As I sit down to write this article, it’s hard to believe that Great Lent is just around the corner. It seems like only yesterday, we were in the midst of the Forty Liturgies of the Nativity Fast. I thank God for the Pre-Lenten Sundays, such as Zacchaeus, the Canaanite Woman, the Publican and the Pharisee and so on. These serve as a warm-up before the big game and also help us to sharpen our focus on the journey ahead.
Great Lent is indeed a journey. It’s a journey of repentance, a journey closer to God, whereby we can, by God’s grace, participate and experience Christ’s humility, His love and His victory over sin and death. We begin on the Sunday of Forgiveness seeking to reconcile ourselves to one another by tangibly asking every parishioner for forgiveness. From a horizontal perspective, this serves to spiritually clear the slate and provides us with a clean beginning. The starting point of this journey is also presented to us on this same Sunday of Forgiveness. We are given the image of Adam sitting outside of Paradise, exiled and filled with sorrow. He is looking back at what he lost. Our Lenten Journey begins with identifying with the Old Adam. We, too, are spiritually exiled from Paradise, but rather than looking back, our focus is ahead. Our journey has as its destination the saving Passion, Crucifixion, and glorious Third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the New Adam.
Our goal is not simply to survive Great Lent and get to Holy Week and Pascha. We want, as much as we are able, to participate and enter into the inner mystery of our Lord’s passion, crucifixion and resurrection. By God’s grace and our synergy, we should want to make Jesus’ loving sacrifice a present reality in our life and experience as much of the grace of the season as we can. To accomplish this goal, the Church has provided us with some important tools: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving and Confession.
Prayer takes on many forms, but in its essence, it is remembrance of God that keeps us in communion with Him. Of course, our personal commitment to our rule of prayer and our participation in the beautiful Lenten Services are ways and means to help us maintain this remembrance of God. Our goal should be to remember God and keep the name of Jesus on our lips, in our thoughts, and on our hearts as often as possible.
Fasting gives wings to our prayers. Eating is so central to our lives that to abstain from certain major food groups and to eat less serve as constant reminders to remember God and pray. In addition, denying our stomachs also helps remind us of the importance of our souls and to be watchful over our senses and to guard our thoughts and our impulses. Like an athlete trains it body, we, as spiritual athletes, train psychosomatically to win an imperishable crown of victory.
The more correctly we fast, the more time and money we should have to share with others. Fasting also helps us to see with our spiritual eyes more clearly the face of our Lord and His image in others. Both of these factors are aids in successfully practicing almsgiving, the third tool in our spiritual Lenten arsenal. Almsgiving includes any act of mercy toward another; it is an imitation of Christ Who is the source of all mercy. When we are merciful towards others, this softens our hearts, becomes a means of attaining all the virtues and draws us closer to both our neighbor and God.
True and abundant life are not possible for us by ourselves. The first man, Adam, learned this painful lesson. By his own strength and trusting in his own wisdom, he fell into temptation and was deceived by the Serpent’s lies. The Church wants us to learn from Adam’s mistakes. This is why we remember his exile as we begin our journey of repentance. No matter how hard we try, unless we learn to depend on the strength and grace of God, we will never be able to pray, fast or become merciful. Repentance and salvation are impossible without God. Our Lord knew this very well; He knew that we, in our weakness, would struggle in our Christian life, that we would fall and get up, fall and get up again. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ offers us the great gift of the Mystery of Holy Confession.
Jesus ordained that His Apostles and their successors, the bishops and priests, should receive the grace of the Holy Spirit to participate as ordained clergy in His own High Priesthood and offer the absolution of sins to those who come with humility and contrition to confess their sins. Confession is the sacrament of repentance, the sacrament of reconciliation with God. It is a necessary part of the Christian life, and we should avail ourselves of this holy Mystery on a regular basis, especially if we are regular communicants of the holy Eucharist–this is especially true during Great Lent. For practical reasons, we should try to confess before Holy Week. Another important reason to confess before Holy Week is that Confession is an important spiritual preparation for the Sacrament of Holy Unction, which takes place on Holy Wednesday.
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have entered a special season of grace. There is no other time of the year quite like Great Lent and Holy Week. I hope that we all try and take full advantage of the themes, the special Services, the three tools of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as well as the increased opportunity to partake of the holy Mysteries, such as the Eucharist, holy Unction and especially holy Confession. May our crucified and risen Lord bless us all with a fruitful Forty Days and a joyous Resurrection!