Pastoral Letter for the Beginning of Lent
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We are about to enter the wonderful journey of Great Lent. For those new to the Orthodox Faith and as a review for the "old timers," I want to share with you the Orthodox practices of this holy season.
From ancient times and over the span of history, Pascha, the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord, has always been considered the jewel of the Church year. The setting upon which this jewel is placed is Great Lent--the time of preparation. Every significant event in our lives is more often than not preceded by a time of preparation. The more significant the occurrence is, the more serious the preparation. Great Lent is likened to a pilgrimage. As a pilgrimage, the journey itself provides the preparation for the arrival. You could say the same about our earthly life: the journey is the preparation for the arrival--Eternity. Remember that the pillars of this journey are Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.
Seasons change and the earth is draped with a different garment. So also is it true with the liturgical seasons. Soon you will notice the vestments return to the penitential colors of purple. The prayers are a little longer, focusing on themes of repentance. In the midst of these prayers are prostrations--an outward sign of an inward striving to humble ourselves before God. With Heaven's help, this simple physical act brings us to the spiritual sense of humbling ourselves before the ever present, all powerful and all knowing Creator.
Two of the Lenten prayers that are said repeatedly have special importance. One of these is the prayer sung at our Matins Vigil: Open to me the doors of repentance, O life giver ... The other significant prayer we will hear frequently is the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, a friend and contemporary of St. Basil the Great (4th century). His writings and hymns adorn the prayer life of the early Church.
His most esteemed prayer is this Lenten prayer:
O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition and idle-talking give me not. (prostration)
But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience and love bestow upon me Thy servant. (prostration)
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen. (prostration)
The morning Orthodox prayers include the Prayer of St. Ephraim and other beautiful prayers. I suggest you wake up a little earlier so that you can fully participate in the morning Lenten prayers.
The first week of Great Lent presents the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, spread out over four evenings. This canon is repeated in its entirety during the fifth week. It is a doctoral level course in the history and mystery of repentance.
On Wednesdays and Friday evenings during most weeks we will be able to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord through a very special service called the Pre-sanctified Liturgy. It received this name because the Holy Gifts (Communion) are sanctified at the Sunday Liturgy and then reserved for these days.
We also ought all to feed our minds and hearts during Lent by reading and studying books of spiritual value. Our Tree of Life Bookstore has a great selection, and I would be glad to suggest one just for you if you would like help.
The Fast for Great Lent is a fast from meat, eggs, dairy, meat by-products, and also fish except (on a few designated fish days). Shellfish and non-backboned sea life is always permissible to eat. All vegetables, fruits, and soy products are fine. For married couples the fast also includes abstaining from marital relations until after Pascha.
Fasting strengthens our spiritual life. It gives wings to our prayers and energy to give alms for the "least of His little ones." Fasting is not meant to be a strait-jacket but a means to an end. There are extenuating circumstances, health concerns and other limitations that we might face in fasting. Pastoral advice is available and recommended.
Fasting has been practiced for generations. The Patriarchs and Prophets fasted. For example, Moses fasted 40 days while in the presence of God (Exodus 32:4); Elijah fasted (1 Kings 19:81); Daniel fasted (Daniel 10:3); and our Lord and the Apostles fasted. Furthermore, all of Christ's disciples have fasted since His coming. Remember His words: "Howbeit this kind only goes not out, but by prayer and fasting" (St. Matthew 17:21).
Children learn to fast and to see fasting as not very difficult when they see their family fast, including thier parents, brothers and sisters. The Church prescribes fasting regularly throughout the year. It is considered a norm of Christian life, not an unusual ascetic practice for the few.
To love God and to love our neighbor is the highest accomplishment. Look for opportunities to serve others, to give of yourself and to forget about yourself during these days of Great Lent. Be a servant, as our Lord came to serve and not be served. You can always begin by volunteering at our Open Door Soup Kitchen at the Church on Monday nights!
The end of Great Lent brings us to Holy Week. Orthodox Holy Week is filled with deeply solemn and beautiful evening services that express the Passion of Christ up to his Crucifixion, Death and Burial. Pascha (Orthodox Easter) services begin late Saturday evening, and do not end until around 4am Sunday morning, bringing us to the empty tomb and to the source of joy for all Christians--for He is Risen! After Pascha, throughout Bright Week we rejoice and celebrate His Resurrection with special services, feasting, and joyous hymns. Divine Liturgy is served almost every morning, and the Paschal Matins are joyously sung over and over again, both in Church and in our home "churches." All of the many services throughout Lent, Holy Week, and Bright Week are ancient in origin, deeply moving, and profoundly mystical. I encourage you to drink deeply of this living water and be a part of as many services as you can.
May God bless each of you and your families on this Lenten journey to the joy of His Resurrection!
With Love in Christ,
Fr. Patrick Tishel, Rector