Joy is at the heart of everything in the Christian life, and Lent is no exception. So Let us enter the Fast with joy, O faithful.
Let us not be sad.
Let us cleanse our faces with waters of dispassion,
Blessing and exalting Christ forever.
Receive Lent with gladness, O people!
The Holy Spirit will take up His abode in you
and your souls will be filled with His light.
As our Orthodox brethren say at the beginning of Lent.
The concept of Lent is one of the oldest in Christendom. In the very early Church the bishop of Alexandria announced at Epiphany the date for Easter, which determined the feasts and fasts for the major festivals of the year, including the beginning of Lent, which soon became a forty day fast.
Later on when and how Lent was kept differed according to different traditions. The Byzantime Church began Lent at Vespers on the 7th Sunday before Easter, and it ended on Friday evening before Palm Sunday. In the Western Church it began on Ash Wednesday, apart from the Ambrosian rite when it began on the 6th Sunday before Easter and ended on Maundy Thursday. These churches still observe these calendars.
The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday in the Western Church and the last Sunday of Great Lent in the Eastern tells of Jesus and His disciples going up to Jerusalem. Our Lenten journey will also take us to Jerusalem to relive that last week of our Lord's life, what we have come to know as Holy Week. In Lent we are, as it were pilgrims, setting out to experience once again the Paschal mysteries, and like the pilgrims of old to the holy city to have our hearts filled with the love of our Saviour, and to contemplate and desire nothing but Jesus and His sufferings and His triumph over them. Therefore as every good pilgrim knows we must cast off all those things which impede us from reaching the purpose and goal of our pilgrimage. We know what ours is, as we hear it every time when we are present at Mass when the celebrant recites the anamnesis:
We your people and your ministers,
recall his passion,
his resurrection from the dead,
and his ascension into glory;
That is, the recalling of the paschal mystery, the Triduum.
Most of us have grown up thinking that Lent is a time when we are supposed to deny ourselves something we like very much, spend more time in prayer, and live charitably. Or perhaps we have thought that Lent is our time for imitating the forty days and nights that our Lord spent in the wilderness. Yes it is important, that we maintain a purposeful, prayerful, and penitential Lent spiritually, and an outreaching, sharing, and compassionate Lent practically. Yet all of these are but means, and should be seen as aids on our journey towards the great Easter Vigil, preceded by the other two great Liturgies for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We therefore have to be conscious that all we do during Lent is our preparation for the death and resurrection of our dear Lord, and our sharing in those in our own lives as it is proclaimed in the liturgies of the Triduum. This means that we have to be present and participate in all three liturgies. When we examine the Lenten liturgy we discover that there are three but related themes: penitence and self-denial, baptism and the Lord's passion. By looking at the readings from Ash Wednesday to the end of the second week of Lent we discover that the main theme is repentance and self-denial. This is illustrated in such readings as Repentance of the Ninevites after the preaching of Jonah (Jon.3: 1-10), Daniel's confession of the sins of Israel (Dan. 9:4-10), the parable of sheep and goats (Mat. 25. 31-46), the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) and Christ's teaching on reconciliation to our brothers and sisters (Mat.5:20-26). From third Sunday in Lent is the theme of Baptism as is illustrated in the healing of Naaman in the waters of Jordan (2Kings 5.1.15), the stream of water flowing from the Temple (Ezek. 47), and those three classic Johannine passages used from the earliest times for the catechumens: the Samaritan woman (John 4), the healing of the man born blind (John 9), and the raising of Lazarus (John 11). From the fifth Sunday is the theme of our Lord's Passion as illustrated in the Old Testaments readings such as the lifting up of the fiery serpent (Num. 21:4-9) and its equivalent on John's gospel (8: 21-30); the three children, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the furnace (Dan. 3:14-20,24-5,28), Ezekiel's prophecy that 'My servant David will reign over' his people after cleansing them (Ezek. 37:21-28), and those marvellous discourses from John's gospel, all symbolic of the suffering ahead (8:21-42, 51-59, 10:31-42, 11: 45-56). Of course the common link with these three themes is the Christian Pascha. I want now to share with you a little of the history of the keeping of Lent and Pascha and how they came together. The oldest is the latter. From the earliest days of Christianity the paschal mystery has been the essence of both the Church's worship and doctrine. There are fragments of this in some of Paul's epistles. For example in the first letter to the Corinthians we read: The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself receive was that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried; and that on the third day, he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures. Before Christianity was made acceptable by Constantine in the early 4thC. the observing of Pascha was very simple, both weekly and annually. The content of both was the whole mystery of the Christian faith the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord, the descent of the Holy spirit, and the second coming of Christ. Every Sunday from New Testament times, a weekly celebration of the Christian mystery, when the people of God gathered together was proclaimed in the Eucharist. In a sense this Sunday of the Resurrection was the eighth day, ushering in the new creation, as compared to the first day, which resulted in a fallen creation. To-day thanks to Vatican Council II in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963, the importance of Sunday celebrating the Christian mystery has been restored to its rightful place. This document declared:
By a tradition handed down from the apostles, which took its origin from the very day of Christ's resurrection, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery every Sunday. For on this day Christ's faithful are bound to come together into one place. They should listen to the Word of God and take part in the Eucharist, thus calling to mind the passion, resurrection and the glory of the Lord Jesus, and giving thanks to God who 'has begotten them again, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead, unto a living hope' (1Pet. 1:3). The Lord's Day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of the greatest importance, shall not have precedence over Sunday, which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.
