The Church’s season of Lent is intended to be a return to the normal life of a Christian.
The pressures of careless habits, sin and death distort the ways we believe, think and behave. Lent, for those who choose to participate, provides the necessary training regimen for healthy living according to God’s design. It’s not easy, but nothing truly valuable is. Anyone willing to devote their energies to this endeavor will not be disappointed.
Orthodox Lent begins Monday, and Roman Catholic Lent begins Ash Wednesday.
The word Lent derives from Old English roots; it means “springtime.” Along with the emergence of natural flowers and leaves from the barrenness of winter, Christians warm the soil of their hearts and bodies to bring forth fruits worthy of faithfulness to God. The sun drawing out this growth is the promise of the Resurrection of Christ, the feast of Pascha and Easter. The process of growth is called repentance, the re-orientation of the entire human person toward the will of God in Christ.
For 40 days, Christians apply themselves to activities essential to life in the kingdom of God: confessing sins and forgiving one another, daily prayers and services of the Church, fasting both from luxurious foods and over-eating, attending to the needs of others with works of mercy. Most importantly, all these disciplines express the faith, hope and love of Christ Jesus who gave himself completely for us to rescue us from death and restore us to communion with God. During Lent, we strive to lead heavenly, not earthly, lives (see Matthew 6:1-24). The 40 days of Lent denote a passage, or journey, to salvation. After his baptism, Christ fasted and prayed for 40 days before the beginning of his public ministry (noted in Matthew 4:1-2, 17; Luke 4:1-2, 14).
For 40 days, Moses fasted on Mount Sinai before coming down with the covenant for Israel (Exodus. 34:28).
For 40 days Elijah traveled to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where he heard the still, small voice from God (1 Kings 19:8).
For 40 days, the rains fell lifting Noah, his family and the animals in the ark while the sinful world perished below (Genesis 7:17; 1Peter 3:20).
For 40 years, the Israelites crossed the wilderness before entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 2:7).
Salvation is a process, and Lent is its road map, its flow-chart. Lent is an icon, or picture, of the normal Christian life conformed to the life of Christ our Savior.
A Christian is a disciple, a learner, a follower. “Whoever desires to come after Me,” said Jesus, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). And Christ is the road: “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said in another place. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Lent is a concentrated effort to participate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ by dying to sin and rising to newness of life in faith. For more than 17 centuries, the Church has been keeping the season of Lent. Lent refocuses our attention on the meaning of our existence: the struggle to know the eternal God, our creator, especially amid the distractions of the world and our own self-will. To this end, two themes particularly dominate: the remembrance of death and meditation on the Judgment to come. Each one of us faces death because of our own sin, so how should each one of us now live for God? Each one of us must finally stand before God and give an account for his or her life, so how should each of us now bear the responsibility for this life given by God? The acceptance of Lenten discipline as normal is, admittedly, a challenge, yet perhaps only because we “normally” don’t ever think or try to act in accordance with the actual way of Christ described in the Gospel. Lent as the standard of Christian conduct is both a reality check and an opportunity to start to get our lives right.
The Rev. Jonathan H. Cholcher is the parish priest at St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Warren.