Preparing for Lent and Forgiveness Sunday
Today is Forgiveness Sunday and it is the day we prepare to begin our Great Lenten journey towards Pascha! It seems most appropriate that Lent begins during the Winter Olympics! Our Lenten journey and the Olympics – two very different events, and yet, some significant parallels between the two. In order to become an Olympian, an athlete with specific gifts and talents must hone and develop those gifts through great sacrifice and effort, through much perseverance and endurance to become the best athlete possible. The Olympics don’t necessarily showcase the athletes with simply the greatest talent in the world – there may be other athletes with more talent - but the Olympics represent incredible athletes who have sacrificed, struggled, and persevered for a specific goal.
In a spiritual sense, the struggle of the Olympians can be compared to the struggle God calls us Christians to follow during Great Lent, and indeed, throughout our entire lives. Jesus said that the Kingdom of God will be taken by force. The Lord implied that through sober sacrifice and sincere effort, through continual perseverance and endurance, through spiritual askesis and discipline we can overcome our own self-centered passions and ego, we can overcome our vices and any bad habits that hinder us in our relationship with God, and then begin to open up our hearts to receive the grace that God desires to give each one of us.
Olympians are obviously quite serious about their commitment and goals. We Christians should be even more serious in our pursuit for God and His eternal Kingdom. Seeking out our salvation is a serious matter that demands our full attention and effort. And yet, it is extremely difficult to keep our spiritual vigilance and effort at full alert all the time, day in and day out. This is why the Church offers us different periods of the year to get back on track and refocus on our spiritual lives. This is the reason for Lent. It is a limited time (a little more than 40 days) to remind us about what is essential in life and to give us a little push to set aside our worldly and often superficial pursuits and focus on what is eternal. And through this struggle we better prepare to celebrate the greatest feast of the year, our Lord Jesus Christ’s Resurrection from the dead!
So, what does the Church call us to do during this special season of Lent? How can we get the most out of his holy season so that we can draw closer to God?
First of all, we can say that the Church Fathers understood well that we humans are psycho-somatic beings. Our bodies, minds and souls are interrelated; we can’t separate one from the other. What affects our body will have an impact on our minds and our souls, and vice-versa. In religious terms, we could say that the spiritual and material worlds deeply intersect and interact with one another. What is spiritual is also material, and what is material is also spiritual. This is why Lent combines spiritual exercises with physical exercises – we increase our prayer along with our fasting; we participate in more worship as we strive to increase our almsgiving; we read the Bible more as we participate in concrete acts of mercy and love.
Remember, the season of Lent is supposed to be a season different from our normal schedule and life. The Church calls us to follow a different tone and spirit for the next 40 days. The Church challenges us to stop following our hectic and busy schedules and take up a different pace of life – one slower and more reflective. The entire “tone” of Lent is one of “joyful sadness.” There’s a paradox in understanding a tone that encompasses joy and sadness. We are filled with joy as we reflect upon drawing closer to our Lord and preparing to celebrate His resurrection from the dead, and yet, simultaneously, we put a special focus on our own sinfulness, on our own shortcomings, and the reality that we haven’t put forth much effort in our spiritual journey. Thus, Lent becomes a time when we should repent. We are sad when we reflect upon our sins and prepare for confession, yet the sadness becomes one of joy when we discover God’s mercy and grace in a new way!
Along with this joyful sadness, Lent calls forth the attitudes of mercy and love, of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is not by coincidence that today 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 concrete 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 central attitudes we must carry throughout Lent.
Together with the Lenten tone, 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 ACTS OF CHARITY.
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 actually pray each day in a disciplined manner. Get a prayer book, or if you need some guidance, come and talk with me, but begin saying and 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 weekly Compline Service, Wednesday Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, Friday Salutations to the Virgin Mary, 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, then try a limited fast – maybe fasting strictly during the first week of Lent, the week of the Cross, 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, try 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.”
And as we fast, remember that food itself isn’t what is important. Fasting is a tool to limit and discipline ourselves, as well as to make 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 ACTS OF CHARITY. 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. For example, if you haven’t volunteered yet, come and volunteer at our Living Bread Luncheon. Concrete acts of almsgiving and conscious charity play an essential role in our Lenten journey.
One other discipline that I am asking everyone in the Church to focus upon is that of reading and meditating on Holy Scriptures. Spiritual reading has always been a tool that opens us our minds and hearts to the Spirit of God. Take the time to read my daily email. Get our Church App on your phone so you have these meditations and readings readily available. Make it a spiritual discipline to read and reflect on these readings each day during Lent.
Great Lent – a special season with a specific purpose. The Olympics may show us the grace and wonder of athletic competition, yet as you watch the games, remember the more important game of life, and think about the grace and wonder we can discover in our own lives if we truly focus on the spiritual disciplines of Lent. Let us enter into the tone and spirit of Lent – the joyful sadness and the spirit of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation - while also practicing the concrete tools of prayer, Scriptural reading, fasting, charity and love.
May all this allow us to draw closer to our Lord and enter more deeply into an exciting celebration of His Resurrection!
Macarius the Great of Egypt; Mark, Bishop of Ephesus; Arsenius of Corfu; Makarios of Alexandria; Makarios, Hierodeacon of Kalogera, Patmos; Removal of the Honorable Relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian; Branwallader, Bishop of Jersey
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