Our Lenten Program
Dear Brothers and Sisters in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ,
We prepare every year for Holy Pascha by a time of prayer, fasting and acts of kindness, or “almsgiving.” In many languages, this period of purification is called “The Forty Days.” The technical Orthodox term is “The Great Fast,” to distinguish it from the other, lesser, fasts during the year. In English, it has from olden times been called Lent. The word “Lent” is an old English word for spring. Is this not beautiful? I invite us to think of Lent as a springtime of new hope, a time of new possibilities, and of growth and new life in Christ.
How, then, are we to enter into this experience of growth? Perhaps the things of God have come to seem remote to us. We may feel that our faith is flaccid. Or again, the cares and pressures of life may have all but choked the seeds of our life as Orthodox Christians. It may also be that we have gotten into ways that are not good and need to be changed: we are aware of this, but, somehow, we keep putting off doing anything.
Now is the time! As the Holy Apostle Paul cries out to us, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation! Now is the time to change and ask the Lord to break the shackles that hold us to things that are harmful. Now is the time to stir up the grace which has been given us and is there for us, but which we have perhaps allowed to go dormant. Now is the time to come to ourselves and, like the Prodigal Son, come home to our Father’s House.
How might we accomplish these things? As Orthodox Christians, we have a continuous therapy for healing and a program of rehabilitation for our restoration. It is nothing less than the whole life of the Church, day in and day out, year in and year out; but in Lent we embrace this therapy more fully, as if our life depended on it—which in fact it does.
Let’s start with the Services, because the least we can do is to just get to them! However confused or distracted or sinful we may be, we can do this. We need to put ourselves in the right place at the right time. Simply to show up is not everything, but it is our offering; then we can ask God to begin His Work in us! In the Services of the Church we have a chance to move beyond our delusions and get back to the real world. In the Services, we hear, and even see, the things of God; we taste how good He is. And as this happens, our hearts are warmed. Things begin to fall into their right place again and our perspective is gradually restored—with regard to ourselves, others, and the Presence of God.
During Lent we spend a lot of time together in the Services! We do this not only on the Lord’s Day (the Sundays of Lent are less strictly Lenten, since they are always paschal and radiant), but especially on weekdays, when the full experience of Lent can be accessed. It is important to start well with the first week of Lent, when we have evening Services every day -- the Great Canon and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Holy Gifts. We should do our very best to get to everything, or at least to most of the Services, then and during the subsequent weeks of Lent. If circumstances or illness prevent us from getting to a Lenten Service, we should feel we have missed out, which is the case, and earnestly ask the Lord to make it up for us in some other way.
Along with prayer and the Services goes fasting. Prayer supports fasting and fasting supports prayer. As Orthodox Christians, we do not fast just when and how we feel like it, but together. It is important to have a church calendar, which sets out the rhythm of the fasting. We each do our best to observe the fast, having trust in God and a holy zeal; but we also humbly acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations, seeking the guidance and blessing of our spiritual father.
It is abundantly clear from Scripture that a bodily fast must go with a fast from harsh actions and words toward others and even, as our Savior teaches, from idle words. We surely need to fast in using social media, which can so easily become Satan’s playground--or at least consume our time and scatter our attention, absorbing us in a merely virtual reality. We should know that words can kill or can bless, and that we will be held accountable for our every word! Shutting down our non-essential internet use can open us up to our place of inner silence--and thence to more heartfelt prayer for the people in our lives.
Kind actions and words—even kind thoughts—are an essential part of our Lenten springtime. They are sometimes referred to as “alms,” which comes from the Greek word for mercy. Few things make such an impression as Forgiveness Vespers, when we all prostrate ourselves to each other and ask forgiveness on the eve of the first day of the Great Fast. In this, the Holy Spirit is showing us that before we can even begin the podvig of fasting, we absolutely must be at peace with one another in our community and with everyone, as far as is in our power, humbling ourselves and forgiving all, not judging who was right or wrong, since Christ’s commandment of love is more than justice. As we know from the Lord’s Prayer, this is a non-negotiable!
If we are married or still living at home, we should look first at how we treat one another in the family, the dear ones with whom we actually live, and how we might bear one another’s burdens. If we are in the workplace or at school, we might ask ourselves what kind of example do we give? Do we handle the pressures and injustices of life any differently as Orthodox Christians? And then there is the larger circle of people with whom we come in contact during the day: fellow drivers on the highway, the person at the checkout, someone who asks our help and maybe is not like us…
During Lent we are able to give ourselves more to sacred reading. We might read each day the Old Testament passages appointed to be read in Church, or some other parts of Sacred Scripture. In addition, a traditional book for Lent is St. John Climacus’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent. I recommend we all make this book part of our Lenten practice, reading a few pages every day. Like the Services, holy reading puts into our mind and heart holy thoughts: even though we do not understand everything, we are taken beyond our habitual way of seeing things and led to an awareness which we would not otherwise have experienced. When we do this kind of reading we are not so much seeking information as communion with God.
A Final Thought
This, then, is our Lenten program. If we give it our best, the Lord will open our hearts. We may also find that the Lord will bring other things which we did not plan for. It will be time well spent.
Father Paul Burholt Sunday of Zacchaeus 2019