The Spirit of Lent

The Spirit of Lent


Fr. Basil Zebrun

Introduction:  Pre Lent and the Great Fast

Orthodox Christians entered the Pre Lenten Season on February 17, the Sunday of Zacchaeus.  The particular hymns and scripture readings during this period provide select lessons in preparation for the Great Fast, chosen to guide the faithful in the way of repentance.  In effect, before the Fast begins the Church sets out the meaning of Lent so that her members may use wisely this "tithe of the year" in preparation for Pascha.Humility, love, forgiveness, and above all a desire to "see and know" Christ, these are fruits of a Christian life.  It is precisely these themes, as well as an emphasis on the true nature of the Fast,  that are placed before us during the five Sundays of Pre Lent through specific Bible passages, as well as through their elaboration within Church services.   On these Sundays the following readings are heard:  Zacchaeus (Luke 19; 1 Timothy 4: 9-15), the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18; 2 Timothy 3: 10-15), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15; 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20), the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25; 1 Corinthians 8:8 - 9:2), and a summary of Lenten efforts provided in Matthew, 6:14-21, with an epistle from Romans 13:11 - 14:4.

Lent is a sacred time, highly anticipated each year by the faithful.  Love for the Fast might seem strange to many, since people often understand it primarily in terms of deprivation:  "what are you giving up for Lent," is a frequently asked question. For the Orthodox, however, the Fast is about gain, as much as it is about sacrifice.  In fact, it might be better defined as a time of "gain through sacrifice."  The focus is on drawing closer to God, spiritual renewal, self awareness in light of the Gospel, and recognizing the fullness of life to which each person is called.   Such realizations are possible, however, only after a "stripping away" has taken place in a person's life, in the proper spirit:  i.e. self denial for the sake of the Gospel.

The Fast, among other things, directs the faithful toward specific bodily disciplines.  These may be understood as spiritual tools.  As with any tool, the "40 days" with its directives can be abused to our detriment or used properly to our great benefit.  If we enter Lent with a purpose, focused on the right things, it will profit us immensely.

Changes During the Fast:

Lenten disciplines influence our diet, a fact quite familiar to the faithful.  The strict dietary rules of Lent are severe:  many people would find them difficult to follow precisely.  For instance, according to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, 'during the first five days of the Fast only two meals are to be eaten, one meal each day on Wednesday and Friday.  If that practice proves too harsh, then one additional meal may be eaten on both Tuesday and Thursday.  These consist of bread and water, or fruit juice, but not cooked meals.' Generally speaking, however, Church members refrain from all meat, fish, egg and dairy products during the Lent.  It is also advised that a person leave the table hungry after most meals.Additionally during the Fast we modify our usual routines as they relate to entertainment:  television and "surfing the net" should be kept to a bare minimum, as should idle chatter through electronic devises.  Concerts, movie going, parties and school dances might be curtailed completely.  The "negative," however, must be balanced with the "positive." Activities eliminated from schedules should be replaced with more profitable ones, in preparation for "the Feast of Feasts."  Parents may find this effort challenging, but it is extremely worthwhile. Above all it is a yearly opportunity to impress upon children the seriousness of the Faith, the saving importance of the Cross, Tomb and Resurrection of Christ.   Lent is a perfect time to focus on a daily rule of prayer, to enact a routine of scripture reading, of familiarizing ourselves with the lives and teachings of the saints, as well as with the writings of modern authors.  Nowadays, in many households, even one meal a day, taken together as a family without distractions, would be considered an accomplishment.  We should also make special efforts to help others during the 40 days, and to seek reconciliation with estranged neighbors.  These struggles are made with Christ in mind.  They are signs that we desire to be renewed inwardly, and a means of achieving that renewal.

Lent provides a unique worship experience, prayers and services chanted only during the Fast:  for example, the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian with its many prostrations, the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and the Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete; not to mention the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, the commemoration of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, as well as special Holy Week services leading up to Pascha night.   In his celebrated work, "Great Lent:  Journey to Pascha," Fr. Alexander Schmemann stresses that "the spirit of the Fast is best communicated to the faithful through the Church's unique cycle of lenten prayer."

