If you’re anything like me, the fasting periods of the Church seem to just sneak up on you. It feels like it was just Christmas, and suddenly we’re preparing for Pascha! But despite the surprise every year, Lent comes at a time when I always find that I most need it. And like we prepare by stretching before we exercise and we pack before a journey, the Church gives us a period called Triodion before Lent begins to get us spiritually prepared.
For three weeks, we ease into fasting and we set our eyes on the goal of Christ at Pascha. On the first Sunday, we heard the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee – a reminder against pride and a for humility in anticipation of the Fast. On the second Sunday, we were reminded that that we – like the Prodigal Son – are on a journey to the Father’s House. And the final two Sundays of Triodion we bring to mind the Last Judgement and the importance of forgiveness.
Interwoven into these four Sundays are three themes that help us to orient our minds towards Christ and to put us in the right spirit as we approach the Great Fast. During Triodion, we are reminded of the importance of humility, of forgiveness, and of being concerned for our neighbor.
Humility is a virtue which prepares us to receive God and opens us up for compassion towards our neighbor. So it’s natural that humility is woven into each of the four Gospel passages chosen for the period of Triodion.
In the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, the humble and honest prayers of the Publican justified him before God. He was honest with himself and the state of his life and poured out his heart to God without trying to justify himself. The Prodigal Son was humbled by his poor choices and was willing to return to his father’s house even if he had to be a servant. In his humility, he confessed his unworthiness, and his father clothed him in a robe and received him as his son.
The theme of humility is especially fitting for us as we prepare for a fasting period because the temptation is so very real to become prideful in our adherence to regulations and our spiritual practices. It is so easy to forget that we worship the God who says on Judgement Sunday, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” We worship a God who not only humbled Himself by becoming man and dying on the Cross for us, but one who continues to identify with the humble and lowly among us.
So we hear the words of Christ on Forgiveness Sunday that “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:17-18). You see, it wasn’t a matter of if you fast but when you fast. There was no concept that the followers of Christ wouldn’t keep this tradition. The issue for us is how to go about fasting, how we present ourselves before others, and whether we reflect the humility of the God we worship or the pride of our own egos.
As we approach Great Lent, we remember that we worship a God who forgives. But forgiveness is connected to our own personal repentance, which is a journey in itself. Each one of us becomes more aware of the things that are barriers to our relationship with God the closer that we come to Him. Lent is a time of special vigilance, a time when we become more attentive to ourselves and our spiritual lives. So the Church reminds us both of the forgiveness that God offers us, but also of our responsibility to forgive others as well.
With the image of the merciful father of the Prodigal Son in mind, we remember that God offers us a restored relationship with Him when we return to Him. But on Forgiveness Sunday, we also hear the words of Christ about our role in forgiving others. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). We hear the same thing in the Our Father when we say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In the days that remain of Triodion, we can seek to have forgiving hearts. Holding on to resentments and anger from today or yesterday or years past only holds us back from being able to receive the grace of God.
The scripture readings during Triodion call us to have a real concern for our neighbor. From the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we encounter the merciful father. We learn not only that our God is a merciful father to us, but also that this should affect our relationships with those around us as well. Christ tells us, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Do we show this mercy to those who have offended us? Do we show concern for our loved ones and parishioners who no longer come to church? Do we show concern for our friends who do not know the Father’s House and have never encountered Him in the Orthodox Church?
Are we as merciful to our least favorite person as God is merciful to us?
On Judgement Sunday, also known as Meatfare Sunday (because it’s the last day we eat meat until Pascha), we hear the words of Christ who says,
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. (Matthew 25:35-36,45)
Our Lord tells us that when we serve those in need, we serve not only them but Christ Himself. In contrast, if we do not serve the hungry, the thirsty, the naked or those in prison, we are neglecting Christ.
Lastly, as we begin the fasting period, we are reminded not to let what we eat be a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 8). In other words, we need to be aware of how we are conducting ourselves during the Great Fast. We should not bring undue attention to ourselves just so that we can keep the Fast, but neither should we scandalize our brother or sister by eating meat or dairy in front of them if we are not fully keeping the Fast.
Lent is our journey back to the Father’s house. Through these next weeks, we take a journey of fasting, of learning how to say no to good things like meat and dairy, so that we can have the strength to say no to the passions that lead us away from God. We learn to say no to our sins so that we can say yes to Christ.
But the period we are in today is preparing us for this journey. It is time for us to pack by practicing humility and forgiveness and to get ready for how we will serve Christ and our neighbor during Great Lent.
How are you preparing for Great Lent? Who do you need to forgive and how is Christ calling you to be of service during the Fast?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
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