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What do we think of when we think of Lent, the season of the Great Fast? Many of us have grown up with the custom of "giving something up" during this time of year; something that we really like. Perhaps it is soda, or candy, or chocolate, or even the television set. These little sacrifices can be helpful if they remind us of the great sacrifice that Christ makes for us on the Cross. However, Lent should be about more than just giving something up. For Christ, the Lenten journey took Him to His passion and to the Cross and ultimately to His glorious Resurrection on Pascha. For us, Lent can and should be a journey as well. A journey that brings us closer to Christ in every aspect of our lives.
In his book, "Making God Real in the Orthodox Christian Home" Anthony Coniaris compares Lent to the season of the year that it takes place during: spring. He writes that, "Spring is...when the earth is changing its position, turning toward our great source of heat and light, the sun." When the earth does this, the sun enables new life to grow from the earth. Flowers bloom and trees are once again green and covered with buds.
Just as the earth turns towards the sun, during Lent, we as Orthodox Christians should do the same. We should turn towards the Son of God, so that His love and light can shine in our souls, and bring forth new life in us. St. John Chrysostom says, "The sun may be shining in all its brightness but each one of us is free to shut it our of our lives merely by closing our eyelids." Lent gives us many chances to open our eyes to Christ, we just have to take them.
How do we do this? One way is through prayer. If we don't have a regular routine of prayer, Lent is the perfect time to start one. We should pray every morning and every evening, starting and ending the day by thinking about the Lord.
Fasting is another way to draw closer to Christ. We don't eat meat or dairy products on certain days just for the sake of doing it. Fasting, together with prayer, makes us spiritually stronger. On days when you fast, think about why you are doing. We fast on Wednesday because that is the day Judas betrayed Christ. Are we betraying Christ by our sins? We fast on Friday because that is the day Christ died on the Cross. Pick one of the Gospel accounts of Christ's arrest, trial and crucifixion on the Cross and read it each Friday when you fast to remind you of these things. During Lent keeping the fast on Wednesday and Friday is the minimum requirement. The tradition of the Church is actually to fast every day during Lent. If we are not there yet, perhaps that's something we can try and work toward. One way to do this would be add a day, such as Monday.
Of course, going to the sacraments of confession and communion is so very important. Lent is an ideal time to reflect on how well we are living our lives as Orthodox Christians. We hear that parable of the Prodigal Son leading up to Lent and this parable explains exactly what confession is. God is that father running to us with arms outstretched to receive us when we repent. The more we receive Communion and have the body and blood of Christ in us, the stronger we become. Lent affords us the opportunity to receive communion not just on Sundays but during the week at the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified gifts. This Liturgy is very beautiful and usually takes place in our parishes on Wednesday or Friday evenings during Lent. Make the effort to be there as often as you can.
Finding ways to help others is another excellent way to make the best of our Lenten experience. Are there neighbors who need help with things around the house? Are there community service projects taking place in your Church or school communities? Can we donate our time and talents to helping others less fortunate than ourselves?
Lent will go by very quickly, and before we know it, Holy Week will be upon us and Christ will be walking that path to the Cross. Walk it with Him. Attend as many services as you can during that week, so that when your parish priest proclaims "Christ is Risen" on Pascha, having prayed, fasted, gone to the sacraments and having done good works, you will truly feel the joy of the Resurrection in your hearts and souls. May God bless each and every one of you, and may your Lenten journey truly be a spiritual spring for all of you.