Along side this weekly celebration of the Christian mystery in the early Church, was an annual celebration, the Pascha or Festal Festorum. This was essentially an all night vigil beginning at sunset and culminating with the celebration of the Eucharist around dawn. Apart from the evidence of a primitive form in St. Paul's time, quoted above, we do not know exactly when it began. However there is evidence of controversy of the date of observing Pascha during the second century. The churches of Asia Minor kept it on 14th Nissan, the same night as the Jews observed their Passover meal, whilst other churches kept it on a Sunday.
After the Council of Nicea in 325, Pascha, meant observing an all night vigil between Saturday and Sunday, with the days preceding it as a strict fast, our Holy Week. Yet there were no such days as Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. It was only later in the 4th C. that an historical sequence began to work itself out towards Holy Week, a paschal celebration leading on to Ascension Day and then Pentecost, which are now celebrated as the great Fifty Days. The most important feature of this was the continuation of unity, that is, the Cross, Resurrection and Ascension are inseparable. These only became separated in observance and theology in the Mediæval period, due mainly to devotion and art, which concentrated on the Cross at the expense of the others.
From very early times the rite of Christian initiation also became part of the Paschal Vigil, although originally it probably was separated. By the early 3rd C. Hippolytus of Rome in The Apostolic Tradition and a little later, Tertullian in his De Baptismo, have clear connection of the two. Yet this association of Baptism with the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection is as old as St. Paul who clearly wrote about it in his letter to the Romans, which since Vatican II is the liturgical epistle of the Easter Vigil:
You cannot have forgotten that all of us, when we were baptized into Christ Jesus, were baptized into his death. So by our baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glorious power, we too should begin living a new life. If we have been joined to him by dying a death like his, so we shall be by a resurrection like his; realizing that our former self was crucified with him, so that the self which belonged to sin should be destroyed and we should be freed from the slavery of sin. Someone who has died, of course, no longer has to answer for sin.
But we believe that, if we died with Christ, then we shall live with him too. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and will never die again. Death has no power over him any more. For by dying, he is dead to sin once and for all, and now the life that he lives is life with God. In the same way, you must see yourselves as being dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus.
As the paschal vigil became the time for conferring baptism, so did Lent become the period for preparing the catechumen in his/her final stages for their initiation into the paschal mystery. Perhaps to-day we are surprised to learn that often the period of a catechumen was as long as three years during which time they were dismissed from the Liturgy after the proclamation of the Word and the Prayers, "for their kiss is not yet holy". This is what Hippolytus laid down in The Apostolic Tradition. Once they had passed their examination after this period, the catechumen known became known as the electi, who underwent an intense preparation for baptism in the form of instruction, prayer, fasting and exorcism in what we know as Lent. Once he/she received the rite of initiation, the Christian was expected each year to approach Pascha in a similar preparation. Thus it can be seen that Lent became for Christians a time of intensification of living a strict and prayerful life in preparation for the Paschal Mysteries. Christians were expected to live like the monks under the Rule of St. Benedict, but to live Lent in such a way that they may look forward to Pascha with joy of great spiritual uplifting. This concept was also exclaimed by George Herbert, poet-priest of the early 17th C.
