Make straight the way of the Lord

WHAT do you say about yourself?

He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said.

See John 1:18-28, our reading for today (Renewal Monday, the day after Pascha).

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An icon of the Resurrection of Christ

"Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death."

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THE voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low: and all the crooked ways shall become straight, and the rough places plains.

Isaiah 40:3-4 (LXX).

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St Maximus the Confessor explored the metaphorical application of this to the spiritual life.

First, he warns that the mere labour of preparation is not of itself the point.

THE man who pursues immersion in virtue or the study of the divine words neither for the sake of glory, nor as a pretext for arrogance (1 Thess 2:5), nor for the sake of flattery and popularity, or for display, but does and says and thinks everything for God, such a man walks in the path of truth and knowledge.

For the divine Word has not formed a fondness for dwelling in paths that are not straight, even if he finds his way in them prepared.

Picture a man who fasts and abstains from a way of life which stirs up the passions: picture all he does, whatever he can toss together in the interests of freedom from evil: such a man has done what we called “preparing the way”.

But he who pursues such methods out of vainglory or arrogance or flattery or another cause, apart from being well-pleasing in a divine way, such a man does not make straight the ways of God. And for all that he may have undergone the labour of preparing a way, he does not have God walking in his ways.

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St Maximus the Confessor

St Maximus the Confessor

In this next section, Maximus speaks of God mining our passions like so much gravel, in order to make his paths smooth, a particularly ingenious and uplifting insight. The idea of “trampling down” evil seems especially apposite at Easter.

“EVERY valley shall be filled”: not every valley simply stated, nor those of everyone. For it does not include those who do not prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.

When the valley — i.e. that of the flesh or the soul — of those preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight, is filled with knowledge and virtue by the presence of the Word walking in them by the commandments of God, then all the spirits of evil and of knowledge falsely so called (1 Tim 6:20) are “brought low”, as he tramples them down and puts them in subjection, overthrowing that evil power raised up against human nature, levelling it as if it were the vastness and height of mountains and hills, and using it to fill the valleys.

For the rejection of passions which stand contrary to nature, and the acceptance of virtues which are in accord with nature, fills up the soul with all its valleys, and “brings low” the tyranny of the mountainous heaps of the malicious spirits.

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Finally, people often talk about being “thankful” for sufferings. Maximus makes it clear that it is not the sufferings themselves in which we rejoice, but the thought of the spiritual benefits that accrue from them.

THE “rough places” — that is to say, the attacks of involuntary trials — they shall become “smooth” ways: especially so when, with the eye of the heart rejoicing and glad, he finds contentment in weaknesses and tribulations and necessities (2 Cor 12:10) because, through these unwilling labours, he has been deprived of all the tyranny of passions in which he might have indulged willingly.

For Isaiah calls “rough places” the experiences of unwilling trials, transformed into “smooth ways” by a patient endurance characterised by thankfulness.

Fourth Century on Theology (aka Second Century of Various Texts) in the Philokalia, §§51-54. My amateur translation. I felt it was too long a passage to copy and paste from the Sherrard, Palmer and Ware translation, Vol II pp. 197-198.

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THE day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another.

Let us say, brethren, even to those that hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection’, and so let us cry,

‘Christ has risen from the dead: by death he has trampled on death, and to those in the graves given life’.

Christ has risen from the dead, by death he has trampled on death: and to those in the graves given life. (x3)

Vespers on Holy and Great Pascha. Translation from Anastasis.

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