Lent, Holy Week & Pascha: A Lay Missionary’s Reflection On the Great Fast and the Great Feast at the Mission
by Naomi Funk, LTS Lay Missionary
I think we all groaned when we learned that Lent followed so closely on the heels of the Nativity Fast this year. Winter was wearing on us, we were longing for sunlight, and BAM! Here comes the Fast of all fasts.
But, quickly, the idea of Lent settled with me, as I knew I was in great need of it. There is a sort of comfort in the barrenness of Lent that reminds us that God is near and we are beckoned to come nearer as well.
On Cheesefare Sunday Fr Roberto urged us not to begin the fast alone, but to come together that evening for the Vespers of Forgiveness. So we crowded into that little church that night, and began Lent together, and hearing those familiar Lenten words and melodies. Then we had the rite of Forgiveness. As I see the rite of Forgiveness, it is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over with everyone, acknowledge that we all sin against each other, knowingly or unknowingly, and that we are aiming for the same thing. And from there we proceeded into the Desert of Great Lent.
The first week of Lent was brutal in a good way. There were eight services in six days - an assortment of Orthros, Great Compline, Great Canon, Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and Divine Liturgy. To me, the fewer people attend, the bleaker both the service and I feel. The singing is quieter, the church is emptier, the distractions are fewer, and you have no excuses to not give all your attention to God. The early morning services are usually the bleakest. The evening services, however, have more people and so the environment is much more that of community effort. I think it's good to have both - there is a time to concentrate your efforts and work hard, and there is a time to feel the community around you and to support each other in the struggle.
In my "zealous" first or second week of Lent, I came across a really great quotation by St. Silouan: "People, until they know something greater, are satisfied with the little that they have. A eagle, who hears the sounds of the earth and revels in its beauty, would not be content to live in a small enclosure with a rooster. Whoever has not known the grace of the Holy Spirit is like the rooster who does not know the flight of the eagle. He cannot comprehend the sweetness of tender emotion and love of God." These words really spoke to me. They mean that we are satisfied with far too little (the chicken coop), we were created for much more, and don't even know what else there is. But I think that even though we don't know what else there is, we know that what we have is not all. We're bumping into things all the time that we don't understand, and I for one, am suffering from a deplorable lack of curiosity. Just as the rooster would see the unlimited sky above him if he looked, but may not want to know what the view is from all the way up there. Lent is an opportunity to wonder.
Some of the things that I, the ground-dwelling hen, was satisfying myself with were Facebook and secular music. By taking those away for the duration of Lent, I was effectively labeling them as poor substitutes for something meaningful and ultimately satisfying. (As a side note, Facebook, Twitter, etc all tout themselves as ways to be connected to your friends and family members, which is a good thing to want. In fact humans were made for contact with other humans. However, if sitting alone at your computer, mouse-clicking, typing status updates, and "roflmao" is human contact, it must be one of the lowest forms. If you want human contact, which is exactly what I wanted, go have tea with your mom or invite your friends over for dinner). And I replaced them with the services of the Church, prescribed during Lent. Not that I'm soaring with the eagle, but it's a good starting point.
Lent at St. Silouan's is peppered with all kinds of things meant to be good for our bodies and souls alike. One of my favorite services during Lent was the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete during which Fr. Roberto read the life of St. Mary of Egypt, which is an amazing story of repentance, perfect for Lent. I'm not sure if figs are mentioned in the story, but as we sat listening to the story, we were each given a fig to eat as a way to help us imagine life in 4/5th century Egypt.
Friday nights were also very beautiful, as we had the Akathist to the Theotokos. Her icon was always decorated with flowers and the hymns praising her, always full of these telling paradoxes such as, "Hail, best of all dwellings for Him who is above the seraphim," and picturesque descriptions such as, "Hail, radiant dawn who alone bearest Christ the Sun." Through these we are able to learn so much more about the Mother of God, that she is our protector, intercessor, our hope, our example and our way to Christ. After the Akathist, we would always have an all-night vigil, during which whoever could stay would chant the Psalms or other Akathists late into the night.
