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Lent: Season of Joy and Freedom

“The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open.”

There are few seasons so sweet and refreshing as Lent. It is a bright spot in our lives, a time of lightness and freedom. Yet, at this time of year, dread and foreboding somehow seem more appropriate for how we can feel. Is that reasonable? The idea of not eating meat and skipping breakfast for a month does not sound very exciting. Yet, what are we gaining in Lent? What happens in Lent? During these three weeks of Pre-Lent, we have a special work to do. What kind of attitude will we bring into Holy Lent: indifference, grumbling, or joyful enthusiasm?

Orthodox prayers sometimes describe Lent like a lush Spring. Listen to this hymn:

The springtime of the Fast has dawned,

The flower of repentance has begun to open.

O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity

And sing to the Giver of Light:

Glory be to Thee, who alone lovest mankind.

It is a joyful prayer. What does Lent have to do with dawn and flowers? In fact, the word ‘Lent’ comes from the Old English word ‘lechten.’ It means “springtime.” The Church set Lent at the start of the year, precisely because the whole essence of Lent is like Spring. “Let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity, and sing to the Giver of Light.” This is a time for rejoicing, not for sadness. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If we look at each of these practices, we can see that their real essence is joy. They are tools for cutting off our cheap addictions, and making us free to cherish the beauty of God.

We begin Pre-Lent with a parable about laborers in a field.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went” (Mt. 20:1-4).

The landowner returns at noon, in the afternoon, and later in the evening and keeps finding more men idle in the square. He invites them into the field, and at the end of the day, rewards the laborers with a day’s wage.

The field is our soul. The work is our call to become virtuous. St. John Chrysostom explains: “The vineyard is the life of righteousness in which the various virtues are planted, like vines in a vineyard… mildness, chastity, patience, and the other virtues.” Lent is a battle of virtue over vice. It is a season above all others for rooting out sin in our heart, and fortifying our soul with holiness. Yet, how do you become more virtuous? We have a problem. St. Paul said it this way: "What I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do" (Rm. 7:15). We are stuck. We get trapped in our bad habits, we get used to them, and then we settle.

Have you ever noticed our ideas of goodness rarely line up with the way we behave? Christians can be the worst here. We pride ourselves for our beliefs. We can rattle off all kinds of right teachings and dogmatic truths. Yet, when it comes down to showing compassion, being patient, and day-to-day life, we can be as bad as the rest. Virtue is not about right thinking. Virtue is about building good habits.

This is the work of Lent. Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving are our three spiritual jobs. Here is how St. Maximos the Confessor explains them:

“Almsgiving heals the soul's incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for contemplation.”

Almsgiving cures our “incensive power” – the strength, the gusto, of our heart – our drives. In other words, tithing, hospitality, or charity of all kinds, fortifies your soul. It is ironic that the less we give away the more frightened and anxious we are. Oftentimes, we spend our whole lives this way, stressed and burdened about money. Yet, one of Christ’s promises to us Christians is that we never have to worry about money again – “Consider the lilies of the field” (Mt. 6:28) – if we orient our lives the right way, if we acquire a giving spirit. Almsgiving makes us free.

Fasting withers sensual desire. It kills lust: never content, never enjoying anything because we want just a little more. If you want to be happy, you have to learn how to fast. The more we fast, the more we can enjoy the world, because we are not slaves to it. St. Isaac the Syrian writes:

“Fasting is the champion of every virtue, the beginning of the struggle, the crown of the abstinent, the beauty of virginity and sanctity, the resplendence of chastity, the commencement of the path of Christianity, the mother of prayer, the well-spring of sobriety and prudence, the teacher of stillness, and the precursor of all good works.”

Prayer prepares the soul for contemplation. “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek…to gaze on the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4). Prayer is the crown of being human. It is what makes us alive. We spend a lot of time chasing pleasures. In the end, there is only one thing we are really looking for: we find it in prayer.

We are all tired. Life is hard enough on its own, and the idea of engaging in more spiritual battle sounds exhausting. If we think about Lent that way, it will be unbearable. Yet, if we think about Lent as freedom, it makes all the difference. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving: these are not just more work that we have to do alongside everything else. These are ways of being free. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, with the right attitude, make all of life the easier and lighter. If our hearts are right with God, grace will carry us through everything else.

“The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open.”

Lent means springtime. It is our chance to stop bearing our load and let God in. God has invited us into the field, to cultivate virtue through good habits. In prayer, fasting, and almsgiving we have our chance to become clean and joyful. May God prepare our hearts now with the right attitude about Lent, and let this be a season for sanctification.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


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