Entering Into Our Lenten Journey
How many of us are ready for Spring? After a long, cold, and snowy winter – and with another snow storm coming tomorrow – how many of us are counting down the days until the warm weather will stay with us. We can sense that a refreshing spirit comes with the change of weather - a lightness, a newness, an excitement, a blooming welcome to a new season. In fact, one of the beauties of living in New England is that we get to experience each of the four seasons in their fullest, with each season bringing it its own tone or spirit, which even affects our pace of life.
Of course, it’s not just the physical seasons of the year that bring about their own change and tone of life. In our Church calendar, we also have different times and seasons which try to direct our way or pace of life according to the preparation or celebration of a particular event.
Thus, in our Church life, we have fasts which lead up to feasts, we have preparation which end up in celebration, we have moments when we deprive ourselves, not necessarily because things are bad, but to help us better appreciate what we too often take for granted. And obviously, periods of fasting will surely carry different tones than periods of celebration.
Well, today on this Sunday of Forgiveness, which is the day before Clean Monday, the start of Great Lent, I want to focus on the spirit and tone which we should carry with us during our Lenten Journey. From March 3 until April 20, for 40 days plus Holy Week, the Church advises us to change our pace of life, and maybe even alter its direction, to focus on what is essential and eternal instead of what is urgent and too often superficial, to do whatever we can to look at where our life is going, and try to reorient it towards our Creator and our God.
Lent is a season when the Church challenges us to live up to our Christian faith. That which we profess with our mouths on Sunday, we are asked to live out in our lives throughout the week – within our families, among our friends and even strangers, in the workplace, during our hobbies and entertainment, everywhere. Of course, we’re supposed to live out our faith each and every day throughout our lives, but we all realize how hard that is to do. And sometimes we need a special reason, a little “push,” an added incentive, to get us back on track in our spiritual journey.
That is the purpose for Lent – a limited period of time – to not only get us back on track, but to even help prepare us for the greatest feast of the year, our Lord’s Resurrection! So, how do we enter into this special season of Lent? What should we do to get the most out of this time of year?
First of all, we must say that the Church Fathers understood well that we humans are psycho-somatic being. Our bodies and minds are interrelated; we can’t separate the two. What affects our body will have an impact on our minds, and vice-versa. Translating this into religious terms, we could say that our spiritual and material worlds deeply intersect and interact with one another. What is spiritual affects our understanding of what is material, and what is material will affect what is spiritual. This is why Lent combines spiritual exercises with physical ones – we combine our prayer with our fasting; we participate in more worship as we strive to increase our almsgiving. We understand that we can’t grow in spirit, if we’re not consciously attending to our material being.
So the Church advises us to take care, and deliberately attend to our mind, body, and spirit throughout Lent.
Thus, let’s begin with what type of spirit or attitude we should carry with us during our Lenten Journey. The Church Fathers often talk about Lent as a time of “joyful sadness.” Even though we are depriving our bodies from certain foods, and we’re suppose to limit the entertainment in our normal lifestyle, still our spirit should always be one of JOY. We’re not only striving to enter into deeper communion with our Creator, who is the source of joy, but we are also journeying towards the greatest event in history, the joyous resurrection of our Lord. So let us never forget to carry with us, and radiate onto others, the spirit of joy, no matter how hard our Lenten journey may seem.
But this joy is combined with a certain SADNESS. Not a sadness about changing our lifestyle, but a sober reflection on our actual life, with all its sins and shortcomings. Lent is a time of serious and deep reflection and evaluation of one’s own life. Where have we fallen short in God’s eyes? Where have we not fulfilled our potential as holy saints of the Most High? Where do we need to repent and change our direction, so that we are drawing closer to our Lord instead of falling away from Him? This sober sadness should not lead to despair, but to the contrary, should guide us to a refreshing and renewing change, to a deeper life in Christ!
Along with this joyful sadness, other essential attitudes to carry throughout Lent are those of mercy and love, of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not by coincidence that the Sunday before Lent is called the Sunday of Forgiveness. We cannot journey closer towards God if we are not ready to forgive one another. Lent is a time of reconciling with those from whom we have distanced ourselves. A first step we should take in our Lenten journey is a step towards anyone for whom we have anger, or bitterness or hatred. Forgiveness, mercy, love and reconciliation summarize definitive attitudes we must carry throughout Lent.
Along with carrying a certain spirit, the Church also teaches us to practice concrete Lenten disciplines – both spiritual and physical. The traditional holy triad of disciplines for Lent are Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
During these next 40 days, we’re supposed to increase our discipline of prayer. How do you pray, typically, each day? Well, during the next 40 days, try to increase your typical prayers. Or for some, try to discipline yourselves to actually pray each day. Get a prayer book, or if you need some guidance, come and talk with me, but begin saying and even increasing your prayers each day throughout this Lent.
As we strive to increase our personal prayers, Lent also calls us into a cycle of more communal prayers. We will have many additional Church services throughout Lent – a Compline Service, our weekly Wednesday Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, our Friday Salutations to the Virgin Mary, our Saturday Vespers along with our Sunday Liturgy. Make it a point to try and participate in at least one additional Church service as a part of your prayer discipline during the seven weeks of Lent.
Together with prayer, the most obvious aspect of Lent is fasting. Our Church challenges us to fast by changing and limiting our appetite. For those who can follow a strict fast, this means not eating meat or dairy products for the entire Lenten period. If this seems too much for some, though, then try a limited fast – maybe fasting strictly during the first week of Lent and Holy Week, and then during the rest of Lent fasting only from meat. Or maybe if you don’t typically fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, trying to follow that discipline. Remember, though, that fasting is not only about the types of food you eat, but also about the amounts of food. One saying of the Fathers put it this way, “Get up from the table always being a little hungry.”
As we fast, however, remember that food itself isn’t what is important. Fasting is not only about learning to limit and discipline ourselves, but more so about making us conscious of our dependence on God. We overcome the dictatorship of our bodily needs to focus on our spiritual needs. This implies not only fasting from food, but fasting from sinful habits as well!
Finally, together with increased prayer and fasting should come more generous almsgiving. Concrete charity should take the form of actual giving of our finances, our time and our talents to those in need. Our Lenten journey towards God can never be seen separate from our journey towards the other, especially those in need. Lent should be a time when we try to visit the sick or the lonely, reach out to someone in need, give from the many blessings we have to those less fortunate. Almsgiving and conscious charity play an essential role in our Lenten journey.
So tomorrow, we enter into a new season – the season of Lent! May our Lord guide and bless each one of us – to carry the proper spirit and to practice the helpful disciplines - so that our Lenten journey may be one that draws us closer to our Creator, and allows us to enter more deeply into an exciting celebration of His Resurrection!
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