THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GREAT LENT
The holy season of Great Lent has always been for Christians the par-excellence period for fasting, prayer and repentance. The teutonic word ‘Lent’ which we employ to designate the forty days fasting period preceding Holy Week originally meant the spring season. Since the Anglo-Saxon period, it has been used to translate ‘quadragesima’, meaning the fortieth day.
The observance of Great Lent is not a later development in the life of the Church, but it is of Apostolic origin. The church historian Eusebius (V, 24), mentions the controversy of fasting as recorded by St. Irenaeus varying in length from 40 hours to 40 days. During the third century, in Alexandria, the Christians fasted only during Holy Week. The term ‘Tessarakosti’ appears in the fifth canon of the First Ecumenical Council (325) where there is a question as regards the proper time of convening a synod. In the early Church, Great Lent was essentially a period of fasting and instruction of candidates for baptism. This latter aspect is clearly brought out in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts which is celebrated only during Great Lent. Great Lent ought to be a time during which we cultivate self-control and self-discipline through fasting and prayer. However, today, our rules of fasting have been so streamlined to accommodate the 20th century man who has made great strides in the related fields of natural science, but who has failed terribly man as regards his final end.
Today, the Orthodox Christian practices abstinence during Lent only occasionally, and then too, largely to reduce his or her waistline or to improve his or her disposition. The life of the average Orthodox goes on at the same pace during Great Lent as it does during the rest of the year. Too many of us would like to embark upon Great Lent with our usual continual series of parties, gambling and the like — all this, and heaven too. But let anyone suggest denial, giving something up or changing one’s life-style over a period long enough to prove that our will is in control and not our passions, and you will be ridiculed. Such practices are just too archaic and meaningless for modern man — so they say. Unfortunately, there are too many of us disposed to use hitch-hiking techniques to saving our souls. But the Christian has no short cuts, and there are no free rides along the way. Everyone has to shift for himself. Our Lord says, “Enter ye in at the narrow gate, for wide is the way that leads to perdition. Not everyone that says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven”. (Luke 13:3)
Great Lent is that one-tenth part of the year prescribed by the Orthodox Church for her adherents to devote themselves to the daily task of fasting and prayer. Even though fasting or self-discipline is most valuable in the building of character, it is one of the most neglected of Christian exercises. We are not called upon to practice great or unusual acts of asceticism, but, we need to train ourselves constantly to saying “no” to our passions and to our desires. We are most efficient to saying “no” to anyone who represents authority. But we are most incompetent in saying “no” to ourselves. What we need is self-discipline and self-control. These are acquired only by regular spiritual exercises. It is gladness, joy of the spirit, triumph of the eternal over the temporal, victory of truth over falsehood and of light over darkness.
When the Orthodox Church speaks of fasting, it speaks of real fasting and not merely abstinence from meat products, but abstinence from sins. St. John Chrysostom speaking on this subject remarks, “Fasting to those who do not know how to fast is most dangerous. Fasting is actually a medicine. But as a medicine, it frequently is useless owing to the unskillfulness of him or her who employs it. For it is necessary to know the time when it should be applied; the quantity of it; the temperament of the body that admits it; the corresponding diet; and all other particulars. The honor of fasting consists not only in abstinence of food, but in abstinence from sinful practices. Do you fast? Give me proof of it. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see an enemy, be reconciled with him. If you see a friend gaining in honor, envy him not. Let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, the ear and the feet, and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to lewd spectacles. Let the ear fast by not listening to false reports. Let the mouth fast by not speaking evil of others. For what doth it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor.
Thus, true fasting is abstinence from evil, controlling of the tongue, laying aside of anger, putting off desires, accusations, falsehood and perjury. Through fasting we develop character, will-power and spiritual strength. The by-product of fasting is self-discipline and self-control. William James observes that “until we have tried to practice self-discipline, we do not realize the humiliating fact that we cannot trust our wills to control our actions.” Let us, therefore, moderate the use of food that our other desires may be subject to the same rule. For Lent is a time for gentleness and patience, a time for peace and serenity, in which having put away all stains of evil-doing we strive after steadfastness in what is good. Now is the time when generous Christian souls forgive offences, pay no heed to insults, and wipe out the memory of past injuries.
Fasting ought to be joined to prayer, since the latter is the measuring stick of one’s spiritual life. This thing called spirituality, is measured by the degree to which we are capable to pray. Some people do not know how to pray. Consequently, there is a void, a vacuum in their lives. They lack this abstract thing called spirituality. Prayer is the bulwark of faith. Prayer refreshes the soul and the body. Prayer is the key to spiritual life.
And yet, it appears that many of us take prayer too lightly. Too many of us pray with our lips and not with our hearts and souls. Too many of us are indifferent to prayer. Too many people when they pray talk to God, but do not converse with Him. They monopolize the conversation and fail to listen. They have faith that God will hear them, but they have no faith that they can hear God. This is the reason why prayer is not effective and meaningful for some people. God can and does speak to the soul in many ways. He speaks in the voice of the conscious which urges us to do this and to avoid that. He speaks to us when we receive Holy Communion. He speaks to us in silent prayer, when we cease to babble and begin to listen.
Great Lent is also a penitential period. The idea of penance is unfortunately associated with an external act. This materialistic viewpoint produced two evils — either it is neglected entirely, or its performance is unworthy. Consequently, penance along with fasting have lost their impact upon modern man. Whereas, penance ought to be a turning away from sin and returning to God. The purpose of penance is the brining about a closer and a more perfect union with God. The external act of penance is good and necessary, but it is of no value if it is not performed with the proper spirit.
The holy season of Great Lent, therefore, is not just like any other season of the year and it ought not to be treated as such. It is a unique period. Thus, the Lenten Season offers Christians an opportunity and a challenge at one and the same time. The spirit of Great Lent is to “fast not unto men, but unto God, our Father.” (Matthew 16:18)