Lent: An Orthodox Perspective
Gillian Crow writes:
This year, Western and Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter on the same date; so we are making our Lenten journey together. For us it is a joyful if arduous path – Fr. Alexander Schmemann in his book ‘Great Lent’  describes it as ‘bright sadness’ – during which, in this tithing of the year, we seek to draw ever closer to God, with our hearts and minds and physical strength.
Lent is not a time for giving up, but for taking on: a new lifestyle, when the complete person, body and soul together, seeks to lose the physical and spiritual flab that so often pulls us down to earth. We all know the heavy, dozy feeling we have when we have over-eaten. So we return to the simpler, lighter vegan diet of the time before Noah – our pancakes really do finish up the eggs and milk.
This new lightness equips us better for prayer and action. For we lengthen our prayer time and attend church more often, where the long, slow services give us the opportunity to let go of the world outside and focus more closely on God. In this spiritual spring-clean we strive to let go of all the ways that prevent us from following God’s intentions for us. It is a time to take to heart, and to act upon, Isaiah’s words on fasting: ‘to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him’.
We turn away from the worldliness to which we are so readily attuned, and turn back towards God – a real metanoia, or repentance, a deeper reflection on the state of our inner selves and the determination to follow Christ more closely. Lent is the Church’s gift of time to us – something we so often lack.
Orthodox Lent will begin this year on the Sunday evening before Ash Wednesday – we calculate the 40 days in a slightly different way – when, in a Rite of Forgiveness, we come up in turn to ask forgiveness of the clergy, and then individual members of the congregation. That sets us on the Lenten journey that will lead us out of our habitual spiritual twilight and ultimately into the glorious light of the Resurrection.
There are stepping stones of encouragement along the way, as each Lenten Sunday is dedicated to the commemoration of a specific event or saint. Finally we reach the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, and then come face to face with the Passion and Crucifixion in Holy Week. We are made aware that we cannot experience the exulting joy of the Resurrection on Easter night unless we have stood at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. This road has no short cuts.
A feature of Orthodox services is the sense of participation in the events we commemorate. We are not on the outside looking in. ‘Today’ we sing on Good Friday ‘the Maker of all things is given up to the cross’. On Holy Saturday we sing, ‘Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory’. We stand around the life-sized crucifix in the centre of the church and we come face to face today with the enormity of God’s love for us in the face of human treachery or indifference. It is not possible to be a bystander; we are caught up in the dread of the events, just as we will be caught up in the light and joy of Christ’s Resurrection in our midnight Easter service.
With God’s grace, we will not have ‘given up’ anything for Lent; but, as lighter, fitter, more Christ-centred people, we will have grown. We will finish our journey aglow. That is why the traditional greeting as we start out on the way is: have a joyful Lent!
 ‘Great Lent’ by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, SVS Press.
Gillian Crow is an Orthodox writer from the Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition (Ecumenical Patriarchate)