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"
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
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."
> Other articles