During Great Lent in the Holy Orthodox Church we read the Prophet Isaiah and the book of Proverbs instead of the Epistle and Gospel on weekdays. It’s a kind of fasting. “Fast from the Gospel?” You might ask. Yes. Sometimes it is good to shift our focus a little, to look at where we have come from and to look at the dark side of our experience as Christians. In Christ, all of the promises of God are yes and amen; but the problem is that most of us seldom and only briefly ever actualize this yes and amen while we are still in the body. The Fathers of the Church tell us that this is because we have let ourselves become crusted over, or heavily tarnished, by the cares and passions of this life.
The Grace of God shines brightly on us. This is the word of the Gospel and the Epistles. But we don’t reflect the Glory shining on us because of the tarnish we have built up through misguided attention, through misdirected care, and through slavery to various passions. We are like children enchanted by smooth stones strewn about the muddy ground. These draw our attention downward where we muddy ourselves picking up stones only to be increasingly weighed down by them. Our attention is drawn to the cares and values of this world and we are both tarnished (muddied) in our pursuit of worldly things and weighed down (passions) by carrying them. Most of us spend our whole lives knowing that we are a mess, but not knowing what to do about it–or worse, some of us don’t even know we are a mess.
Lent is a time when we look closely at the mess we are. We look closely at the mess we have made of ourselves and of our lives so that we can begin to shift our focus, to shift our focus from the muddy ground and its smooth but heavy stones, to the heavens and its shining stars. This is called repentance. Repentance begins and ends with the calling on God for help, for mercy. “Lord have mercy!” is the constant cry of the lenten services. But what is the content of this prayer? For what exactly are we asking God’s mercy? The Lenten readings and services help us identify what exactly we are asking mercy for.
For example, in reading Isaiah we accept as our own the condemnation of the false religion of the hypocritical Israelites: “What is the multitude of your sacrifices to me”? God asks us. Much more important than Orthodox liturgical rites is that we wash ourselves, putting away evil and learning to do good to those who are weak or oppressed: the orphan and widow. In fact, this is exactly what the rites of the Church teach us; but we are fooling ourselves if we perform the rites exactly and fail to love our neighbor, if we fast from food and feast on envy, if we say long prayers in Church and entertain lustful or violent thoughts at home. Isaiah shows us exactly the mess we have become so that with fervor we can pray: Lord have mercy!
Asking for mercy, we long to be free from our passions, to find a way out of the mess we have made of our lives. How do we get free from this mess? How do we find salvation? We find salvation first of all by wanting to be saved, by wanting to be free of the heavy rocks we have been carrying (the worries and passions of this life), by wanting so badly to be free from worldly cares that we are willing to let go of them–at least for a little while so that we can give our focus to God. That’s one of the reasons why the Church offers so many services during Lent: to provide us with little spaces in which we can for an hour or two lay aside all worldly cares.
We find salvation by trusting in God, by trusting that God cares for us and our loved ones much more and better than we are able to. This is called faith. By faith we believe that God will care for what we entrust to Him. By faith we call on the Name of Jesus, knowing that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. By faith we relax a little the tight grip we have on everything and everyone around us; and to our great joy, in return for letting go a little, we experience a little peace.