Great Lent: Spiritual Reform School

Great Lent: Spiritual Reform School

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I still hear, from time to time (though less frequently), “What are you giving up for Lent”? I’m glad that it is still ‘out there’—the idea that there is a season during which someone might actually abstain from something. Abstinence of any sort is usually trampled upon in our day. Self-indulgence (because, after all, ‘you deserve it’), generally reigns.

One could summarize the 40 Days of the Great Lenten Fast as a spiritual battle towards the fulfillment of Mark 8:34: “If anyone would follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”

Self-denial in the modern Lenten practice, if we are honest, costs a person just about nothing. The giving up of snacks, or beer, or sweets, or whatever is a bone throne in the direction of a religious life, but if it is not grounded in the actual life of Christian discipleship (prayer, fasting, almsgiving), fasting is nothing but a diet.

The True Fast

Jesus’ instruction, “deny thyself”, is much stronger than “give up sweets.” It is a complete and total disavowal of oneself. The same verb translated in this passage, “deny thyself” which means “say ‘no’ to one’s self,” is used in frightful dialogues between Peter and the two maids and Peter and the bystanders.

“You also were with Jesus the Galilean,” to which Peter replied not once, not twice, but three times, “I do not know the man.”

Peter’s denial of Jesus just before Jesus’ Crucifixion points out the stark nature of “deny thyself.” The abstinence of Mark 8:34 is not, ‘make it a little rough on yourself;’ rather, it is to admit no relation to whom I’ve become in my sins. It is to look at oneself and say to myself about me, “I do not know the man!”

To see oneself squandering one’s God-given inheritance in loose and riotous living does not require “a little adjustment.” To see oneself mired in self-indulgence doesn’t demand a little course correction. To recognize how poorly I treat my neighbor (spouse, child, actual neighbor, enemy), does not necessitate some sanding around the edges. These call for a radical new outlook on one’s Christian life. A total re-orientation—not just an un-dizzying, but a facing east again, which is what re-orientation means. And at Christmas, we sang one of Jesus’ names, “Orient is His Name.” To re-orient means to face Jesus again, and to have a spiritual do-over.

The Fellowship of Self-Denial

This is why the ancient Christian practices involve corporate acts of fasting—all deny themselves the same things (meat, dairy, wine, olive oil) for 40 days. It is a team effort! This is why fasting must be accompanied by more intensive prayer—corporate and personal. This is why we try to increase our acts of mercy (“almsgiving” is such an escapist word—as if writing a check or dropping a few coins into a basket somehow changes me and my attitude towards my enemy!).

The Sermon on the Mount word translated “almsgiving” is “eleeymosyne”—and what it says is “do merciful things”. This word has entered into our legal language. An “Eleeymosynary” institution is a non-profit such as a school or hospital! “When you give alms” should better be translated, “when you do merciful acts”—or in a command form: be merciful discipler, and helper of those in need!

Maybe it is better said this way: Lent should hurt. I should be very hungry for some time, and not because my hunger buys God’s mercy—not at all. But I should be hungry because my voluntary hunger on the one hand is a choke-hold on my unfettered belly. And on the other hand, it gives me some appreciation—and hopefully a softer heart—towards and for those who are involuntarily hungry.

I should review my life and see how I act more like the Pharisee, “praying thus to myself—I am so glad I am not like _____________”, and imitate the Publican, who wouldn’t even raise his head towards heaven, while praying, “Lord, have mercy on me.”

I should take an inventory of how I spend my time and my money, and see where my treasure is. Because the last word on the Sunday Gospel for the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, which precedes the beginning of the Great 40 days is, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If your treasure is not at the Church, neither will your heart be.

I should ask myself, “is there anyone whom I have not forgiven?” If the answer is “yes, there is someone,” then it is time for major work, since your forgiveness and mine, vis-à-vis God, is dependent on our forgiveness! “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, God will not forgive you yours,” said someone very famous.

For these reasons, Great Lent is called, in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition, “the School of Repentance.” It is far more like “reform school” than 3rd grade. It is filled not with field-trips, birthday parties, and Valentine’s exchanges; rather, it is occupied with becoming a human being again.

“I do not know the man!”

The purpose of these 40 days is to cease our various denials of Jesus, a-la-Peter: I don’t know him! Instead, we are to be severely concerned about the person I have become in rebellion against God and his commandments.

The Hope of the Work

The good news in all of this is that the Principal of the Reform School is Jesus Christ himself, who said to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” God doesn’t desire the death of any one, says the Prophet Ezekiel, “but that he should turn from his wickedness and live.”

These are the 40 days. Put them to good, and holy use!

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Fr. John Parker

Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.