Great Lent began a week ago for the Orthodox. Interestingly the first week of Lent is the hardest week until Holy Week. There are services pretty much every evening and the rules for fasting are stricter. It’s as if you began a race with a sprint only to realize that there are many more laps to go.
Many years ago I was on my high-school track team. I don’t really mean to joke when I say that it was so long ago they had not invented the running shoe. There were only shoes for sprinting – none of these modern, technological marvels that actually support your feet and ankles. My place on the track team was as a miler – but not the really good miler. I was what they called a “rabbit” (named for the mechanical rabbit that greyhounds chase). The starting pistol would go off, and off I would begin at a fairly fierce pace. If the other team took the bait, then they would try to keep up with me and after a couple of laps were exhausted. Then our really good miler, who had been running a sensible pace would kick into greater speed and leave the field behind. If I had a really good race, I might finish third. Generally, I finished tired. Being a rabbit is hard work.
The pace of the first week of Great Lent – though beginning at a rabbit’s speed – is not meant to set the pace for the rest of the fasting season. This second week, we begin to slow down to a pace we can sustain until Holy Week.
How that works varies from person to person. For me, it means fewer services (since I obviously attend all of them). My fasting becomes a little less rigorous.
St. Paul seems to have been fond of sports metaphors. To the Corinthians he wrote:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable (9:24-25).
To stay with St. Paul’s imagery – for what prize are we competing – and against whom are we competing? These are important questions because the answers tell us the reason for running the race. Our prize – as St. Paul notes, is an “imperishable crown.” It is the crown of eternal life – participation in the true Life of God. Our competition is everything that separates us from God. We fast, we pray, we give alms, we forgive our enemies, all in order to allow ourselves to be drawn deeper into the life of God. If in the middle of Lent we begin to fast in order to fast, or to say prayers because “we have to,” etc., we will have already lost the race. There is only one prize – Christ Himself.
And look out for rabbits.