Thursday, February 27, 2020

Lent 2020: Take Up Your Cross -- and Choose Life

"When God, in the beginning, created man, he made him subject to his own free choice. If you choose, you can keep the commandments; it is loyalty to his will. There are set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death; whichever he chooses shall be given him." ~ Sirach 15:14-17

When asked what he admired about Orthodoxy, Jordan Peterson once remarked that where in Western Christianity -- a.k.a. Catholicism and Protestantism -- following Christ became more or less a set of propositions that one assents to and follows, following Christ in the East takes on a more demanding character of following in his footsteps, such that his trials and tribulations unite with our own:
The Orthodox would say, as near as I can tell, that you should pick up your damn cross and stumble up the hill. That's your job, right? The cross is the X where everyone is located. You're right at the center of reality. You're suffering and dying and being reborn all the time at the center of reality as you transform. And you have to accept that and embrace it. That's a very, very hard thing to do, because it means to embrace all your flaws and the flaws of reality and the tragedy of existence and your death and the sum total of human evil, all of that. Unbelievably demanding requirement. But you do what you can to do that. And then, not only do you pick up your cross, so to speak, but you stumble up the hill toward the City of God. You stumble up toward what's good. And that's your destiny, and that's where meaning is to be had. And the Orthodox lay that out quite well. That's your goal, is the imitation of Christ.
Christianity is not for wimps. We are promised salvation and eternal life, but to whom much is given, much is expected.

We will surely suffer in this life, but the good news is that our suffering is not in vain. We're not meant to suffer simply to become more holy. If we're ill and we can get better, then we ought to make efforts to do so. But sometimes suffering is inevitable and unavoidable, and it's in those times that we ought not grumble about the hand we've been dealt. Rather, we can look at Christ, mocked and beaten, sentenced to die, carrying the instrument of his own execution up the long road to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. And we can unite our suffering to his. In that sense, our suffering draws us closer to him. But more than that, we can know that just as we're united with Christ in our trials, so we can be transformed with him into new life. We won't always suffer. There is a light of hope at the end of the tunnel.

If you suffer daily, as I have for several years with an undiagnosed ailment that leaves me feeling miserable and my body malfunctioning, this view makes perfect sense. My wife laughs about how Catholic I sound when I talk about redemptive suffering, but this is something that all the suffering saints throughout history have understood -- and as Jordan Peterson observed, it's practically a way of life in the Orthodox tradition.

Finding the grace to endure our sufferings comes from our decision to choose life, as Moses said to the people in today's reading (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We can keep God's commandments and choose the way of life, or we can turn our backs and be left to our own devices. Either way, we'll still suffer in this mortal existence, but only one of the two choices gives us hope for transcending our suffering. And that is the way of life.

When a lawyer asked Jesus what a person must do to gain eternal life, Jesus told him to keep two commandments: Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. That's it. "Do this and you will live," he said. Many of us find even that much hard to do, and yet that's our cross to bear -- for it is the path to peace and life. There can be no other.

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