With the Lenten season just around the corner, Christians, especially Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, prepare to undertake the forty day trial of prayer, fasting, repentance and self-denial.
With the rise of secularism in the overwhelming majority of Western countries, the observance Lent has mostly fallen out of practice as an integral observance in what were formally Christian nations. Coupled with this is the fact that the season of Lent is not traditionally observed in some, but not all, Protestant denominations, especially those located within North America.
This article isn’t meant to be a discourse about the history of Lent but why it fundamentally matters, especially if one belongs to a Traditionalist branch of Christianity such as Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Great Fast of Lent commemorates the forty days that Christ spent fasting in the desert as well as his temptation at the hands of Satan. Moreover, Lent is meant to prepare the faithful to enter into the Passion of Jesus Christ. In Eastern Orthodoxy in particular, the purpose is to orient one’s thoughts and actions towards the Resurrection.
Firstly, Lent cannot be seen (as it has so often has) as giving up a luxury or the abstaining from eating of certain foods for the sake of the season itself. At the outset, it seems as though the practice of fasting is the central most point of the observance. This is fundamentally untrue; the purpose of Lent is that through fasting, prayer and repentance we orient our thoughts and actions towards our Creator and Redeemer whom for our sake was subjected to humiliation and execution for the salvation of our souls.
This is a point that all Christians seem to agree one, and for good reason. If one were to draw up a list of which practices were the most important, fasting would be at the bottom and prayer would be at the top. Indeed, in the theology of the Eastern Church especially, fasting without prayer has been called the “fast of the demons” because while demons, being incorporeal, do not need to feed they also, according to their nature, do not pray.
As Christians, we should incorporate prayer into our lives every day. However, if we are being truly honest with ourselves, this is often not the case. It is during Lent that we should intensify our prayers, no matter how short or how simple. The Jesus Prayer¹ is enough in itself.
Secondly, we need to focus on repentance. This is often more difficult than both prayer and fasting but is absolutely necessary to our spiritual growth. Two things should accompany repentance, however: remembrance of sin and remembrance of death.
In the Julian Calendar, the Third Sunday before Lent is known as Judgment Sunday and it is during the Liturgy we are reminded that our salvation is dependent on deeds, not intentions, not even the mercy of God or by faith alone. What is of God’s eventually returns to God² what is of the earth returns to the earth. We as human beings are creatures made in the image of God and as such we are endowed with a soul, with reason, with a nous. We are made to bare the consequences of our actions in a way that lower and less complicated forms of life do not.
All of this seems understandably terrifying considering the graveness of what we are discussing. I am not trying to, like a Baptist preacher, instill the fear of God into you the reader with sermons of hellfire and brimstone. When we think and act on repentance, we should do so not out a sense of shame or guilt, but through acknowledging that we have acted unjustly. As mentioned before, we are image-bearing creatures, but that does not absolve us from choosing not to act ignobly. Icons in a church can become dirty without proper care, so too can human beings, who likewise are image-bearers.
I imagine that there is a good reason why the following Sunday after the Sunday of the Last Judgment is known as Forgiveness Sunday. This leads us to another very difficult practice of the Lenten fast– forgiveness.
The Bible instructs to forgive our personal enemies; whether or not we extend that same forgiveness to enemies of the general public is another matter entirely and will not be touched upon in this article. Forgiveness, like repentance, is very difficult because it runs against our natural inclinations. It is very hard to forgive those who have wronged us, especially if they did so willingly. We are called to forgive others as our Lord forgave us³ but this not mean that we should allow ourselves to be cheated due to our good intentions, quite the contrary.
What we are called to do is not to simply overlook injustices done to ourselves or others out of some false sense of righteousness, viz., but to detach our own private feelings of petty pride, vengefulness, egotism and malicious intent from the wrongdoing done to us. The point of the matter is to not allow ourselves to succumb to our passions. The anger, hate, and bitterness we feel directed towards our personal enemies are products generated from our experiences in the perishable, temporal world of the senses. Through forgiveness, we reject the control that our passions have over us and instead offer ourselves up as icons of the uncreated, eternal love (ἀγάπη) of God.
Finally, we arrive at the nature of fasting during Lent.
As mentioned above, fasting should never be done for its own sake and should always be accompanied by prayer and repentance. Still, this is not to say that one should avoid fasting altogether just because one cannot motivate oneself to pray. It is through fasting that we engage in imitatio Christi, the imitation of our Lord when he set out to meditate in the wilderness.
The rules and prohibitions concerning what food and drink may be consumed and in what amounts vary between denominations.
In Roman Catholicism, it is customary that all Catholics, if they are able, fast on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all Fridays during the Lenten season. Fasting in Catholicism typically entails that one should abstain from eating meat (with the notable exception of fish) and are usually permitted one meal a day during fast days.
Fasting in Eastern Orthodoxy is much more severe.
Orthodox Christians abstain from all meats and dairy products, with notable exception of shellfish, as well as oil and wine. Couples are also discouraged from having sexual intercourse during the duration of Lent and, as with Catholicism, Orthodox Christians are also permitted only one full meal a day during fast days.
The purpose of fasting is to discipline ourselves by controlling what goes into our bodies. And, because fasting should always be accompanied by prayer, it’s goal is to liberate us from all wicked deeds, thoughts and desires by ultimately turning our focus away from worldly things towards meditation on the Kingdom of God.
Now, for the last part of this article I will be turning away from a merely Christian interpretation of Great Lent by focusing on all the aspects that would be recognizable to any Traditionalist regardless of religion. The following views are the author’s alone and if they so happen to border on the heterodox, so be it. That is a risk I am willing to take because Lent is much more than just a mere observance preserved by Holy Tradition.
When we observe the Lenten fast we as Christians are effectively acting out a hierophany, viz., a manifestation of the sacred. The Gospels are referring to the events which occurred during a specific time, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and the Liturgical calendars of both the Eastern and Western are based around the events of that time.
On the surface level, the calendars and Liturgies from both the Roman and Eastern churches are based upon events that have a temporal dimension, viz., that they occurred in history. However, along with the temporal, historical dimension which Lent commemorates, there is also a deeply esoteric dimension to the Lenten season as well. Lent does not merely observe the life and death of a man called Jesus who just so happened to exist in the First Century of the Common Era; this is the profane interpretation of such an event, as might be put forward by Biblical scholars.
For us as Christians, and especially Christian Traditionalists, what we are observing is the incarnation of God the Word into human form and through his Passion upon the cross the re-sanctification of the world. Calvary thus becomes the axis mundi— the center of the world.
The world, it can be said, began anew with the Resurrection. Man, whose true nature had been disfigured after the Fall that had taken place in Eden, has now been restored. History now becomes sacred history– what the Church would call the Sixth Age of the World. Just as when we participate in the Liturgy, surrounded by the icons of saints and angels, we are no longer a part of profane time, but entering into a sacred time, the eternal time-beyond-time that exists with God. Likewise, when we participate in Lent, we are recovering those events which led to the sanctification of mankind which restored the human race to it’s Primordial condition and gave man a new and unique place in the cosmos.
As we enter into Lent, all of us should keep in mind it’s true and deeper significance: that for our sake God took on the human condition, with all problems and inequities that come with it. Man, the world, history itself was made new and sanctified and it was again made possible for human beings to recover their pre-Fallen, Primordial state. God’s intervention into history and ultimately the Incarnation itself have a greater, transhistorical purpose– the salvation of mankind.
¹ Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
² John 8:23-24, ²³Then He told them, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. ²⁴That is why I told you that you would die in your sins. For unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”
³ Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”