And so the Great Lenten Fast is upon us all. Roman Catholics and traditional Protestants have been to Ash Wednesday services. Some of the more modern churches have created their own approaches to this special season. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox have performed the rites and rituals of Forgiveness Sunday. From the sanctuaries adorned with icons and incense to those with professional lighting and sound systems, serious-minded Christians have taken up some form or fashion of what our Lord has taught us, “… Seek and you will find;…” (Matthew 7:7)
Great Lent is a period of intentionally seeking God through repentance with an emphasis on almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. These things the Lord spoke of in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 -7), are not options that we can participate in if we wish. Nor are they thoughtless habits of a culture or nation that we use out of seasonal kindness or times of distress. Jesus never said, “if,” to almsgiving, fasting, and prayer; He said “when” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). We are expected to do these things. Early Christian communities saw the wisdom of concentrating their efforts in these areas of spiritual life in the period leading up to celebrating our Lord’s resurrection. Thus, we take up an extra collection of our finances to be given to the poor, refrain from eating certain foods (as our physical condition can accept), and devote more of our time to prayer in church services and at home.
Jesus described the way to the kingdom of God as a narrow path that we are to find (Matthew 7:13, 14). Some dismiss the extra efforts made by Christians during the Lenten season as trying to earn salvation instead of relying on faith. There is no doubt that our Lord freely gave us great mercy when He was nailed to the cross, died, and arose from the grave. But, what do we do with this free gift? In another parable, a master gave sums of money to his three servants (Matthew 25:14-28). Two of them took their five and two talents, made an effort to trade with them, and doubled what they had. The lone servant with the one talent hid it fearing his master’s power. The two who made effort with what they received were blessed and welcomed to join in their master’s joy. The one who did nothing not only gained nothing was chastised for being lazy and that which he did receive was taken away from him as he was thrown outside of the master’s presence. Furthermore, Jesus taught that whomever would follow Him must make the effort of self-denial and taking up his cross. We ought to be doing these things all year-long throughout our lives anyway. Lent is a reminder and a reenforcement of our duty as Christians.
The days and weeks of struggle of Lent are a challenge. There is always the temptation to splurge our disposable income on ourselves rather than give to someone else. Sometimes we barely have time to say, “Lord have mercy” with our hectic schedules. Making more time for prayer and special worship services can be difficult. As an avid customer of the 7-Eleven convenience store chain, I know the pain of not eating favorite foods. However, the Holy Spirit led the newly baptized Jesus into the desert where He completely fasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:1). The early Church Fathers and modern preachers understand the value of instructing believers to fast only as to what their bodies can handle. We are not being asked to surrender the money for our utility bills to any organization. And one can, at least, pray during commercials and better still cut out a half hour of TV entertainment and propaganda disguised as news.
And let us consider what Great Lent leads to; the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Whether you have Easter services on April 1st or Pascha (the Lord’s Passover) on the 8th, we honor the triumph of the Light of Life over the forces of darkness. This Light, Jesus Christ, took on human form and showed the way of going beyond earthly kingdoms of anger, conflict, and wickedness. He has shown that forgiveness, repentance, humility and love were the cornerstones of the greater kingdom to come. By His death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus proved that even when the ways of this world seem victorious, they only lead to failure. Enduring humiliation and pain with compassion even for enemies for the sake of righteousness is what brings us ultimate victory. We don’t have to have nails in our hands and feet. So, is it that difficult to offer a hand to those in need? We are not required to wear crosses of thorns on bleeding heads. Is making more time for more prayer too much to ask? We need not hang on a cross being mocked with bitter wine from a sponge. Why not pass by pizza and beer? God does call some of us to lead special ministries and movements for the poor, social justice, missionary work and other things for the good of humanity. But, all of us can take part in sacrificing a part of our selves in almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in preparation to participate in the Feast of Feast which is a foretaste of the kingdom to come.
If you desire to participate in Lent for the first time, observe it in the way your church prescribes to the best of your ability. Talk with your priest or pastor if you have health issues or other concerns that may hinder your efforts. If your church does not endorse Lenten practices but does not prevent members from these activities, do somethings that make you a little uncomfortable, but not so hard that you give up out of discouragement. Give up the pocket change you were going to use on unhealthy fast food. While mentioned, kicking the fast food habit may be a good form of fasting. Cutting out that “umpteenth” re-run of your favorite comedy would be a great time for prayer and reading the Bible and other holy writings.
Wherever you are on your Christian journey, make as much use of your time and effort as you can during Great Lent for forgiveness and repentance. Make the effort to give alms, pray, and fast in a way that builds your soul and those of whomever you come in contact with. Do these things with all seriousness as Jesus notes that not all will find the narrow gate. But, if we ask, seek, and knock He will give us good things.