Joyful Mourning

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”.

lent-page-001Great 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.

Forgiveness Sunday

Matthew 6:14-21

litbk12Today, on the eve of Great Lent, we find an interesting juxtaposition of fasting and forgiveness. Jesus gives us instructions on fasting, admonishing us to focus on our inner life rather than on outward displays of piety, warning us of the dangers of riches, and pointing to the need to guard our hearts, for “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Yet these remarks are prefaced by His teaching on the importance of forgiveness, and we are told that our forgiveness by the Father depends on our willingness to forgive others.

Lent is a time for repentance and for returning to God. In today’s liturgical texts we hear of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise, which reflects our own alienation from God. Like Adam, we are called to return to the Father, and Jesus Christ provides us with the way for doing so. We are called to identify ourselves with Adam in realizing and seeking to overcome our separation from God.

However, this journey back to God is not simply an individual affair. We are not saved as isolated individuals, but as members of Christ’s Body. As Saint Anthony the Great tells us,

Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.

This is why the Church calls us to forgiveness at the very beginning of Great Lent. We start this journey back to God by being reconciled with our brothers and sisters, for in the words of the Apostle John,

If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.

From Evangelion Daily

The Sunday of the Prodigal Son

Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Luke 15:11-32

Today, as we proceed in our preparation for Great Lent, we hear Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son. In telling us this parable, Jesus Christ shows us what repentance involves. To repent is not simply to seek to do better, or to change ourselves by our own efforts. Rather, it is to repair our relationship with a loving Father, a relationship that had become broken when we turned our backs on Him.

prodigalThis parable shows us how this son, who had squandered his inheritance in riotous living, “came to himself.” Having realised that even his father’s servants were better off than he was, he determined to return home, even if only as a servant. But his father was overjoyed and welcomed him as his long-lost son, ordering a great feast, and showing how delighted he was to see his son again. The intention of the parable is to show how the Father longs for us to repent and turn to Him again, and welcomes us with great love when we do so. As Saint Peter Chrysologus writes:

‘He fell on his neck and kissed him.’ This is how the father judges and corrects his wayward son and gives him not beatings but kisses. The power of love overlooked the transgressions. The father redeemed the sins of his son by his kiss, and covered them by his embrace, in order not to expose the crimes or humiliate the son. The father so healed the son’s wounds as not to leave a scar or blemish upon him. ‘Blessed are they,’ says Scripture ‘whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.’

The phrase “came to himself” is significant here, for the son realised that his entire identity was being destroyed. The Fathers teach us that by turning away from God, we have become subject to corruption and are being gradually destroyed. It is only by turning back to our Loving Father who reaches out to us, and re-establishing a relationship with Him, that this corruption can be turned around, enabling us to truly come home, not only to our Father, but also to our true selves.

Christ chooses those who stand. Rise and run to the Church. Here is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He who hears you pondering in the secret places of the mind runs to you. When you are still far away, he sees you and runs to you. He sees in your heart.

Saint Ambrose of Milan

From Evangelion Daily

The Triodion

We are now in the middle of the preparation for Great Lent, which started last Sunday on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. We know that Pascha, or Easter, is the centre of our faith and of the Church’s year, and that it is preceded by a period of preparation and fasting known as Great Lent. However, because Lent is so important for us, it is also preceded by a period of preparation. This pre-Lenten period gently reminds us that the fast is approaching and allows us to orientate and prepare ourselves for Great Lent.

ascetic-1The word “Triodion” refers to the main hymn book for Lent, which we started using last Sunday and which we continue using until just before Pascha. (Its name literally means “Book of Three Odes” because during Great Lent there are three odes that are three canticles that are chanted at Matins.) These liturgical texts are rich in meaning and are designed to lead us on our Lenten journey to Pascha. While fasting is important (and the pre-Lenten period also prepares us for the fast), there is more to Lent than fasting. Lent is above all a season of repentance, of the softening of our hardened hearts, so that we are able to enter into them and meet God there.

This time of preparation for Great Lent consists of the following:

  • The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (5 February). The week following this Sunday is a fast-free week in which the Wednesday and Friday fasts are suspended. The reason for this is to remind us of the danger of becoming proud about our fasting as the Pharisee did.
  • The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (12 February)
  • The Sunday of the Last Judgement (19 February). This is also known as Meatfare Sunday, because it is the last day on which meat is eaten until Pascha. It is followed by Cheesefare week, in which we fast from meat only all week.
  • Forgiveness Sunday (26 February). This is also called the “Expulsion of Adam from Paradise” which is the theme of the liturgical texts, reminding us that we too have been exiled from Paradise and that our journey through Lent is a journey back to God. This Sunday is also called Cheesefare Sunday because it is the last day on which cheese (or dairy products) are eaten until Pascha.

The theme of forgiveness is found not only in the Gospel for the day, but also in the Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday afternoon, which is the liturgical start of Lent. During this service, all those present ask the forgiveness of everyone else, for we are reminded that we cannot expect to receive God’s forgiveness if we are not prepared to forgive others.