Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The liberation of Lent.

We all start Lent in different ways. Some readers of this blog will have started Lent this past Sunday at Forgiveness Vespers. Others will start it today by attending Ash Wednesday Mass or another sort of liturgical service. If you follow the Julian Calendar, Lent begins for you next Sunday. Some readers, I'm sure, will greet the start of Lent in entirely private and ostensibly non-liturgical ways.

Our communal celebrations of the start of Lent may differ, but our own individual assessments of where we are at the start of this season differ even more. The self-examination that we are encouraged to undertake at this time may lead each of us in very different directions. The ways in which we elect to fast or abstain or otherwise manifest our repentance for our failure to live up to our baptismal promises may differ markedly depending on how we feel that God is calling us to change our hearts and our lives during this season. The Lenten journey is one that we all undertake together, yet in some sense it is also a journey that each of us must make alone.

Even if each of us experiences Lent in different ways, we must not lose sight of the themes at the heart of the season. In the book Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, Father Alexander Schmemann speaks eloquently of these themes (or "conditions") as his reflects upon the Byzantine celebration of Forgiveness Sunday on the very eve of the start of Lent:
Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of "this world." And the Gospel lesson of this last Sunday (Matt. 6:14-21) sets the conditions for that liberation. The first one is fasting - the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit. To be effective, however, our fast must not be hypocritical, a "showing off." We must "appear not unto men to fast but to our Father who is in secret." The second condition is forgiveness - "If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you." The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between me and my "enemy" the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless "dead-ends" of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a "breakthrough" of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world.
I hope to return to these themes in a later post. For now, I think we would all do well to consider the questions that Father Schmemann places before us. What must I fast from this year in order to allow the liberation of Lent to enter my heart? Who must I forgive in order to allow the Kingdom of God to break through into my life?

My prayers are with all readers in this Lenten season. I ask you to pray for me as well. AMDG.


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