“Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved to the tyranny of the flesh may become worthy to partake of the Lamb, the Son of God, slain of His own will for the sake of the world, and spiritually may celebrate the feast of the Savior’s Resurrection from the dead. So shall we be raised high in the glory of the virtues, and through our righteous actions we shall give joy to the Lord who loves humankind.”
–First Apostichon of Vespers from Tuesday of the First Week
As we embark on the journey of Great Lent, it is good and edifying to pause and reflect on the true significance the spiritual endeavor that lies before us. The Church’s hymnography is a trustworthy guide, steering us away from all caricatures of Lent, reminding us of the full scope of our pilgrimage. Great Lent is a time of retreat to help us confirm our life to Christ. Great and Holy Lent is designed to be a period of transformation for us – yes, a time of struggle, but a joyful struggle to become more Christ-like in all that we think, in all that we do, and in all that we say.
Let us keep the Fast not only refraining from food. All too often we focus almost exclusively on what we eat and do not eat. This is important, but it is only part of our task. As Saint Basil the Great wrote, “Fasting is the strength-training of the godly….It is clear that fasting would not only teach self-control in relation to all kinds of foods, but also how to entirely escape and get rid of covetousness, greed, and all kind of evil.” (Sermon 2 On Fasting).
Let us keep the Fast…by becoming strangers to all bodily passions. A fundamental concept in understanding Orthodox Christian spiritual life is passions. These are natural things necessary for life that have mutated and taken control of our lives. We must eat in order to live, but when our life is dominated by food we succumb to the passion of gluttony. Money is a necessity but when our life is centered on the acquisition of wealth, we are controlled by the passion of avarice. Humans need to love and be loved, but often times that love is deformed and we become slaves to the passion of lust. Lent is a time to practice self-control in order to tame these passions that have enslaved us to unhealthy cravings and disorient our life.
During this period of Great Lent, let us examine the essential values that guide us in our actions. Let us reorient our lives so that they are guided by God and His love rather than passionate desires; let us desire nothing more fervently than God and His love. Great Lent is a time of liberation, when we free ourselves from the shackles of things and desires, pursuing single-mindedly a deeper union with God and a more authentic reflection of God’s love. Lent is a time to rejoice that, through self-discipline, we have grown closer to God and have become a more perfect image of God’s compassion, mercy and love. As such, regardless of the struggle, this is a time of joy and hope. Embrace it as such and the joy of the Resurrection will fill the very depths of your existence.
Liberating ourselves from the slavery to passions of the flesh frees us to love God. Without the distractions of the passions, we can be more attentive to our relationship with God. Without
destructive passionate goals, our lives are free to be guided by Christ’s command to love God and our neighbor. This is the true meaning of metanoia (repentance): a reorientation of our lives. And so the Church instructs us that a pure fast includes attentiveness in prayer and works of mercy to the poor.
Let these simple insights guide us during the coming 40 days. Be aware not only of ourselves but of others. Let us be attentive in all aspects of our life not only to our own needs but to the needs of others. Let this be a time when we not only curtail that which impedes us but when we develop the things that make us more Christ-like.
With these few thoughts I invite you to embark joyfully on the journey of the Great and Holy Lent. Do not be burdened by the discipline, but be renewed by the opportunity to grow into deeper communion with God. The discipline is neither easy nor always pleasant, but the results will bring joy to you and those around you. May this be a time of profound spiritual joy for you, your community, your family, and your loved ones. Our hope is in the Lord who never fails!
With Love in Christ,
+ G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco