Written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent is a book of spiritual reflections on the journey through Lent to Pascha. This particular excerpt is from the first chapter, entitled “Preparation for Lent.”
And now we have reached the very last days before Lent. Already during Meat-Fare Week, which precedes “Forgiveness Sunday,” two days – Wednesday and Friday – have been set apart as fully “lenten”: The Divine Liturgy is not to be served and the whole order and type of worship have the liturgical characteristics of Lent. On Wednesday at Vespers we greet Lent with this beautiful hymn:
The lenten spring has come! the light of repentance;
Let us, brothers, cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:
Glory to Thee, O Lover of man.
Then on Cheese-Fare Saturday the Church commemorates all men and women who were “illumined through fasting:” the Saints who are the patterns we must follow, guides in the difficult art of fasting and repentance. In the effort we are about to begin we are not alone:
Let us praise the assemblies of holy fathers:
Anthony the Great, Euthymius the Great and all of their company!
Passing through their lives as through a paradise of sweetness…
We have helpers and examples:
We honor you as examples, O holy fathers!
You truly taught us to walk on the right path;
You are blessed for you worked for Christ….
Finally comes the last day, usually called “Forgiveness Sunday,” but whose other liturgical name must also be remembered: the “Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise of Bliss.” This name summarizes indeed the entire preparation for Lent. By now we know that man was created for paradise, for knowledge of God and communion with Him. Man’s sin has deprived him of that blessed life and his existence on earth is exile. Christ, the Savior of the world, opens the door of paradise to everyone who follows Him, and the Church, by revealing to us the beauty of the Kingdom, makes our life a pilgrimage toward our heavenly fatherland. Thus, at the beginning of Lent, we are like Adam:
Adam was expelled from paradise through food;
Sitting, therefore, in front of it he cried:
‘Woe to me….
One commandment of God have I transgressed,
depriving myself of all that is good;
Paradise holy! Planted for me,
And now because of Eve closed to me;
Pray to thy Creator and mine
that I may be filled again by thy blossom.’
Then answered the Savior to him:
‘I wish not my creation to perish;
I desire it to be saved and to know the Truth;
For I will not turn away him who comes to Me….’
Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world.” [emphasis added] And the Gospel lesson of this last Sunday (Matt. 6:14-21) sets the conditions for that liberation. The first one is fasting – the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit. To be effective, however, our fast must not be hypocritical, a “showing off.” We must “appear not unto men to fast but to our Father who is in secret.” The second condition is forgiveness – “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.” The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness: the return to unity, solidarity, love. To forgive is to put between men and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God Himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless “dead-ends” of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a “breakthrough” of the Kingdom into this sinful and fallen world….
We will have to wander forty days through the desert of Lent. Yet at the end shines already the light of Easter, the light of the Kingdom.
Excerpt from Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969, p. 27-28, 30.