Ash Wednesday – The Glory of God is a living human being

“When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to others to be fasting, but to your Father, who sees in secret, and your Father shall reward you openly!

Today we enter into Lent – it is often observed as a time of greater prayer and fasting and almsgiving (or service) – and I will speak about that a little later.

  1. What is a living human being?

But first I want to begin with a few words from Irenaeus, a great teacher of the faith, from the generation after the apostles.  [The ideas in the first part of this sermon are from a lecture by the Rev Dr John Behr, former Dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York City, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8zIng6pB8E ]

Irenaeus said:  “The glory of God is a living human being.”

It is counter to what we normally think of – that our task is to glorify God. But he says, “The glory of God is a living human being.”  What does he mean by that?

St Ignatius of Antioch – an early martyr opens up our understanding of how they thought.  The tradition holds that Ignatius was arrested and brought to Rome and thrown to the wild beasts in the Colosseum on 6 July, AD 108.  As he was being taken away by the authorities to Rome to be martyred, he wrote a short note to the church community in Rome telling them that, whatever you do, don’t take any steps to stop me from being martyred…He wrote,

“It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth.  I seek him who died for our sake. I desire him who rose for us.  Birth pangs are upon me.  Suffer me beloved, allow me, hinder me not from living.  Do not wish me to die.  Allow me to receive the pure light.  When I shall have arrived there I shall become a human being.  Allow me to follow the example of the passion of my God.”

He is not yet a Human Being…  What is Ignatius talking about?

Ignatius was steeped in the teaching of the Apostle John.

You may know that in John’s Gospel, John begins with the Prologue, the first verses of Chapter 1, with a very clear parallel to Genesis 1:

Genesis 1 says – In the beginning God…created the heavens and the earth…
John 1 says – In the beginning was the Word…and all things were created through him…

In Genesis 1 God says – Let us make a human being, in our image.
In John 1 John says – The Word was made flesh.

John emphasizes in his gospel that Jesus has come to reveal what it is to be a human being.  John records, that when Pilate sees Jesus after Jesus has been scourged, as he was standing there bleeding, robed in a purple garment and a crown of thorns, he said to the crowd, “Behold the human being.”

And when Jesus was on the Cross, John records that Jesus cried out just before he gave up the spirit, “It is finished.”  His passion is finished, surely, but more – the work of atoning death, surely, but is it more?  Is it the completion, the finishing of a Human Being?

Paul says in Hebrews that Christ was made perfect in suffering. [2:10]

John can only write late in his life:  That we have beheld in him, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father [John 1:14] He is the glory of God.

Ignatius says, “The glory of God is a living human being.”

The whole of the work of God in creation culminates in Christ who is the image of the invisible God – here we see what it is to be God, in the way that Jesus dies as a human being, laying down his life for the world, and is raised in glory.  Adam is only ever just a sketch of this – Adam is called to this but, like us, he (and we) have only been a type of the one who was to come.  Only in Christ can we live in that divine way.  Jesus leaves us with a way of becoming fully a human being, of entering into that reality, by following him through our own martyrdoms.  Rather than seeing Creation as completed, then the Fall, and Christ as plan B to the rescue – the insistence by John is that Christ is the completion of God’s work of making a Human Being.  [Behr]

Laying down our life in a kind of passion like Christ’s is the way we become a Human Being– something not completed now, but that will be completed through our passion, death and resurrection. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” [Matt 16:24]

In Lent we can become more aware of that necessary passion and death which is the making of a Human Being.

The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are kinds of dying:

  • I certainly know, and I think many of you know, how much we fight against praying – to pray is to die in a sense, to place ourselves under Another, to centre ourselves in Christ, it is a kind of martyrdom to go into a room by ourselves with the door closed to pray – and in prayer we will come to see that the glory of God is a living human being;
  • if you’ve fasted you know the dying that you experience – all these desperate cries of the body…that go away, we die to that disordered passion, that excessive cry, we take the grace of being alive and direct it aright to doing the will of the Father… and we will see more clearly that the glory of God is a living human being;
  • through almsgiving and/or some service, we know we must die to other options, to self-acquiring, to self-centeredness – rend your hearts and not your garments says God through Joel [2:13], and in Isaiah [58:6-13] God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Do we have slaves, let them free…do we enslave people by refusing to forgive?) (Is not this the fast that I choose…) Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall cover you.  If we give of ourselves, lay down our lives for our friends, we will see that “the glory of God is a living human being.”
  1. A few words about fasting.

A warning of who should not fast:

  • Fasting may not be best for those who are super stressed already: seek to remove some of the stresses, to fast from them, and so to create more space to breathe, and enjoy God.
  • Fasting is not for those who have suffered eating disorders: for those, the advice would be to follow against your body’s confused desire the wise advice of those who know what you need to be healthy.
  • Fasting is also not for those who have other health issues related to diet, such as diabetes.  You may choose not to have fewer calories, but you could choose to eat less interesting food – more plain.

But if you find yourself satisfied at present, if you’re used to eating what you need and then some, then consider a fast – eating less, eating less often, eating less interestingly.

I will simply repeat the wise counsel of Bp Kallistos Ware, which I read last year:

“If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food – particularly in theopening days – involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feelingof tiredness and physical exhaustion. …  Lenten abstinence gives us (not the self-satisfaction of the Pharisee but) the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (Luke I 8: 10-1 3). Such is the function of thehunger and the tiredness: to make us ‘poor in spirit’, aware of our helplessness andof our dependence on God’s aid.

“Yet …abstinence leads, not merely-to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness,freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we findthat it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively….Fasting …makes [the body] a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert andresponsive to the voice of the Spirit.  The Fathers simply state, as a guiding principle, that we should never eat to satiety(until we feel full) but always rise from the table feeling that we could have taken more and that we are now ready for prayer.

“… In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God…to enable us, … to ‘draw near to the mountain of prayer’.”

I think it is helpful to remember the two Collects for next Sunday and last Sunday which describe the limits of fasting, and the motivation for fasting.

First, regarding the limits – do not go to extremes:

O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights: Give us grace to use such abstinence [not more and not less than is necessary], that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.  Amen. [Collect for Lent 1]

…to be more attentive to hear the voice of God inwardly and to be more ready to obey…

And, regarding the motivation:

O LORD, who has taught us that all that we do without love is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever lives is counted dead before you: Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.  [Collect for Quinquagesima]

…love is the motivation for any fasting [recalling 1 Cor 13:1-3]…

With these limits and this motivation we will see revealed more clearly that…

“the glory of God is a living human being.”

Amen +