Dear Parish Faithful,
The gateway to divine repentance has been opened: let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of all a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.
(Sessional Hymn, Matins of Cheese Week)
Meatfare Sunday is behind us and we are now in The Week Before Lent known as Cheese Week approaching Cheesfare Sunday. If that sounds a bit esoteric, it simply means that – prepared or not - we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent on Monday, February 27. (But we did have four weeks of pre-lenten preparation). Holy Week follows Great Lent and that leads to Pascha on April 15. (The Western Easter in on April 8 this year, so today is Ash Wednesday for Roman Catholics and the beginning of Lent for them and for those Protestants who observe Lent). Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha are at the very heart of the liturgical year and of our lives as Orthodox Christians.
Great Lent is the “school of repentance.” It is roughly equivalent to an “annual tithe” in which we offer ourselves back to God so as to be received with love as was the prodigal son. As such, Great Lent is a gift from God, guiding us toward a way of life we may be reluctant to assume on our own, suffering as we often are from spiritual apathy or a simple lack of focus. Great Lent is also goal-oriented, for it leads us on a spiritual pilgrimage of preparation toward the “night brighter than the day” of Pascha and the Risen Lord. Great Lent is “sacred” and “soul-profiting.” It is a key component in the Orthodox Way of living out the Christian life we have been committed to in holy Baptism.
During Great Lent we will recover the essential practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These practices are the tools that can assist us in returning and remaining close to God. Liturgical services unique to Great Lent immerse us in a way of communal pray that is solemn and penitent; but which also lighten and unburden the soul through the mercy and grace of God so abundantly poured out upon us through these inspired services. You leave the church tired in body perhaps, but brighter inside – in the mind and heart. Great Lent invites us to see our neighbors as children of God and of equal value in the eyes of God, and thus deserving of our attention, patience and care. Charity can be distributed through material means or through an encouraging and warmly-spoken word. Great Lent liberates us from the excessive appetites of our bodies through the discipline of fasting. Our diet essentially becomes vegan as we seek to be less weighed down by a body overly-satiated with food and drink. This is healthy for both soul and body. The human person does not live by bread alone as the Lord taught us as He Himself fasted in the desert for forty days. We also fast from entertainment, bad habits, obsessions, useless distractions, vulgar language and the like. We try and simplify life and redeem our newfound time through more focused and virtue-creating tasks. If approached seriously, perhaps we will be able to carry some of this over into the paschal season – and beyond.
What can we do? How do we not squander this time set aside for God?
- Prayer - Make provision to be in church for some of the Lenten services. Start with the first week of Great Lent and the Canon of Repentance of St. Andrew of Crete. Assume or resume a regular Rule of Prayer in your home. Read the psalms and other Scripture carefully and prayerfully. Pray for others.
- Charity – Open your heart to your neighbor. If you believe that Christ dwells within you, then try and see Christ in your neighbor. Make your presence for the “other” encouraging and supportive. Restrain your “ego” for the sake of your neighbor. Help someone in a concrete manner this Great Lent.
- Fasting – Set domestic goals about the manner in which you will observe the fast. Test yourselves. Resist minimalism. If you “break” the fast, do not get discouraged or “give up,” but start over. Assume that your Orthodox neighbor is observing the fast. Seek silence. Allow for a different atmosphere in the home.
Jesus set the example of fasting for forty days. We imitate Him for the same period of forty days. If it was hard for Him, it will be hard for us; but not as hard as it was for Him. Jesus went to the Cross following His “holy week” in Jerusalem. We follow Him in our holy week observance and practices. Jesus was raised from the dead following His crucifixion, death and burial. We seek the resurrection of our spiritual lives here and now as we await our own death at the appointed time and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
“Taking Lent seriously” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s phrase) is a concrete sign of taking God seriously. Our surrounding culture is not serious about taking anything too seriously. When serious issues arise, however, people have a difficult time dealing with them. Yet Jesus was very serious. Especially when it came to issues of life and death – and God and salvation, and so forth. Great Lent helps us to focus on these very themes, therefore making it meaningful and important for our lives.