My Dear Beloved in Christ,
The blessed and arduous season of Great Lent is upon us. It is indeed a difficult time, one which we look to with trepidation (and maybe even dread). Our daily lives feel like swimming in a storm-tossed ocean of burdens and stresses, worries and anxieties, and at times we are drowning amidst the swirling waves. A brief moment on the top of a wave—where a broader view comes in sight—is followed by a return to the depths where we remain, struggling to keep our head above water.
Then Lent comes. For most of us, the harbingers of Lent—the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son—come as unwelcome reminders: “Oh no, here it comes again. Fasting!” While we recognize that it is good and salvific, we tend to approach it like obedient children eating their vegetables at the dinner table: It’s what I have to do because it’s good for me.
This is understandable. After all Lent does involve greater ascetical labors: fasting, prayer, and more church services. We feel too burdened by our life already, and then we are expected to add more?!
It is time for us to look at Lent with a new lens. If we remain like little children at the dinner table, dutifully finishing our vegetables, then Lent will remain a most dreaded and laborious season. Instead, let’s look for the forest rather than the trees.
We know that Lent is that time of preparation for our Lord’s death and resurrection. This is why the season is marked by harmolipi (“joyful sorrow”): Our Lord is dying on the cross, then is resurrecting on the third day. But it is not just the death and resurrection of our Lord. It is ours! We are both preparing for His Pascha, and at the same time inaugurating our own Pascha—our resurrected selves—right in the midst of Great Lent.
As Christians, we don’t wait for death to come to experience our resurrection. Now is the time! We can become transformed and renewed into a new creation right now. This is why God has given us Great Lent!
St. Isaac the Syrian said, “It is not the case that all those living are alive, or that all those buried are dead.” Lent is the time in which we can become more alive. The “aliveness” that I am referring to isn’t just the anticipation for the heavenly kingdom and eternal life. It is joy right now. The saints testify to this. It is an internal joy that is impervious to the tidal waves of life.
However in contrast to the saints, when we go through life, tossed about on the raging ocean, we feel so overwhelmed, so helpless, and we don’t like it. We want to have stronger control over things. So we try to swim harder, to become more adept at keeping our heads above the water. Think of it: You’re in the middle of a wide ocean with massive waves, and your strategy is to swim harder. (It’s no wonder that we resort to this “try harder, do better” strategy, when we’re surrounded by a society that lives and breathes this mantra.)
It certainly does have its own internal logic: If I swim better, I won’t drown so much. But look at the waves! They’re too big, too many, for too far. We need a better strategy. Fortunately God has something far more profound and powerful that our meager strategy. He is the One Who stops the ocean from raging. Our loving Lord isn’t trying to make us better swimmers. He’s trying to stop the tumult of the ocean in each of our lives.
Simply put, God is bigger than your greatest struggles. We know this to be true, but we forget. In the tumult of our daily lives, fear captivates us (in its various forms of worry, anxiety, and stress) and we forget that God is bigger. He can stop the waves. How does He do this? In the depth of our soul.
The waves of life are in truth not external but internal. We experience the raging of the ocean within. The external circumstances are simply the background upon which our own personal ocean is set. Again, we see this in the saints. Did their lives not have external hardship? Always. But they were in a state of peace and joy in the midst of this. Their ocean was calm even though everything around them tried to stir the waters: mockings, abuses, tortures, and even death.
The calming of the ocean within us is not an easy task. Fortunately it is God’s task, not ours. But we have to offer our willingness. And this brings us back to Great and Holy Lent.
Lent is the time when we inaugurate our own resurrection. While it is God Who resurrects us, we inaugurate this by rejecting our sinful “self”—the voice inside us that is driven by the passions toward behavior that is at once selfish and also self-destructive. Our rejection of this sinful self happens through ascetical labor: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
In this way we become freed from our slavery to the passions. We begin to see that the raging waves in our lives are not caused by people or events, but by anger, fear, desire, envy, and so many other passions. As we grow in Christ, we gain an immunity to the things that cause tumult in our soul: We become more peaceful, more joyful.
God desires to resurrect us from the dead. He is knocking at the door of our soul, asking to be let in so that He can calm the ocean within and give us peace and joy. May He grant us strength to embark upon this Lenten journey always aware of the joy that awaits us in and through this resurrection. As we embark upon the ascetical labors, let us have zeal for the peace and joy that then become available to us.