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Lent Day 39 - Thursday

“Enable us also, O good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast, to preserve inviolate the faith, to crush underfoot the heads of invisible serpents, to be accounted victors over sin; and, uncondemned, to attain unto and worship the holy resurrection.”  This is a short part from the ambon prayer of the Presanctified Liturgy.  It’s a beautiful and complex expression of the reality of Lent.  We’ve been looking at this prayer for the last two days and today we’ll finish our examination by looking at this part: “Enable us also, O good One, to fight the good fight.”

One of my favorite writers from the Philokalia is St. Hesychius the Priest.  This is from his work titled On Watchfulness and Holiness: “Someone else wise in the things of God has said that as the fruit begins with the flower, so the practice of the ascetic life begins with self-control.  Let us then learn to control ourselves with due measure and judgment, as the Fathers teach us. Let us pass all the hours of the day in the guarding of the intellect, for by doing this we shall with God's help and with a certain forcefulness be able to quell and reduce the evil in us. For the spiritual life, through which the kingdom of heaven is given, does indeed require a certain forcefulness (cf. Matt. 11:12).”

Especially as we come to the close of Lent, I find myself still willing, even after all this fasting and the special observances, to give in quickly to whatever sin presents itself to me.  Yes, I have kept the fast, and yes, I’ve been to every Lenten service on the schedule at our parish.  But have I overcome my passions and my aimless and sinful thoughts?  No, not at all.  I’ve treated the ascetic life, which is the life we live during Lent, NOT as if it starts with self-control, but with a mere avoidance of certain foods and slight changes in my schedule here and there.  I have not passed all the hours of the day in watchfulness, because I grow weary rather easily of Lenten disciplines and find myself often wanting to “take a little break” from everything.

And so I see now, as I learn during every Lent, that to embrace the spiritual life does indeed take a certain forcefulness, as St. Hesychius says.  It is not easy, or casual, or fun.  It’s difficult.  It requires that I make myself do something that I don’t want to do.  The ambon prayer of the Presanctified Liturgy calls it a fight, “Enable us also, O good One, to fight the good fight.”  In Greek that last phrase is: “τὸν ἀγῶνα τὸν καλὸν ἀγωνίσασθαι.”  Do you hear the Greek word that means “fight?”  “ἀγῶνα”  We get the word “agony” from this. Ascetic discipline is not pleasant raillery between friends.  Raillery means friendly jibes, like when I got a chain for my reading glasses and my friend said, “nice necklace, grandma.  Does your husband need reading glasses too?” No. In ascetic discipline, the enemy wants nothing less that to kill me and see me languish in hell for eternity. This is not friendly jibes. This is a agonizing contest and winner takes all.

I know that I will, barring any unforeseen tragedies, attain unto and worship the holy resurrection.  You will too, my companion on the Lenten journey.  But let’s not leave the fast behind us without learning the extent to which we rely on God for mercy and hope.  There are so many ways that we lose the fight, that we are overcome.  There are so many ways that we choose to avoid the agony, and thus lose the fight before we even begin.  Thanks be to God for His mercy, that we are here today to recognize His victory over death and the devil, our adversaries!

Tomorrow is the last day of the Lenten fast, my beloved, and I pray that we finish with our hearts full of hope, and our steps firmly placed in the marks of the saints of old, that we may celebrate Christ’s resurrection with joy and grace, Amen.

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