LENT: A DESERT PILGRIMAGE
THROUGH THE CROSS TO THE RESURRECTION
Presented by Ben Moore at the Aloha Lecture Series on February 27, 2012
“Being weak, we need external reminders, symbols, and signs. Of course there is always the danger that these external symbols may become ends in themselves and instead of being mere reminder become in popular opinion the very content of Lent…Properly understood, however, these customs constitute that “belt” which connects the spiritual effort to the totality of life…The spiritual tragedy of secularism is that it forces us into a real religious “schizophrenia” –dividing our life into two parts: the religious and the secular, which are less and less interdependent. Thus a spiritual effort is needed in order to transpose the traditional customs and reminders, the very means of our Lenten effort.” – Schmemann, Great Lent
I. What is Lent?
a. 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday that climaxes during Holy Week (April 2-7). It originated in the 4th century, and has been a significantly spiritual time for billions of Christians throughout history. Lent comes from an Old English word meaning “to lengthen”, referring to the lengthening of days during the Spring season.
b. The Church Calendar: shaped around the life of Christ. Lent is sandwiched between Christmas and Easter.
c. Ash Wednesday
i. Its name comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ heads or foreheads as a sign of humility before God, a symbol of mourning and sorrow at the death that sin brings into the world. It is a day to reflect on our mortality, our brokenness, and our need for God.
d. Holy Week
i. Palm Sunday (entry into Jerusalem), Maundy Thursday (The Last Supper), Good Friday (Crucifixion), Holy Saturday (Waiting), Easter (Resurrection).
II. Understanding Lent as a Desert Experience
Deuteronomy 8:2-10: “And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
a. Desert as a place of transformation
i. The desert has rich symbolism in the Bible as a place of transformation.
Noah is told to start building a boat in the desert.
Noah floats for 40 days on the “desert” of the sea.
The earth is purged of wickedness and evil.
Abram is comfortable in Ur.
Abram is called by God to leave Ur and journey into the desert.
God makes his covenant with Abraham.
Israel is in captivity in Egypt.
Moses leads Israel through the wilderness for 40 years.
Israel settles in the Promised Land.
Christ is baptized by John the Baptist.
Christ is led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by the Devil.
Christ begins his ministry.
b. Desert as place of preparation.
i. Jesus went into the desert to prepare himself for his ministry.
ii. The Orthodox describe Lent as, “The Spring Time of Renewal…an opening flower of life.” All Christians in some form or fashion celebrate Easter, and Lent prepares us to celebrate Easter with more unction and vibrancy. Just as the bitterness of the cruxifixion made the resurrection all that more sweet, the discomfort of Lent makes Easter all that more grand and significant.
c. Desert as a journey into the depth of our humanity.
i. In the desert we begin to recognize our need, and how far we are from God. The absence of distractions calls attention to the fact that there’s something not quite right within us. The desert strips one bare of all pretenses to righteousness.
ii. In the same way Lent gives opportunity for us to confess our total inadequacy before God, and thus come before Him in dust and ashes. It is a way to empty ourselves of our false pride, of our rationalizations that prevent us from seeing ourselves as needy creatures.
d. Desert as purification through repentance.
i. Flowing out of coming to terms with our deep need for God, the call to repentance also comes out of the desert place. “It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"— "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord.”
ii. Repentance is about detaching ourselves from those things that are blocking the light of God into our lives. Repentance, or metanoia, is an “abrupt turn around” so that we reorient ourselves facing God again and not our own god substitutes.
e. Desert as a place of stillness.
i. “I will lure you and call you into the desert, and there I will speak tenderly to your heart.” Hosea 2:14.
ii. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46
iii. In the stillness of the desert, Christ draws us back to himself. We always have the choice of what to fill our emptiness: either God or other things. The intentional emptiness created by fasting is not an end in itself, but is to be filled with God by us saying YES to God.
