The Holy Lent, as the early fathers describe it, is the spring of the divine calendar; the season of spiritual storage for the whole year; and a special opportunity to encounter Christ who has fasted the forty-day fast for the sake of our salvation.
The message of the Lent this year includes the following points:
- Freedom from fleshly habits and soulish or emotional attachments
- Examining the conscience and the purity of heart
- Going out of the self
- Holy and sweet suffering
- Infliction or Contrition and Transfiguration
- First: Freedom from fleshly Habits and soulish or emotional attachments
Our body has become so used to various eating patterns. We love certain types of food; we want our food to include certain kinds made in a certain way; and we so much need the constant change in the types of food. All this has left certain imprints and habits in our body which we need to be freed of.
Yes, we do need the food that sustains the body. Yet, we need to deeply realise that food is not the source of our life, as the bible says: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4: 4).
When will these words of the Lord go deep in our inner being and we believe them; so that, the physical food would no longer have an authority over us –as though it is the source of our life!
If this happens, the fasting seasons would no longer be a negative deprivation from food because of which our body often groans and fasting appears difficult for us, causing us to be weak and disturbed. But rather, the link between food and fasting would be loosened; and the season of fasting would become a spiritual opportunity to energise the spirit as we temporarily lift away and release the heaviness of the flesh from the spirit.
This is a measure or a level of freedom on the way to deeper freedom, to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
As for the soulish or emotional attachments:
The fathers of the Church used to leave their monasteries during the Lent season and go out to the deserts where each of them would be totally on his own; so that, there would be separation and weaning from any kind of emotional clinging or attachment.
These attachments can be towards people (brothers in the monastery, friends who visit the monastery, or family members). It can even be an attachment to places, the monasteries themselves and their memories –though these are blessed memories that are linked to the saints and the visitations of grace.
It is a deeper freedom than what the soul requests. Exactly as we spoke about the freedom of the body from fleshly desires in relation to food, drink, clothes, and sleep, there is also a freedom of the soul from the relationships and attachments.
The freedom of the body and the freedom of the soul grant a deep and true release for the spirit to soar in the spiritual spheres; to ignite her bridal love for the Bridegroom; and to perceive her true heavenly hometown. Hence, one lives in watchfulness and as a sojourner during the temporary journey on earth.
Therefore, every narrowness which we put on our body and soul leads to broadness and freedom of the spirit.
Don’t we remember the words of the Lord when He said:
‘Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7: 13, 14).
Let us; therefore, take heed because the Lord tells us that the narrow way is the way of life; yet, few find it. This happens because we may start in the narrow way; but our soul quickly leads us astray and deviates us away from it to go to the wide way where she feels comfortable and which she loves –though it is the way of destruction.
The fasting seasons, especially the holy Lent, allow these truths to take a new and tangible dimension; and hence, we wake up, take heed, and restore our souls to the narrow way because it is the way of life!
- Secondly: Examining the conscience and the purity of heart
How numerous are the daily events or situations that bring turbidity to our conscience and make us lose the purity of heart!
This annuls our fasting. The outer form of fasting which is changing the food type or abstaining for a period of time is not the goal; it is a means to achieve deeper things: the cleansing of the conscience and the purity of heart.
Unfortunately, we put all our focus on the outer form of fasting, as though food is what determines our spiritual destiny.
Have we not heard the apostle say:
‘But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse’ (1Corinthians 8: 8).
The apostle also says:
‘For the Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14: 17).
My true goal for this fast in particular, the Lent, is to have an encounter with Christ in the wilderness. Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness of Jordan. He is God and Man (not only man whose fast would be a past act that ended); but because He is God, His fast has an extended effect, as though Jesus is still there in the Jordan, present through a mystery in the fast which He has fasted as part of the economy of our salvation.
Therefore, I shall give great care and importance to examining my conscience and cleansing it; so that, it would not become a hindrance which prevents me from encountering Christ; lest my fast would be an outer form or an outer spiritual practice related to food and drink without the special encounter which is a mystical part of the Lent.
