Wednesday, February 14, 2018

5 Beautiful Things You Might Not Know About Lent

A few years ago, I wrote about why I love celebrating Lent and Easter. I focused on baskets and eggs and all the things that usually get called pagan. But those things are just the tip of the iceberg. Today I wanted to share 5 things you may not know about Lent, that I think make the season really beautiful (and still totally Christian).

1. Its not just about fasting.
Fasting gets a lot of attention, but it means nothing if not coupled with prayer and almsgiving. Together these three pillars of piety draw us into proper relationship with God (prayer), ourselves (fasting), and our neighbor (almsgiving). (Orthodoxwiki, The Theology of Giving)

And for the record, fasting isn't just about self-denial. Its an exercise. Exercise is hard and hurts in the beginning, but in the end it makes you stronger and sometimes even feels good. 

"What will fasting do for you? Don’t expect quick results, but over the years it will help get your ego out of the way. Fasting will help you gain control over the desires for self-will and immediate self-gratification. Fasting will unite you with Christ who sacrificed himself for you, with the many hungry people in the world, and with 250 million Orthodox Christians in every land with whom you are keeping the Fast." Father Bill Olnhausen

2. The Prayer of St. Ephraim.
This beautiful prayer is added to our daily personal prayers and included in many of our Lenten services. It was written by a 4th century Syrian monk and poet, and is a summary of what we're working towards during Lent. It is said with prostrations in reverence before God, also reminding us of our baptism and that we fall and get up again. (Wikipedia, Prayer of St. Ephraim)
"O Lord and Master of my life, take from me a spirit of despondency, sloth, love of power, and idle talk. (prostration)
But give to me, your servant, a spirit of sober-mindedness, humility, patience, and love. (prostration)
Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen. (prostration)"

3. Almsgiving.
The fathers have a lot to say on almsgiving, especially during the fast. These are some of my favorite thoughts:
"When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." - St. Basil the Great  
"Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him.If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters? May He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us." - St. John Chrysostom
Here are two worthwhile efforts to support this Lent. Our local Little Free Pantry distributes food for free to anyone with a need year round. And the Orthodox Mission in Kenya currently needs a new well for their orphanage.

4. Forgiveness Vespers
Orthodox Lent doesn't have an Ash Wednesday. For us, the beginning of Lent is the Vespers service for Clean Monday that includes the rite of Forgiveness. At the end of the service, we go through a kind of receiving line, in which each person in the parish bows and asks forgiveness of every other person, "Forgive me, a sinner." Each person replies with, "God forgives, and I forgive." It is both humbling and healing as you stand before your priest, your child, your best friend, and the person you had a disagreement with last week. With each person you realize what grudges you may beholding, or what offenses you might have caused - and then you forgive and are forgiven.

So we begin this season of repentance together with our loved ones, with a clean slate. The whole first week is sometimes called Clean Week. We clean out our pantries as we start the fast, we go to a lot of services (with a lot of prostrations), and we are forgiven. Its a really good way to start Lent.

5. St. Mary of Egypt
Towards the end of Lent, we have an evening service in which we read the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was a 6th century ascetic who lived a life of extreme repentance in the desert, and so we consider her example during Lent. Because she lived after bible times, most protestants will be unfamiliar with her life - but it is valuable for us to see the way the Gospel continues to sanctify people who turn to Christ beyond the book of Acts. We can't all flee to the desert for 47 years, but we can take comfort that God is close to the penitent. You can read the Life of St. Mary of Egypt here, or a summary here.  Click on the printable to the left for a kids comic version.

May this Lent lead you to the power of the cross and the joy of the open tomb. Blessed Fast!

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