Preparing for Lent

Below are the first few pages from Alexander Schememann’s book: Great Lent: Journey to Pasca.

Preparation for Lent

  1. THE DESIRE (Sunday of Zacchaeus)

Long before the actual beginning of Lent, the Church announces its approach and invites us to enter into the period of pre-lenten preparation. It is a characteristic feature of the Orthodox liturgical tradition that every major feast or season–Easter, Christmas, Lent, etc–is announced and ‘prepared’ in advance. Why? Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening ‘worldliness’ of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance. Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning. This preparation includes fire consecutive Sundays preceding Lent, each one of the–through its particular Gospel lesson–dedicated to some fundamental aspect of repentance.

The very first announcement of Lent is made the Sunday on which the Gospel lesson about Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10) is read. It is the story of a man who is too short to see Jesus but who desired so much to see Him that he climbed up a tree. Jesus responded to his desire and went to his house. Thus the theme of this first announcement is desire. One might even say the man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledged by the Gospel: ‘Where your treasure is,’ says Christ, ‘there shall your heart be.’ A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man; when he passionately desires something he does things of which ‘normally’ he is incapable. Being ‘short’, he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things, whether the power of desire in us is aimed at the right goal, or whether–in the words of the existentialist atheist Jean Paul Sartre–man is a ‘useless passion.’

Zacchaeus desired the ‘right thing’; he wanted to see and approach christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life. Zacchaeus is ‘short’ — petty, sinful, and limited — yet his desire overcomes all this. It ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to his home. Such, then, is the first announcement, the first invitation: ours is to desire that which is deepest and truest in ourselves, to acknowledge the thirst and hunger for the Absolute which is in us whether we know it or not, and which, when we deviate from it and turn our desires away, makes us indeed a ‘useless passion.’ And if we desire deeply enough, strongly enough, Christ will respond.

2. HUMILITY (Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee)

The next Sunday is called the ‘Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.’ On the eve of this day, on Saturday at Vespers, the liturgical book of the lenten season — the Triodion — make sits first appearance and texts from it are added to the usual hymns and prayers of the weekly Resurrection service. They develop the next major aspect of repentance: humility.

The Gospel lesson (Lk 18:10-14) pictures a man who is always pleased with himself and who thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. He is self-assured and proud of himself. In reality, however, he has falsified the meaning of religion. He has reduced it to external observations and he measures his piety by the amount of money he contributes to the temple. As for the Publican, he humbles himself and his humility justifies him before God. If there is a moral quality almost completely disregarded and even denied today, it is indeed humility. The culture in which we live constantly instills in us the sense of pride, of self-glorification, and of self-righteousness. It is built on the assumption that man can achieve anything by himself and it even pictures God as the One who all the time ‘gives credit’ for man’s achievements and good deeds. Humility–be it individual or corporate, ethnic or national–is viewed as a sign of weakness, as something unbecoming a real man. Even our churches–are they not imbued with that same spirit of the Pharisee? De we not want our every contribution, every ‘good dead,’ all that we do ‘for the Church’ to be acknowledged, praised, publicized?

But what of humility? The answer to this question may seem a paradoxical one for it is rooted in a strange affirmation: God Himself is humble!

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