In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, a period of time is set aside before major feast days in order for people to get into the right frame of mind to celebrate the holiday. It is a time to increase one's understanding of the feast at hand, and of our celebration of it; it is a time to heighten one's awareness of things both spiritual and temporal; and it is a time to focus one's attention on, as the Scriptures call it, the "one thing needful." For the Feast Day of Holy Pascha, or Easter, we call this period "Great Lent."

Perhaps not surprisingly, when many people hear this term, they frown a bit, they get uncomfortable, some even dismiss it. This is unfortunate, but it is true. They react this way, sadly enough, because they see in Great Lent nothing other than strict fasting rules and long services and a seeming obsession with sin, guilt, and pennance. Perhaps this is what they have been taught, and wrongly so.

What they don't see, and what they should see, is the opportunity for real spiritual growth that comes with Great Lent. They don't see the clarity of mind that comes with fasting, or the knowledge that comes with increased liturgical participation, or the freedom --real freedom-- that comes with repentance. They don't see how this time of preparation enhances their very lives.

Let us take, for example, the Fast. I will be the first to admit that to remember --and follow-- the rules of fasting seems a daunting task.

But if we look past the rules, to the intention behind the Fast, we will understand very clearly that it is meant to focus our attention on our inner selves, on our prayer life, on our spiritual yearnings, on our emotional health, and on our relationships with each other and with God. By concentrating so heavily on something so basic as our diet, and then to keep from indulging our physical senses for the precise purpose of enlivening our spirit, we actually do find our minds focused internally.

Let us now consider the increased number of liturgical services in our parishes. When asked to attend, our first response is likely to be hesitation, for we are usually not conditioned for more than a weekly visit to church. And when we consider our heavy work schedules and family obligations, we wonder if we have the time --or the energy-- to attend more services.

But if we make the effort, we will be rewarded. We will hear prayers and hymns we don't usually hear, as well as Scriptural passages and Psalms that are reserved especially for this period of time. And having been exposed to these once-unfamiliar liturgical prayers, hymns, and readings, our own personal prayer will thus find new and deeper expression. Indeed, we will now have a heightened awareness of life itself.

Finally, let us consider repentance. We have all heard the word "metanoia." We usually think of it as a prostration, say before an icon, to indicate our contrition. True, this is one use of the word. But the actual definition of the word "metanoia" is a "change of mind, a change of heart, a change of attitude, a change of direction." When we repent, then, we make the conscious decision to change the way we've been doing things. And we start anew.

Part of this decision is to examine our inner selves, and with true contriteness of heart, rid ourselves of the sins that have encumbered us. We confess them, and we leave them behind. The remarkable thing is that once we have done so, we are free: free of guilt, and free of the nagging sense that something in our life was not right. We are free, too, to now move totally unconstrained in the direction we know is right.

Imagine that feeling of freedom! And imagine the increased understanding we would now have -- of ourselves, of God, and of the Feast of Pascha itself, which is the joyous celebration of the ultimate gift of freedom: life over death.

Let us, therefore, approach Great Lent with renewed appreciation. Let us avail ourselves of the opportunity for spiritual growth that comes with Great Lent. And most of all, let us seek the Lord with renewed vigor.

May the Lord, our God --Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- bless each and every one of you, during this lenten season and always.

[ March 9, 1998 ]