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The Difficulty of Lent

southwest-trip-317Many of our readers come from communities who use the Western calendar, on which today is the first day of Great Lent, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Lent begins on at sundown this Sunday. This short reflection may be of help for us all.

Great Lent is one of the most important spiritual undertakings in the course of the Orthodox Church year. There is nothing unusual asked of us, nothing that we do not do the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do all of them with greater intensity and frequency and the Church’s contextualization of the season drives its points further and deeper.

Of course, repentance is at its heart. Here I think mostly of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-3:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up and described as “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

 To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our “logike” worship (“spiritual” really is more accurate than “reasonable” as some render it). It is a struggle to fast, to present a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering – but stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in our perception of our self and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

And I find it finally of most importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he will the Philippians in that epistle 2:5-11). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather it is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. I find myself by losing myself in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

But, of course, all that having been said, Lent is difficult. It is difficult because it is the straight and narrow way of the gospel – nothing more. Thus we can only say again and again, “Lord, have mercy!”

23 Responses to “The Difficulty of Lent”

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  1. sarahbereza says:

    thanks for this! helps put things in perspective…

  2. Moses says:

    Lent surely is a difficult time not to despair. :)

  3. Eric says:

    As a student at a Catholic university, I had to hear a lot of talk today about what people are giving up for Lent. Most named some kind of food, such as fried food or soda, because they want to be healthy and lose weight. As one friend told me, “Lent is all about self improvement.”

    This comment is appalling, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I wish teachers would be more careful to explain to children why things are done instead of just teaching the ritual. The meaning is certainly more important than the action itself, but it seems like it is the only part that none of my friends know.

    All this to say, thank you Father Stephen for adding a brighter side to my day and showing me a more profound way of looking at Lent. It was definitely a relief from the shallowness that seems to permeate our culture.

  4. Mary says:

    Thank you, Fr Stephen! A beautiful prayer I have been meditating on in preparation for Lent is by Saint Nikolai on Fasting (number 41). This prayer takes us deep into the meaning of fasting, repentance, Lent, etc. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

  5. Gene B says:

    Every year I look forward to lent more. Over many years, I seem to be able to adhere to the guidelines more, every year it becomes more natural to do so. I also feel much healthier too, after no meat or dairy. And every year I eat less of those things afterwards. The action of fasting stands in direct opposition to just about everything our consumer culture has become. I can’t imagine a Christianity without fasting, it is so integral to the faith.

  6. The true Lent is not a burden, because it is a conforming of ourselves to the image of Christ. Christ fasts in us. Christ prays in us. Christ overcomes the passions in us. It is simply conformity with the truth of Christ rather than the popular imagination of Christ. I look forward to Lent each year in an unspeakable way. Though it has its difficulties, it’s nearness of Christ is worth all the trouble – thus it becomes no trouble at all. In a modern world in which comfort is a delusion, we do well to turn away from comfort and to the truth which is conformity to the death of Christ just as we want conformity with His resurrection. Good Lent to all!

  7. Moses says:

    Yes, and that is what is most difficult, the giving up of comfort and everything contrary to Christ. Thank you Father for these encouraging words. :)

  8. Isaac of Syria says:

    Thank you for you last post Fr. Stephen. It is a good reminder because it is very easy to fall into the “burden” mentality.

  9. Deb Seeger says:

    Ummm, I am continuely amazed how you, Fr. Stephen and I seem to be on the same page. The Spirit of Christ “must” be directing our thoughts!!!! The living sacrifice is a bit harder but the last paragraph was poignant for me. Today I had a conversation with my best friend, who was talking about the Love of Christ and at the last supper. He had just revealed to them about evangelizing the world in a new way, taking a full purse and sword etc and what do the apostles do? They began talking about who was greatest. Christ love was (is) so great, that he merely responded and pressed on with His message, instead becoming exasperated with them. She began talking about how we are being called to love all people groups. Some come more natural and easier while others requires a living sacrifice of laying down our life, our desires, our will to love some.

  10. Deb Seeger says:

    I accidentally hit the submit button. Later, I began thinking about the people groups that I personally have difficultly in loving, esteeming above myself and some of these are acquaintances, whom I have known for decades. And I saw that in myself, I can not love them, I can only repent of my selfishness and ask Him to first give me His love for them, secondly to minute by minute ask for His mercies for the task at hand.

