Lent is a useless tradition. It is nothing more than acting like the Pharisee in the temple; standing before the crowd where everyone can see how ‘holy’ you are, and praying to God saying that you are thankful that you are not like the rest of those dirty sinners. Lent is a pointless, prideful tradition which was created by man, is not found in the Bible, and so not something we should do.
At least… this is what many Protestants and those not familiar with a liturgical Church calendar would have you think. And this might understandably be the view given the popular Roman Catholic conception of the season; eating fish on Fridays instead of meat and giving up chocolate for 40 days but giving in and then up halfway through. Now, I mean no offense to my Roman Catholic cousins, but you have to admit, the popular conception of Lent does seem a little shallow.
I once heard the Orthodox Church described as the “Marine Corp of Christianity” and I think that this is a very apt description, especially when it comes to Lent. The Orthodox Church prescribes the strictest fasting requirements of the whole year during the 40 day lenten period and while I won’t go into the specifices, the general rule is no meat, eggs, dairy, wine, or oil for the entire 40 days. But why? What is the point? What good does it do?
In order to understand the purpose if Great Lent (and I’m going to give it from an Orthodox viewpoint) you have to understand the way that the Orthodox Church sees the issue of original sin and how that differs from the Roman Catholic Church (and by extention Protestant churches) view, and how it influences the idea of salvation.
The Western conception of original sin is that it is some blight, some stain on the soul of every human being. The Christian then must ask God to forgive her for carrying around this burden, and ask that God would remove it from her. Because of this view the Western view of Christianity tends to run very legal: When we commit a sin it is as if we broke a law that God has. Once we break this law we must approach God as if standing before a judge in a courtroom and plead our case, asking God to forgive us. If we do not ask for forgiveness then we will be punished for breaking that law. Because of this legalistic Western worldview, Christ’s death on the cross came to be seen as an atonement for our sins. A lot of people see it like I recently read on another blog (which prompted me to write this post); that Christ’s death was a sacrifice which had to be made to God in order for God to forgive our sins, and that Christ was the only creature worthy of acting as this sacrificial lamb.
While the Eastern Church does agree that Christ’s death was a sacrifice on our behalf, She does not teach that it was a sacrifice of atonement in the same way as the West. Instead original sin being a stain on the soul, and us having to ask forgiveness for a sin which we did not commit, the Eastern Church teaches that when Adam and Eve commit the first sin, by disobeying the will of God they broke a certain harmony that existed between us and God. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but when we followed our own will over and above God’s, we ‘blurred’ the image, and the effect of this was that we became subject to our passionate will (it became harder to overcome the longer we gave it attention), and material corruption (i.e. aging and eventually the breakdown of the body to such a point that it is unable to sustain life and contain the soul).
When God decided to send His Pre-Existent Word to us, and by the Word became incarnate and God in a sense marrying the Divine with the material, He re-sanctified the image in us that had been corrupted by sin. He made it possible for us to once again, with His help, conquer our passionate will and realign it with His will, thus fulfilling the purpose we were created for and worshipping Him.
When Christ died on the cross his divine nature decended with his human nature into the land of the dead. Being He-Who-Cannot-Be-Contained, the land of the dead could not hold Him and its fatalistic hold over humanity was broken; it is no longer a necessary consequence of life that we die and go, all of us, sinner and saint, to a land of seperation from God. To prove that he had destroyed death, Christ came back to life.
What does this have to do with Great Lent? Everything! Great Lent is a 40 day period of purification, reflection, and anticipation. It is intimately married with the Holy Day of Pascha (Easter), and infact Pascha is the entire reason for Great Lent. During this 40 day period preceeding the celebration of Christ’s ressurection we work to, even though we know we will never be to fully, make ourselves worthy of this glorious ‘second chance’ that God has given us. We practice the ascetic practices as a way of training ourselves to sublimate our will when it does not conform to God’s. We study the scriptures with an enhanced fervor, we attend church more often, we struggle to keep God before us in heart and mind constantly. We reflect on what God has done for us and we praise Him for his long-suffering and patience when dealing with us. We strive to set our selves on a path that will take full advantage of this opportunity which God gives to everyone.
Lent is is a holiday in the fullest sense of the word as being a holy time, set apart from normal life for a specific purpose. It’s when we change our lives, instead of changing things to suit our lives. It is a time when we change our mode of thinking and remember that we are Christians, that we are not of this world, and that we have an opportunity that, sadly, the proud or ignorant might never take advantage of, and opportunity with eternal ramifications.
And perhaps most importantly, it is a time of eager anticipation when we await the glorious celebration of our victory over death and sin, and when we welcome (liturgically) Christ back to the world.
It might be a time of sorrow for our offenses, but it is a joyful sorrow; the sorrow of a Bride who is seperated from her Bridegroom, though she knows the reason is so that she can get ready for the wedding.