And so we begin. During the weekdays of Lent, the Orthodox Church reads from the Old Testament instead of the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. And three books of the Old Testament in particular are read on a daily basis: Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. Today, it’s the beginning of each of those three books: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.
How extraordinary those opening sentences of Genesis, they never grow old. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light….”
Or, is it? Isaiah paints a bleaker picture. Here, too, God speaks. But God speaks to lament: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” A new “word” is now spoken – not a word that creates, but a word that judges: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
Have you ever read such words before in any holy book of any religion? This is why I love the Old Testament. There is nothing “old” about it; that’s a terrible misnomer that Christians use to devalue words of God that are just as contemporary today as they were three thousand years ago! What is “old” about what we read in this opening of Isaiah? “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It just doesn’t sound like the god of many of today’s Christians, does it?
But this is a god who is open to dialogue: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” That’s why this is no ordinary god, but God! This is why the Bible is no ordinary human document. It is a human document permeated by an experience of the living God. Too bad we look at Isaiah as primarily a prophet of the coming of Christ. We end up missing 95% of his message.
And what about the third book that the Orthodox Church uses during this Lenten season, the Book of Proverbs? Let’s be honest; most of this biblical book is full of antiquated moralistic teaching, much of it patriarchal and misogynistic. And yet, scattered here and there, in this book also, there are extraordinary insights into the same truths that Genesis and Isaiah reveal more frequently. And so we read in this opening chapter of Proverbs words that sound remarkably like those in Isaiah: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction… If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent… do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood… they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”
The language in Proverbs is less cosmic, less awe-inspiring than what we read in Isaiah, but the message is the same: Flee from evil, flee from greed – it will take possession of you and drive you away from God, the living God. The “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: not so much fear of punishment, but fear of losing the intimate reverence and fellowship that was meant to be ours from those first words spoken at the very beginning: “Let there be light…” Not only the light of cosmic creation, but light in our lives and in our relationship with others.
Yesterday, the Matins service included the following Kontakion: Τῆς σοφίας ὁδηγέ, φρονήσεως χορηγέ, τῶν ἀφρόνων παιδευτά, καὶ πτωχῶν ὑπερασπιστά, στήριξον, συνέτισον τὴν καρδίαν μου Δέσποτα. Σὺ δίδου μοι λόγον, ὁ τοῦ Πατρός Λόγος· ἰδοὺ γὰρ τὰ χείλη μου, οὐ μὴ κωλύσω ἐν τῷ κράζειν σοι· Ἐλεῆμον, ἐλέησόν με τὸν παραπεσόντα.
Beautiful prayer for the last day before Lent: O Master, Guide to wisdom, Giver of good counsel, Instructor of the unknowing and Champion of the poor: Make my heart firm and understanding. O Word of the Father, give me word: so that my lips will not stop crying out to you: Merciful One, have mercy on me the fallen. And here, of course, Word (Logos) is the name that the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially verses 1 & 14) designates for the eternal existence of Jesus.
It’s too bad that monastic self-absorption crept in at the end of this kontakion. How much more meaningful if the writer of this kontakion had been inspired by Isaiah instead of the morbid theology that has poisoned many lives with self-loathing. Here is what we read in Isaiah 50:4 – “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” (Most modern translations have really messed up this verse and taken away its poetry, which is why I prefer the Revised Standard Version which I have quoted here.)
How much even more meaningful this kontakion would be if we took our lead from Isaiah and today’s Bible readings – and from the first half of this same kontakion! – to say something like this: “O Word of the Father, give me word, so that I may comfort the weary, instruct the unknowing and defend the poor.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as “fallen”! I know I sin and I need forgiveness, but to call myself “fallen” seems to deny everything that Orthodox theology has taught me. If the monks want to consider themselves fallen, that’s their privilege, but don’t put words in my mouth to speak their sentiments. I’d rather the Word put words in my mouth so that I can speak comfort – to myself and to others – and speak wisdom – again, to myself and to others – and to speak up for the poor and the oppressed.
That’s what Lent means to me. It’s a season that tells me to listen as one who is taught, so that the Word might to speak through my words. The Bible speaks to us today and every day with words of creation (Genesis), words of challenge and correction (Isaiah), and words that instruct and alert us (Proverbs). How the Word relates to my words is the essential lesson I need to learn during Lent. Everything else follows from this.