Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Lent - a school of repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

"To the questions:  What is repentance?  Why do we need it?  How are we to practice it? - Great Lent gives the answer.  It is indeed a school of repentance to which every Christian must go every year in order to deepen his faith, to re-evaluate, and, if possible, to change his life.  It is a wonderful pilgrimage to the very sources of Orthodox faith - a rediscovery of the Orthodox way of life."

- Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 9)

In his book, Great Lent, Fr. Alexander Schmemann actually begins with the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the four pre-Lenten Sundays.  We have now been through four of those five Sundays as we prepare for this year's Great Lent only a week away from today.  Looking at this pre-Lenten period collectively, Fr. Alexander summarizes it thus:

    ... The weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the time for the response, for the decision and the planning.  And the best
    and easiest way here is to follow the Church's guidance - be it only by meditating on the five Gospel themes offered to us on the five Sundays of the pre-
    Lenten season:  that of desire (Zacchaeus), of humility (Publican and Pharisee), of the return from exile (Prodigal Son), of the judgment (Last Judgment),
    of forgiveness (Forgiveness Sunday).  These Gospel lessons are not merely to be listened to in church; the whole point is that they are to be "taken home"
    and meditated upon in terms of my life, my family situation, my professional obligations, my concern for material things, my relation to the concrete
    human beings with whom I live. If to this meditation one adds the prayer of that pre-Lenten season, "Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of life ..."
    and Psalm 137 - "By the waters of Babylon ..." - one begins to understand what it mean to "feel with the Church" how a liturgical season colors the daily
    life.  (Great Lent, p. 90-91)

Yesterday was, of course, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, a "commemoration" that can only have an impact on our lives if we take seriously the notion that each and every one of us will stand before the "dread judgment seat of Christ" at some appointed time in the future, hopefully able to offer a "good defense" (apologia).  In this Last Judgment, we will find out just who we actually were in our lives in this world.  There will be nowhere to hide and nothing to hide.  All will be brought out into the open - or rather before the dazzling light of Christ in glory.  What we will present to Christ to judge us by is what we are "working on" right now in the day-to-day existence of our lives.  That is a thought simultaneously intimidating and hopeful.  It is intimidating because we all know that we can somehow get lost along the road of life - in our passions, our petty preoccupations, and in any predispositions to sin.  It is hopeful because to give a "little one" a cup of water to drink is praised by Christ as an act of meaningful charity - and that is always an act that will expand the heart to embrace the neighbor in an act of personal love, delivering us from the "hell" of self-absorption and self-isolation.  As I like to say, each and every one of us is working on our own eulogy to be shared with others at our respective funerals. Our life is the text of that upcoming eulogy that we are "writing," again, on a daily basis. I am hoping that the priest can say about me more than that I was a "nice person" who took care of my family and "minded my own business." The Parable of the Last Judgment goes far beyond such prosaic considerations and confronts us with how we responded to the "other," especially the one in need (of clothing, of food, of drink, of hospitality, of a visit).  The parable is about the discovery of the "person" more than about "social activism," I believe. 

In the words of Fr. Schmemann:

    The parable of the Last Judgment is about Christian love.  Not all of us are called to work for "humanity," yet each of us has received the gift and the grace
    of Christ's love.  We know that all men ultimately need this personal love - the recognition in them of their unique soul in which the beauty of the whole
    creation is reflected in a unique way.  We also know that men are in prison and are sick and thirsty and hungry because that personal love has been denied
    them.  And, finally, we know that however narrow and limited the framework of our personal existence, each one of us has been made responsible for a tiny
    part of the Kingdom of God, made responsible by that very gift of Christ's love.  Thus, on whether or not we have accepted this responsibility, on whether we
    have loved or refused to love, shall we be judged.  For "inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me ..."
    (Great Lent, p. 26)

The limitless patience, compassion and love of God are revealed in the incomparable Parable of the Prodigal Son. According to Christ, it is never too late to repent.  And yet, the Parable of the Last Judgment reveals the equally essential truth that we will "answer" for the life we led given to us as a gift from the God who is love.

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