ORTHODOX BEGIN LENT
By PHILIP LeMASTERS
Eastern Orthodox Christians begin Lent this year on Monday, March 11. That is when we we begin the most intense annual period of repentance as we prepare to follow our Lord to His cross and empty tomb. There could be no greater sign of the folly of exalting ourselves and condemning others than the Passion of Christ. He brings salvation to the world in a way completely contrary to prideful self-congratulation that hides from the truth.
What could be more humble than for the eternal Son of God to empty Himself, take on the form of a servant, and become obedient to the point of death for our salvation? (Phil. 2:7-8) St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
It is only by knowing the depths of our brokenness that we will be able to embrace personally the heights of the Lord’s humble, suffering love, which is well beyond our full rational comprehension. That is why we need to devote ourselves to prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance in the weeks ahead. If we do not, we will likely fail to gain the spiritual clarity of the tax collector in Christ’s parable in Luke 18: 10-14, who was aware only of his sin and need for God’s mercy. We will never enter into the deep mystery of our salvation if we do not open the eyes of our darkened souls to the light of Christ so that we may see our true state before Him.
The Orthodox Church calls us to pray daily and with special intensity during Lent. Instead of congratulating ourselves for whatever apparent success may have in doing so, it is better to remember that our struggles in opening our souls to God reflect our weakness and need for strength that we cannot give ourselves. They provide an opportunity to pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”– or otherwise simply to turn our attention back to the Lord the best we can with a sense of our need for His grace. In contrast, the worst thing we could do when struggling in prayer would be to become like the Pharisee who reminded God of his good deeds and condemned the tax collector. It would be better not to pray at all than to do so in such an idolatrous way.
Our struggle to pray provides great opportunities for growth in humility, as do our difficulties in fasting, forgiving, showing generosity, and otherwise reorienting our lives to God. Given our spiritual brokenness, we will usually find it much easier to eat whatever we want, hold grudges, be selfish, and serve only ourselves than to resist our self-centered desires as we open our lives to Christ in humility. To do so, however, is simply a path to greater blindness and weakness. It is a way of degrading ourselves, of refusing to live according to the truth of who we are called to become in God’s image and likeness.
Likewise, it is possible to perform all spiritual disciplines in a corrupt way that serves only our pride, especially when we use them to condemn others. As we begin our preparation for Lent this year, we should all be on guard against the temptation of self-exaltation in any form. For if anything we do could earn God’s favor and make us so much better than others that we would be justified in condemning them, there would be no Lent because there would have been no need for our Lord to conquer death through His cross and resurrection. The weeks of preparation for Holy Week and Pascha (which means “Passover” and is the most common term for Easter in the Orthodox Church) are necessary because we cannot save ourselves by religious or moral practices. Our only hope is to participate in Christ’s exaltation by uniting ourselves to Him in humble faith. The coming season will provide us with many opportunities to do precisely that. If by the end of Lent, we see ourselves as clearly before God as did the tax collector and ask only for mercy from the depths of our souls, we will be well prepared to follow our Lord to Jerusalem, where He showed, once and for all, how humility leads to exaltation.
The Very Rev. Dr. Philip LeMasters is pastor at St. Luke Orthodox Church in Abilene.