“The source of false religion,” writes the late Orthodox priest Alexander Schmeman, “is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt. They are all temptations, traps—very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow ‘religious’ people often look on joy with suspicion.”
Fr. Schmeman continues, “The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord…’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull—or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?”
This may sound like an odd admonition as we approach the first Sunday in Lent, the beginning of that penitential season when we tone down some of the more joyful aspects of worship and focus more on those wrong attitudes and bad habits of which we need to repent and from which we need to turn away.
But it really shouldn’t sound so odd. For what is the purpose of all these Lenten disciplines, if not the restoration of true religion, which has, at its very center, the joy of the Lord?
There is a certain predictability about the first Sunday in Lent. We come to the Gospel reading and always know where we’re going to be.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)
Jesus . . . in the wilderness . . . being tempted by the devil. Whether it’s Matthew, as is the case this year; or Mark, whose account is a little bit short; or Luke—if you are a good student of the church calendar, we know the story we are going to hear when we enter the Lord’s house tomorrow morning.
The First Sunday in Lent can also make us a little presumptuous. We may assume that the preacher will simply take those three temptations, make each one into a point, close with a cute little story and encourage everyone to gird up their loins and make the most of this Lenten season.
Lent, however, is not about girding up your loins and making the most of it. That is the joyless false religion Fr. Schmeman was writing about.
Lent is about recovering the joy that we lost.
Jesus faces the test in the wilderness because Adam failed the test in the garden.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)
A simple test. A simple command. One minor restriction in the midst of a haven of sheer freedom.
Adam is commanded to refrain from one seemingly innocuous action. “Don’t eat from that one tree.”
In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to engage in certain actions.
“Turn these stones to bread.”
“Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple.”
“Bow down and worship me, and you’ll rule the world.”
They all sound varied and different, but they’re really all the same.
“Eat from that tree, and you’ll be like God.”
The lie with which Satan deceived Adam and Eve is the same lie he tried to pass off on Jesus.
“It’s all about you!”
You can be the master of the universe.
You can control your own destiny.
You can determine what is good and what is evil.
“Did God actually say . . . ?”
You don’t have to take his word for it.
You can decide for yourself what God actually said, or even if he actually said anything at all.
You can decide what God actually meant when he said what he didn’t actually say.
The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy. . .
There is joy in knowing that God did say, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they refused the joy and embraced the lie.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned . . . (Romans 5:12)
A very ugly picture: a wilderness instead of a garden.
But it is in that wilderness that the joy of the garden is restored.
Jesus would not embrace the lie. Jesus would reach for the joy that was set before, even though he knew it meant embracing the cross.
Therefore, as on e trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)
In the garden, surrounded by freedom, Adam lost. In the wilderness, on the cross, rejected as a slave, Jesus won!
Thanks be to God!