Yes, I do need to prepare my heart for this encounter. This encounter is a truth and the wilderness is mystical and unseen. The Holy Spirit makes me enter into it and brings me before Christ who longs for me and waits for me. He has a lot of things that He wants to tell each one of us. He wants to make me enter into His mystery. He wants to open my insight and open my darkened eyes to behold His mystery and see matters the way He sees them; so that, I may harmonise with Him and unite with Him, as my Bridegroom and my Saviour.
In the wilderness of Christ’s fast, the Father showed Him all the things related to His Messianic calling, His work as the Messiah. He saw the visions of God. He saw Israel who was estranged from God and His Law. He saw them as the paralytic, the blind, the one who has gone astray, and the oppressed.
Therefore, when He started His ministry, He was concerned with healing the paralysis and the blindness. He started His ministry by the wedding at Cana of Galilee in order to release the bridal love and the holy joy to Israel so that they would restore their calling in the midst of the nations, preaching about God who is alive and a Saviour so that He would be known among the nations. We read in the Psalm:
‘God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us, that Your way may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations’ (Psalm 67: 1, 2).
The fathers of the Church taught us that there are different levels for the purity of the heart.
Jeremiah, the prophet, described the heart saying: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?’ (Jeremiah 17: 9).
Therefore, the heart requires a lot of patience and it gets purified gradually, from one level to the other. Then, grace dwells in the heart!
Yes, let us memorise this phrase of the early fathers: ‘grace dwells in the heart’, causing a great difference in the spiritual life or rather the whole life. What we read, what we hear, what we see, what we need to do, all becomes different. All this change because the grace that has dwelt in the heart leads the person. It illuminates the mind, making the person understand matters beyond his normal perception. It illuminates the inner depth, giving the person a sensitive conscience upon which the commandment is written, as the apostle says:
‘Says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people…For all shall know Me…For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more’ (Hebrews 8: 10 – 12).
The Holy Lent is a great mystery, a great treasure which is full of many mysteries. Yet, we unfortunately do not know how to enter into its mystery. We fast it only from the outside, an outer form or a mere spiritual practice.
Ah, if we enter into the mystery of the Lent, our soul which is conformed to the world will be reconciled with the cross. It will be liberated. It will draw close to the Crucified one and receive from the grace of His resurrection, even during the Lent before the coming of the feast. It will encounter Christ.
When Christ sees that His grace has dwelt in the heart of a person, He starts to reveal to it His heart and entrust it with His mysteries. He has much to entrust with, especially in these end times; and He is searching for those He can entrust and reveal to them His heart and mystery. The Psalm says: ‘The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him’ (Psalm 25: 14). Also, in Proverbs 3: 32 b, we read: ‘But His secret counsel is with the upright’.
This allows the life of the Lord to flow in us, casting out the death which has entered into us and which dominates us, deadens our days, and wastes our years.
We are in great need for the mystery of the Lent, the mystery of Christ in the wilderness, the mystery of revealing His heart to us, the mystery of the love of the inner chamber, the mystery of the Bridegroom to His Bride:
‘He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with cakes of raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am lovesick. His left hand is under my head, and His right hand embraces me’ (Song of Songs 2: 4 – 6).
- Thirdly: Going out of the self:
What happened to Adam and Eve when they ate of the fruit, fell, and were cast out of the Garden?
There is an important matter here which we need to understand.
The problem was not that they went out of the Garden. But the Garden was a place of dwelling with God. They were not merely living in a geographical place called the Garden of Eden; but they were dwelling with God in fellowship, companionship, divine warmth, love, light, comfort, and a life that flows from Him to them.
When they went out of the Garden, they found themselves without a dwelling place, not on the material earthly geographical level but much more than that. They found themselves without a dwelling place on the level of their spiritual being. Thus, they became naked –not regarding clothes; but, God Himself was an unseen spiritual and mystical robe and cover for them. When they lost this divine robe that surrounded them, they sought a different thing. How poor and miserable what they ended in! They replaced the divine robe by the fig leaves. The fig leaves do not cover the nakedness.
So, what happened?
There is a mystery here. Please, pay attention.
They entered into themselves. They dwelt in the self; and so they became prisoners, prisoners of the self. Their spirit which is the actual reality of their being –because they were spiritually created by the breath of God (His Spirit) –became now a prisoner of the self.
