To the Reverend Clergy and all the Faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
(2 Corinthians 1:2)
(2 Corinthians 1:2)
Over the course of the next forty days, the Church calls us to more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are the three principle characteristics of Great Lent. As Orthodox Christians we embrace these spiritual, ascetical and charitable exercises with conviction, enthusiasm, and hope. At least we start out that way.
Immersing ourselves into the intensity of Great Lent is not always easy. Many times we lose steam and don’t complete the race. But we should never despair. We are weak creatures and while we may start off with good and sincere intentions, we oftentimes find ourselves being distracted by the worries and cares of the world so much so that our intent to pray more, observe the fast, and give of ourselves to works of charity oftentimes fades away. But each new sunrise gives us an opportunity to try harder and make a new beginning.
Great Lent is a time of conversion. It is an opportunity for us to change direction and focus. It is a reminder to us that we must think of the eternal and not the temporary, of the one thing needful and not the material things of this fallen and broken world. Great Lent is a time to slow down, to rethink our lives and to “clean up our act”, as it were. It is a time of solemn, sometimes even silent reflection. Great Lent brings us face-to-face with the realities of our own sinfulness, inadequacies, and weaknesses yet it also gives us hope and encouragement. As we journey through the next forty days, the Church presents us with images of forgiveness, redemption, and of new life born of suffering and unselfish love.
Following Jesus is never easy. It is one of the lessons Great Lent teaches us. For forty days we walk through the scorching desert of self-examination, intense prayer and fasting. We are also called to give enthusiastically to others in imitation of Him who gave His life willingly and freely for us.
Great Lent calls us to be good. This may sound very simplistic but it really isn’t. Being good isn’t always as easy as it seems. Satan tempts many times a day, every day of our lives. And it’s very easy to give into that temptation, especially since Satan is so good at deception. Remember how Satan tempted Christ when He was in the desert? He came to Jesus when He was in a weakened state from fasting. But Christ remained steadfast in His goodness. Our Lord never flinched; He stood His ground, drawing His strength from the relationship He had with His Father.
The temptations Jesus faced in the desert were real. They were hard. And they were decisive. God allowed Jesus to be tempted in His humanity not to make Him fall, but to strengthen Him and to make Him rise to meet the challenges of His ministry. Saying ‘no’ to Satan, Jesus forged His human resolve to follow the Father’s plan. Each of us faces temptations day in and day out; every day of our lives Satan is there dangling the carrot before us.
Great Lent is an opportunity for us to say ‘no’ to what is evil and bad in our lives, and to say a resounding ‘yes’ to what is good and draws us closer to God. At a time when many simply dismiss the human response to God’s grace as being of no importance and believe that everyone will be saved, we are reminded of the ultimate consequences of our actions. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us of the seriousness of our response. He says, “broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
The Didache, a catechism dating from the first or second century, repeats Jesus’ warning: “There are two ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.” To follow Christ is always a free choice. He leads, but we must choose to follow Him. Christ does not force or compel us to follow Him. Every day, in family life, in work, in school, with friends and even with the casual passer-by, we make moral choices that either embrace life or choose death.
During Great Lent, we intensify our prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three traditional Lenten practices, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, open us more fully to God’s grace. They help us to keep more readily Jesus’ commandments to love God and one another. These penitential practices strengthen our will to choose the good so that we are more eager to be true disciples of the Lord.
In speaking of the Lenten discipline, St. Peter Chrysologus, the 5th century Bishop of Ravenna, taught, “There are three things by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, fasting and mercy: these three are one, and they give life to each other.” (Sermon 43)
By more individual prayer during Great Lent, by observing the Fast, and by extending even greater charity to others than we normally do, we are better prepared to turn from evil and to choose the good. All the practices of Great Lent center our attention on God’s grace. They also make us more conscious of the choices that we make each day.
Certainly, we can take the easy path, giving in to Satan’s temptations, choosing what pleases us, indulging our pleasures and passions. And sometimes we do. We sin…sometimes a lot, every day. Hence, our need for repentance and the frequent use of the Holy Mystery of Confession and Reconciliation. But we can also take the more arduous path, choosing what is good for ourselves and others in the eyes of God.
This Great Lent, may we make our own the words of Jesus, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem” (Matthew 20:18). Today, we are beginning our journey to Jerusalem, where all humanity is saved by Christ’s Death and Resurrection. May our journey be one of enlightenment and purification so that when we come to celebrate the Paschal mysteries, we may say with great joy and confidence: “Christ is Risen! Truly, He is risen!”