I am fascinated by the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians know who they are, know what they believe, and know what they need to do to be faithful members of their local church. Orthodox theology, liturgy and practice are rooted in the Creeds and the historic ecumenical councils of the church. Unlike other Christian expressions, these basic elements of the faith are considered universal and timeless and are not subject to modification through the chances and changes of denominational governing bodies.
I also admire Orthodox Lenten disciplines and practices, especially those associated with fasting. Actually, Orthodox Christians are called upon to fast at various times during the year, including every Wednesday and Friday. And this is a strict fast requiring abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, olive oil, and wine and other alcoholic beverages. Recognizing the challenges of such a diet, Orthodox clergy encourage their faithful to adopt these practices gradually and to even consider such a fast only during the first and last weeks of Lent. The stated reason for fasting is not just to follow the rules but, more importantly, to empty ourselves from the cares and concerns of the world – a means of preparation and conditioning which will enable us to serve God and grow closer to God. And, according to Orthodox teaching, fasting involves abstinence from everything that distances us from God and must be accompanied by good works and other spiritual practices.
By Orthodox standards, Episcopal Lenten practices must seem rather wishy washy. Like most things we do as Episcopalians, there are very few rules, and any such disciplines are left to individual choice and preference. Despite this leniency however, Episcopalians, during the Ash Wednesday liturgy, are “invited” to observe a “holy Lent”. And this includes self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. While this invitation suggests the same purpose as that of Orthodox fasting, it just doesn’t seem as urgent or intense.
Don’t get me wrong. It's not that my own Lenten observances are especially rigorous, although I wish they were. I usually begin Lent with the best of intentions, but often drift away from my disciplines and spiritual practices until a quick comeback during Holy Week. And each year I vow that this Lent will be different.
As I write this blog, the western world is facing its most significant military crisis since World War II as Russia invades Ukraine and attempts to subjugate a free and independent nation. In the thick of this crisis and as the U.S. exercises its role as the leader of the free world, our own country is facing historic inflation, political polarization, pandemic uncertainty and even challenges to our very democracy. Do we even want to talk about self-denial with spiking gas prices and supply chain shortages? Why should we observe a holy Lent in the middle of such turmoil? Shouldn’t we get a break this year and just move directly to Easter?
As tempting as all this might be be, we need Lent now, more than ever. We need a time to step back and, like fasting, empty ourselves of those distractions that separate us from God and our fellow human beings. Lent is not meant to be a punishment for our sins but an opportunity for renewal. Lent helps us to move forward and not turn back. Lent provides us with a glimpse of the Kingdom and helps focus us on that which is faithful, good, and true.
Whatever practices and disciplines we might embrace, let us observe a holy Lent, but this year, with a true sense of purpose and focus. We live in a sinful and broken world and our only choice is to repent and acknowledge our total dependence on an all loving, generous, and forgiving God. Then, and only then, will we be able to experience Easter joy once again.