March 2 marks the beginning of Lent this year for Orthodox Christians. Lent is a period of preparation for the greatest feast of the Church year, Pascha—the Resurrection of Christ. In order to be ready to celebrate this feast, the Church guides us through the season of Lent, which is a time of fasting geared towards reordering our spiritual and physical selves.
Lent is often called a time of joyful mourning. On the surface, this sounds like an oxymoron, but it acknowledges that while we mourn our sins, we have hope thanks to Christ. God created Adam in the paradise of Eden, and gave him everything he needed in order to survive. Adam sinned against God, and was expelled from Paradise and told that he would now have to toil for his own food. Adam mourned his loss—but God already began to prepare mankind for his coming as Christ, where he would undo Adam’s sin. The culmination of this is clearly seen in the icon of the decent of Christ into Hades on Holy Saturday; while Christ rested bodily in the tomb, his soul descended into the spirit world, Hades, and released Adam and Eve along with all the righteous ones from bondage. We see Christ in the icon reaching down and pulling Adam and Even from the tomb. Thus Adam’s mourning would give way to hope. A hymn from Vespers for the Sunday before Lent illustrates this:
Adam was cast out of Paradise through eating from the tree. Seated before the gates he wept, lamenting with a pitiful voice and saying: “Woe is me, what have I suffered in my misery! I transgressed one commandment of the Master, and now I am deprived of every blessing. O most holy Paradise, planted for my sake and shut because of Eve, pray to him that made thee and fashioned me, that once more I may take pleasure in thy flowers.” Then the Savior said to him: “I desire not the loss of the creature which I fashioned, but that he should be saved and come to knowledge of the truth; and when he comes to me I will not cast him out.”
Adam’s expulsion was therefore a teaching tool that God gave him to effect his salvation since Adam had not responded to the free gift of Paradise. Lent for us is also a time of self-exile when we can reorder our lives. We are accustomed to eating too many rich foods, and being satiated; we become self-reliant. We sit down and relax to the point that we are out of shape. Fasting, a discipline involving limiting food both in type and quantity, restores our bodies and calms the passion for gluttony. It is difficult to do, and thus we are reminded of our dependence on God, who in the Garden of Eden provided Adam with all the food he would need from the trees and plants, and where he did not have to rely on hunting animals to survive.
We also exert ourselves physically by doing prostrations. A prostration is an exercise where we go down on our hands and knees before God and touch our forehead to the ground. This exercise builds humility as we remember that we are nothing in God’s sight, but also helps to fight laziness and sloth. We have longer and more services, which help to reorder our priorities, and we give alms to the poor with the money we save from not eating extravagantly. Finally, we begin Lent by asking each other for forgiveness—for if we expect God to forgive us, we must first forgive each other. All of these exercises together during Lent help to reorder our body and our soul. Adam’s act of eating a forbidden item had spiritual repercussions such as the passion for gluttony; through fasting, we can reverse this spiritual ailment and learn temperance.
Throughout the period of Lent, we will remember our sins and lament, but we will also remember that Christ loves us, and gives us this time of repentance to prepare us for the feast of Pascha. Let us take advantage of this time of self-discipline in order to become spiritually recharged.