Great Lent is a particular spiritual season of the Christian Church when each of us begins to take a serious look at our own spiritual journey with God. It gives us a chance to see where we are and how we can conform our lives to that, which is found in the Gospel teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In order to maintain the proper character of the season within the life of the Church, we begin Lent with a new set of norms that help us to be better able to enrich our spiritual life. The tone within our church life gradually changes. There is a greater solemnity that requires the absence of elaborate parties, excessive pleasures, unnecessary vices, lavish menus, and the list goes on and on. It is important to remember, however, that our entrance into this season is one of joy and not morbidity. The call to Lent can be heard in the words of the Forgiveness Sunday Vespers: Let us enter the fast with joy, O faithful. Let us not be sad. Let us cleanse our faces with the waters of dispassion . . . Let us begin the fast with joy! Let us prepare ourselves for spiritual efforts. Let us purify our souls and cleanse our flesh. Let us abstain from passion as we abstain from foods, taking pleasure in the good works of the Spirit, and accomplishing them in love that we all may be made worthy of seeing the passion of Christ our God and His Holy Resurrection, rejoicing with spiritual joy.
Our Church prescribes a period of time prior to the beginning of Great Lent for preparing our minds and hearts. The duration of this time of preparation is four weeks and begins today.
The first Sunday is called the Sunday of the Pharisee and Publican. On this Sunday, the parable that Jesus related and is recorded for us in the Gospel of Saint Luke (18:10-14) is read during the Divine Liturgy. In relating our Lord’s lesson to us, the Church points out that we are not to take pride in our good works, nor boast and exaggerate about our own righteousness, as did the Pharisee. But rather, we should take the Publican as our example, admitting our sinfulness and humbly seek God for forgiveness and mercy.
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Thy Holy Temple. Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.
Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God, For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins, and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercession, deliver me from all impurity.
When I think upon the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am, I tremble at the fearful Day of Judgment.
But trusting in Thy loving kindness, like David I cry to Thee: Have mercy upon me, O God,
Have mercy upon me, O God,
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy Great Mercy.
This beautiful hymn demonstrates the penitent and contrite character of the Lenten season. Lent is a time of Penance. Penance requires knowledge of one’s self and one’s unworthiness before God. However, penance also requires a sense of hope in the mercy of God on the part of the penitent. We sorrow when we discover ourselves as sinners, but in the words of St. John Climacus of the 7th century, “God does not ask or desire that a person should mourn from sorrow of heart, but rather that out of love for Him he should rejoice with spiritual joy.”
There is a mystery involved in what we are speaking of. And this implies that it cannot be totally explained, but experienced as God so wills. Perhaps the most articulate writer on the subject was St. John Cassian who lived about three hundred years earlier than St. John Climacus. He writes in commenting upon St. Paul’s epistle: “…the Apostle said, ‘Godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret’ (II Corinthians 7:10). This ‘godly sorrow’ nourishes the soul through the hope engendered by repentance, and it is mingled with joy. That is why it makes us obedient and eager for every good work: accessible, humble, gentle, forbearing and patient in enduring all the suffering or tribulation God may send us. Possession of these qualities shows that a person enjoys the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, faith, self-control (see Galatians 5:22).”
Penance also requires that if a person desires mercy he must also be willing to be merciful. If we are less than merciful towards others, then we are truly in dread of the Judgment, “For in the same measure that we forgive we are forgiven” said Jesus. This state of mind must be developed prior to the beginning of Great Lent if Lent is to be meaningful.
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