Each year during the last half of February and throughout the month of March, the majority of Major League Baseball teams hold their spring training in the state of Florida. Just in my immediate area, we have the Yankees (Tampa), the Phillies (Clearwater), the Tigers (Lakeland) and the White Sox (Sarasota). At the end of the baseball season (the end of October) there will be one team left standing as World Series Champions. Because the regular season doesn’t begin until the end of March, every team spend the month with a record of 0-0, zero wins, zero losses. That makes every team, at least at the outset, equal. It gives each team an equal opportunity to win. In fact, there have seen several instances of a team that went “from worst to first”, meaning they had had a terrible season and the following season made the playoffs.
What is the purpose of spring training? First, it is to get in shape. Players have been off for months and spring training is a time for players to get in shape and for pitchers to stretch out their arms. The second purpose of spring training is to practice the fundamentals—base running, bunting, fielding—things they won’t have time to work on once the regular season starts. The players spend hours a day practicing the fundamentals, because the emphasis is on practice, not on the final score. None of the games count in the final standings until the regular season starts. The third purpose of spring training is that it is an opportunity to try new things. A pitcher is not going to try a new pitch in the middle of a pennant race but in spring training, there isn’t the stress of the regular season. It is a time to try, and even failing is okay. The final purpose of spring training is to make a plan for the regular season. The manager of each team will decide on which combination of players makes the best lineup, the order that the starting pitchers should throw, and assembling the pitchers in the bullpen who will finish games. They also have to decide which new players should make the team and which ones need more time in the minors. Once spring training is over, there is great anticipation for opening day, and there is a plan for what to do once the games count. Hope springs eternal for each team in spring training—even the ones who didn’t have a good season last year have a new chance, and an equal chance to succeed.
Great Lent provides us with the same opportunity that baseball players have each spring. Great Lent is like our spring training. The same four things that are accomplished in spring training are goals that parallel the Lenten journey. First, it is a time for us to get in shape as Christians. It is a time for us to make a more concerted, purposeful and intentional effort in paying attention to our identity as Christians and how what we do, or don’t do, in our lives reflects that identity. It is a time to reflect on our relationship with Christ, and how we can be more focused and centered on Him.
The second purpose of Lent is to practice the fundamentals. There is an added emphasis on prayer, fasting, worship, charity, confession and repentance. The services, scripture readings and sermons of this time of year are different than the rest of the year. Not only do they inform and encourage us, as the services, readings and sermons do all year, they push us to a greater sense of commitment, growth and action. During the 49-day period between Clean Monday and Pascha, we will have more services than in any other time period of the year. There are actually 47 services in these 49 days (excluding sacraments) which is nearly 25% of the total we offer in our parish. Holy Communion will be offered more than any other time of the year. It’s a good time to brush up on these fundamentals by spending more time working on them. Like the baseball season, the church knows we can’t keep up the intensity of Lent and Holy Week all year. Just like the baseball players can’t practice many hours a day when they are also playing games that count.
The third purpose of Great Lent is to give us an opportunity to try new things. Maybe you’ve never fasted before. Great Lent is a great opportunity to try it. Maybe you’ve never worshipped outside of a Sunday. Again there are ample services to attend—consider attending a Great Compline Service, or a Pre-Sanctified Liturgy or a Salutations Service.
Many people have never experienced the Sacrament of Confession. I remember a priest once gave a sermon in which he compared trying confession to trying chocolate ice cream. One can describe chocolate ice cream as cold and creamy but one can’t really describe the taste of chocolate—one had to try it to experience it. Same thing with confession. We describe confession as cathartic, renewing and encouraging. But you really have to experience it to know what it feels like.
The fourth purpose of Great Lent is to make a plan for the rest of the year. Just like the baseball team uses spring training to help hitters refine their styles and to help pitchers develop new pitches, we can use Lent also in the same way. This is a time to examine our prayer life—how we do it, where it fits in the day, how we can tweak it. It’s the same thing with Scripture reading. We’ve all got bad spiritual habits, and probably some bad life habits too. Great Lent is a time to establish new habits. When you do something for 28 days (or in our case, 49), it becomes a habit. Fasting is not on the calendar to focus us on deprivation. Fasting is about discipline. Putting discipline in the way we eat will hopefully help us put discipline into other areas of our life over which we need more control. We are, in essence, the managers of our lives. We want to put the best combination of prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, obedience, repentance and joy so that for the rest of the year, after Pascha is over on April 16, we are poised for a season of spiritual success.
Like the baseball spring training, everyone enters Great Lent with an equal opportunity to “win it all”. In fact, one can have had the worst possible spiritual year and can totally turn it around during Great Lent. One can trade shame for hope. One can trade sin for repentance. One can trade disorganization for discipline. One can trade sadness for joy. And one can do all of that in seven weeks.
The difference between Major League Baseball and Orthodox Christianity is that at the end of the baseball season, only one team will be crowned as the champion. As we pray in the baptism service, we work so that “we can all be victors at the end.”
Hope springs eternal on the first day of Spring Training. It should spring eternal for us as we begin Great Lent. Because everyone has the same opportunity to succeed. It’s just a matter of going after that.
Lord, thank You for the opportunity to look critically at where I am and where I want to be in my faith. There will always be a gap there, as I make strides forward and also take steps backward. Help me to be focused on the journey of faith, and as we approach Great Lent this year, to take some strides forward in the faith, supported by the strength and grace that comes from You. May I always seek to love You more deeply and with greater commitment, and may I seek to serve those around me with greater intention and also with greater joy. Amen.
Today we end the series of “Where I am and where I want to be in my faith.” Next week we will have some practical ideas for how to get the most out of Great Lent, and in ten days, we will embark on the journey of Great Lent, and the Prayer Team will also be introducing a new and exciting unit that I will reveal at the end of next week. Stay tuned for that!