III. What are we to do during Lent? The triad of Lent: Fasting, prayer, and acts of compassion.
i. Fasting helps us experience hunger like the wandering Israelites and see God provide manna for us. It helps us seek the One who alone satisfies our needs. Fasting “is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to ‘soften’ our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden ‘thirst and hunger’ for communion with God.” –Schmemann Great Lent
ii. Fasting helps us value that which we fast from of their true worth. After fasting, it is felt a real blessing when we receive the simple blessings back again.
iii. “How many people have accepted the idea that Lent is the time when something which may be good in itself is forbidden, as if God were taking pleasure in torturing us. For the authors of Lenten hymns, however, Lent is exactly the opposite; it is a return to the “normal” life, to that “fasting” which Adam and Eve broke, thus introducing suffering and death into the world. Lent is greeted, therefore, as a spiritual spring, as a time of joy and light:
The Lenten spring as come, the light of repentance…Let us receive the announcement of Lent with joy! For if our forefather Adam had kept the fast, we would not have been deprived of paradise…the time of Lent is a time of gladness! With radiant purity and pure love, filled with resplendent prayer and all good deeds, let us sing with joy…
iv. “Fasting is the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of the flesh and matter over the spirit.”
v. Just as we repent with our spirit, fasting is a way for us to repent with our bodies. Schmemann writes, “Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man—soul and body—repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations [or kneeling] are a “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, and are thus the Lenten rite par excellence."
vi. Collective fasting is also a beautiful opportunity to express our solidarity and communion with Christians all over the world. During Lent men, women and children, rich and poor, together fast in unity in preparation and anticipation of the Coming of Christ.
· Since the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were given up universally throughout the Christendom. Butchers would close up their shops and the cow’s milk would go to the dogs for those 6 weeks. Abstaining from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products are still observed throughout the world in the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. Many churches will fast during the week and break their fast each Sunday, since every Sunday is traditionally considered a feast day.
a. The Western Reasons. Thomas Aquinas argued that "they [meat and dairy] afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust."
b. The Eastern Reasons: “From the creation of our Parents in Paradise to the time after the great flood, people ate only fruits, grains and vegetables. This is the food of paradise! The practice of abstinence reminds us of our high calling to manage all creation in the Name of the Lord. Our hunger for meat and other rich food serves as a reminder of the enmity that exists in creation as a result of sin. Especially during this holy season when the liturgy reminds us of the role that the stars, the angels, the earth itself, the beasts of the field, the ox and the ass all played in receiving the Savior of the world, abstinence calls us to set aside our enmity even with the animals in order to restore peace on earth.”
vii. Fasting also teaches what it truly means to feast. In a society where we can have anything anytime we want, the experience of waiting or being patient is something we aren’t very good at. Abstaining for certain foods for a week at a time—to feel hunger for something and learning discipline teaches us delayed gratification. After a week of not eating meat or dairy, makes Sunday feel like a true feast day. Our bodies actually itch for Sundays. Giving up of things in order to value them of their true worth makes us aware of their real blessing when we receive them back again.
i. Fasting should go with prayer. Fasting without prayer just makes us irritable: the devils fast. In Lent we are to give more time in prayer and attention to prayer as we turn in a more conscious way to God.
ii. Taking time for repentance.
· The prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
· The Litany of Penance
· The Jesus Prayer. “Jesus Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”
i. Giving of finances and giving practical compassion to others around us. Giving time. Giving what we are. Visit the lonely. Catching up on letters of encouragement. “Give bread and receive paradise” - St. John Chrysostom.
ii. Less distractions from diversions creates space in which we are better able to give to others more deeply.
· Lent is not mandatory for the Christian. Yet why not? Only good can come of it if it is done well. It has been a deeply meaningful and woven into the fabric of our Christian heritage.
· Observing Lent gives us an opportunity to grow closer as a community as we all seek to grow closer to Christ. Collective fasting can be a great encouragement as we walk together through the desert experience.
· Being weak, we need external reminders, symbols, and signs. Lent invites us to enter into a kind of desert experience of transformation, repentance, purification, and preparation. Lenten fasts are intended to ‘soften’ us to be more perceptive of God’s work in our lives. Participating in a collective fast, brings us closer together, and teaches us a deeper love for feasting. Fasting, coupled with both prayer and acts of compassion, encourages us to follow in the footsteps of our Savoir in tangible actions.
· Given the many layers of meaning in Lent, we won’t grasp all of them in a single year. But imagine if we were to observe Lent every year for the rest of our life—imagine how much we would grow and learn.
· "O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy service. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother. For blessed art thou unto ages of ages. Amen." –A prayer for Lent of St. Ephraim the Syrian