[An earlier version of this post was first published in February of 2020, and I’m reusing the content for the Walking an Ancient Path podcast as well as here. Because preparation for Lent. — LH]
Every act of physical hardship requires preparation. Nobody of right mind sets out to run the New York Marathon without serious endurance training. Even for a shorter race, to qualify for one of the early waves in the BOLDERBoulder 10K, a runner must show proof of the ability to run it in less than an oddly specific 68 minutes.
I’m in no danger of running anywhere unless a bear is chasing me, but as I wrote these words last year I was gazing out the window at eight inches of accumulated snow and a driveway that needed shoveling.
This is not a chore for the frail. On snowy days, cardiology departments in the Denver area are fully staffed, catheterization laboratories at the ready, because some people suffer heart attacks while shoveling snow.
They aren’t prepared for the effort.
The Orthodox Church takes the idea of preparation to a whole new level. This past Sunday we began the Triodion period, a three-week season of readying ourselves for the 40 days of Great Lent, followed by the seven days of Holy Week.
Think about it. We take 21 days to ready ourselves for the following 47 days. Our prep time is almost half the length of Great Lent itself.
On the surface, this makes no sense. Would a runner arrive early for a 26-mile marathon in order to warm up with a 12-mile run? Would a BOLDERBoulder 10K participant begin the race 4.5 km before the starting line?
And would I warm up for shoveling my driveway by clearing three neighbors’ snowy sidewalks first? (Okay, that’s a theoretical possibility, but only if I felt particularly neighborly and owned a really good snowblower.)
Orthodoxy seems guilty of a little overkill here. But in her deep wisdom, the Church understands human nature and our need to reorient ourselves for the ascetic work that we are about to undergo. Ascesis is Greek for “exercise,” and the Church’s Triodion warm-up gives us the time we need to stretch hearts and minds that have become stiff and neglected throughout the year.
First Up: That Pesky Self-Righteousness
Our three-week preparation is not physical (although it’s a good idea to clean out the pantry and refrigerator during this time), but it gives us four Sundays of reminders to consider our condition before we begin the vigorous exercise ahead of us. Without an honest heart check-up, we can convince ourselves that we’re in shape spiritually.
The first Sunday of the Triodion period, the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18:10-40), addresses this corrosive self-righteousness.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Jesus’ parable, placed here in the Church calendar, is a less-than-subtle reminder that we should never take pride in our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When we congratulate ourselves for our feats of self-denial, it is easy for judgment of others to invade our thoughts: He isn’t following the fast. She hasn’t been to a single prayer service. They rarely put a check in the offering plate.
And so, like the Pharisee, we feel smug about our Lenten efforts. But the man who eats chicken on Clean Monday may have food allergies or a digestive condition. The single mom with the special-needs child can’t attend many extra services, but she often keeps vigil at night, sacrificing sleep and singing Psalms to a little one who is having a meltdown. And the people who let the offering plate pass them by might have tremendous medical expenses, or they faithfully give online.
Remembering God’s Mercy
For some people, their inner pendulum swings to the other side, to self-condemnation. Instead of basking in pride, they feel tremendous guilt. They go well beyond the publican’s humble confession of sin to the opposite extreme: beating themselves up over weaknesses, failures, and sins past and present.
On the second Triodion Sunday, the Church addresses this tendency with Jesus’ healing words.
Most of us are familiar with His parable that begins, “A certain man had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). The younger son took his inheritance and squandered it on reckless partying. Starving and broke, he found a job feeding swine, the lowest of low positions for a good, kosher Jewish boy. (If you don’t know the story well, you can read it here.)
An article from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son notes,
The reading of this parable follows the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee so that, seeing in the person of the Prodigal Son our own sinful condition, we might come to our senses and return to God through repentance. For those who have fallen into great despair over their sins, thinking that there is no forgiveness, this parable offers hope. The Heavenly Father is patiently and lovingly waiting for our return. There is no sin that can overcome His love for us.
But Don’t Forget: Eternity Awaits
On the third Sunday of Lenten preparation, we remember Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). At the Last Judgment, Jesus invites the sheep into His Kingdom, telling them that the love they showed to people in need was really offered to Him.
To the goats, who did not help the needy, He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (vv. 42-45). The righteous sheep inherit eternal life; the goats receive everlasting punishment.
In its Judgment Sunday article, the GOA website notes,
On the past two Sundays of this pre-Lenten period, the focus was placed on God’s patience and limitless compassion, of His readiness to accept every sinner who returns to Him. On this third Sunday, we are powerfully reminded of a complementary truth: no one is so patient and so merciful as God, but even He does not forgive those who do not repent. The God of love is also a God of righteousness, and when Christ comes again in glory, He will come as our Judge. Such is the message of Lent to each of us: turn back while there is still time, repent before the End comes.
Another important theme of this Sunday is love. When Christ comes to judge us, what will be His standard for judgment?
The parable of the Last Judgment answers: love—not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous “poor,” but concrete and personal love for the human person—the specific persons that we encounter each day in our lives.
Gathering at the Starting Line for Great Lent
Finally, on the day before Great Lent begins, the Sunday of Forgiveness features two themes: we remember Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise, and we consider our own need for forgiveness.
Lent is a time when we weep with Adam and Eve before the closed gate of Eden, repenting with them for the sins that have deprived us of our free communion with God. But Lent is also a time when we are preparing to celebrate the saving event of Christ’s death and rising, which has reopened Paradise to us once more (Luke 23:43). So sorrow for our exile in sin is tempered by hope of our re-entry into Paradise. — “Forgiveness Sunday,” goarch.org
The beautiful ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the end of Vespers on this evening reminds us:
There can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. We do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from others, but should link us to them with ever-stronger bonds.
As the sun sets on Forgiveness Sunday, we will have spent 22 days readying ourselves for Great Lent.
Do we really need all this prep time ?
We learn things best slowly, with repetition. Or, stated less graciously, the Church is trying to hammer some important truths into our thick heads. She reminds us, each year, of our tendency toward either prideful self-love or despairing self-hatred, of God’s requirement that we love Him by loving others, and of our need to walk in mutual forgiveness as we find our way back to Him. We are never “done.” We must be continually learning, repenting, and practicing this art of love.
We need reminders. We need to reorient ourselves to God’s ways. Battered by the world, the flesh, and the devil, we come to Great Lent each year after warming up for the race, shoveling the hindrances from our lives, in order to find our way back to God.
In two weeks, we will return to the series “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road” and look at that scary idea of confessing our sins before a priest with the topic, “Cautious about Confession,” also available on the Walking an Ancient Path podcast.
Good strength to you during this season of preparation.