Many 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!”