Sometimes we can hear words, even understand their meaning, and still not comprehend them. Why? Because their significance is so far removed from the world that we know. It was like that 100 years ago, when the Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich Romanov learned that his father, the Tsar Nicholas, had abdicated the throne of the Russian Empire. Alexei’s father was still at the front when news reached the royal household. His mother Alexandra broke the news to his four sisters, but she asked Pierre Gilliard, the prince’s tutor, to tell the 13-year-old boy that he would never be tsar, indeed that no one would. Here is the account in Romanovs 1613-1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Gilliard told Alexei: “Your father doesn’t want to be commander-in-chief any more.”
Alexei was silent.
“You know your father doesn’t want to be tsar any more.”
“What!” said the boy in astonishment? “Why?”
“He’s very tired and has had a lot of trouble.”
“But won’t Papa be tsar again afterwards?”
Gilliard explained that Misha had abdicated.
“But who’s going to be tsar then?”
Gilliard was struck by Alexei’s modesty: “not a word about himself.”
“But if there isn’t a tsar,” he asked, “who’s going to rule Russia?” No one knew the answer (628-29).
Sometimes we can hear words, even understand them, and still not comprehend them. Their meaning is so far removed from the world in which we live: A tsar-less Russia was incomprehensible to the prince.
The first Sunday of Lent we encounter what St. Paul called “the two Adams.” With his act of disobedience, the first ushers in death; the second, the new Adam, destroys death through his great act of obedience. The temptation for us—which religion itself does not remove—is to reduce obedience to a set of commandments, a list of teachings, preferably ones that we already obey and endorse.
In the 300 years of Romanov rule, the Russian people became accustomed to the idea that a virtuous life meant following the commands of one person, the tsar. That sounds like a very restrictive way to live, but some desired it and still do. Why? Because everyone knows what to expect from others and what is expected of the self. Though it does so at a terrible price, autocracy banishes ambiguity.
Our discipleship cannot be reduced to dogmas and dictates.
Christ reveals a radically different way to be human: one that does not draw lines behind which we can hide. In obedience to the Father, he pours himself out, surrenders himself. That is why our discipleship cannot be reduced to dogmas and dictates. To follow Christ is to pour ourselves out, to surrender ourselves, to give way to the ambiguity of openness.
A commandment or a doctrine either teaches us, concretely, what it means to pour ourselves out in love of others, to surrender to God’s will, or they have no purpose, no meaning. But the commandments and the doctrines, which the church teaches, possess both. Our temptation is to restrict their purpose, their meaning, to something that can be measured by us, something that we can control. We drain them of that ambiguity we could call the Holy Spirit.
To say, “I believe in God” is to renounce a thousand little tsars that tempt us to limit life.
When we are in control, we find ourselves confessing to comfortable sins—about failing to pray, gossiping a little, taking the Lord’s name in vain, being impatient. These are indeed sins, but the greater sin is focusing attention upon them as a way of ignoring our failure to live like Christ, to pour ourselves out. And so, we do not talk about failing to reach out to those from whom we are estranged. We do not confess to living comfortably when so many do not. We do not speak of our failure to witness to our faith. No, we count up a few, presentable sins of commission; the many sins of omission are forgotten.
To love the mystery that we call God with all our hearts means not settling for something less than God, especially not in our way of living. That is why we are never freer, never more ourselves, than in the liturgy. Here we stand before utter mystery; we set ourselves free from life’s idols. To say, “I believe in God” is to renounce a thousand little tsars, imposed and invested, that tempt us to limit life. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love unconditionally, unselfishly. Love metered out is not love.
Some would argue that contemporary Russians still prefer a tsarist way of life, with someone who tells them what to do, because that greatly simplifies one’s duty. But Christ is not a tsar. He does not measure out the meaning of salvation. Every Lent the church asks us to consider again our obedience to Christ, our imitation of Christ. Is it something limited, controlled and contained? If it is, we may indeed be keeping a few well-worn commandments, but we haven’t yet begun to live as Christ commanded. We hear and understand what it means to pour out the self, but, as yet, we can’t comprehend it, because our world has no place for the openness, the ambiguity required.
Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7 Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4: 1-11