It’s almost the New Year, and in a few days it will be the Sunday before Theophany, the manifestation of the Triune God during Christ’s baptism. That’s a pretty awesome combination of things.
Only a few days after this Sunday, the Church helps us begin our year by showing us God in Trinity, manifesting Himself through the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Incarnate Son of God as the Father bears witness to Him. The Church shows us the fulfillment of our hearts’ desire at the beginning of the year, the time in which we deliberately take stock of the last year, and set course with renewed vigor to follow the Lord.
Before we liturgically celebrate the baptism of Christ, however, the Church invites us to spend a little bit of time with St. John, the Lord’s Forerunner and Baptist. St. John, we are told, was given a primary purpose in his ministry: to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make his paths straight” (Mk. 1:3).
As I approach the New Year and am considering what resolutions I intend to make, I can’t help but think of them in the light of St. John the Baptist. While I cannot make God manifest Himself in Triune Glory (He does that on His own), I am called to prepare His way, to make His paths straight within my own heart.
Admittedly, I can be a bit lazy about my spiritual life; indeed, even referring to it as “my spiritual life” divorces it from the reality that all of life is spiritual, all of life is meant to be lived in communion with God.
And this communion with God is meant to be transformative for my heart, for my life. Not just so I’ll have a “good spiritual life,” but so that my entire life may be spiritually transformed.
In recent years, many sociologists and religious academic types have given attention to what Christian Smith in Soul Searching described as the mainstream American religious belief. A mutant form of Christianity, Smith coined a new phrase to describe the most popular religious belief of the day: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD).
MTD, while not an organized belief system, corrupts the truth of the Christian faith, suggesting that God is a distant God who remains uninvolved in our lives except to give blessings or to help solve problems (Deism). Other than that, God simply wants us to be nice to each other (Moralistic) and feel good about ourselves as we strive to be “happy” (Therapeutic).
And then we go to heaven when we die.
It is not difficult to see how this is a mutant form of Christianity, and very few of us would explicitly define our faith in these terms. But functionally, I find that I am drawn toward MTD, often thinking that I’m doing alright as a Christian if I talk nicely to others or if I just give enough time or enough money. Ultimately, it seems that being a Christian, following Christ, tends to be about meeting my own desires for a happy and successful life – not a spiritual one.
Part of the problem with MTD is that it is a lackluster version of the Christian faith because it misses Christ’s call, which, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, is to “come and die.” Christ doesn’t just ask me to spend time investing in “my spiritual life,” but rather, He bids me to follow Him, to give Him my everything.
This Sunday, St. John the Baptist shows us that MTD, that having a “spiritual life” doesn’t cut it. The Lord asks us to make his path straight in our hearts, and to do so is going to take our all. As St. (oh, whoops) C.S. Lewis writes:
Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.
When we meet St. John this Sunday, he is walking around the desert, wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts. This is a man who clearly believed that the call to make the Lord’s path straight entailed more than putting on a tie every Sunday or, even, being “spiritual but not religious.”
For St. John, and for us, the call to follow Christ is a call to give up everything, to give up our whole selves.
To give up our very lives.
Too long I have lived a lackluster faith that I’ve convinced myself doesn’t ask anything more from me than simply knowing all the right answers at Orthodox Trivia Night or making a quick sign of the cross before I eat. But St. John and his camel hair shirt this week make me realize something: preparing the path of the Lord is hard and uncomfortable work. And it’s worth it.
It’s the taking up of the cross.
We live in a culture that encourages us to eat whatever (and whenever) we want: fasting is a way of giving up that right.
We are engulfed in consumerism, and told that we are what we buy: tithing kills this, reminding us that our money is God’s and that our possessions don’t define us.
We are immersed in social media and entertainment, which we use to distract us from the otherwise endless slew of tasks and busyness: silence and solitude are the cross upon which these things die.
And as these things die, the false and broken version of myself dies with them.
As Christians, we take up the cross every day, we enter into death by continually and daily dying to ourselves. Though most of us will never be called to shed our blood in a literal sense, we are all called to put our selfish desires and jealous passions to death as we seek to join Christ in eternal life.
This is journey far different, and far more difficult, than mere self-improvement, because it involves the sacrifice of setting aside of the old self; of no longer being in the image of the old man, Adam, but of being in the image of the True Man, Jesus Christ.
So this year, I’m making a new resolution: I’m going to put myself to death.
I’m going to put aside my ego; set aside my struggles for and anxieties over wealth and prestige; give up my own distorted and selfish will and humbly open my life to the Lord’s will.
So that it will no longer be I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20).
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 196-197.
Happy New Year: brttyking via Compfight cc
Cross: -Mina- via Compfight cc
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.