  11. Patrick says:

    At the risk of being pedantic, today is not the first day of Lent for the Western Church. That is, in fact, on Monday. I’d have to go find my old Anglican Breviary, but there is another term for the days between Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent.

    Granted, there is no practical difference.

  12. Deb Seeger says:

    HAHA I did it again with the button. I testify that no good thing dwells within me except the risen Christ. After I repented, it was no more than several hours than an encounter with a challenging sister was upon me. I failed miserably and I see it was because I did not lose myself in the beloved. As the first day of Lent ends, I see what I need to concentrate on…..losing myself in Him.

  13. Deb Seeger says:

    per wikipedia:
    Western Christianity (with the exception of the Archdiocese of Milan which follows the Ambrosian Rite), Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Saturday.[3][1] The six Sundays in Lent are not counted among the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter”, a celebration of Jesus’ victory over sin and death.[2]

    In those churches which follow the Byzantine tradition (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics), the forty days of Lent are calculated differently: the fast begins on Clean Monday, Sundays are included in the count, and it ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday. The days of Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week are considered a distinct period of fasting. For more detailed information about the Eastern Christian practice of Lent, see the article Great Lent.

  14. David says:

    It feels a burden when I cannot fast for even a day or complete a single prayer with the focus that I had when I began it.

    But I get up in the morning by His grace, so I’ll learn patience for the rest.

  15. Katia says:

    Thank you Father for your care for us. Nothing is easy but that’s why we are the orthodox christian and should remember to die with Christ every day,bear our cross and be witness to the Gospel(martyr) and remember that we own nothing, we belong to God and everything is his,and nothing is of our own,so if we pray and leave ourselves in His hands He will help us with everything,we just have to have Faith,Hope, Love and humility. With love in Christ K sinner the great

  16. Katia says:

    The chief of the virtues is prayer;their foundation is fasting.The combination of fasting and prayer is wonderful! Prayer is powerless,if it is not rooted in fasting; and fasting is fruitless,if prayer is not built upon it. – Saint Ignatius Brianchaniniv.

  17. Zoe says:

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for reminding us.

  18. Patrick says:

    I stand corrected. I went and looked in my Breviary and they, too, refer to Ash Wednesday as the first day of Lent. I should be better about checking first. I hadn’t dusted that Breviary off in about 3 years. :)

  19. luciasclay says:

    This is the first year I have ever observed lent in any form. I am keeping it in the Western tradition.

    Having been reading Eusebius and other works lately I am struck by how the differences in both method of calculating the calendar for the fast and the nature of the fast have been different from the beginning. And how they have been sources of tension between east and west. Even in the time of Sixtus I Bishop of Rome ( AD 115-125 ) there were differences in how things were observed in the west and the east. The Roman bishop Victor ( AD 189-199 ) tried to force the issue to conclusion and was opposed both by his own bishops and by the rest of the Church.

    The east appealed to tradition handed down from Philip and John. The Western Church at that time did not claim to have changed it but believed it was holding its traditions as delivered as well.

    I wonder if perhaps this difference in observance between east and west might itself stem from a difference among the apostles themselves on the calendar of pascha and the nature of the fasts leading up to it ?

  20. anthony says:

    “…each according to the measure of faith God has assigned Him.” I wonder what St. Paul is meaning here? Does he mean that some can give more to God, or that the spiritual life is progressive? I mean, we start out small, and gradually increase how much we are able to sacrifice? A literal interpretation would seem strange, that God gives people different amounts of “faith”…? Or does he mean simply that each one of us has different “talents”. Fr. Stephen, I am confused by this verse.

  21. Karen says:

    Hi Anthony! We have at least two prayers in the Gospels asking for increase of faith (Luke 17:5, Mark 9:24), plus a reference in Romans 12:3, from which I expect Fr. Stephen has drawn here in your quote of him. I think the strength or amount of faith we have is indeed a function of spiritual maturity (so, yes, spiritual growth is progressive). Our faith (personal trust) increases as we grow in intimacy with Christ. Hope this helps.

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