Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Great Lent - Journey to Pascha

Dear Parish Faithful,

One of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann's books that has become something of a "classic" is Great Lent - Journey to Pascha.  Countless Orthodox Christians - at least in North America, though the book has been translated into other languages - have been deeply inspired by Fr. Alexander's fresh and dynamic analysis of the meaning and purpose of the Church's unique Lenten services.  It is hard not to experience the Canon of Repentance by St. Andrew of Crete; or the Presanctified Liturgy in a new and exciting way after reading Fr. Alexander's book.  Fr. Alexander makes one look forward to these services.  Even his approach to Great Lent as a "journey" to Pascha is deeply captivating.  As Fr. Alexander wrote at the very beginning of his book:

        When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going.  Thus with Lent.  Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter,
        "the Feast of Feasts."  It is the preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation."  We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this
        connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.  (Great Lent, p. 11)

The entire book is a brilliant guide in helping us to understand the connection between Great Lent and Pascha. I would say that this book is one of those "must reads" for all Orthodox Christians.

In Ch. 5, "Lent in Our Lives," Fr. Alexander has a section entitled, "Taking It Seriously ... "  In this section, he anticipates all of the objections (excuses?) that we bring forward to explain how we really can't do a whole lot more than "observe" Great Lent somewhat minimally because of our "busy" lives and schedules.  Great Lent is so antithetical to our culture that we find ourselves only negatively "giving up something" for the season as a way of meeting certain perceived obligations - some fasting, confession before Pascha, etc.  In the process, the depth of Great Lent that Fr. Alexander spent the greater part of his book explaining, basically disappears from sight. As he writes:  "This obligation having been fulfilled, the rest of Lent seems to lose all positive meaning." (p. 88)  At this point, Fr. Alexander reveals his capacity to be both challenging and provocative, when he questions these assumptions and objections that we make:

        We can say without exaggeration that although Lent is still "observed," it has lost much of its impact on our lives, has ceased to be that bath of repentance
        and renewal which it is meant to b in the liturgical and spiritual teaching of the Church.  But then, can we rediscover it, make it again a spiritual power in
        the daily reality of our existence? The answer to this question depends primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, on whether or not we are willing to
        take Lent seriously.  However new or different the conditions in which we live today, however real the difficulties and obstacles erected by our modern
        world, none of them is an absolute obstacle, none of them makes Lent "impossible."  The real root of the progressive loss by Lent of its impact on our lives
        lies deeper.  It is our conscious or unconscious reduction of religion to a superficial nominalism and symbolism which is precisely the way to by-pass and
        to "explain away" the seriousness of religion's demands on our lives, religion's demand for commitment and effort.  (p. 88-89)

Fr. Alexander goes on to explain that Orthodoxy, unlike the Western churches, has not "adjusted" the genuine traditions of the Church to make the practice of our Faith more practical under current conditions (abandoning the fast, etc.). We have not lowered the standards of the Church so as to make the practice of our Faith - and Lent in particular - "easy."  He claims that that would be a "betrayal" of the living Tradition of the Church. But he qualifies this by saying that Orthodox Christians, by adopting a kind of symbolic nominalism, simply practice a different form of compromise that can result in self-righteousness.  He continues, by writing:

        So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so
        much with God and a new life in Him but with the past and the customs or our forefathers, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this
        religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion... The spiritual danger here is that little by little one begins to understand religion itself as a system of
        symbols and customs rather than to understand the latter as a challenge to spiritual renewal and effort.  More effort goes into preparing Lenten dishes
        or Easter baskets than into fasting and participation in the spiritual reality of Pascha.

Fr. Schmemann wrote this book back in 1969.  The culture has become increasingly de-Christianized since then.  The challenges are even stronger today.  Which means that we are greatly tempted today to reduce Great Lent to some nominal practices that may ease our conscience, but will do nothing to renew our relationship with the living God.  That would reduce Great Lent to a "religious custom" without much spiritual content.  I believe that Fr. Alexander is perfectly right when he further writes:

        To take Lent seriously means then that we will consider it first of all on the deepest possible level - as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a
        decision, a plan, a continuous effort.  It is for this reason, as we know, that the weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church.  This is the
        time for the response, for the decision and planning.... The important point is that during this pre-Lenten season we look at Lent as it were from a distance,
        as something coming to us or even perhaps sent to us by God Himself, as a chance for change, for renewal, for deepening, and that we take that forth-
        coming chance seriously ... (p. 91)

In a manner that is hopefully neither pretentious nor self-righteous, my pastoral intentions are that we as a parish will take Lent seriously. We are going to follow the guidance of the Church in our liturgical services as well as possible; and proclaim the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness as we prepare to proclaim the Gospel of death and resurrection.  The question for each and every person or household within the parish then becomes:  Can I/we take Lent seriously. What is the depth of my/our commitment?  What can I/we do to go beyond any form of nominalism so that Great Lent means something in our lives?  What kind of "adjustments" must we make in  our homes to take Lent seriously?  Is my life shaped by the Church or by the world?  Without taking Lent seriously how we can we possibly believe that the "gates of repentance" will be opened to us by the Lord?

We will hear more from Fr. Alexander Schmemann's classic Great Lent as we draw closer to its beginning on February 23.

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