so weeks of preparation, the observant will, for the most part, abstain from eating meat as well as dairy products; certain well-trained athletes of prayer will forgo oil as well. We will do what we can to give greater assistance to those in need, and we will make our way to church more often for the “supporting services” that the Church has established to help its diverse members through this period.

It is a season of fasting and of almsgiving, of denying our own appetites as we attend more consciously to the needs of others — and this, even as we descend into serious interior work.

It is in some sense a self-imposed affliction, a deliberate suffering; it is in some sense a death.

It is nonetheless a death attended by hope, a death that anticipates new life.

The Greeks have a word for this strange mixture of dispositions that characterizes the spirit of Great Lent; they call it harmolype and in English, the notion is spoken of as “bright sadness” or “sorrowful joy.”

The late Father Alexander Schmemann has written of the complex character of Lenten observance, thus:

“For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is ‘something else’ in Lent — something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This ‘something else’ can best be described as an ‘atmosphere,’ a ‘climate’ into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit, which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger for communion with God.”

Father Schmemann writes of how a “quiet sadness” permeates the Lenten services themselves; “vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement.” He observes that despite the alternating readings and chants, “nothing seems to happen.” And so, he acknowledges, we stand for a very long time in this quiet, this sadness, this monotony.

“But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable ‘action’ of the service in us. Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed ‘bright,’ that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us.

Moving through the sadness, we glimpse the joy. We feel its effects on us, and feel how it changes us. We are thereby led to a place where noises, distractions, and false importance of the street, of our dissipated lives — finally “have no access — a place where they have no power.”

Similarly, then, in those seasons of our afflictions — those trials in our lives that we do not choose, but press through — a stillness, a calm, and a hope become available to us. They are a stillness, a calm, and a hope that must be acquired slowly, because — as Father Schmemann says of our joy in Lent — “our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.”

So, we are obliged to recover this wisdom slowly, bit by bit.

And I will leave our final bit to the amazing Simone Weil. She writes: “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”

Δόξα το Θεό.

May our afflictions be few, but may we learn not to squander them.

Reprinted with permission. Source


One Response to Peering Into the Looming Lenten Dark

  1. Daniel Nichols says:

    Thank you for this; very beautiful. I posted it on my blog, along with a link to this site:

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