The Vespers on the Sunday evenings of Great Lent provide our attentive ears with something like a running commentary on the course of the Fast that is both encouraging and challenging. Yesterday evening, the following hymn from the Triodion was prescribed to be chanted: “Having passed beyond the middle point in this holy season of the Fast, with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains, anointing our souls with the oil of almsgiving. So may we be counted worthy to venerate the divine Passion of Christ our God, and to attain His dread and holy Resurrection” (Sticheron, by Theodore).
If we carefully study or “unpack” this hymn carefully, I believe we will find the following material worthy of meditation.
- A reminder that we are in the “holy season of the Fast” – and not a particular period imposed upon us by the Church for merely penitential or disciplinary purposes. Great Lent remains a gift from God so that we may come to our senses and return to the loving embrace of our heavenly Father. Repentance/Penance is the means by which that return is accomplished in a manner that moves far beyond any legalistic reduction of the Lenten fast. The discipline of the Fast is meant to liberate us from bondage to the “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). In our anxiety over our mortality – and perhaps ultimate destiny – we cling to this world, and seemingly to just about everything in it, with desperate tenacity. We seek security in our many attachments, psychological or material. Yet, as Saint John declares, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). A certain detachment will yield a fruitful understanding of Saint John’s austere command. If approached and practiced seriously, this “holy season of the Fast” will guide us in that direction.
- There is the exhortation “with joy let us go forward to the part that still remains….” At this point in the Fast, we may be much more inclined – if not reduced – to a kind of gritty determination to remain obedient to the end. Initial zeal and admirable goals now appear as naïve formulations. A certain fatigue sets in. For serious participants, Great Lent is the Orthodox version of “Survivor!” Is this call to joy another stock phrase from the Church’s hymnographic arsenal of pious rhetoric? That is possible. Yet the hymn further reminds us that we are moving closer to the “Divine Passion” and the “holy and dread Resurrection.” With such an awesome destination to our Lenten journey, it is possible to willingly respond to the well-known admonition from The Epistle to the Hebrews: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Hebrews 12:12). The entire essence of our Christian Faith is manifested in the reality of the Passion and Resurrection of “Christ our God.” And reality saves us from mere rhetoric.
- We are to “anoint ourselves with the oil of almsgiving.” Great Lent is about God and the neighbor, not just the “self.” To serve the neighbor for the sake of Christ is to serve God. Again, from Saint John: “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). In a marvelous homily by Saint Peter Chrysologos, found in The Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion, we hear the following (this particular translation uses the word “mercy” for what I am assuming is “almsgiving” or “charity”).
There are three things, my brethren, by which Faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other…. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you want hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery…. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate the heart, clear the soil of your nature, root our vices, sow virtues; if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit” (p. 86-87).
There still remain two weeks in the forty-day Lenten season, to be followed by Holy Week and its culmination in the “Divine Passion” and the “holy and dread Resurrection.” As unchanging as our lives may be, a great deal can happen on the interior level in two weeks’ time. If we can somehow, by the grace of God, fight off fatigue, distractions, and self-absorption, then perhaps this “holy season of the Fast” can bring us to the desired end as expressed at the Vespers of Sunday evening of the Fourth Week: “Now that we have passed beyond the middle point in the time of the Fast, let us manifest in ourselves a beginning of divine glory, and let us hasten eagerly toward our journey’s end, the life of holiness, that we may receive the joy that grows not old” (Sticheron, by Joseph).