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Christ and the Inevitable Conflict

From the April 2002 Messenger

On Cheesefare Sunday, the last Sunday before beginning the Great Lenten Fast, the Orthodox Church commemorates the expulsion of our first parents from Paradise. In Paradise, as I explained while preaching on Cheesefare Sunday of last year, Adam and Eve enjoyed relationships of perfect harmony with God, themselves, and the entire creation around them. Their sustenance was to be the fruit of the trees, of which their Creator said they could freely eat - except for the one tree, of course. But when they left Paradise, they entered a radically different world. It was a world that had been cursed rather than blessed: "Cursed be the earth because of you; in toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, and you shall eat of the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground" (Gen. 3:17b-19).

From a Paradise of communion and harmony, man descended into a world of conflict and struggle. And so it has been ever since. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos wrote of Adam's grief over his loss of Paradise as follows:
"Adam pined on earth, and wept bitterly, and the earth was not pleasing to him. He was heartsick for God, and this was his cry: 'My soul wearies for the Lord, and I seek him in tears . . . My spirit strains to God, and there is nought on earth to make me glad, nor can my soul take comfort in anything . . . I cannot forget him for a single moment, and my soul languishes for him.'

Thus did Adam lament, and the tears streamed down his face on to his breast, and on to the ground beneath his feet; And the whole desert heard the sound of his mourning. The beasts and birds were hushed in grief, while Adam wept bitterly that peace and love were lost to all men on account of his sin. 
Adam knew great grief when he was banished from Paradise" (Wisdom from Mt. Athos, pp 47-48).

Along with the curse of his sin, so too Adam's yearning for peace, love, harmony and communion with God has been passed to all of us, his children. There is the wish in all of us to escape the conflict and struggle of life in this world.

And yet, paradoxically enough, we fallen human beings have an endless fascination with conflict. The entire history of the human race is the history of what? War. And when we are not preoccupied with war, what do we do? We invent artificial conflicts for our entertainment - these are called sports. Think of a boxing match or the clash on the football field. Or think back further to less civilized times to the gladiators and contests with wild beasts that would pack the Roman Coliseum. Think of the movies you pay to go see. What is the inevitable content? Conflict. You'll find it even in comedies. Love stories are not interesting unless the couple has to struggle to overcome all kinds of obstacles. Soap Operas embody an irreducible tension because the star-crossed lovers can never really seem to achieve the happiness they truly deserve; or if they do, it is only temporary before something disrupts it.

Look at the religious myths of mankind: notice the struggle between the gods, or between the gods and the forces of evil. Consider a Buddhist struggling to emancipate himself from the entanglements of desire. Observe Mohammed and his warriors riding out of the desert with raised swords to conquer the world for Islam. Read the Bible; ponder the gospel accounts, study the history of the Church. Conflict is the essential preoccupation of mankind.

It's odd when you think about it, but it's absolutely incontrovertible. As much as we human beings purport to desire peace and harmony, we are addicted to conflict. We love it. If you were to attend a movie that showed nothing but people at peace and in harmony with each other, you'd find yourself horribly bored. Admit it! It's true.

Of course, the question is, "why is this so?" I'm not really sure I can answer that. I can only say that this is the nature of life in the world. It's what we understand. It's the world we live in. We identify with it because it's what we know - even if we don't entirely like it.

Compare the example of two wealthy men. One has earned it, and the other has inherited it. Which one commands more respect? The one who has earned it. Why? Because of the struggle, the conflict, he has successfully completed to gain it. No one amasses great wealth without showing immense ingenuity in overcoming all kinds of potential pitfalls. We admire that. If you just inherit your wealth, so what? You're not interesting.

Whether it's self-made millionaires, sports champions, generals victorious in battle, ascetics finding holiness in the desert, or lovers who overcome innumerable obstacles to be together, we admire those emerge triumphant from their conflicts. It's something that's simply stamped on human nature.

So now we have examined the loss of Paradise, our yearning to regain it, our unending fascination with conflict, and our admiration for those who successfully complete their struggle and attain their goals. At this point, we can understand Great Lent.

We commemorate the expulsion from Paradise because we wish to regain it. Yes, we do pine and yearn for harmony and communion with God, each other, and all of creation. As much as we might think that we would like for it to be just given to us, intuitively, we know better. We know that it can only be gained by the endurance of much conflict and at the conclusion of a great struggle. And we also know that the primary battleground is inside of us, in our hearts.

It is there where we must learn to control our tongue, that we never offer a hurtful word to another. It is there we learn to patiently endure the annoyances brought to us by others. It is there we learn to control our raging appetites. It is there where we renew our commitment to seek God. It is there where Christ or Satan will ultimately gain the upper hand. It is there where Paradise will ultimately be found.

During the Vespers of Cheesefare evening, as we undertake the Fast by first offering our forgiveness to each other, the choir will softly sing the canon of Pascha in the background. It is as if, in the darkened Cathedral, we are given a glimpse of the light that shines from our distant destination: the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ. 

We all know what our Saviour endured to attain his resurrection. If we hope to share in that resurrection, to partake of his immortality, and to commune with him in Paradise, then we too must engage his struggle, and enter the conflict with the forces of evil inside and outside of us. As the book of Hebrews puts it so eloquently, "Let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:1b-2).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we love a story with a happy ending. But a story with a happy beginning, a happy middle and a happy ending would be a bore. We all desire the happy ending - Paradise. But first there must be the struggle; the conflict must come. There is an enemy to be vanquished. In the words of the Church, then, "Let us hasten to the subjugation of the flesh by abstinence as we approach the divine battlefield, the battlefield of blameless fasting."

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