The Old Man
In order to fulfill our vocation in Christ, we must first confront the unruly nature of Adam that wars against us. His disobedience, and the continual rebellion of his descendants, lives on in each of us. The root-cause of our sins continues to be self-love. On the most basic level, we seek our own survival. But even when these needs are met, we continue to pursue endless comforts and pleasures, placing ourselves above all others. Like Eve as she gazed at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we desire that which is not ours, and so we snatch it for ourselves. Even after we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, we continue to struggle with “the old man” (Eph 4:22). St. Paul laments, “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Rom 7:22–23).
In becoming a man, Jesus Christ “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:16). He encountered and defeated temptation, never giving into it or wavering in his response. When tempted three times by Satan after his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus reversed the threefold disobedience of Eve. Whereas she desired the fruit with her stomach, Christ responds, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:3–4); whereas she misused her senses by longing for the world (represented by the fruit), Christ rejects the world and all its fallen power (4:5–8); and whereas she listened to the serpent and desired the fruit to make her wise like God (thus exalting herself like Satan), Christ tells the devil, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (4:9–12). Having defeated the power of sin, Jesus then defeats death itself by his resurrection, destroying the unjust dominion of the evil one over God’s creatures. In Christ, we participate in this victory as he empowers us to overcome sin, corruption, and the devil. Yet, to invite his grace into our daily struggle with sin, we must strike a blow against “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) through the practice of asceticism.
The term “asceticism” is derived from the Greek verb meaning “to train,” and referred to the rigorous exercises employed by athletes in preparation for competition. St. Paul says in Acts, “I myself always train [askō] to have a conscience without offense toward God and men” (24:16). Elsewhere, he describes the benefit of asceticism more clearly: “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). The goal of such discipline is to curb our disorderly desires and redirect our spirit towards God. The three pillars of asceticism are fasting, prayer, and acts of mercy. Fasting strikes a blow at our most fundamental bodily appetites by controlling when, what, and how much we eat. According to the Teaching of the Twelve (Didache), Christians should fast at least twice weekly, on Wednesdays (the day of our Lord was betrayed) and Fridays (the day of the crucifixion). In addition, the Church practices longer periods of fasting throughout the year, including the Great Fast (Lent) in the spring. Fasting should always be united with prayer (cf. Mark 9:29). While fasting disciplines the body, prayer disciplines the mind and directs it away from the senses (the external world) and back towards God (who meets us in the interior “closet” of our hearts). The third component of asceticism is acts of mercy (eleēmosynē). Although this sometimes refers to almsgiving (monetary charity), more generally it signifies any selfless act performed for another. Such acts of mercy serve to turn our hearts away from self-love and pride, and toward love for our fellow human beings made in God’s image. St. John writes, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20). Through acts of mercy, we learn the meaning of agapē, which is an action, not a sentiment.
In the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4–15), Christ tells us that it is only the good soil that is capable of receiving the word of God and bearing fruit. This is not an innate condition, or we would not be held accountable for the outcome. Rather, the Church Fathers understand the work of asceticism as the necessary preparation to respond to God. When we combine the power of fasting, prayer, and acts of mercy in our regular spiritual endeavors, we till the soil of the heart. This is the way to reject the ploy of the serpent that deceived our first parents, and to enable us then to grow into the image of Jesus Christ, our perfect King, Priest, and Prophet.