February 7, may have been Super Bowl Sunday, but for 250 million Orthodox Christians all over the world, it was more than ‘super’, it was one more Sunday closer to the beginning of Lent; the ‘super-bowl’ of spirituality and faith.
For Orthodox believers, February 7 was known also as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the second to last “Pre-Lenten” Sunday, prior to the beginning of Great Lent on February 14. It is also known as “Meat Fare” Sunday, because on this day, we partake of animal flesh for the last time until April 4th, Great and Holy Pascha (Easter). This past Sunday, we were reminded of the coming judgment of the world, and the revealed truth that our Lord Jesus, will separate the peoples of the world as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The Sheep, will be known because of their faith in, and love for Christ as shown in the following ways: the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered, the thirsty have drink, the prisoner is visited, and the sorrowing are comforted. To the degree that we have done these things to the least – we have done them to Him.
Most people today, and I include not only evangelical protestant Christians, but also some Orthodox, have either never heard of Lent, or if they have, don’t fully understand it, or view it as some irrelevant, ancient, and archaic vestige of a dark misguided Medieval Roman Catholic Church; worth noting but not doing. But nothing could be further from the truth. Great Lent, is the greatest joy for the Church, and over the next several days, leading up to Sunday February 14, Forgiveness Sunday, I will post on some of the basics about this sacred season, and more importantly, on the spiritual blessings of our journey toward Holy Week, the Cross, and the Resurrection.
My prayer is that you’ll gain a deeper knowledge and appreciation for our call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving over the next 40 days leading up to the Feast of all Feasts – Pascha, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to “come and see” for yourself, and give Orthodoxy a “test drive”, for there is no other way to learn how to drive than to get behind a wheel, and no other way to embrace the ancient faith other than worshipping with the people.
Great Lent is the 40-day season of spiritual preparation that comes before the most important Feast of the Christian year, Holy Pascha (which means “Passover” and is commonly called “Easter”,). It is the central part of a larger time of preparation called the Triodion season.
The Triodion begins ten (10) weeks before Easter and is divided into three main parts: three (3) Pre-Lenten weeks of preparing our hearts, the six (6) weeks of Lent, and then Holy Week. The main theme of the Triodion is repentance—mankind’s return to God, our loving Father. This annual season of repentance is a spiritual journey with our Savior. Our goal is to meet the risen Lord Jesus, Who reunites us with God the Father. The Father is always waiting to greet us with outstretched hands. We must ask ourselves the question, “Are we willing to turn to Him?” During Great Lent, the Church teaches us how to receive Him by using the two great means of repentance— prayer and fasting.
THE LENTEN FAST The word “fast” means not eating all or certain foods. As Orthodox Faithful, we can fast completely at certain times of great importance, and especially each time before receiving Holy Communion. Usually, fasting means limiting the number of meals and/or the type of food eaten. The purpose of fasting is to remind us of the Scriptural teaching, “Man does not live by bread alone.” The needs of the body are nothing compared to the needs of the soul. Above all else, we need God, Who provides everything for both the body and the soul. Fasting teaches us to depend on God more fully. The first sin of our parents, Adam and Eve, was eating from the forbidden tree (Genesis 3:1-19). We fast from food, or a food item, as a reminder that we are to fast from sinning and doing evil. There are several benefits of fasting. Fasting helps us pray more easily. Our spirit is lighter when we are not weighed down by too much food or food that is too rich. Through fasting, we also learn to feel compassion for the poor and hungry and to save our own resources so that we can help those in need.
Fasting is more than not eating food. Saint John Chrysostom teaches that it is more important to fast from sin. For example, besides controlling what goes into our mouths, we must control what comes out of our mouths as well. Are our words pleasing to God, or do we curse God or our brother? The other members of the body also need to fast: our eyes from seeing evil, our ears from hearing evil, our limbs from participating in anything that is not of God. Most important of all, we need to control our thoughts, for thoughts are the source of our actions, whether good or evil. Fasting is not an end in itself. Our goal is an inner change of heart. The Lenten Fast is called “ascetic.” This refers to a ctions of self-denial and spiritual training which are central to fasting.
Fasting is a spiritual exercise. It is not imposed or forced upon us. In the same way that true repentance cannot be forced upon anyone, each of us makes the choice to turn away from our sinful ways and go toward our loving, for giving Father in Heaven.