Lent as Continuing Education for Christianity
It all began with Holy Week. Christians wanted to prepare for the Great Feast, for Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection. So they observed the preceding week as a period of fasting, prayer, and charitable activity. The period increased backward in various areas of the church until it expanded to roughly forty days, the period Jesus spent in the wilderness before his ministry began. In the west, now, it begins with Ash Wednesday. In the eastern churches, it begins with Forgiveness Sunday, a day on which we clean our consciences before our brothers and sisters by asking forgiveness for offenses given in the past year. So we have this period of time for contemplation and renewal of our practice. Yes, it was influenced by monastic Christianity, but that’s all right: the monks and nuns have insights into the faith that their life permits, indeed demands, and they have given us great leadership over the centuries.
Simply put: we are not going to earn our way into heaven by observing Lent, nor are we trying to impress God by our Lenten regimen. Lent is for us, not for God. It is continuing education for Christians.
Many professions and trades require continuing education these days. It is just not possible to keep up with the advances in technology or learning without some such practice.
This is equally true for Christianity, even though it’s not because of advances in technology. It’s because we lose our way so easily in a culture that is relentlessly neutral, or even opposed, to Christian values and virtues. Of course, such opposition has been in place since the beginning and it has been experienced in all cultures. America is no different in this regard. Cultures like ours, in which Christianity has been outwardly observed, have suffered by smothering and smoothing as much as cultures where the faith has suffered by suppression. It’s just a different form.
There will always be those who twist Christianity to make it conform to their own ideas: prosperity gospels, easy gospels, or gospels with no evangelical message about Christ and his cross, and so forth. This stuff is all over; you can even pay to experience it. So we have to learn the basics constantly.
We need to be brought back into the center again and again. We experience that center, that core of our faith at Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection. You may call it Easter. In order to get to the resurrection we have to go through the cross, and Lent is our continuing education year in, year out.
Fasting, prayer, and charitable activity: Jesus speaks of these in Matthew 6, the gospel that begins Lent across Christianity. These are the bare outline for our continuing education. Fasting, for Orthodox Christians, is abstinence; it means that we abstain from meat and dairy products for this time, or that we attain as best we can unto that ideal. Nobody is going to check up on you; you have to make your own decisions. We lay out the ideal and you take it from there. Prayer is increased during the season; we add services of prayer to build up and encourage personal habits. We increase our charitable activity to emphasize this aspect of the faith: to turn us away from our self-centeredness and toward the needs of our neighbor.
Faith is a process, not a decision we make once for all. We try to go deeper each year: deeper into our own inner resistance to the faith, to seek out those pockets that will not yield to the Light. Lent is life, intensified.
PUBLISHED 19 Feb 10