Welcome deare Feast of Lent.
True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
In that intensive time of preparation much time was also given to learning the faith and the various Christian mysteries.
Lent in those earliest time was also to anticipate a joyful climax, as expressed not only by St. Benedict but also in the Orthodox tradition. For the latter, Lent is a season of 'bright sadness', a 'Lenten spring' whose arrival is greeted with joy, 'a time of gladness'. The Roman Missal of Paul VI in its first preface also restored joy: 'this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with heart and mind renewed.'
There is another feature of the ancient Lent that is also important for us in understanding this season properly, and that is penitence. Ash Wednesday for a long time was the day when in public, penitents had to carry out the penance imposed upon them by the bishop, and hopefully to be reconciled to the Church on Maundy Thursday that year (sometimes this period of penitence lasted for two or three years). On Ash Wednesday the penitents prostrated themselves cum lacrymis on the pavement of the church, and the bishop put ashes on their foreheads saying, 'Remember, man you are dust, and to dust you will return. Do penance and you will have eternal life.' The penitents were afterwards clothed with sackcloth and prostrated themselves before the whole assembly as they recited the seven penitential psalms (VI, XXXII, XXXVIII, LI, CII, CXXX, CXLIII) and the litanies. The bishop then preached on Adam's expulsion from the garden, after which he led the penitents to the door of the church. As they knelt outside, the bishop exhorted them 'not to despair of the Lord's mercy but to devote themselves to fasting, to prayers, to pilgrimages, to almsgiving and to other good works, so that the Lord may lead them to the worthy fruit of true repentance.' After this exhortation the doors were solemnly closed and the bishop returned to the sanctuary to celebrate Mass. This ritual undoubtedly would have had a profound effect not only for the penitents but also for the faithful who gathered to witness all this before the continuation of the Eucharist.
When the discipline of public penance fell into disuse in the 8thC, the rite for Ash Wednesday was transferred to the whole congregation, and all present received the ashes of penitence and heard the words, 'Remember, man you are dust and to dust you will return,' as we still do. From henceforth Lent became a time of penitence for all faithful Christians, and joy was replaced by gloom. The public penitential nature of Lent has been restored in the Ordo Pænitentiae of 1973, and since then has taken its place in congregational penitence at appropriate times of the Christian year. We also hope that the concept of joy has returned to!
Repentance has always been an intricate part of Lent and preparation for the Paschal mysteries. In the Orthodox Church repentance is probably taken more seriously than the Western Church. The Sunday before Lent is commonly known as Forgiveness Sunday on which all present at Vespers ask forgiveness from their brother and sisters, and in the first pre-Lenten Sunday the following hymns are chanted based on psalm 51 which is said to have been composed by David after his acts of adultery and murder.
Open to me the doors of repentance, O Lifegiver,
for my spirit rises early to pray towards Your holy temple,
bearing the temple of my body all defiled.
But in Your compassion
purify me by the lovingkindness of Your 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 intercessions
deliver me from all impurity.
When I think of the many evil things I have done,
wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment;
but trusting in Your lovingkindness,
like David I cry out to You: "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy!
We must never forget that the Gospel message begins with the preaching of repentance by John, which is taken up by our Lord (Mat. 3:2, 4:17). Repentance too is necessary at Baptism and the renewal of baptismal vows, and therefore is a contract with God for a fresh start. So
Let us bring tears of repentance to the Lord, as did the publican.
Let us fall before Him as sinners before the feet of our Master,
for He desires the salvation of all people, granting forgiveness to all who repent. For He took human flesh for our sake though He is God, coeternal with the Father!
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is that of the Temptation.
Forty days and forty nights
Thou was fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted and yet undefiled.'
Over the centuries, including the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, many have tried to imitate our Lord's so-called forty days in the wilderness as expressed in this Lenten poem by George Herbert:
Tis true, we cannot reach Christ's fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviours purity;
Yet are we bid, Be holy e'en as he.
In both let's do our best.
