One Christmas when I was a boy I remember getting the toy of my dreams. All I really wanted that year was a "Big Jim" action figure! Big Jim was a major leap forward at the time in the technology of action figures since his joints could articulate in a variety of ways and he came with a host of cool accessories. I even got Big Jim's "Rescue Rig" which was like a combination ambulance and fire truck with all sorts of cool gear for him. Yes, I had really scored that year and I couldn't have been more pleased with my 'haul' as I took Jim into my bedroom to begin our first adventure.
But I hadn't had Jim out of the box for more than an hour when disaster struck and I broke off one of his hands at the wrists! So what before had been a brand new, really cool action figure was already a not-so-new broken toy. Thus I learned that new things don't stay new very long; a tough lesson for a little boy but one that seems not to have been learned at all in our society today.
"New and improved" is a time-worn cliché used by marketers in the west to denote the next best thing. They have tapped into the intrinsic restlessness of our consumer-driven economy to make certain we're never satisfied with yesterday's goods. A new car bought today and driven off the show room floor depreciates precipitously the moment it leaves the lot. Today's new luxury high-rise become tomorrow's sagging eye-sore soon enough. Neck-tie and lapel widths wax and wane while skirt and hem lengths rise and fall like the tides and we just keep buying. We are like the Athenians described in Acts 17 who spent all their time in pursuit of "some new thing."
"Newness" is a recurring theme in Holy Scripture and one that we should take a moment to consider as we gear up for the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church which begins this Sunday evening with Forgiveness Vespers. This may come as a surprise to some since we have allowed ourselves to become conditioned to think of Lent in very negative terms. Thoughts like; "I know I'm a bad person so God is going to punish me with Great Lent" are all too common. As I write this column on "Fat Tuesday" before Ash Wednesday of the Roman Catholic calendar the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans are again filled with revelers squeezing in that last bit of drunken debauchery during Mardi Gras before the rigor and "drudgery" of Lent begins.
Even we in the Orthodox Church tend to spend far too much time obsessing about menu selections than we do about the whole point of this annual exercise. And if we're not careful we can miss out on the wonderful opportunity that Great Lent presents to us every year to walk a little more deeply in the "newness of life" Christ promised to His disciples.
In reply to the Pharisees who were accusing the Disciples of not fasting as rigorously as they should the Lord told them; "No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved (Matt. 9;16-17). And when the Lord celebrated the Mystical Supper with His Disciples on the night He was betrayed, He offered them the bread and the wine saying; "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:20), a reality we celebrate at every Divine Liturgy.
Christ has called us out of the darkness of our old ways into the new life of His Kingdom! He did not come to earth merely to teach us how to behave but rather how to truly live. The Lord told His Disciples; "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). To be a Christian in the world is to wake up every morning in this tired old world and to embrace the day as a new manifestation of His love for us, singing; "This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24). It is to be constantly reminded of the thrilling words of St. Paul to the Corinthians (those famous sinners of the first century) "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
But for many of us, the joy of this new life in Christ Jesus is hard to come by. The daily pressures of scratching out a living and providing for our families' material needs can be all-consuming. Many of us plod through the events of our days only too aware that forces much larger than us have us dancing, seemingly, on the end of a string and we're not really sure who's pulling on them. We only know that we're getting further and further behind with every year as our strength starts to ebb and our dreams become forgotten and our debts pile up. This is the grim reality of the manic world we have made for ourselves today. But it is not the world Christ intends for us to inhabit.
Many times we drag ourselves, exhausted, into Divine Liturgy because we know we should be there and we know that we derive some benefit from coming to Church. But we leave feeling confused as to what precisely was accomplished or affirmed by our attendance and we wonder if perhaps it would have been better for us to stay at home and get caught up some much-needed rest. We want to know God and we want Him to know us but we feel like we're getting further and further behind in our spiritual lives too as the days fly by with our prayers unsaid and our Bibles unread and our hearts unmoved. Our souls become weary and downtrodden so we come to the beginning of Great Lent dreading the exertion required to do a little extra, to go a little bit farther. But God intends something much better for us.
The message of Great Lent isn't one of punishment but of replenishment! It isn't about regret but about reconciliation! It stems not from God's wrath but from His abiding love for us which we will witness at the end when we see the Son of Man lifted up on the Cross on Holy Friday to bear our sins and burdens for us so we can walk in the abundant, new life He came to inaugurate. The Holy Church in her wisdom knows the unflinching desire of humanity to know God and that the work-a-day reality of our lives makes it very difficult for us to consistently pursue what is best for us. So she sets aside certain times and seasons in the year for us to concentrate more intently on our souls and our relationship with Christ.
When a middle-distance runner begins a race he or she doesn't start out sprinting as fast as possible. Long races requires a bit of strategy so the runner varies the speed through the course of the race; now running more slowly to conserve energy, now running more quickly to keep up the pace, and finally sprinting when the finish line comes into view. Similarly, try as we might it isn't possible for us to intently pursue our spiritual lives with ardent devotion at all times. Even St. Paul wrote in Romans 7 about the "two laws" that war within us, keeping us from living for Christ as we should. And so the Church gives us these opportunities for us to check ourselves and to be refreshed in our souls.
Great Lent offers us the prolific schedule of services to help us put away the "old man" with his constant worries and shortcomings and put on the "new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Eph. 4:24). It offers us the healing mystery of Holy Confession where we go to seek the touch of the Great Physician and to submit ourselves not to His judgment but to His care. Great Lent offers us the discipline of the great fast to refresh and purify our bodies (and lighten up our waistlines!) as we align our physicality with our spirituality and incarnate what we say we believe. I always look forward to the fast as a way to reinvigorate my body and reorient it towards its real purpose, that of worshipping God. And finally, Great Lent clears away the cobwebs of our disordered minds as we turn off the TV and radio somewhat as we "put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Col. 3:10).
The newness of life that Christ offers us every day is a potent antidote to the "been there-done that" mentality of modern life. The "new wine" of life in Christ Jesus of which we partake at every celebration of Holy Eucharist must not be poured into the "old wineskins" of this world, e.g. we must look beyond the "rules" of Lent to the purpose of it if we are to realize the benefit of undertaking its rigor. Eventually, all of our toys break, our buildings crumble, our physical strength fades and we're left with the only thing that truly matters; when Christ appears will we be found in Him? Near the end of the Bible, St. John writes; "And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). May we walk joyfully in this newness of life that God in His endless mercy showers on us every morning. And may this Lenten journey be one of refreshment and rejuvenation as look expectantly for His coming Kingdom.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the assistant priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Denver, Colorado.