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Lenten Transformation: Part 2

Part 2

Well these are the basics of Lent. If we could get a handle on these realities, to really internalize them, we would do more than move mountains. But tonight, I want to take this theme of Lenten transformation one step further. It’s a step we often fail to make. Because if Lent is about transformation, it is not merely about individual transformation. During the next few minutes, I ‘d like us to think about the social implications of prayer, worship, almsgiving, fasting, repentance, honesty about who we are, reconciliation with God and with neighbor. Because, after all, none of these actions take place in a vacuum. We are inherently social beings. The story of Robinson Crusoe—the story of one man marooned on an island, who can do everything himself and needs no one—is a bourgeois myth of the nineteenth century, reflecting the aspirations of Western Europeans of the age. That reality has never existed and will never exist—thank God. And John Wayne--the actor who went it alone, who never showed emotions--well, that was just bad acting.

Of course, if you think about our Orthodox faith, we know this to be true. Every sacrament is social. We began this Lenten journey with Forgiveness Vespers. Let’s note the obvious: we did it together. We asked one another for forgiveness. Our failings and our triumphs are experienced in community, within relationships. We did not prostrate ourselves in front of our bedroom mirror. Salvation, like life, is a corporate affair. We read in Ephesians 4:28 “For we are members of one another.” Perhaps the only thing we truly do alone is go to hell. How unnatural, then, how unlike God’s intention, is that place.

We are social beings. And if this is the case, then all that fasting, praying, almsgiving, reconciliation, soul-searching, should have effects on society. I want us to think about the radical transformation of society that could take place, if we took these Lenten characteristics out of the forty days and applied them to the other 325. But just before I do that, I want to talk about our relationship as Christians to the world around us.

You know, perhaps one of the biggest issues to face Christianity over the last two millennia is Christ’s relationship with culture. Do we reject it, forming isolated communities attempting to be sealed off from the world? Do we say Christ and culture are basically the same—the problem when nationalism and religion get mixed up? Do we say that the calling of God and that of the world forever will make conflicting yet legitimate claims on us, forever placing us in a paradoxical relationship to both God and society? Or do we see Christ as the transformer of culture? [1] There’s that word again, “transformation.” “Christ the Transformer” of culture. I want to argue that when the Orthodox faith particularly and Christianity generally has been true to itself, it has had the effect of transforming the environment in it which it finds itself. Whether we speak of the transformation that took place as Christianity encountered Hellenism, thus changing Hellenism from the inside out, or whether we speak of Christianity’s civilizing influence over the tribes of Northwestern Europe up through the Middle Ages, or the process that took place between the Russian missionaries and the native Aleuts of Alaska in the 19th century, we can see a pattern wherein Christianity affirms that which God has given a culture, affirms it as good, while rejecting those elements of culture believed to be contrary to the Gospel.

Let me give you an example from the fourth century, with St. Basil the Great and a letter he wrote to some youths preparing to begin studies in Athens, [2] something that he had himself done a couple generations earlier. Now Basil knew that his young charges would be encountering pagan thought, literature, poetry, science, for it was this education that formed the typical Roman citizen. But Basil knew there were pitfalls, he knew there were aspects of this culture that were deeply antithetical to the Christian faith. He writes to them, “At the very outset, therefore, we should examine each of the branches of knowledge and adapt it to our end, according to the Doric proverb, ‘bringing the stone to the line.’” That is, all learning is to be tested to see if it measures up to the Christian standard. Not just in learning, but seemingly in all aspects of life and with all forms of knowledge, the students are commended to seek that which leads to eternity. And they are to discern the possible eternal nature of all of this by placing it up against the Christian standard, exemplified by Christ’s teaching to love God and neighbor.

Now I hear you asking, What about ascetics, the monks? Weren’t they trying to get away from society? Well, yes, but remember, the good ones were there praying for the people back in those cities. And there is a long ascetical tradition of withdrawal that ends in service. This was the case for St. Antony, St. Basil, St. Benedict, St. Gregory Palamas, and for St. Seraphim of Sarov, among others. These two aspects of withdrawal and leadership in service are connected, because without first undergoing ascetical preparation, often for decades, they would not have had the spiritual resources to be spiritual and ecclesial guides and masters. Moreover, as we often read about the in the writings of the Desert Fathers, the great ascetics would soon be discovered and sought out, with monasteries forming soon thereafter—and we see the birth of coenobitic or communal monasticism. So even there in the desert, society cannot be avoided. There is no escaping the social.

[1] These basic positions towards culture are examined in H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 2001).

[2] Saint Basil, “To the Young Men, On How They Might Profit from Pagan Literature.” Saint Basil, The Letters. RJ Deferrari and MRP McGuire, trans. London/Cambridge: W. Heinemann/Harvard University Press, 1961-72, 378-435.