The observance of the forty days as our wilderness time has a meaningful purpose in our preparation for Pascha, as it is linked very closely with the Baptismal Rite of the Paschal Vigil. Here in the wilderness Our Lord renounces the Devil and the temptations of the world and the flesh just as those presented for baptism do.
These elements of renunciation, mortification and self-denial must always be seen in the context of Baptism and the Paschal Mystery as also fasting, the subject with prayer and almsgiving for the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matt. 6.1.13). Thus these are never to be undertaken simply as an exercise of the will dominating the body. They must be directed to the love and service of God and our neighbour, as has been made clear by the prophets and patristics.
Deutero-Isaiah writing in the time of the return from Babylon in 5thC. B.C. taught what fasting really meant to the returned exiles.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.
In the 4thC. John Chrysostom denounced fasting without charity.
I speak not of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely abstinence from meats, but from sins as well.for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to abstinence from meats is one who especially disparages fasting. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works? By what kinds of works? 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 honour, do not be jealous of him. if you see a beautiful woman pass her by, and let not only the mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all members of your bodies. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour the brothers and sisters. The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbour. And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accomplish them during the fast: to speak ill of no one for an enemy, and to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.
So did St. Peter Chrysologus, bishop of Ravenna in the 5thC. He preached:
The fasting man should realise what fasting is. If anyone wants God to perceive that he is hungry, he should himself take notice of the hungry. If he desires fatherly kindness, he should display it first.
Closely associated with fasting has always been almsgiving. .The author of the letter according to James reminds us:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
Whilst the Johannine tradition reminds us we cannot love God if we do not love our brethren:
But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
And St. John Chrysostom expressed it:
For almsgiving is the mother of love, of that love which is characteristic of Christianity, which is greater than all miracles.
For what is required is that we give, not much or little, but not less than is in our power. Think about the widow who gave her whole living. But you in the midst of your plenty are more stingy than she. Let us not be careless for our own salvation, but apply ourselves to almsgiving.
Prayer is the other lynch pin of the Christian life, especially during Lent. Without constant and consistent prayer and meditation it is hardly possible to live the Christian life. If we have become sluggish in prayer, and most of us do at times, Lent is the time to refresh and renew ourselves in it. Like the other duties, it requires discipline, a discipline in making time each day, and having a balance between talking and listening. Lent is a good time to make a novena for a special cause, and I would like to suggest that we make it for unity amongst all Christians, and especially focus on the Eucharist as 'the sacrament of unity' and in Baptism when 'we are made a child of God, a member of Christ and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.' Prayer time should also include meditating. To prepare to celebrate the Paschal Mysteries we need time to reflect on Scripture, and also on ourselves in order to see ourselves as God sees us. It is only then can we start to make adjustments and progress on our Lenten and heavenly journeys. So let us pray that the Holy Spirit will "melt us, mould us, fill us, use us" this Lent.
We must all remember that the Cross of Christ is the "law of Lent." It is the "tree of life" which blossoms in the Lenten spring with the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is very much evident in the St. Ephrem prayer chanted at every Lenten service in the Orthodox Church.
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk, but grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to your servant.
Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art You, unto ages of ages. Amen.
We say no to self in order to say yes to God and to our neighbour, just as in our baptism we were called to say no to the Devil and yes to God; we were made to die with Christ to the old Adam that we might rise with Him to the glory of the new. Thus our whole Lent is to conform more closely to the death and resurrection of Christ in the Paschal mystery. Louis Boyer expressed it like this:
The Pasch is not a mere commemoration: it is the cross and the empty tomb rendered actual. But it is no longer the Head who must stretch himself on the cross in order to rise from the tomb: it is his Body the Church, and of this Body we are members.
Summing up then, Lent is thus a time in which the Gospel should challenge us, disturb us and unsettle our present judgments. It is also the time for preparation for the Triduum so that we can go to the cross like Christ and put to death all in us not worthy of a child of God in order to renew our own baptismal vows at the Paschal Vigil. We should endeavour therefore to make progress on our pilgrimage journey to the Promised Land. As Leo the Great expressed it:
None of us, dear friends, is so perfect and holy, as to make reflection and improvement unnecessary. All of us, regardless of rank or dignity, should be concerned to embark on the race that is set before us with fresh determination this Lent, making an effort over and above the norm.
Finally, Lent reminds us of what the Christian life is about, and encourages us to pursue it.