The theme of the Daily Office is clear; sacrifice, suffering, divine comfort and salvation. It begins with the reading from Vespers (which is the same as for Lauds, and was also found in Matins) emphasizing the “day of salvation” and that this day is “now.” Fasting is a salvific thing, not because we can score brownie point with God that way, but because it deepens our relationship with Jesus Christ. The fast is 40 days as was Jesus’ fast in the desert before He began His public ministry. The 40 days are a symbol to allow us to more deliberately pattern our lives after that of our Lord Jesus Christ – as He commands us to do. Salvation is not given by fasting or any other ascetic effort. Salvation depends upon the grace of Jesus Christ – where our only responsibility is maintaining our relationship with Him. Salvation is free, but not cheap. Ascetic efforts may not gain us salvation, but that does not make them any less necessary and normative in the life of a Christian!
Repentance precedes forgiveness and is shown in our outward actions. Ascetic labours are the outward expression of the reality which governs our hearts – as such “work” are a necessary aspect of a Christian life even if they do not save in the sense that they bestow “justification.” The latter is an act of God on us, an act of grace which no work of ours can earn no matter how good. Justification is by faith to be sure. But it is questionable whether it is by faith alone. What I mean is this: believing in God, in Jesus Christ, is not necessarily salvific (as the Letter of James indicates when it says that this faith is shared by the demons, who are not given as examples of ‘being saved’ …) because faith without works is dead. Faith lives through works. If there is any sense in which the Reformers went too far it could perhaps be in this; that they have not always done justice to the biblical challenge presented them in the Letter of James (though it seems that Richard Hooker may have evaded this conundrum in his views on the subject – as is argued in A Companion to Richard Hooker, Torrance Kirby ed.: Ch., 7: “Sin and Grace” by Ranall Ingalls).
Two Matins Responses illustrate the point marvelously:
R. Rend your heart and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: * For he is gracious and merciful. V. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts : and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him. For he is gracious and merciful.
Of course these words are taken from Scripture and made into a Response. The way these words of Scripture are here given to us is again a way in which we are taught to read and apply Scripture to ourselves. It teaches us that repentance is a matter of the heart first and not of mere outward expressions. Outward expressions are not rejected as such, but they are exposed as worthless if they are not actual expressions of what is in the heart. We are also taught that we are to cease – or abstain – from sin. Here we are given both knowledge and a practical application of the knowledge just received. The Anglican Breviary impresses upon its users that Scripture is a source of knowledge and a guide for action. As we shall see, this is not far from Evagrius Ponticus’ teaching that sin and ignorance originate from the same source and that Scripture contains the cure to both. Sinful actions are a disease of the body and soul, and ignorance is likewise a disease of the “intellect” (not identical to our concept but closer to the biblical pneuma) and soul. Scripture can cure both if read and applied correctly. This is why Scripture is so fundamental to the life of a Christian – it is the only immediate source of knowledge of Christ and it alone provides the pattern of life for us to follow as Christians. Tradition cannot replace Scripture – what is does do, I would like to suggest, is provide a way to receive Scripture.
The second response illustrates the point I was getting to in my last words in the above paragraph:
R. This is the fast that I have chosen, saith the Lord, to deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house. * Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy righteousness shall go before thee. V. When thou seest the naked, cover thou him, and hide not thyself from thine own flesh. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy righteousness shall go before thee.
Fasting is not merely abstaining from something. It is also directed toward something. It is abstaining from sin and practicing virtues. Again the Response is woven from the words of Scripture – let this not go unnoticed. How to obey the words of Scripture? Well we could to choose to share of our wealth with those less fortunate (wealth is not necessarily limited to money ! ). There are different ways the hungry can be fed: for example the people suffering from the earthquake in Haiti are suffering (among other things) hunger. Some people are able to go to Haiti and apply their technical skills to help re-build the country and the Haitian society. Others, unable to donate their skills could of course donate money. All of us can donate prayer and continued awareness by keeping the extreme suffering of our “flesh” (for that is the point of the Response, other people are our flesh and intrinsic to us – to me).
Closer to home, for those of us living in the United States, is perhaps the suffering of many inhabitants of this country suffering from poverty, lack of access to – often much needed – health care to name two problems which are very relevant today. Those protesting in the streets to “protect unborn life” could extend their concerns for those already born – not lessen the intensity of fighting against unnecessary cutting short of lives not yet born, but increasing the intensity with which they support access to health care for all. The lack of health care kills many people and causes much unnecessary suffering and since it is within our power to do something about it, it is a moral obligation so to do as much as is fighting to protect the unborn.
To conclude the beginning of Lent proper, the third Nocturn reading from Matins argues that it is not incredible or unworthy for the Lord to have been tempted by the Devil:
Wherefore it is not unworthy of our Redeemer, who came to be slain, that he was willing to be tempted. Rather, it was meet that he should overcome our temptations by his own temptations, even as he came to conquer our death by his own death (AB, p. C212).
Jesus Christ in having been tempted has provided a remedy for our own temptations. One of which the Monastic tradition has sought to express in the Eight Evil Thoughts which are perhaps better known in their Gregorian re-formulation as Seven Deadly Sins. These are diagnostic tools, to help us discern what sinful patterns may linger in our hearts. Again such tools are heavily dependent on Scripture. The same tradition also provides remedies for the patterns of sin we may discern: and again the remedies are structured on Scriptural principles. Neither the diagnosis nor the remedies are healing in and of themselves. It is because Jesus Christ undid the deathly poison of temptation and sin that such tools have any effect at all. As we participate in Him by faith, sacraments (especially Baptism and Eucharist) and ascetic effort He meets us with His grace and provides the insight we need (discernment) as well as the remedy to heal the wound. Both are effective only insofar as they are gifts of grace, operating by grace, so that we may receive grace through them.
Fr. Gregory Wassen +