Sleepers Awake! An Essay on the Heart of Lent

Lent is nearly upon us and for those who have not come from a liturgical background (or conversely for those who have been so steeped in the Traditions of the Church that they have become cold and their meanings long forgotten) the question may well arise: why or perhaps even how, do we celebrate Lent?  In many minds the idea of Lent conjures images of meaningless abstinences, dreary reminders of our sinful nature and whipped up feelings of, “I am a worm and no man.”  But it must be quickly pointed out that, while this is a season of fasting and of penitence, to reduce it to a dull burdensome yoke of ‘do this’ and ‘avoid this’ misses the spirit and the heart of the season altogether.  So what is the heart of Lent?

At its core Lent is about awakening.  It is about shaking off the slumber of the ‘Old Man’ as St. Paul calls it in order to prepare the person: body, soul and spirit to greet with Joy the celebration of Resurrection Life at Easter.  Of course the student of Scripture will be quick to point out that the joy of Resurrection Sunday is meant for the Christian every day of the year and of course this is true.  The breaking in of Christ’s new and glorious Kingdom, the defeat of death once and for all and the enlivening of our souls could never be isolated to a yearly commemoration.  And yet, how often do we find that while these are truths that come readily to mind and flow readily off our lips, they are truths that we in our busy and harried post-modern lives seldom seem to live in light of.  And so we become dulled to these truths.  We are like leaden-limbed men and women struggling to shake off a deep and seemingly satisfying slumber.  Instead of heeding the call of Christ to seek His Kingdom above all else, we are driven by our own desires and impulses or those of somebody else.  We need something to awaken us from this deluded dream walk.  

What Lent offers us in remedy to this spiritual malaise is a saturating dose of reality.  To awaken we must first become aware of the true state of things.  To escape from a burning building we must first become aware of the whiff of smoke in the room.  And so Lent is often spoken of as a season of “bright sadness.”  As a season of repentance we are continually reminded in the Scriptures and in the Liturgy that all is not well.  We fall constantly short of the call to be, “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.”  And so, while on the surface our constant remembering of that reality during Lent may seem harsh, grating and even dismal, we must remember that these wake-up calls, these heavy doses of reality are only the first step.  Our sadness over these our misdoings is made ‘bright’ as we engage them remembering that repentance is the first step toward forgiveness.  If we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive.  So while the tone of the season is one of apparent grief and sadness; this sadness, we begin to perceive, is indeed ‘bright’ as we sense the healing and transformative work that it is bringing about within our souls.

So often we talk of God needing to, “take a 2x4 and whack us to get our attention.”  Or, “give us a swift kick to get us going.”  This is a rather sad commentary on our warped perception of God and His tender dealings with those whom He loves.  Perhaps it feels that way to us at times because it is not until our backs are broken by our own sin or circumstance that we understand that God has been there all along wishing to have our attention and wishing to pour His healing balm out on our sin-sick hearts.  A more accurate image of God’s work is that of the leather worker who has to take a rough and bloodied hide and clean it, brush it and work softening oils into it gently shaping it into something supple, useful and beautiful.  That is the image of Lent and its usefulness in our lives.  It is 40 days because this is a long slow process.  It is at times monotonous because we need the same treatments repeated again and again until they begin to soften us and break down our roughness and hardness.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, “Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.”

In the Ash Wednesday liturgy the priest invites the community to observe a Holy Lent through, “self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  These comprise the main disciplines of the season.  As has been mentioned, many opportunities are made available for a heightened self-awareness and necessary repentance.  The liturgies of the season draw repentance into brighter contrast and in many places the formal rite of Reconciliation (or sacramental confession) is offered.  Prayer and disciplined reading are also recommended.  These seem somewhat self-evident and resources abound in the Church for pursuing these disciplines.  But what may require slightly more explanation is the character of fasting and self-denial that are the apparent hallmark of the season.   

The question may well arise; what is the purpose of fasting.  The answer to this corresponds directly to the nature of the two forms of fasting which have arisen in the life of the Church.  The first form of fasting is the stational or total fast.  This is the form that is familiar to most. It consists in abstaining from food altogether.  It can be done for an entire day or for a particular meal.  The term stational comes from a Roman military term, statio which was used to describe a military garrison on high alert.  It therefore connotes a ready watchfulness.   The purpose of this kind of fast then is to sharpen our anticipation; to awaken in us a hunger that begins in our stomach but which can be harnessed to a heightened spiritual hunger and desire for the Living God; a “state of spiritual concentration on that which is about to come.”  For this reason it has long been a tradition in the Church to abstain from food before the celebration of Holy Eucharist so that as we come to the Table we come hungry to commune with the Living God.  This sense of concentration and anticipation is also the presupposed meaning behind Scripture’s linking of prayer to fasting (as in the example cited by Jesus of certain demonic spirits whose hold can only be loosed by “prayer and fasting”).

There is a second form of fast – the ascetical fast.  This form, again in the well chosen words of Fr. Schmemann, is to “liberate man from the unlawful tyranny of the flesh, of that surrender of the spirit to the body and its appetites which is the tragic result of sin and the original fall of man.”  The desire behind this sort of fast is to soften the heart and weaken the grip that self-love holds on our hearts until we can come to truly understand on a deep level the truth our Lord spoke during his own fast, “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that come from the mouth of God.”  The Fathers of the Church counseled that this type of fasting of necessity takes time.  Here again we see the gentle softening work that unfolds drawing the soul into deeper awareness and communion with the triune God.  

So each year the Church in her wisdom bids us come, make ready our souls for the Paschal celebration and for that Heavenly Country which is our true Home.  In the words of the ancient Christian hymn, "Awake, O sleeper and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:14)