Each one of us, their descendants, lives the same tragedy; we are prisoners of the self. Yet, the bigger problem is that we no longer feel that; as if this became a normal situation! The wrong inverted state became the normal one; while, the original normal state became absent and even unperceived or sensed!
Why is it that?
It is because of a certain expression that the early fathers use, taken from apostle Peter’s epistle which we need to understand; and that is: ‘the hidden person of the heart’.
Let us first listen to the words in the verse:
‘The hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God’ (1Peter 3: 4).
The apostle was writing to the wives so that they would not focus on the outer clothes or the outer appearance and adornment, drawing the attention to the true adornment which is inside the heart: the hidden person of the heart…the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.
Notice the expression ‘the hidden person of the heart’. The heart has sunk inside; it became covered and buried. It became hidden and remote –despite bearing the mystery of the true adornment which is the gentle and quiet spirit.
We need to wake up this heart that is buried inside us. The Psalm says: ‘the inward thought and the heart of man are deep’ (Psalm 64: 6).
This is the mystery of the Lent. This fast in particular, the Lent, is given to us for waking up the heart that is buried inside us and which bears the mystery of life which is specific to each person. The wound of sin has deadened it; and so, it became buried and it no longer senses anything. As a result, we live from outside ourselves; we live on the surface of our life, actually estranged from ourselves.
We need to come out of the self. This fast, the Lent, brings us out of the prison of the self. It wakes up our heart and revives it within us. It was said about the Prodigal son: ‘he came to himself’ (Luke 15: 17). In other words, his heart woke up inside him.
As soon as the heart wakes up, it immediately pumps and pulses with the infinite and unceasing longing towards God –because it bears the breath of God. Thus, one’s life is transformed, and the song of God starts inside the heart. The Psalm says: ‘Awake, my glory’ which means my soul or my heart. Then, the Psalmist continues: ‘Awake, lute and harp’ (Psalm 57: 8). When the soul comes out of its imprisonment, the songs of salvation start inside it.
Therefore, in the writings of the early fathers, the Lent season is called ‘the journey of returning to Paradise’. This does not refer to returning to an earthly paradise, the old Eden; but, returning to the state of paradise.
When Christ saved us, He did not make for us a place to dwell in lest the enemy would tempt us anew and make us lose our place; but Christ made Himself our dwelling place; we dwell in Him and He is us.
Apostle John says, by the mouth of Jesus: ‘you in Me, and I in you’ (John 14: 20).
Also, in His intercessory prayer before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed saying:
‘As You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us’ (John 17: 21).
- Fourthly: The holy and sweet suffering
How numerous are our sorrows in this world!
It takes various forms: circumstances; people around me who may sometimes be the cause of my sorrow or my inner crisis with myself –as if they strangle me; illnesses; fatigue or exhaustion without any clear reason; the sense of inability and paralysis; the sense of meaninglessness and boredom. What is all that? It is the sorrow of the world!
Apostle Paul helps us with his accurate description of sorrow when he says:
‘For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death’ (2 Corinthians 7: 10).
We experience quite well the deadly sorrows of the world and we desire so much to flee from them. Yet, our fleeing is sometimes done with great foolishness, like resorting to drinking, drugs, or the media. We do so to make ourselves forget; we run away from time. We voluntarily throw ourselves in meaninglessness, confusion, and loss. Sorrow increases inside us; or rather, sorrow dwells inside us; while we do not want or do not know how to face it.
The Lent is a confrontation with the buried sorrow and its hidden causes.
We tighten and put restrictions on the flesh by fasting, prostrating, and praying so that the stores of sorrows in the soul may be opened, washed, and we get rid of them.
The diligence of the Lent is sometimes called ‘the illuminating sorrow’. It is ‘sorrow’ because of the tightness and restriction on the flesh; it is ‘illuminating’ because it finally liberates from sorrow and restores to us the joy of salvation, as Psalm 51: 12 says: ‘Restore to me the joy of Your salvation’.
Have we noticed the words of the Scripture about the Crucified Son for our sake:
‘Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand’ (Isaiah 53: 10).
How surprising: the Father is pleased to crush the Son and put Him to grief!