Eventually Lent drew to a close and Holy Week was upon us. Once again we could hardly keep up with all the services. I told someone I didn't think I could ever tire of all these services. No, I didn't, but I did get exhausted going to them. Fr. Roberto is right, that if you want to miss Lent, just come on Sundays. Don't show up throughout the week, because if you do, you're going to get an earful of Lent. One of my favorite images in Holy Week is that of the Ten Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom, which we hear over and over. Make sure you have extra oil because you don't know when He's going to come! Make sure you live your life in a way that pleases God, because you don't know when He's going to come! Stay awake, keep watching, guard yourself. Trim your lamps and enter into the wedding feast; He has come. Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find in slothfulness. Beware, then, O my soul, and be not overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut out from the Kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God: through the Theotokos have mercy upon us.
On Holy Saturday, we read a dozen or so Old Testament readings, each pointing toward Christ's Passion and Resurrection . We hear about Elisha raising the widow's son from the death, the three holy children in the furnace, Jonah in the belly of the whale, the crossing at the Red Sea with Moses. The hymnography parallels the readings, "He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea, is hidden beneath the earth by the children of those whom once He saved, and: "Jonah was enclosed but not held fast in the belly of the whale; for, serving as a figure of Thee, who hast suffered and wast buried in the tomb, he leapt forth from the monster as from a bridal chamber..." It's on days like Holy Saturday that you realize how awesome the Orthodox church is. The Old Testament foretells the New Testament, and it's all fulfilled. Every hymn exudes incredible meaning. After the service, a simple yet sufficient meal of bread, dates, almonds and wine was set out for us to quietly partake of, which would carry us through until the early morning hours.
The previous two days we had each had seven hours of services and that day was making it three days in a row. By that evening, I was languishing. I had the tiniest voice and the smallest strength. After preparing the church with flowers and rushniks, I went home, ironed my pants, and flopped into bed. What felt like 10 minutes later, and was actually only 45, I dragged my weary body to church for the Highest Feast Day of the Orthodox Liturgical Year. Thankfully the service didn't rely on me or it might not have happened. One of the many beautiful moments that night was the procession around the church.
Suddenly, everyone was singing "Christos Anesti"! I didn't know the words in Greek so I gave up trying to look over someone's shoulder for the words, and I just stood there in the moment. When we re-entered the now-lit church, the choir was exuberantly singing and Fr. Roberto and Fr. Mischa were yelling "Christ is risen!" and the people were yelling back "Indeed He is risen!" And every single bell they could find was pealing cheerfully and the semandron was clacking rhythmically. The whole building was joyful and celebratory. I was a little startled by all the bellowing however, since I come from Saskatoon where we're all a little more subdued. I couldn't shout anyway. But the congregation, like “Whos down in Whoville”, filled the room, maybe even the neighbourhood, with amazing sounds, celebrating Christ's resurrection.
“Christ is risen! INDEED HE IS RISEN!"
I don't know why Lent gets such a bad reaction. It seems to me, that if we all knew the glory that Lent brings, we would welcome it. Maybe we are still roosters for most of the year, unable to conceive of the grace of the Holy Spirit, being satisfied with what little we have. Having to write this article retrospectively recalled to my mind these hymns and services, and now some of the melodies are running through my head. And I miss Lent. It's like the bad-tasting medicine that tastes bad for a while, maybe years, then you get used to it, then you look forward to it because you know it makes you well. Lent being 40 days is almost ten percent of the calendar year, and I've heard it be described as "the tithe of the year". The time we give to God what is His, we pray more, fast more, give more alms. Which implies that since it is all His, the whole year should really be Lenten. Maybe we couldn't handle that. But at least for 40 days of the year, God shows us a little glimpse of what we were made for, so maybe someday soon we will comprehend the sweetness of His tender emotion and love for us.