Joyful Sorrow – Orthodox Lent
Orthodox Easter (called Pascha) is a month after other churches this year, on April 27th. Our Lent begins with Forgiveness Vespers this Sunday, March 9th. Why so late?
The First Council of Nicea (325) stipulated that Easter fall on “the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.” With the vernal equinox established as March 21, Passover usually fell before Easter, as it should given the gospel reports. If the full moon falls on Sunday, obviously the next Sunday will be Easter. But sometimes Orthodox Pascha may be four, even five, weeks later because we follow the Julian and not the Gregorian calendar (adopted in 1582). 2008 is just such a year. The dating is very complicated and only mathematicians understand it. The rest of us just follow along. Now let us look at Orthodox Lent.
Orthodoxy is an ascetical church, and Lent is our most ascetic period. Askesis is Greek for “training,” say, to win a race. St Paul used the image in I Corinthians 9. Our Lenten training consists of fasting, prayer, and charity. It’s how we build spiritual muscle.
The Lenten fast is tough: no meat or dairy. No one pries into your eating, however, to make sure you keep the fast. We are not legalists. We live by grace. The aim is not abstention but athleticism. Soul training happens through training the body; we are a psychophysical unity.
St John Chrysostom (4th C.) warned against hypocritical fasting: “It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting. How? When we abstain from food, but not from iniquity; when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor; when we do not become drunk with wine, but we become drunk with evil pleasures; when we abstain all day, but all night we spend at unchaste shows. What good is abstaining from food, when on one hand you deprive your body of a selected food but on the other offer yourself unlawful ‘food’?”
Additional worship services give us opportunity to pray, to examine our lives in light of the Gospel, and to receive sustenance for our training. Some people go to monasteries during Lent. We also make extra gifts of money and work to charities near and far.
Lenten discipline goes against the grain. In our church we call Lent “joyful sorrow.” I may be joyful, but not because the road is easy. The sorrow comes because sin makes my road rocky, dangerous, and steep. The joy comes because God paved a new Way to love us in Christ, and our first step out is repentance.
We learn repentance through the daily prayer by St Ephrem (+ 373):
“O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
“But give, rather, the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to your servant.
“Yes O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother (or sister), for blessed are you unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Faith is not an intellectual exercise; it is not, as G. K. Chesterton put it whimsically, “believing ten unbelievable things before breakfast each day.” Faith is action, so we train body and soul to reach the prize, which is transformation through Christ. By training the body to let go of passions, we release the godly passion of love toward others, toward the created order, and toward God, “the lover of mankind.” In this period of intense exercise, we say – and mean – “Have a good Lent.”