The late Orthodox writer, Alexander Schmemann, wrote a classic small book that has provided me with real help during this Lenten season. Schmemann, who is very often a writer who moves both my mind and heart deeply, asks the question I needed for this year’s Lenten practice: “How do we take Lent seriously?” In the light of our fast-paced modern lifestyle how can modern Christians relate to this ancient practice with deep meaning?
Schmemann writes that we can take Lent seriously “when we consider it first of all on the deepest level—as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a decision, a plan, a continuous effort” (Great Lent. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, New York, 1969, page 90). Following the traditional Orthodox approach to Lent Schmemann suggests that we best observe Lent when we have prepared for it by meditating on the five Gospel themes offered in the East for the pre-Lenten season. These themes are: desire (Zacchaeus), humility (The Publican and the Pharisee), the return from exile (The Prodigal Son), the judgment (The Last Judgment) and forgiveness (Forgiveness Sunday).
While I find the Orthodox path too ascetic at times I find Schmemann’s thoughts about this subject worthy of the reflection of all serious Christians, East and West. Just because a particular tradition might not relate to many moderns is not a reason to shun it. He stresses that the real point in celebrating various Orthodox pre-Lenten Sundays is to hear the lesson of Christ in church and then to “take it home.” These truths we hear must become our practice in the family, in my professional obligations, in my concerns about material things, and ultimately in my relationships with other persons. Simply put, Lent must translate into practice or it is of no benefit simply because someone keeps it in some fashion. Schmemann reminds Orthodox Christians, since that was his audience in general, that “these are not recipes—there may be other ways to prepare oneself for Lent” (page 91). The important point here is that we prepare and enter into this season with a deep desire for true repentance.
So, why should we take Lent seriously? Because I believe it can be a great gift from church tradition that can promote and develop a deeper spirituality in the faithful. This year has actually been my first to celebrate Lent in any serious way. I regret that I did not enter into this special church season in the past. (My only understanding was always biased against it and rooted in profound prejudice.) There is a great deal of good that God has done in my own life through the practice and teaching of this Lenten season of 2007. I feel, however, like a beginner who now hungers for so much more. I came to this emphasis much too late in my life but I will hopefully profit from it for years to come if God wills it and gives me life.