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Feast Not with the Old Leaven: The Ascetical Life and Easter
Your family prescribes Easter lamb and ham each year. While you are feasting on your ham: what kind of feasting does the Church prescribe for all of Easter?
Now that Lent is over and we celebrate Easter, what do we do? We know what to do during Lent, but all we think to do during Easter is feast. To know what true Easter feasting is, we need a true understanding of what Lent is…
What is Lent? One aspect of Lent that is particularly relevant is the spiritual combat against inordinate passions. According to St Thomas, there are uses of the passions (anger, sorrow, etc.) according to reason, and there are uses of our passions contrary to reason (gluttony, excessive or inappropriate anger, worldly sorrow, etc). It is a time for mortification, particularly interior mortification. We practice interior mortification by abstaining from the use of material things that are even neutral or good, especially those things which we desire.
By so doing, we begin to die to ourselves. Dying to self in its perfection means humbling ourselves to obey or serve legitimate authorities, even when we do not want to (such as various inconvenient civil ordinances about which end of the road to park on during winter). Mortification culminates in our uniting our suffering and self-denial with the suffering and death of Christ in his Passion. Our own death is the baptism into Christ recalled at the Easter Vigil, after which we will rise with Christ.
But there is no Resurrection without the Passion.
Now that we have completed Lent, we shouldn’t want to go back to the way things were. There is a joy in Easter, and in fact, the death to self fostered during Lent is part of that joy. The greatest joy is the new life we have from baptism into Christ. However, the old man needs to remain dead for us to abide in Christ. Rather than feasting like a glutton, therefore, here is how we should feast:
Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
(1 Cor 5:8)
The old leaven is our sinfulness. According to St. Anselm, we have “a ferment with sin.” Our sinfulness is all of our old vices, our predominant passion, every evil we return to like a dog to its vomit. The leaven of malice and wickedness is the tendency towards sin and away from God. According to St. Anselm, a glance contrary to God’s Will dishonors God so much that it requires a great recompense. In a word, the old leaven is our inordinate passions.
But here we are in Easter, and so we are to feast on grace through the sacraments, which nourish us with the unleavened bread as we make our way out of the Egypt of sin. We must eat the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, turning away from the idolatry of Egypt, eating quickly and in haste as Christ our true Passover helps us to escape. Sincerity and truth is essentially simplicity and the spirit of Christ, who always did His principal works in the light of day, as opposed to Judas, who perpetrated his final evil in the darkness. Indeed, the season of Easter is a season of grace, and the Easter obligation for receiving Holy Communion is there for a reason.
During the Easter Vigil itself, we renew our baptismal vows to renew our entry into the life of grace and redouble our commitment to a life in Christ. In our baptism we received sanctifying grace, and membership into the body of Christ. We entered into the death of Christ, after which we rise with Christ into new life: “For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). And we can renew these baptismal graces by taking on the ascetic life.
In the monastic ideal, the ascetical life is the entry into the cloister, which is, according to Peter of Celle, being lifted onto the cross-beam (patibulum) of the crucifix “[w]here Jesus with the thieves is suspended, but Jesus not because he deserved it, but because he willed it, but them because they deserved it, and not because they willed it” (Tractatus de disciplina claustrali, Cap. XVI). There we will be dead to the world, the flesh, and the devil, separated from worldly affairs in every way. Anselm Stoltz says that the ascetical life is like a second baptism, a “mystical death [achieved] by never separating yourself from Christ for empty pleasures”: we die to self for Christ and in Christ.
For the rest of us who are not monks, we can aspire to the ideal, but adapt it to our way of life. We can separate ourselves from the world with regards to our desires, not putting our heart into the things of the world. Not being worldly is not meant to be something easy, such as when we accept our own lack of wealth. That is easy enough for a reasonable Christian to accept. Rather, separating from the world means accepting truly unfortunate circumstances, instead of fearing or raging over not having a job or a home. Is such a thing possible for those of us not in a cloister? Indeed, there have been many non-monastic saints.
So how does the Church call us to feast? Easter is the greatest season of grace, and our “feast” is the Eucharist, which gives us sustenance and grace to live with and in Christ. With the help of God’s grace we will turn away from the world and put off “the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error” (Eph 4:22).
Finally, after properly feasting for Easter, we are told: “be renewed in the spirit of your mind: And put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth” (Eph 4: 23-24).