On Sunday, January 29, Orthodox Christians entered a four-week season of Pre-Lent, to prepare themselves for a spiritually rewarding time of year: the Great Fast. In anticipation, we offer the following article from His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri. The Great Fast begins this year on Sunday evening, February 26.
In the not too distant past, a minister of one of the denominations was quoted as saying: “Almost no one in my Church observes Lent in the traditional way any longer. The people simply cannot find a place for fasting and self-denial in their current lifestyles. They are, however, attracted by the idea of a period of intensive sharing and helping others. This is what we are concentrating on in our Church nowadays. After all, isn’t that what Lent is all about?”
It is unfortunately true that what this minister says reflects a very popular attitude. There is just no place for Lent in the contemporary way of life, so some Churches have seen fit to adapt themselves to the “realities of modern life,” skip the “empty ritual observances,” and “make the spring preparation for Easter more meaningful” to their people. These platitudes dominate many discussions of the purpose of Lent.
Still more unfortunate is the acceptance (sometimes without realizing it) by not a few American Orthodox of these notions. Perhaps in a country like ours where certain religious and semi-religious ideas fill the air, it is natural for people who do not think things through to be carried along by the trends. This is especially true when what is offered is less demanding.
No one will question the fact that the Orthodox Christian Lenten observance is difficult. What is prescribed requires almost a super-human effort — the dietary changes, the cessation of entertainments, the constant call to self-examination, the reminders of our need to turn away from this world and set our sight on God’s Kingdom, the injunction to forgive and love even our enemies. It has little appeal to a society in which self-indulgence is no longer a sinful departure from God’s will for man, but a philosophy of life. Orthodox people are inescapably members of such a society, and being Orthodox not just in name, but conscientiously, is really a deliberate rejection of most of what that society offers.
What is missing from so many discussions of Lent and what is of primary importance in the Orthodox concept, is the idea of repentance. In fact, the underlying idea of the Great Fast is exactly that, and the ritual observance is nothing more than a sign of it. By the way, the term Great Fast is still a better name for the period than Lent. We use the latter term, however, for ease of discussion, for fear that many of our own people would not know what we are talking about if we used the other one.
Actually, by rejecting traditional Lenten disciplines, what society and some of its obedient churches and churchmen are implicitly rejecting is the very idea of repentance, because repentance means a change of mind, of direction, of one’s way of life, of values. These changes which must come from the heart, arise from a conviction that one does not live as God would have him live. They would not appeal to a self-satisfied and basically self-righteous society. And a society which is convinced that it is good and has no sin to be sorry for is just that, self-righteous.
The radical change of diet that is called for, is a sign of a radical change of lifestyle to which the Christian Faith calls us, even if it means running the risk of being ‘odd’ to those we work and associate with. The increase in church attendance (during Lent) is an indication of the Christian’s longing to be with God, in His house, and with His people. The sharing with and the helping of others, an enormously important part of the observance, is not just a response to some humanitarian concerns, but a response to Christ’s new commandment to love one another. All of these characteristics of the Fast are intimately bound together and interdependent. A mere outward observance of these things without the change of heart that they signify, is useless.
The Church is calling her faithful people once again to the observance of the Great Fast. Nothing has changed. Even if someone, moved by a false feeling of compassion for the people, should try to ‘lighten the load’ and make it easier by reducing the requirements, he is fooling himself and those who follow him. The ideal is still the same — in this world in which we live — being in it, yet not of it, as the Lord has characterized His followers. We shall be invited to come back to God, overcome all obstacles so that the One we see is Jesus, to overcome self-righteousness, to repent of our sins against God and against our fellow man, and to make our lives models of self-giving, sharing, and forgiveness.