Freedom in Christ is both a glorious and overwhelming experience for believers. On the one hand, they feel a profound sense of gratitude for God’s gift of redemption through His Beloved Son. Personally however, they know they are incapable of rendering sufficient praise for their release from, “the power of sin and the chains of death.” Only in and through their Savior may suitable thanksgiving be offered; the faithful approaching God as adopted children in Christ (Ephesians 1: 5).
At the same time, there is an awesome sense of individual responsibility connected with freedom, knowing that those who, “come after Christ, must (willingly) take up their Cross and follow Him” (Matthew 16:24). But even in this effort, it is understood that nothing may be accomplished without the grace of God which makes all things possible. As a matter of conscience however, people are free to accept or to outright reject the “narrow path.” They are free also to abuse their liberties by distorting the Gospel, in efforts to make it more “palatable” for a contemporary audience. Preserving, living, and conveying the authentic Truth(s) of Christ are daunting tasks facing His disciples in each generation.
Furthermore, in many countries such as the United States, Christians are free politically to openly practice their Faith. They possess every opportunity to worship, fast, evangelize, construct Churches, visit the sick and imprisoned in the name of Christ, and to take part in classes on Orthodoxy. There is nothing inhibiting or pressuring them outwardly from living as the Lord wants them to live, from becoming that which He wants them to become.
Yet, even in the midst of challenging circumstances – where they exist – grace abounds, enabling the faithful to change defeat into victory, and death into life, recalling these words, “My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paradoxically, even in the worst of times Christians always experienced a strong inner freedom, and were empowered to live their Faith in all its fullness. Believers throughout history suffering religious oppression knew that regardless of outward limitations and persecutions, no one could touch their hearts and consciences. Many of them, becoming confessors and martyrs, experienced firsthand the truth of the Apostle’s words, that, “…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).
Freedom and Lent:
With the approach of the Great Fast – which begins February 19 – the notion of freedom is key. We hear on the first Sunday of Lent, commemorating the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the words of St. Philip, “Come and see…” (John 1). The Fast starts with an invitation, not a command. As many have pointed out, “we are called ultimately by the One Who “knocks on the door of our heart;” He does not kick it in.” The faithful are invited each year during the Fast, to voluntarily deepen their relationship with God, Whose love is revealed through the precious gift of freedom, the opportunity granted to creatures made in His image, to say either “Yes“ or “No” to the Divine Will. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him; for that means life to you and length of days…”(Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19-20).
As one theologian wrote: “The orders of a tyrant always evoke deaf resistance. On the contrary, the Bible emphasizes the multiplicity of God’s appeals and invitations: “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 6:4), “If you wish to be perfect…” (Matthew 19:21), “The king sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:3). God is the king who makes such an appeal and who waits “in suffering” for the free response of his child(ren). God’s authority is not an order which is imposed from on high upon us. God’s authority is a secret action, one that takes place within us…His authority is in his being the shining truth of love, and this is evidence one can neither prove nor demonstrate, but which one simply receives, saying with Thomas, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). (Evdokimov, Paul, “In the World, of the Church,” SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, 2001, p. 222).
The invitation to “Come and see…” will be heard this year on Sunday, February 25. It extends throughout Lent, encouraging the faithful to participate wholeheartedly in the Church’s “Journey to Pascha,” as the entire Body worldwide prepares itself to meet the Bridegroom, to praise His life-creating death, and to rejoice in His glorious resurrection.
As Orthodox Christians in a democratic society, we experience blessings of political freedom that many of our forebears in Christ could only dream about. Believers are indeed free in these United States, to worship, fast, evangelize, construct Churches, visit the sick and imprisoned in the name of Christ, and to take part in classes on Orthodoxy. Apart from sin and slothfulness of mind there is nothing inhibiting believers – in their own unique circumstances – from advancing in the Faith. We are now being invited to increase freely our practice of the Church’s (the Gospel’s) disciplines in preparation for Holy Week, as characteristic activities marking the path that leads to eternal life. May we not neglect them, but use them wisely during the upcoming Fast, to experience firsthand the inner freedom granted by Christ to live upright and sober lives in accordance with His Word.