Last evening we began the great and holy season of Lent. The Church’s hymnography encourages us:
Let us fast, O faithful, from corrupting snares, from harmful passions, So that we may acquire life from the divine cross and return with the good thief to our initial home….
There are other fasts which the Church keeps during the course of the year – those of the Nativity, the Apostles and the Dormition – but this fast is different. It is called “Great Lent” because it is centered on the central event of our faith, namely the Resurrection of Christ. Lent is a journey towards Easter, a time of preparation for that which is not simply one event among others, but the overwhelming joy that comes from Christ’s victory over death and His restoration to life of all of us who are “in the tombs”.
Great Lent is a time of penitence, of denying ourselves, of increased spiritual effort and fighting against temptation. We are encouraged to fast and pray, to make prostrations, and to attend extra services. Yet the aim of this is not to impress other people, nor must we be tempted to think that we could impress God by our efforts. Rather, Great Lent is a time of grace that God gives to us to call us back to Himself.
Although Lent is a time of outward, bodily asceticism, the texts of the Church warn us repeatedly, that such efforts are not ends in themselves. The prophet Joel warns us that what is required of us is the rending, not of our garments, but of our hearts (2:13) and the aim of our bodily exercises is to lead us deeper into our own hearts in order to meet God there. This involves a growth in humility, an increasing recognition of who we really are, of the extent to which we are alienated from God, and, with it, the discovery of our desire to be truly reconciled to God.
The Fathers of the Church speak of Lent as a time of “joyful mourning”. We mourn because we come to realize our alienation from God, how we have fallen from paradise. Yet it is a joyful mourning because in this recognition we discover the possibility of returning to God and it is this return that we strive towards as we journey towards Pascha.
Adam ate the food
and was cast out of paradise for his indulgence.
But we receive the fast with joy, Lord:
Show us worthy of perfect repentance, Lover of humankind.
From Matins for the first Monday of Great Lent.