Orthodox Christians really look forward to Great Lent. Not for us, the joyless drudgery of “giving things up” which is how many heterodox traditions think of it. Great Lent is as fresh and vital for us as it was for the very first Christians who used the Fast to prepare for the great joy of Pascha and for the catechumens who would be baptised at this feast. The vitality of Great Lent is not just an anticipation of creation’s joy at the resurrection of Christ but also a readiness to do what is necessary to participate in that resurrection personally. As St. Paul wrote in autobiographical mode to the Church in Philippi:-
7But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
8Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
9And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
10That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
11If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)
I have used the King James translation for this text as it is the only version in English that comes anywhere near to translating accurately the Greek word “skubala” in verse 8. The King James opts for “dung” but in truth St Paul uses not this polite word but rather a common and vulgar one, “crap.” Everything St Paul has to lose for the sake of Christ, his joy, is crap.
Great Lent, therefore, is a time to clean out the crap from our lives. This cleansing, this purification, this lightness of being is what gives the Fast its joyful aspect. The Lenten discipline is only painful if we try to cling to that which we must let go of. Our sins, passions, egotism, self-pity and morbidity must all be flushed down the toilet pan and away from our lives, completely.
I don’t know about you but when I have had a shower and I feel clean from all the sweat and grime of the day then I feel great. It is exactly the same with repentance. When I have confessed my sins and these have all been washed away by the blood of Christ then my soul is free, bright and my body is enlivened. Fasting also has this characteristic. It kills the root of my self-pity which urges me to eat for comfort’s sake. Rather than feeling heavy and solid I feel bright and spiritually alert when I eat a little less than I need. With almsgiving, again, it is the same. Letting go of money both for the poor and for God’s work through his Church reinforces my trust in God’s provision for the needs of all and that includes me and my family. My hands are thereby open and not grasping, my mind unfettered and my heart unbound. How then can it not be joyful for me in Great Lent? Already I am beginning to taste the newness of life that will destroy death on the night of Pascha.
So, at the beginning of Great Lent I ask you what I ask of myself, that together we should ask God to reveal to us the crap that clings to our lives. These are the things, particular to each one of us, that hinder our growth in God. Having identified them let us deal with them without delay through confession, through fasting, through almsgiving and especially through faithful prayer. By the time we arrive at Pascha we want to be that ‘new creation’ of which St Paul speaks in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:-
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:7)