Growing up in the Methodist church, Lent was always something that I practiced. I’d give up Diet Dr. Pepper and chocolate and feel really good about my decisions … at least until Easter Sunday when I’d gorge myself with carbonation and coco. I’ve always embraced the challenge of Easter, but this year I’ve been learning a much deeper truth about the beautiful practice of Lent.
My mom passed away very suddenly in October of 2018 and the faith I thought I knew everything about began to crumble like the “house of cards that it was,” as C.S. Lewis (or Saint Clive if you’re Fr. Barnabas Powell) once quoted in his wildly honest work, A Grief Observed. Grief has a way of ripping the ground beneath your feet out from under you, launching you into the scariest free fall.
Through the fall, I’ve found that my everyday practices both practically and spiritually speaking, have been what has steadied me and helped me hold on while everything around me seemed to be falling apart. A few years ago I would’ve told myself, “Just hold on to Jesus,” but now I know how deeply unhelpful and disembodied that statement is if practical steps aren’t also offered.
Sometimes (most times) holding on to Jesus involves the way we live and move in the world because our brain chemistry is incredibly impacted by the way we move the rest of our body. It’s why cognitive behavioral therapy is so deeply important for the treatment of trauma patients. What we do with our body orients our minds toward what we are doing with our body because it is actually doing something to the structures in our brain.
There’s so much to unpack here and I am no expert, but suffice to say, I have been tremendously impacted by the ancient embodied practices of the Church, Lent being one of them. A season for fasting and repentance that transforms the way we think and live. It’s as though Christianity knew about mindfulness before mindfulness was a buzzword (and before the heresy hunters started calling Christians who practiced mindfulness “heretics” … which is another story altogether.)
In his book Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann (an Orthodox Christian priest) writes:
“…so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations — and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again — petty, dark and ultimately meaningless — a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the midst of our “enjoying life” it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. … the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it. … It is through her liturgical life that the Church reveals to us something of that which “the ear has not heard, the eye has not seen, and what has not yet entered the heart of man, but which God has prepared for those who love Him.” And in the center of that liturgical life, as its heart and climax, as the sun whose rays penetrate everywhere, stands Pascha. … on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us. For each one of us received the gift of that new life and the power to accept it and to live by it. It is a gift which radically alters our attitude toward everything in this world, including death. It makes it possible for us joyfully to affirm: “Death is no more!” Oh, death is still there, to be sure and we still face it and someday it will come and take us. But it is our whole faith that by His own death Christ changed the very nature of death, made it a passage — a “passover,” a “Pascha” — into the Kingdom of God, transforming the tragedy of tragedies into the ultimate victory. “Trampling down death by death,” He made us partakers of His Resurrection. This is why at the end of the Paschal Matins we say: “Christ is risen and life reigneth! Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave! … As we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see — far, far away — the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon.””
To avail ourselves to the hard work of fasting and repentance is to avail ourselves to continual transformation … for the health of our souls and for the life of the Cosmos. It isn’t an effort to gain the favor of God, He already loves us unconditionally. Lenten practice is entered into for a variety of reasons, namely the participation in the glory to glory transformation that the Lord has already begun in us.
I’ve been attending a Greek Orthodox Church for the last year as I’ve been searching for the roots of our beautiful faith, and it is as stunningly beautiful as it is foreign to me. I still have no idea what is happening, largely, but liturgy has this way of revealing the deeper meaning all on it’s own. It’s kind of wild.
Something so beautiful about the way they venture into Lent is the service they hold on the night before it begins. It’s a service called Forgiveness Vespers in which everyone present goes around the church asking for mutual forgiveness, reminding each other that this journey of Lent is a communal one that they do not take alone.
The intentional humility of the collective body of the congregation is disarming and beautiful. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is noted as saying, “Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another.”
“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 Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.” (St. Ephraim the Syrian, 4th Century AD)
If you decide to enter into the beautiful practice of Lent this year, I pray good strength for you and a preference for the good of those around you. And that by your efforts you may be deeply transformed to another level of glory and that “Kingdom Come” truly becomes more of a reality in your life and the lives of those you impact.