Monday, February 20, 2012

Why we need Lent.

I don't have survey data to back this up, but I suspect that most regular readers of this blog start Lent this week: some began last night with Forgiveness Vespers, while others begin the day after tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. Though readers who follow the Julian Calendar won't begin Lent until next week, the intervening days of Maslenitsa or Cheesefare Week do anticipate the coming season, as many eat their fill of dairy products before giving them up for Lent. Let us all begin the fast with joy and stay the course so that we may rejoice more fully in the Pascha of the Lord.

Each year at the start of Lent, I try to make time to reread Father Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent: Journey to Pascha. One reason that I make an annual return to this book is that it reminds me why we - and why I - need Lent. As Father Alexander explains in his introduction, the Lenten season, like the Christian faith in general, can only be understood with reference to the great Feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate at the end of these forty days:
When a man is going on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, "the Feast of Feasts." It is preparation for the "fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation." We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Easter, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.

Is it necessary to explain that Easter is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is "brighter than the day," who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. But what is that joy about? . . . the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we "were buried with Christ . . . unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and to live by it. . . .

Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the "new life" which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us? All this because of our weakness, because of the impossibility for us to live constantly by "faith, hope, and love" on that level to which Christ raised us when he said: "Seek ye, first of all, the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." We simply forget all this – so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations – and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes "old" again – petty, dark, and ultimately meaningless – a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our "enjoying life" it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various "sins," yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity.
Lent reminds us of the gap that too often exists between the faith that we profess and the lives that we live, but it also offers us the means to restore what we have lost. As Father Alexander explains, Lent is a "school of repentance" that helps us to turn away from our 'old' lives and rediscover the new life in Christ:
If we realize this, then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. . . . The entire worship of the Church is organized around Easter, and therefore the liturgical year, i.e., the sequence of seasons and feasts, becomes a journey, a pilgrimage towards Pascha, the End, which at the same time is the Beginning: the end of all that which is "old"; the beginning of the new life, a constant "passage" from "this world" into the Kingdom already revealed in Christ.

And yet the "old" life, that of sin and pettiness, is not easily overcome and changed. The Gospel expects and requires from man an effort of which, in his present state, he is virtually incapable. . . . This world through all its "media" says: be happy, take it easy, follow the broad way. Christ in the Gospel says: choose the narrow way, fight and suffer, for this is the road to the only genuine happiness. And unless the Church helps, how can we make that awful choice, how can we repent and return to the glorious promise given us each year at Easter? This is where Great Lent comes in. This is the help extended to us by the Church, the school of repentance which alone will make it possible to receive Easter not as mere permission to eat, to drink, and to relax, but indeed as the end of the "old" in us, as our entrance into the "new."

In the early Church, the main purpose of Lent was to prepare the "catechumen," i.e., the newly converted Christian, for baptism which at that time was performed during the Paschal liturgy. But even when the Church rarely baptized adults and the institution of the catechumenate disappeared, the basic meaning of Lent remained the same. For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return – the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own "passage" or "pascha" into the new life in Christ. . . . For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
If these excerpts pique your interest, pick up a copy of Alexander Schmemann's Great Lent to learn more. To repeat the prayer I offered at the start of this post, let us begin the fast with joy! AMDG.


At 2/28/2012 11:11 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

I got a copy! Thanks...I look forward to some contemplative reading.

At 2/29/2012 3:02 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for letting me know - I hope you find the book helpful!


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