By Father Gabriel-Allan Boyd
A few years ago, I read a news story about a construction contractor in Poland, named Daniel Czapiewski. Daniel did something crazy. He wanted to make a profound and penetrating statement about the ill effects of Communism. So, he had his crew build a house upside down, with the peak of its roof as its base…and just to make it even more discombobulating he built it leaning a bit, eliminating the comfort of a reliable flat surface inside. His skillful crew could normally build an entire house in just three weeks, but this one took them more than 16 weeks to complete. Why? Because his workers were so disoriented by the bizarre angles of every surface and of having to walk on the slanted ceiling…that they constantly had to take breaks to get over their feeling of illness.
Today, many of the visitors to this house describe an even more profound feeling of illness as they simply tour through it. Guests have to enter at ground level through an attic window in the roof, and then they discover that the whole interior is thoroughly furnished in the style of Communist Realism…but inverted. In other words, throughout the house there’s a dresser with crystal objects on it, a toilet from the 1970’s, and vintage propaganda from the communist era blaring from an old television in the TV room…but all of these are mounted on the floor, slanted overhead. What people begin to understand when they walk through this house is that life in formerly Communist Poland turned everyone’s world upside down and off kilter… disorienting them to the point that it made their beloved country a sick one. It was a great motivator to want to flip their country and the world back upright, to no longer make people sick.
This Sunday’s Gospel Reading is an excerpt from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, where He also said some crazy sounding things to make a similar kind of point about the upside-down world we live in, like “Love your enemies.” This is the sermon that launched Jesus’ ministry. Large crowds were amazed and even shocked by what this new teacher was doing and saying. They’d begun to gather around Him in such great numbers…that Jesus saw the need to stop and give His first major stump speech. This is His manifesto…His platform speech of what He truly stands for. This is where He explains why He has come. Why has He come? He wants us to understand that the self-absorbed ways of the world around us aren’t normal. They don’t allow us to be truly human, because humanity was created to take on the loving, self-sacrificial, self-offering likeness of God. The world’s self-absorption wretchedly takes on the likeness of the evil one…and it merely turns our lives upside down and off kilter, disorienting us…and making us sick. Jesus came to flip that house back aright…to lead us back to God’s likeness and restore us to our original beauty…in Him.
The Matins hymns and verses this Sunday will have us meditate on Adam & Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. From the beginning, humanity was created to share the glory of God…to be as the holy Fathers say, “gods themselves through God’s grace,” if we would just believe in God, love God, show the love of God by keeping His commandments, obeying God, trusting God…not listening to the evil powers, not listening to the wisdom of this world. That serpent who deceived Adam & Eve continues attempting to deceive us through the earthly wisdom of keeping us in a state of frenzied rage. That serpent is the devil…but he seeks to make it our own choice, our own will taking precedence over and against God’s will. The evil one wants us listening to all those voices which are not the voice of God, obeying all those words that are not the Word of God, and therefore bringing death upon ourselves. It’s the ultimate insanity of an upside-down world, designed to keep us sick.
So here we are now, preparing for Lent to begin this Sunday night…and the Church, remembering Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, wants to remind us of the same thing, pointing us back to Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” and a theme of forgiveness. Essentially, She wants us to realize that in many ways, we ALL live upside-down lives…and through Lent we have a marvelous opportunity to let Christ turn our lives back upright…back toward wellness…back toward becoming truly human…intimately joined with Christ’s will.
In this Saturday’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches us to pray…“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses against us.” This Sunday, Jesus reiterates that by saying, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” In both sets of teachings from our Lord, the amount of forgiveness, restoration, and life we receive from God is in direct proportion to the degree in which we willingly forgive and offer life to those who have offended us. It’s in direct proportion to our willingness to participate in Christ’s spirit of forgiveness and love. So, before we enter the Lenten fast, the Church reminds us that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, no life, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. The Church wants us to know that a fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. We can’t travel down the road of Lent as isolated individuals…but rather, we must instead travel it together, as members of a family. This is the only way that Christ can turn us back upright again…can release us from slavery…and restore us to sanity. To forgive someone is to put God’s radiant forgiveness between me and my “enemy.” To forgive is to reject the hopeless, dead-ends of worldly human relationships and to unite with Christ.
So, we begin Lent this Sunday evening with Forgiveness Vespers. I hope you will make the time and effort to encounter this as your first asceticism of Lent. Come to this Vespers at 6PM, because it’s to your benefit to do so.
And as we use the tools of this Lent to further unite ourselves to Christ…turning us back upright, we’ll begin to blessedly resonate with Saint Paul’s words to the Church in Rome, from this coming Sunday morning’s Epistle Reading,
“Brothers & sisters, salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”