A Meaningful Fast: 

As we draw closer to March 18 --the start of Lent -- the following words from the prophecy of Isaiah are significant.  They provide a useful distinction between a false, useless fast;  and a fast that has meaning, that is acceptable in the eyes of God."Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.  Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight, and to hit with wicked fist.  Fasting like yours, this day, will not make your voice to be heard on high......

     Is not this the fast that I choose (says the Lord), to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is (not the fast), to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?..........If you pour yourself out for the hungry, and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness.........And the Lord will guide you continually.........and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail." (Isaiah 58: 3,4,6,7,10-11).Jesus states something similar to the religious leaders of His day.  In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 23,  He speaks about hypocrisy, about the Scribes and Pharisees being more concerned religiously with outward appearances than with justice and mercy.  Jesus refers to them as whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all manner of uncleanness.

The words of Isaiah and Christ indicate an ever present temptation, especially during the Fast:  the lure of putting one's trust in outward rules of the Faith, to see their "perfect observance" as an end in itself, rather than acknowledging their true goal of conversion and communion with God.  St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a 19th century Russian bishop, in his book, "The Arena," speaks of this danger.  He says that those who approach fasting in this manner become worse than animals, their motivation becomes truly demonic.   At the same time, St. Ignatius affirms the benefit of Christian discipline as absolutely necessary for the heart's proper reception of God's Word in order to bear spiritual fruit.

"Bodily discipline (fasting, etc) is essential in order to make the ground of the heart fit to receive the spiritual seeds and bear spiritual fruit.  To abandon or neglect it is to render the ground unfit for sowing and bearing fruit.  Excess in this direction and putting one's trust in it is just as harmful, or even more so, than neglect of it.  Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals, who give free rein and scope to their bodily passions;  but excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride and the recrudescence of other passions of the soul" (p. 138).

We assuredly do not wish to understate the significance of the Fast and its disciplines.  These tools are indispensible for helping to free Christians from fallen passions, and for fostering within the faithful a conscious dependence on God.  Christ taught His disciples to fast (Matthew 6:16-18).  He indicated that certain types of evil can only be dealt with, "through prayer and fasting" (Matthew 17:21, Mark 9:29).  The commands to "deny oneself, take up the Cross, and to lose one's life for the sake of the Gospel," are in effect instructions to engage in the ascetic life.   I do hope, however, that in our struggles we are able to pay equally  close attention to what may be called "the spirit of Lent," to realize that our Lenten efforts are directed toward bringing about profound changes "in us." Outward changes are relatively easy to accomplish, and are frequently temporary.  Far more difficult is authentic repentance, a desire for permanent change and true enlightenment in accordance with the Gospel.


During the next two months the Church worldwide will be moving spiritually as one Body, toward the greatest celebration of the year;  the "Holy Day of Holy Days," on May 5.  During this time let us fast and pray, but strive pre-eminently to place ourselves in God's hands, saying to Him, "You teach me, You fashion me more and more in Your likeness."  This humble approach and submission to the Creator, constitutes a proper spirit of prayer and of Lent.We can end with a quote from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the true nature and spirit of the Fast as conversion, as abstinence from sin as well as from food.    His Eminence writes:   "If it is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance.  Fasting is not a mere matter of diet.  It is moral as well as physical.  True fasting is to be converted in heart and will;  it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father's house.  In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means "abstinence not only from food but from sins."  "The fast, " he insists, "should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body;"  the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.  It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander:  "You do not eat meat," (he says), "but you devour your brother."  The same point is made in the Triodion (the book of Lent) especially during the first week.  At Forgiveness Vespers, and on Monday and Tuesday of the first week of the Fast, we sing the following:

     "As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion...Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.  True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God..."" (p. 17, Introduction, Lenten Triodion)