“Therefore, my beloved…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12)
This is what we Orthodox Christians do all the time, but especially through Great Lent. We take from the reliquary of our souls the most precious Pearl who is Christ in whom we were baptized, but we first wash ourselves clean as we had been on our baptismal day through fasting and prayer. We start again as infants, knowing that He will be patient with us as one is with children, understanding and forgiving our foolish and sinful straying from His loving arms. He takes us as we are, so that we may develop into the fullness of mature Christian lives of responsibility.
We “work out,” a common phrase in our society meaning physical activity, but for us it involves spiritual effort properly called asceticism. We challenge our passions, convinced that without grace it would be a hopeless task to rid ourselves of all that is destructive to our salvation and life in God’s Kingdom. Grace comes by repentance followed with the faith conviction that “with God all things are possible,” including the transformation of our minds, attitudes and presumptions detrimental to our transformation.
“With fear and trembling”—fear having two meanings. For those with the mind-set of slaves, fear is the motivation for entry into heaven. They want to do whatever is required, nothing more. The slave is a minimalist. He fears a God who makes unwanted demands on his or her way of life. Like the elder brother of the Prodigal, he lives according to the law. He fears hell but has little love for God or humanity. The superior fear is that of a loving child who is cautious not to presume on the love God has for him or her. “Let us boldly and without condemnation dare to call upon Thee our heavenly Father” we hear before we all pray: “Our Father…” We tremble lest we take for granted the most precious gift conceivable—that we mere creatures are invited to share everlasting life with the angels, saints and God Himself, the Holy Trinity. And we tremble with the joy of anticipation, yearning for the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come.
We start at the beginning of Great Lent as spiritual rookies without presumption, or “attitude,” at the foothill of Mt. Tabor, aware that the height is for the mature. As St. Maximus Confessor put it:
“The Lord doesn’t appear to all in the same way. To beginners He appears in the form of a servant; to those who can climb the Mount of Transfiguration, He has the image ‘which He had before the world was.’”
We pray that His will be done in our lives, and yet we resist His will, like our ancient forefather Adam, preferring to do it our way. We even pray that He understands, rather than conforming our own limited plans to whatever the Holy Spirit is willing to do in us by His grace. We imbibe the foolishness of our society through the media, seeking diversion and entertainment rather than to enter the closet of our souls and meditate on the dark places of our souls, yearning for illumination.
From our baptism the Lord is concealed in the deepest part of our souls, waiting to be invited to share divinity with us, but the door of entry is closed; and we alone have the knob that will welcome Him in. The mustard seed was planted in your soul at baptism, waiting to be watered by tears of repentance and nourished with prayer and meditation. The lost coin fell in the floor of your soul, waiting to be discovered by the light of salvation that the Lord will bring only if you are aware that you had lost it.