Lent is here. In the popular media, and in conversations around cubicles and water coolers the daily ‘chit-chat’ sometimes gravitates towards the idea of Lent, especially on the Wednesday known in the West as “ash” Wednesday, and the banter often goes like this, “So, (snicker, snicker) What are you giving up for Lent?” Then follows an awkward moment of, “Oh no, this is a conversation about religion, (moment of discomfort), say a nice platitude, or a funny thing, and move on.” So each one says, “Hey, for me it’s chocolate…” “I’m giving up dessert“, “coffee”, “wine” etc. Then there’s always the joker in the crowd who says, “Hey, I’m giving up – giving up things!” He’s also the same guy who when asked for three wishes, uses one of those wishes to ask for three more. But the end is the same: Dread. Darkness. Doom. Denial. No fun. Right?
These ‘religious’ conversations usually are shrouded by the misguided popular notion and incorrect context of Lent being a masochistic, dismal, self-deprecating, and miserable cloud of self-inflicting agony born from a plague and poverty driven remembrance of Western European Medieval Christianity, in which faith and fasting, prayer and liturgy are dreary, dull, and, well – pure hell. For many people ‘Lent’ is ‘ashes’ smeared on the forehead for all to see. But for Orthodox Christians today, and since the beginning of the Church, we avoid wearing ashes and do not walk around publicly revealing our ‘ash tinted’ foreheads. On the contrary, the Orthodox step in tune to Scripture in regards to fasting in that when we fast we “…wash our faces, and anoint our bodies with oil…“, so that no one would know of our sacrifice of love but God alone, who alone sees you behind your closed door praying. How far from the truth are all of these misguided popular and folk perceptions. For the Church Lent is not a hassle, or negative, or a burden.
Lent is a Springtime! A renewal of Joy.
It is a return to normal.
For what we do, and how we live during Great Lent is nothing new or unusual. We merely continue to live the way we always live. Practicing what we engage in all the time throughout the year, namely: prayer, weekly fasting and charity (spiritual and corporal works of mercy). Only one thing is different – we do them more! More prayer, more fasting and more compassion . We engage in a life that should be normative, the life we are meant to live. We pray more. We fast more. We offer compassionate works of mercy…. MORE. And anyone who is Orthodox knows that more is always better, longer is always normal, copyediting is never allowed, and during Lent we return to more – to Paradise – the place and position that Adam and Eve had before the fall, where they had more – a continual communion with God in thought, word and deed, on an ongoing basis. Lent is a season of Joy for in denying our flesh, and our misguided passions, we give life to our nous, our soul, whose true purpose is to compel us to intimacy and communion with God. In the truest sense: We give nothing up… on the contrary we gain everything.
Father Thomas Hopko in his brilliant Lenten book “The Lenten Spring” reminds us what the Church and Orthodox Christians have always known about Great Lent:
The Church welcomes the Lenten spring with a spirit of exultation. She greets the time of repentance with the expectancy and enthusiasm of a child entering into a new and exciting experience. The tone of the Church services is one of brightness and light. The words are a clarion call to a spiritual contest. the invitation to a spiritual adventure, the summons to a spiritual feast.
There is nothing gloomy here.
Nothing dark, or remorseful, masochistic or morbid, anxious or hysterical, pietistic or sentimental. The Lenten spirit in the Church is on of splendor and delight. It breathes with the exhilaration of those girding up to fight the good fight for the One who loves them and has given Himself to them for the sake of their salvation
The Lenten Spring is welcomed by Christians in the Church not as the time for self-inflicted agony or self-improving therapy. It is greeted as the sanctified season consecrated to the correction, purification and enlightenment of the total person through the fulfillment of the commandments of the crucified God. It is received as a time for battling with evil spirits and blossoming the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It is accepted as the ‘great and saving forty days’ set apart for complete and total dedication to the things of God. It is the ‘tithe of the year’ which tells us that all times and seasons belong to the Lord who has created and redeemed the world.
Great and Holy Lent is the new normal. Or at least it should be.
By emptying our sinful passions and denying the urgings of the flesh, we fill and feed our spirit: and doing so – we gain everything.