In our lectionary, the Epistle to the Romans is read during the first weeks after Pentecost. Why is this section appointed for this Sunday? … because “the day is at hand.” The Great Fast begins this evening with “Forgiveness Vespers.” We have the opportunity to be untied from “our attachment to the things of this present world,” to “cast off the works of darkness, and … put on the armor of light” (v. 13), through the observances of the Fast. Appropriate as these words may be on this day, we know that they were not written with the Fast in mind; there was no Great Fast in St Paul’s day. To what was he referring?
Commentators believe that St Paul’s sense of urgency derived from the portentous events in the Roman Empire of his day. The persecution of the Church had begun. Jewish unrest was intensifying and a full-scale revolt would be mounted in a few short years, bringing about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would be coming soon; many Christians believed that He (Jesus) would be returning soon. The “Day of the Lord” was at hand. For St Paul, this critical time in the history of the Church and the Jewish nation demanded that Christians focus their attention on the fundamental truth of their existence: they had a unique relationship to God in Christ. Everyone in the world was related to God as the work of His hands; Christians, however, were related to Him as His adopted children, God “having predestined us to adoption as sons” (Ephesians 1:5) in order to make present throughout the world the Gospel of salvation in Christ. It is this reality which should define a Christian’s way of life at this time.
St John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, says that St Paul “… puts the Resurrection close at hand. For, as time advances, he means, the season of our present life is wasting away, and the life to come approaches. If, then, you are prepared, and have done all that He has commanded, that day is salvation for you; but if you are not ready, it is not so.” That is not some kind of threat for Chrysostom: “It is not to alarm them that he exhorts them in this way, but out of kindness, in order to untie them from their attachment to the things of this present world” (Homily on Romans).
Most of us are quite happy to be attached to the things of this present world and resist parting from them. It is not unusual to find older people, who have moved from a family home to smaller quarters, tying to cram all “their things” into one or two rooms. Few are those who come to realize that, as the saying goes, “what you own, owns you.” For St Paul, our “things” are not something to hold on to, but to leave behind happily, because what waits us is so far superior.
Wakefulness and SleepSt Paul uses a number of contrasting examples in his epistles to represent the difference between the ways of believers and those of non-believers. Christians are told to be awake rather than to sleep, for “the night is far spent, the day is at hand” (v.12).
In the ancient world, sleep was frequently an image of death. As a descent into uncon-sciousness, sleep foreshadows the end of life. Because it is temporary, however, sleep is also an image pointing to the resurrection. At Christ’s resurrection, we are told in the Gospel, “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen sleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52). To be asleep is, in effect, to be dead.
Sleep is also an image of inattention when contrasted to watchfulness. The sentry is awake, alert to any danger. Thus St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Therefore, let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober…” (1 Thessalonians 5:7, 8). Sleep and drunkenness are equally devastating to a sentry who is supposedly on watch.
The need for wakefulness was apparently well known to the Christians of St Paul’s day, Writing to the Ephesians, he cites what seems to have been a popular saying, “Therefore it is said: ‘Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’ See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16). Believers, like sentries, need to be awake to see the dangers to faith in a godless society and distance themselves from them.
Light and DarknessThe images of sleep and night are connected to another set of images, used even longer to contrast the way of God and the ways of this world. We find the image of light in the midst of darkness representing the coming of the Messiah in the Book of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light had shined” (Isaiah 9:2). This passage is quoted in Matthew 4:16 as fulfilled when the Lord Jesus began His ministry. And, of course, Jesus is, in His own words, the Light of the world.
Casting Off and Putting OnThe final pair of contrasts St Paul uses here is that of old and new garments. We are to “Cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Armor, of course, suggests a soldier dressed for combat and St Paul develops that aspect of the image in Ephesians 6:11-18. “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11). Putting-on and taking-off becomes an important rite in the mystery of baptism, where the removal of one’s ordinary garments represents the catechumen’s willingness to die to sin. The new life in Christ is, of course, represented by the white baptismal garment, the “robe of light,” which the newly-baptized puts on.
During this Great Fast, then, we who have put on the robe of light at our baptism are clled to put aside any form of physical or emotional self-gratification (what St Paul calls “revelry and drunkenness… lewdness and lust… strife and envy”) through fasting, almsgiving and forgiveness. Similarly, by increased prayer and worship during these days, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The next section of this passage is equally important during the Fast: “Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant?” (Romans 14:3,4) We must be on guard lest our desire to keep the Fast with augmented prayer, fasting and almsgiving push us to judge the observance of others and thus render our own observance barren. As always in the Church, our brethren should be more important than our devotions or other practices. They are, after all, more important to God.
“The angel’s fiery sword will no longer guard the gates of Paradise, for the cross of the Lord has put it out wondrously…”
From the Kondakion at the Veneration of the Cross