Road to Mortification
“After receiving baptism it is required of us not to incline towards pleasure, but towards mortification” ~ St. John Chrysostom.
Statements like this bother me. God blesses many pleasures in our lives. Mirth and joy are at the crux of Christianity. Nonetheless, St. John’s words ring true. We are here to mortify ourselves. We are here to climb up on the cross right alongside with Christ — to share in his crucifixion. How do we hold these extremes together?
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matthew 4:1-2).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of the most famous soviet dissidents in the 20th century. He lost his faith as a young child and become devoted to communist ideology. All that fell apart when sentenced to a concentration camp. Upon his release, he published volumes against the evils of the State, until getting exiled to America. At his arrival here, he found himself troubled. He saw the beginnings of what happened in Russia. He warned the America people:
"The forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?” He goes on: "To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.”
Solzhenitsyn’s words parallel closely with our gospel reading today.
Why was Jesus Christ “led up by the Spirit…to be tempted by the devil”? We have to look at the context of this passage. Immediately before his trials, he was baptized. It was magnificent. God and man fully, Jesus Christ took our humanity and washed it of all the dirt and rot that is part of human history. It was such a happy event heaven opened up, God the Father spoke, and the Holy Spirit descended. This happens to us too when we are baptized, for “as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Becoming a Christian is the most joyful event possible. We become new. We can wake up each day knowing we have a friend and savior in heaven.
But what follows baptism? We are led out by the Spirit to be tempted. St. John Chrysostom preached this sermon to encourage new Christians: "Who therefore among you who is even more tempted after baptism should not be troubled. It is for this you have received arms: not to stand at ease, but to fight. God will not then ward you off from temptation; and this He does for many reasons...that by this trial you may become yet stronger...that you may receive an indication of the treasure you have received: for the devil would not so pursue you, to tempt you, did he not see that you had now come to a higher dignity.”
We become Christian “not to stand at ease, but to fight.” Listen to Solzhenitsyn. “The forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive, you can feel their pressure.” We live at a time of crisis, “and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses.” We are drowning in a “cult of material well-being.” Something is not right in our culture. Something is not right in our heart. We can add to Solzhenitsyn’s comment: We are drowning in the cult of egoism.
But God does not leave us here. He takes us out to the desert to be healed.
“He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came” (Matthew 4:1-3). The devil tempted him with pleasure: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” He tempted him with pride: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the temple].” He tempted him with power, “[Look at all the kingdoms of the world.] All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship.” Jesus looks the devil in the eye, “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:1-10).
The forty days in the desert symbolize the years God gives us here on earth. The devil keeps on tempting. From hitting your face on the floor when you first learn to walk, through the acne of adolescence, the insecurity of a young adult, and the aches and pains of old age, it is one trial after another. God gives it to us, all of it, to purify us.
In a concentrated way, the forty days in the desert also symbolize Lent. Our efforts to pray, fast, and give alms during Lent matter. It is our chance to unplug from the “cult of material well-being.” We have the rest of the year to enjoy the pleasure of life. This is rare time to mortify ourselves, turning off the television, keeping the stomach hungry, no longer pampering ourselves, for a short time, in order to tune back in to God.
What is it all for?
“Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matthew 4:11).
The Benedictine nun, Sister Joan Chittister, describes what it means to have a pure heart. “We are to come to see the beauty and glory of God everywhere,” she says. “Then, bowing down before it in our hearts, we will live in its aura. In us, around us, before us — this awareness of God is a slowly consuming process. But an ever clearer one. So the seeker's life is a gradual sinking into the consciousness of God..."
There is no life more fulfilled than a life of glorifying God.
The more we mortify our flesh in this life, the more we are free to cherish God. The more we mortify our addictions, the cult of materialism and egoism, the more we are free to take real pleasure in heavenly things. Christ underwent the temptations from the devil first. Afterwards, he underwent the ministry from the angels. So it is with us. May God give us strength to press forward.