With Great Lent approaching I promised myself that I would write a few points on the subject both to prepare myself and to share with any others needing a boost in their own preparation. Whilst pondering this on the way home I decided to specifically look at how to make the Great Lent meaningful especially for those who take it with a touch of “oh, here comes the fast again…” and thus the title “Making Lent Great Again.”
Starting with the basics, what exactly is the Great Lent and why do we partake in it? Lent is the forty-eight-day period leading up to Feast of the Resurrection. The practice of fasting in preparation for this event is dated back to the Apostolic Era, where we see the likes of St Irenaeus of Lyon, St Athanasius the Apostolic and multiple other fathers of the Church write on the importance of holding a period of fasting to prepare ourselves spiritually for this event. By fasting we do not just speak of the abstinence from rich food, sexual contact and other temptations but the reduction of distractions from our spiritual lives to make way for acts and meditations which will prepare us for the remembering of Christ’s resurrection.
This distinction between the Orthodox practice of fasting and simply abstaining from foods is vital, it reminds us that the Great Lent is a journey in which we take take our full selves out of the busy modern life to seek the fullness of God once more. as St John Cassian reminds us that bodily fasting is useless unless accompanied by, “contrition of heart, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the scriptures, toil and manual labour.” Through these actions, we are given guidance as to how to remain focused on God and not on worldly distractions.
So what is the purpose of Lent? I have mentioned the historical reason for it existing and how it is a preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection but the real purpose of the period needs more examination. Fr Tadros Malaty explains how the period has a two-fold purpose for the Orthodox believer; to prepare us to fully experience the joy of the resurrection and to prepare us with practical repentance and teaching so that we may enter the feast with complete contrition of heart and understanding of the implications of the event. As St Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans, “then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
With this knowledge, We can now look at how to prepare ourselves for the fast. Firstly, preparing for Lent does not mean stacking our fridges with as many ‘meat substitutes’ as possible, as this is simply a way of trying to cheat at the fast. If your idea of Lent is “Today I ate Vege-Sausage and margarine mash instead of Sausage and mash, yay me,” then you have not begun to fast. Preparation for the fast is a matter of spiritual preparation for the fast as opposed to arming yourself with ways to avoid it having any impact at all. If you must try out new recipes or adapt then so be it, just remember that fasting is not about showing off your extravagant new cooking skills but placing things aside to focus on God.
Practically speaking a good way to start the journey of the Great Lent is to ensure that you lighten your timetable, this is difficult in a world where many of us work 12 hour days. Do this by working out what you should really be putting aside for your prayers in the first place. Whether this is that excess social engagement, that TV binging evening or the gaming that you enjoy on a far too regular basis. A practical development of a prayer rule is a good way to pick up a good habit. Ensure that you give yourself that hour or so a day with family to pray in the morning and evening, as well as other times if you can. Also ensure that you have time to read Scripture to achieve this sense of immersion in the lessons being passed on to us through this practice. It is appreciated that this is not always going to be smoothly, but as HH Pope Shenouda III reminds us “we must repair the results of our sins as much as we can,” we all miss the mark, it is how we respond and in not giving up that we grow. As lent passes and your praying of the hours and reading of Scripture becomes more of a natural part of your life you will feel this impact, as is the aim of the extended fasting period. This will also strengthen your spiritual life on the daily basis after the fast.
As well as this, remember that lent is a time of giving and for rejecting the material distractions of the world to be reminded of our priorities. Many have suggested practical ways of doing this, such as giving any excess money you would have used on the things you have on charitable endeavours or by giving up things to charity during this period such as old clothes. There are also many ways in which you can be more charitable in your nature. As lent is a time of prayer you can work to ensure that you pray for others or spend your excess time assisting those who need it. Charity is not always a matter of giving physically or financially, the greatest and sometimes most difficult of chartable acts that are carried out are those that cost nothing, as they demand us to give emotionally.
Finally, lent is a time for repentance. As mentioned previously, lent is the time in which we aim to prepare ourselves to fully experience the joy of the resurrection through practical repentance. We have already looked at three ways to do this; fasting, prayer and charity. Through our prayers and out focus on rejection of those things which have distracted us from God and our service of him, we are enabled to see our sins clearly. In working towards casting these things aside we can develop a better understanding of our own repentance. The great battle of repentance in the fast is something that Fr Matta El-Meskeen described as working towards, “an acceptance of the destruction of self,” through rejection of one’s own wants and desires to focus on God. Lent, with its emphasis on selflessness, gives us an edge in this battle and allows for the practical application of these various Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and charity to see one’s failings and develop ways to counter them as part of this journey in preparation to announce the resurrection of our Lord in full joy.
On this note, I will end this short piece and I hope that it has given you some ideas as to how you can ‘Make Lent Great Again’. I wish you all a blessed Lenten period, asking for whoever reads this to pray for me and my own efforts. I hope that this has been useful in some manner.