From the outside, this appears very harsh; yet, it is very mystical because the pleasure of the Father and the Son is one and is united.
We then read about the result (Isaiah 53: 10, 11):
‘Made His soul an offering for sin’
‘He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied’
‘By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities’.
Would we like to partake in the suffering of the Son, which is also the pleasure of the Father, for the sake of the salvation of people?
It is an illuminating sorrow; it is a foretaste of the joy of resurrection. The Lord wants us to have joy; but it is a different joy, a true joy. It is a pleasure that comes to us from above and is poured in our soul as eternal comfort. The Lord Himself encourages us by saying: ‘Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full’ (John 16: 24).
Also, in His intercessory prayer while He was in the peak of His suffering, Jesus prayed for us, saying:
‘These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves’ (John 17: 13).
Would we partake in His suffering? How numerous are they, as He sees the world which He has created and about which He has said: ‘it is very good’, He sees it ruined and marred. He also sees His Church, His bride, stained and spotted with the uncleanness of the world, losing her bridal ornaments, and totally estranged from Him.
He suffers and waits for whoever would partake in His suffering in order to partake in His joy. Apostle Peter says:
‘But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy’ (1Peter 4: 13).
This is the sweet suffering of Christ.
Yes, we may experience this fellowship of suffering and it is always accounted for our sake and for others as well. We may sometimes feel as though we are descending into hades and we may go through times of hell; yet, God’s grace quickly visits us to lift us upwards; and we taste the pleasures of the Father and also become the subject of the Father’s pleasure.
I dare to say that our experience and knowledge of Christ will not be complete without experiencing the descent into hades and the ascent to heavens in Him and with Him. Haven’t we read these words:
‘Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things’ (Ephesians 4: 9, 10).
Yes, we die with Him and live with Him; we partake in His suffering to partake in the power of His resurrection as well.
Apostle Paul said:
‘That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death’ (Philippians 3: 10).
- Fifth: Infliction or Contrition and Transfiguration:
The Lent is also the fast of contrition and self-denial. It is the fast that ends with the Good Friday which is parallel to the Day of Atonement in the Old Testament and which was described as a day of afflicting oneself and self-denial:
‘This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls…’ (Leviticus 16: 29 –NKJV).
‘And this shall be a lasting statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you must deny yourselves’ (LEB).
Yes, indeed we need to learn and experience this self-denial and afflicting ourselves. Our souls are arrogant, conceited, and domineering. In His economy of salvation for us, the Lord may allow certain situations that would break the arrogance of our soul and humble it. We should not forget that He is the Pantocrator who is in control of everything and what He allows is always for our salvation.
Let us; therefore, change our reactions and responses towards the difficult situations and circumstances which the Lord sometimes allows. Instead of getting tense, being agitated and angry in a wrong way, and following the manners of the people of the world which the prince of this world suggests, let us humble ourselves and accept the economy of God with total trust in Him and await His salvation for us.
At this point, grace would start to dwell in us and Christ the Lord Himself would progressively dwell in our souls and make us partake in His work of salvation, from within our souls.
What is the significance of the numerous prostrations (400 times) that we make on the Good Friday in every direction –according to the Coptic Church tradition?
It is an act of afflicting ourselves for the sake of the salvation of the world in its four corners.
If the grace of God is dwelling in us and His indwelling in us is increasing, He will then make us partakers with Him in the salvation of the world.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov said: ‘Be filled with peace (which means unite with Christ, the Prince of Peace) and thousands around you shall find their salvation’.
This is the state of the transfiguration of grace –after the cleansing of the soul and the indwelling of Christ.
Yes, the cloud of transfiguration draws close to our soul and to the places we live in; and the glory of Christ is revealed in our life!
It is written:
‘Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name’ (Malachi 3: 16).
Would we fill heaven with books of remembrance for the sake of the will of God and the salvation of the world?
Let us first start by making our books white through the repentance of this fast which will wipe away the sins from the book and by being transformed into the image of Christ ‘to be conformed to the image of His Son’ (Romans 8: 29).
Our book would then be ready to be written in it or to be inscribed with the remembrance of our love for the Lord, our godliness, our worship, and our spiritual diligence for the sake of the Kingdom of God and the glory of Christ!