by Rev. Fr. Andrew Jarmus,
Director of Missions and Education, UOCC,
Have you ever heard one of these conversations? “So, what are you going to give up for Lent this year?”
“I don’t know. When does it start?”
This year, Great Lent (more properly “The Great Fast”) in preparation for Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) begins on Monday, February 19, 2018. As we know, this time of spiritual struggle involves intensified prayer, more liturgical services and a stricter rule of fasting than through the regular seasons of the year. All of this is intended on preparing our hearts for the commemoration of the great acts that our Lord willingly accepted for our deliverance from death: “the Cross, the spear, nails, death itself”(Communion Prayer of St. Simeon the Translator), and the Radiant Resurrection where this deliverance is fulfilled and death is swallowed up in the paschal Victory.
Needless to say, such significant moments in the life of the Church, indeed in the life of the world, should not be approached casually, without forethought and preparation. It has been said more than once, for example, that to truly appreciate the joy of the Paschal services, one needs to also attend the services of Holy Week. We cannot truly appreciate the immensity of Jesus’ victory in His Resurrection without also reflecting in the great lengths to which He went to realise this victory. This process of services, with their themes of death and new life, also remind us that as Christ’s followers we too cannot get to the “empty tomb” without a stop at the “cross”. As Jesus says, “”If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”(Luke 9:23 – see also Mt. 16:24, Mk. 8:34) Renewal in life does not come without struggle.
To see this struggle bear fruit, we need to think ahead. When we read or hear about explorers going on expeditions to the remotes places of the world, they always speak about the months (if not years) of preparation before embarking on their journey. It is this time of making ready that helps ensure a successful endeavour. The Great Fast is also a journey, a journey of the heart. It is one that offers great promise, but also is filled with many spiritual obstacles and pitfalls. It is not a journey to be entered into in any serious way without some “lead time” to bolster ourselves for the effort. The Church, in Her wisdom and love for us, knows this and we find worked into the Church Calendar four Sundays (a full month!) that start calling our minds to the theme and efforts of the fast.
The first of these Sundays is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which falls this year on February 16. This day shows us the nature of true repentance through Jesus parable of two people who go to the temple to prayer. One, the Pharisee, is a prominent religious leader, who’s prayers, puffed up as they are with pride and judgement of others, is condemned by the Lord. The Lord for the sincerity of his humility and repentant heart blesses the other man, the Publican, notorious for amassing a vast personal wealth by cheating others when he collected their taxes.
The second Sunday in this pre-Lenten period is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son – this year, February 23. This day, too, teaches us about the nature and fruits of true repentance. On this day, we reflect upon the parable about a young man who wastes his portion of the inheritance from his father on raucous living. Realizing how much of his life he has thus thrown away, he returns to his father, asking for forgiveness. The father seeing him coming from a distance, runs out to meet him and takes him back into his home.
The next Sunday is called “Meatfare Sunday”. This is the last day that we meat before Pascha. The theme of Meatfare Sunday is the Last Judgment, when Jesus teaches us that we will be judged based on how we treated others. To minister to another, even the least of all people, is to minister to Christ. To neglect another is to neglect Christ Himself.
Finally, the day before Lent is the “Sunday of Forgiveness” – this year March 9. The theme of this day is Adam being cast out of Paradise. In conjunction with the message from the week before, we are taught on this day that the measure that we use to judge others will be the measure by which we are judged in the end. We cannot expect to be forgiven by God, if we do not forgive our fellow human beings for their transgressions. This day is also called “Cheesefare Sunday”, as this is the last day to eat dairy products before Pascha – you see, we do not even go into the fast “cold turkey”, but are given a one-week lead up, meat one Sunday and diary the next.
On the evening of Forgiveness Sunday a special Vespers service is celebrated to mark the beginning of the Great Fast. During this service all of the church vestments are changed from the paschal gold to the lenten purple. The purple vestments will remain in use until Great and Holy Saturday, at which time, during the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, they are changed, back to gold again. The Forgiveness Sunday Vespers ends with a special rite of forgiveness, when all those gathered ask forgiveness of one another. Thus, we begin the Lenten journey by making peace with those around us, that with the loving support of our brothers and sisters in the faith we may enter into the spiritual struggle of the Great Fast.
Most of us would agree that fasting is hard, whether it is abstaining from food, luxury items and activities, and certainly from the sinful inclinations of our fallen nature. These things are difficult to keep “in check” most of the time. The struggle is particularly difficult during the Great Fast, which is longer and stricter than any of the other fasting seasons of the year (that is why it is called “Great”). Also because, when people try that much harder to live a godly life, the demons are trying that much harder to take them off the path. We cannot expect to successfully complete the course of the Fast if we do not start preparing ourselves for it in advance. Let us use the time given by our Holy Mother, the Church, wisely, that our efforts may bear much fruit, being filled with the radiant light of Pascha at the end of the journey.
Lent’s coming… get ready.