28 February 2012

Why the Great Fast (Lent)?

The Great Fast began Sunday, with Forgiveness Vespers. It is traditionally an anticipated season for Orthodox Christians, a period of renewal, for rediscovering the basics of our faith. Great Lent — as the Great Fast is often called — has been described as a tithe of the year, forty days set aside to redirect personal energies toward God, praying that “lessons learned” will carry over and sanctify the remainder of the year.

Furthermore, the Great Fast is a time of repentance, a time for profound change of heart, mind or will, in light of sins acknowledge and Truth revealed. Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote that Great Lent, “is indeed a school of repentance to which every Christian must go…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 the Orthodox faith, a rediscovery of the Orthodox way of life.”

There is a quiet joy also associated with the upcoming season. It arises from recovering – as did the Prodigal – a sense of our identity as children of the Heavenly Father. Joy stems, as well, from anticipating Pascha, “the Feast of Feasts.” During Forgiveness Vespers we sing, “Let us begin the fast with joy! Let us prepare ourselves for spiritual efforts!…Let us rejoice in virtues of the Spirit and fulfill them in love, that we all may see the Passion of Christ our God, and rejoice in spirit at the holy Pascha!”

And yet, with these thoughts in mind, it is probably true to say that for many people the Fast is experienced as more of an intrusion, rather than as something to which we look forward. Are we not tempted to think early in the spring that, “My life has just returned to normal after Advent and the holidays. I just got settled into my routine and now the Church is asking me once again to make changes for forty days. Why?” The question itself indicates the answer. Implicit in this “why” is a comfortable acceptance of life as usual, a quiet, unconscious denial that there is anything about the old routine, our normal existence, that absolutely has to change, or more to the point, be redeemed. This passivity – spiritually speaking – this consent, indeed surrender to the way things are, is a strong reason for why we have Great Lent, for why the Church consecrates a specific season for rediscovery and repentance.

Life is occasionally referred to as a rat race, a fast track that drives us during the day: school, work, family and social responsibilities, etc. We enter the track but cannot seem to find the exit. Eventually we become accustomed to being pushed along by life’s momentum. Its force affects our ideas about many issues, the capacity for clear thinking, and thus our ability to give ourselves completely to Christ. It redirects and narrows our thoughts so that this world becomes the primary focus as we try to survive life’s pace. The Church, God’s Kingdom on earth, is even asked on occasion to accommodate itself to our constricted vision. The net result: life controls us, rather than we having any sort of grasp on life. We become enslaved to the very thing that we cherish most, and life is cheapened because, going with its flow, we more often than not perceive the surface of things, rather than their true depth of meaning. And what is worse, when the Church is asked to accommodate itself to human weakness, we deprive ourselves of that which is given to free us from the bonds of passions and a superficial life.

This is where the Great Fast comes into the picture. During the Great Fast we are invited, for forty plus days, to step off the track that everyone is on. We are encouraged to make changes to our usual routine that will yield profound revelations if done in the correct spirit. Over the course of Great Lent we gradually begin to see that life – real life – consists of more than mere existence and the grind of daily responsibilities. In Christ an entirely new and abundant life shines from the grave; a life which does not negate, but fulfills and refashions the old. It provides a fresh set of lenses through which we see — actually see, maybe for the first time — the people and world around us, even God Himself. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation of Saint John/Apocalypse 21:5)

Lent opens our eyes to a new dimension of the old routine, to a depth of existence that makes life worthwhile and not merely a rat race. We begin to appreciate family, friends, work, school – everything – in a new light, the light of Christ. We better understand the words of the Psalmist who declared that the Creator Himself can be perceived in all that exists: “The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork” (19:1). As faith and insights grow, so also does our ability to discern priorities. Many things that seemed important prior to Lent, may appear quite superfluous after preparing for and experiencing Holy Week. We start to possess different priorities after feeling the power of the Paschal greeting, Christ is Risen!

But to achieve this, the Fast and its requirements are essential. Sacrifices must be made and for the right reasons, with proper goals in mind. We have to make conscious efforts to change our patterns of behavior for the better so that at least momentarily we can break free from life’s momentum and refocus on Christ. The Church, through her liturgical services provides us with an essential experience and framework for this to happen. The rites, prayers and readings direct us towards repentance and offer a taste of God’s Kingdom already in our midst, to be revealed fully at the end of time. I encourage everyone to enter the Fast with faith, love and determination. Make the necessary efforts. Let us learn from the One Who “ever awaits our conversion,” and “desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

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