Stanley S. Harakas is a former professor of theology at Holy Cross Creek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. His most recent book is a collection of biblical reflections, Of Life and Salvation (Light & Life Publishing).
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February, 19, 1997, p. 187, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Lent calls us to return to the source of our power: the victory of Christ.
Lent is a journey. It leads from recognition of the weakness and powerlessness before the forces of evil and sin to victory over those forces through the cross and empty tomb. The reading from 1 Corinthians focuses attention on the cross as the power of Christ: "For the word, of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (RSV).
Power was a dominant theme in early Christian reflection on salvation. Seeing salvation and redemption in terms of power is rooted in the Johannine imagery of darkness and light. There is a power struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. John understands the work of salvation as Christ’s victory over the demonic -- causing "death to die," as one Orthodox hymn puts it.
Irenaeus (130-200), bishop of Lyon, presents an early Christian understanding of salvation as victory over the controlling powers of sin, evil and death: "Mankind, that had fallen into captivity, is now by God’s mercy delivered out of the power of them that held them in bondage. God had mercy upon his creation and bestowed upon them a new salvation through His Word, that is, Christ, so that men might learn by experience that they cannot’ attain to incorruption of themselves, but by God’s grace only."
Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén describes this understanding as the "classic" theory of the atonement. For, Aulén and the early church, this view accepts as real both the "dark, hostile forces of evil, and [God’s] victory over them by the divine self-sacrifice"-- to which must be added "and by Christ’s resurrection."
Paul affirms the theme of the power of the cross when he says that "the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who ‘are being saved it is the power of God." And Peter says, "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:23-24).
The Letter to the Colossians speaks of Christ’s redemptive work as "having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:14-15).
No other New Testament passage conveys the sense of power and victory over death, sin and evil -- everything demonic -- as does Paul’s appropriation and expansion of a passage from Isaiah: "‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘0 death, where is thy victory? 0 death, where is thy sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
In the Byzantine liturgical tradition, the third Sunday of Lent is devoted to the Adoration of the Holy Cross. Following the divine liturgy of the Eucharist, a tray of flowers and sweet basil is prepared. In its center is an upright cross. As it is carried in a procession around the interior of the church building, the congregation sings the hymn "Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us." Here, too, the cross is associated with the power of God.
One of the appointed hymns for the day speaks of Jesus Christ as the one "who demolished the power of the deceiver [the devil] and abolished the curse [of sin]." Another proclaims, "O Christ our Savior, we prepare ourselves for your most holy Passion; for you in your almighty power have brought to pass the salvation of the world."
Lent calls us to reaffirm our participation in the victory of Christ over the powers of death, sin and evil. It is no accident that the early church used the Lenten period to prepare catechumens for baptism, in which those who are baptized appropriate for themselves the redemptive work of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Lent calls us to repent for straying from our commitment to Christian identity and life. The values of the world too readily invade our consciousness and our lifestyles. In the process we become estranged from the power of the word of the cross. Our Christian orientation is vitiated, and so our power turns to weakness.
Above all, Lent calls us to return to the power and victory of our baptismal experience. Lent demands that we abandon the confidence we place in the things the world loves, which bring us weakness in the face of evil, sin and death. It is a provocation to return to our source of power and strength -- the victorious Christ.
Lent invites us to renewed life in Christ, when we can say with St. Paul in the face of every trial and tribulation, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us . . . Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:37, 39). Lent returns us to the power of the word of the cross, to what St. Paul described in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."