As the sharp edge of winter cuts across February and early March with its long shadows and long cold nights, Orthodox Christians know that this time of year is the herald of Great Lent, that solemn but beautiful 40-day journey to the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. With anticipation we look forward to that Lenten journey and what awaits us at the end of our spiritual travels — the “feast of feasts,” that great day of Pascha in which we proclaim, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” We celebrate that Christ has transformed death from a horrible finality to a wonderful passage into eternal life. Great Lent is that great gift given to us by the Church to help us prepare ourselves, to make ready, for the joy which is to come.
Great Lent is a time to prepare. So how does the Church aid us in our preparation? It gives us a time to prepare to prepare! The series of Sundays leading up to Great Lent instructs us on what we must take with us on our Lenten journey. The gospel teachings for the four Sundays leading to Great Lent tell us what we must carry in our “spiritual luggage” if we hope to experience all that the Lenten journey can show and teach us.
Our preparation begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. The gospel lesson (Luke 18:10-14) tells of two men who went up to pray. One, a Pharisee, is quite proud of his religiosity, making a great show of his piety. The second man, a tax collector, would not even look up as he prayed, but beat his breast asking God to forgive him, a sinner. Christ assures us it is the tax collector, not the religious man, who goes home justified. What is it the tax collector possesses that the Pharisee does not? What are we being taught is necessary for our Lenten journey? The answer is humility. Our Lenten fasting, almsgiving and church attendance will mean nothing if we engage in them in a spirit of pride. If we humble ourselves before God, we will be exalted during Great Lent; if we exalt ourselves before men, we will go home at the end of our Lenten journey worse than we began.
On the second Sunday of our Lenten preparation, we hear the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The beautiful story of the ungrateful son who takes what he thinks is his, leaves the love and security of his father’s house, and finally squanders all he has through profligate living. All the while, his loving father waits and watches for the return of his son. Living like an animal, the son comes to his senses and returns to his father’s house. His father receives, forgives and restores him, a perfect example of unconditional love. In coming to his senses, the son repents of his sin and returns to his father.
And so the Church teaches us of the second piece of “spiritual luggage” necessary for our Lenten journey repentance. Each year Great Lent presents itself as a time for us to repent and return to our Father’s house. Like the son in the story, in our arrogance we try to lead our lives apart from our heavenly Father’s house and it ultimately leads to destruction. The unrepentant heart, the heart with no desire to return to its father’s house, cannot receive the blessings of the Lenten journey.
On the third Sunday of preparation, we come to the Sunday of the Last Judgment. In the gospel (Matthew 25:31-46)we hear of that great and terrible day when Christ will return in His Glory and the righteous and unrighteous shall be separated and given their just reward for better or worse. What divides those bound for eternal glory from those bound for eternal punishment? Christ tells us: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”
Those under judgment ask: “When did we see you and do these things?” Christ responds: “Inas much as you did itto the one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” At the heart of the Christian message is love — incarnate love. Christ’s love for us is incarnate. In His love for us, He took on flesh and loved us by doing those things necessary for our salvation. So too, our love must be incarnational. We cannot love our brethren simply through words, but we must love through our actions towards them. Incarnational love — this is what we carry with us throughout our Lenten journey.
Finally, on the day preceding Great Lent, we come to the Sunday of Forgiveness. In the gospel reading (Matthew 6:14-21) we are warned by Christ that, if we withhold forgiveness from others, we ourselves will not be forgiven. The final act in our preparation for Great Lent is forgiveness. Hence, the actual entrance into Great Lent is Forgiveness Vespers on the eve of Great Lent. In this beautiful service we are called to forgive our brothers and sisters, so that we might embark on our Lenten journey unencumbered. For if we fail to forgive, our journey will take us nowhere.
Humility, repentance, incarnational love and forgiveness — these are what we must carry within us on our Lenten journey if we wish to receive all the joy and blessing of our Paschal destination.
Father Stephen Rogers is priest of St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church, Franklin, Tennessee. This article was first published in The Word magazine, February 2000.