It’s almost over. Then again, it isn’t. Great Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday is the start of Holy Week. Everything comes to a head on Pascha (Orthodox Easter). Afterwards, it is back to eating anything affordable that I want to eat (have you ever had baby back ribs smoked over pecan wood?). Nor do I have to feel bad about missing the Akathist, Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Holy Week services (50 miles one way to the nearest Orthodox church with $3.50 a gallon gas is kinda tough). I won’t have to add more prayers and prostrations to my daily discipline. No more self-denial! YIPPIEEE!!!!!!!!
No, wait … . I am sorry. But, in a way, I am going to miss this great fast. These days of self-denial have given me a stronger awareness of the One who is my strength. I have more fully learned that the daily walk with God requires discipline and that the walk is a lifestyle that means more than “getting your praise on.” Don’t get me wrong. I knew these, and other lessons of faith, before the fast. The weeks of preparation, weekends that highlight the church doctrine, longer prayers, hunger pangs, and not satisfying my taste buds on favorite foods has been a blessing beyond measure. It is going to seem weird eating a 7-11 hot dog on May 6th and not needing to have St. Ephraim the Syrian’s prayer as a part of my daily discipline.
Then again, the journey is not over. And this is what makes Orthodox Great Lent (Orthodoxy as a whole, for that matter) superior to conferences, revivals, and other events I practice in Protestantism. There is always something in the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church to remind us to continue the journey with the Lord. Except for fast-free weeks, each Wednesday and Friday brings us back to Lent. Wednesday’s fast commemorates the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. Friday’s fast commemorates the Lord’s crucifixion. In a society that looks at these days as measures to mark the work week (“hump day” and TGIF), isn’t it more wise to use these days for serious reflection on God? Isn’t it better for our souls to reflect on the ways we betray the Lord with our sins and repent? Does it not make more sense to enter the weekend with an increased level of spiritual sobriety? Furthermore, there are the shorter fast of the Apostles and the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) during the summer which helps remind us not to over-indulge in the things of this world. Speaking of over-indulgence, the Nativity Fast comes with the Holiday Season where too many of us eat, drink, and spend more than we should.
Without prayer, fasting is just dieting. This is why the church has those long mid-week services where everyone, who is physically able, must stand (Akathist) and make prostrations. Worship is not a time for us to sit back and be entertained. We are to be awed to be in God’s presence. As the prayer services of Great Lent are done in great reverence, so should we approach God in a spirit of holiness (the Trisagion). As the services were held frequently, so should we seek that frequent communion with God in our personal disciplines (the Hours). In our private prayer closets, we can continue to use the Psalms and the words of the saints to guide our union with God. The priest who led the divine services continues to help us in our journey throughout the year. The church family (including the priest) who forgave and asked for forgiveness to begin Great Lent is there for one another as well. Although particular saints were honored during the fast (Mary of Egypt, John of the Ladder), there are saints for every day of the year. We are constantly surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).
To my fellow Protestants, I am not saying we all need to convert to Orthodoxy a week after next Tuesday. I can understand there are some things about the ancient faith (venerating icons, translation and order of the Old Testament, the role of Mary, …) that most of us will have a hard time accepting. But if our Lord and Savior is right that some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:19-21), it makes sense for us to investigate, study, and try the prayers and fast of the church that has existed and maintained its doctrine for 2,000 years and did so for its first 300 years without a set and written cannon. And I am not saying that every Orthodox Christian is perfect and Orthodox communities don’t struggle with society’s ills. But, let us take an honest look at what is wrong with ourselves, families, and neighborhoods. Let’s take an open-minded look at what the Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church has to offer. I have and am finding this journey to be worth taking. I won’t turn back.