Monday, March 3, 2014

As We Start the Fast Together . . .

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Perhaps I can briefly summarize a few points from yesterday morning's homily here as the First Week of Great Lent begins.

Great Lent is a journey toward Holy Week and the Paschal mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.  Essentially, Great Lent is about Christ and our relationship with Him, a relationship that always need constant vigilance and renewal.   Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tools that assist us in growing closer to Christ.

A spiritually-healthy approach to and attitude toward Great Lent is also essential.  This is expressed quite well by Fr. Thomas Hopko at the beginning of his book The Lenten Spring:

The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation.  She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience.  The tone of the church services is one of brightness and light.  The words are a clarion call to a spiritual adventure, the summons to a spiritual feat.  There is nothing gloomy here, nothing dark or remorseful, masochistic or morbid, anxious or hysterical, pietistic or sentimental.  The Lenten spring in the Church is one of splendor and delight.  It breathes with the exhilaration of those girding up to "fight the good fight, for the One who loves them and has given Himself to them for the sake of their salvation. — The Lenten Spring, p. 9.

Thinking that Great Lent is about repressing our desires - or even "sacrificing" something - is probably caused by the fact that we are venturing outside of our "comfort  zones" that are based on an established pattern of living that has become habitual.  Great Lent is not oppressive, but liberating. But moving toward liberation can very well be painful, at least initially.  It is an ascetical effort that demands self-discipline.

Every household must work out a "domestic strategy" for observing Great Lent.  The fasting rules are rigorous, so each household needs to accommodate these rules to its own peculiar capacity.  Straining ourselves beyond that capacity does not serve a good purpose.  It can only lead to frustration and irritation.  However, we should still try and maximize our efforts, as minimalism is ineffective. This goes far beyond how we fast from certain foods and drinks.  We might just ask ourselves how much time we spend on empty entertainment - and what can replace it. The point is to create a "lenten atmosphere" in the  home, an awareness that we are engaged in meaningful task as a household.

Great Lent is a communal effort ultimately.  We are in this together. We embark upon Great Lent as a community.  We offer mutual support to each other through prayer, a willingness to help others in need, spiritually-healthy conversation - even the sharing of recipes!  Our own personal efforts are strengthened when we realize that others are engaged in the same struggles.  We must respect the fact that our fellow parishioners are observing Great Lent, without judging others or comparing ourselves with them.

In hearing the chosen Gospel reading for Forgiveness Sunday (MATT. 6:14-21), we realize that our Lenten efforts are meaningless unless we are willing to forgive others their offenses against us - real or imagined.   That forgiveness may be a slow processes in some cases, but it must remain our ultimate goal.  To choose not to forgive is to live contrary to the spirit of the Gospel.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote of "taking Lent seriously." Serious is not synonymous with gloomy.  The Fathers speak of a "bright sadness" that captures the need to repent of our sins, but also the utter joy of experiencing the forgiveness of God.  May that be our common experience.

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