Monday, April 21, 2014

In Light of Pascha: Reflections from Lent and Holy Week (Part 1)

Within four months of being chrismated, I got to experience Great Lent. I attended a few services last year but didn't really immerse myself in the season. It is truly a time of ascesis. If one doesn't feel the strain, as an athlete does, then something is wrong. Now, I'm not saying that I did Lent "right", by no means; I set a plan for myself, did the best I could, and enjoyed the ride. It's the day after the Resurrection, Renewal Monday, and I'm attempting to grasp all that I experienced. I would like to share some of my thoughts.

Forgiveness Sunday -- well, there isn't anything I can say about this day that hasn't already been said. To face one another and ask forgiveness, to forgive one another -- the Dostoevskian forgive all for everything -- is not only a fresh start into Lent but it's incredibly humbling. It's no coincidence that the Church has the Rite of Forgiveness on the fore of the Great Fast. "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift." (Gospel of St Matthew 5:34-24). The Rite is the entry point into Lent; we must pass through. Christ says that He is the Gate (Gospel of St John 10:9); we must pass through Him to be saved. And did not Christ forgive all? -- Father forgive them for they know not what they do -- so we must do as the Master. Even if my fellow brother in Christ sinned not against me directly, his sinful actions are done in and to the Body of Christ, we are all one in Christ. Each person brings his or her passions into the Church, because we are the Church. We must forgive all for everything. Father hammered this into our thick heads during the preparatory weeks that Forgiveness Sunday is one of the most important services of the year -- after making the journey to Pascha, I see just how right he is.

Another theme for Forgiveness Sunday is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. This theme not only reminds us of why we need forgiveness but it places us outside Eden, which is fitting for the beginning of Lent. Adam laments (side note: listen to Arvo Part's composition Adam's Lament, it's not canonical but it should be required listening during Lent). We are acutely aware of our condition. This leads me to the next Lenten service I attended this year, the Liturgy of the Presanctified, which is just an inexpressible service, one of my favorite -- simultaneously somber and yet filled with expectancy and anticipatory joy. Being that Presanctified is essentially a merging of Vespers and Liturgy, the Royal Doors are shut for a while as we sing the Psalms -- no Epistle, no Gospel -- we are in the days before Christ, the doors to Paradise are closed! Then after more Old Testament readings, we hit the floor and say the humbling and repentant Lenten prayer of St Ephraim, then and only then, we enter into more familiar territory of the Liturgy. We are not left in our ontological estrangement from God, we are reminded that we have been brought into His Kingdom, yet we await the fullness of it to come. We are on the road to Pascha; we carry our cross and renounce the world.

I attend a mission parish, so we are limited in what we can do, in spite of this we still held many services. One of the traditional ones we didn't do is the Canon of St Andrew; hopefully, as we grow we'll be able to. 

The second service was the Salutations to the Theotokos. I had the chance to attend a couple of these last year, and looked forward to participating in these again. My Protestant buddies will have trouble with these services, why? Because we remember and praise the Mother of God, which she's not only Jesus' mother but the Mother of the Church. All generations will call her blessed. She carried God incarnate in her womb. There is much in the Old Testament foreshadowing her roll in salvation -- now, of course, Mary does not save us, Christ saves us, but His flesh comes from her. The Body He assumed, walked this earth with (and "in", but not in an Apollinarian sense), took to the Cross, and Resurrected is from Mary -- the God-bearer. This is her role in salvation. And the Church teaches that she is a great intercessor to her Son. So we ask for her intercessions.

After surviving the first week of Lent, we come to the Sunday of Orthodoxy. I don't have much that I want to say about this day. It's an encouraging Sunday though. Many of us get geared up for Lent and then after the first week...we're like: whoa! not sure if we can keep this up. The second week begins with the celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy. What a great Sunday! Drawing our attention from ourselves we are faced with our forebears: we remember the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which was the Church's victory over the Iconoclasts, and remember how the Church has triumphed over the centuries. The theme of triumph flows into the following Sunday in which we honor St Gregory Palamas, he is mostly known for his debate with Barlaam over hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer. St Gregory also teaches us that we must practice the prayer and silence.

To this novice Lent is divide into two halves, the first is more encouraging -- well, the Sundays at least. The first two I've previously mentioned, the third, the mid-point, is the Veneration of the Cross. We often need to be reminded that we must take up our cross and follow Christ. Follow Him to our death. And the Cross is victory. The first half of Lent there's a theme of victory in spite of our struggles. But, it is not a victory as the world defines it. Lent is about dying to oneself. And the upcoming Sundays of Lent (the second half) give us examples of how we live the cross in our lives: St John Climacus and St Mary of Egypt. Are we ready to climb the ladder of self-denial, climbing the steps of virtues? Are we ready to cross the Jordan with a few meager loaves? To enter the desert? To run the race? To enter the ascetic struggle? Are we ready to go up to Jerusalem?

Wearily and joyfully we enter Holy Week.

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