by Jason+ Radcliff
In his classic introduction to the “ascetic” or spiritually disciplined life in his book Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander says:
“The holy Fathers [and Mothers] say with one voice: The first thing to keep in mind is never in any respect to rely on yourself. The warfare that now lies before you is extraordinarily hard, and your own human powers are altogether insufficient to carry it on. If you rely on them you will immediately be felled to the ground and have no desire to continue the battle. Only God can give you the victory you wish.”
Colliander, synthesizing the consensus of the early Christian tradition, puts his finger on the heart of Lent (the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays, starting with Ash Wednesday) and, more generally, of asceticism (spiritual disciplines/practices): Only God can give us victory. My personal experience of Lent and spiritual discipline has been a discovery of this very point: The spiritual disciplines and the tools I use to celebrate Lent are not a work I do, but rather tools I use to deny my own work to open myself up more to the work of God in me, the victory of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. As St. Paul says: “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 the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
Perhaps my favorite depiction of the ascetic life is The Life of Antony by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (died circa 373 C.E.). Full of surreal encounters with demons, the devil and temptation, the text is Athanasius’ biography of Antony’s move into the Egyptian desert and, Athanasius argues, the founding of monasticism. Throughout The Life of Antony, Athanasius makes it clear again and again that it was not Antony’s strength that enabled him to overcome temptation (and Antony was tempted in wild and intense ways!), but “the victory of Christ in Antony.” God is always the one—through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit—who is working in Antony, defeating temptation in his life.
Lent is arguably a microcosm of the whole ascetic life. It is a clear and obvious appropriation of the victory of Christ over sin and temptation in the life of the Church and the life of the Christian. In Lent, we make the victory of Christ over temptation in the wilderness of sin (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13) our own, appropriating the life of Christ for ourselves. The heart of this is a victory empowered by the Holy Spirit, who drove Christ into the desert in the first place.
In Lent, we learn to rely not on ourselves but upon the victory of Christ in us, a victory already won through the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ. In Lent we learn more deeply that “God has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6). In Lent, we allow the Holy Spirit to make the victory of Christ, already won, permeate our lives more intentionally, more deeply.
Jason+ Radcliff (Ph.D., Edinburgh), lives, teaches and ministers at The Stony Brook School, a college prep boarding school in New York. He is the author of Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers (2014), Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (2018) and Grace and Incarnation: The Oxford Movement’s Shaping of the Character of Modern Anglicanism (2020), all published by Wipf & Stock, as well as of numerous essays and articles.