In regard to Lent, instead of asking fundamental questions—”What is fasting?” or “What is Lent?”—we satisfy ourselves with Lenten symbolism. In church magazines and bulletins appear recipes for “delicious Lenten dishes,” and a parish might even raise some additional money by means of a well-advertised “tasty Lenten dinner.” So much in our churches is explained symbolically as interesting, colorful, and amusing customs and traditions, as something which connects us not so much with God and a new life in Him but with the past and the customs of our forefathers, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern behind this religious folklore the utter seriousness of religion. Let me stress that there is nothing wrong in the various customs themselves. When they appeared they were the means and the expressions of a society taking religion seriously; they were not symbols, but life itself. What happened, however, was that as life changed and became less and less shaped by religion in its totality, a few customs survived as symbols of a way of life no longer lived. And what survived was that which on the one hand is most colorful and on the other hand the least difficult.
The spiritual danger here is that little by little one begins to understand religion itself as a system of symbols and customs rather than to understand the latter as a challenge to spiritual renewal and effort. More effort goes into preparing Lenten dishes or Easter baskets than into fasting and participation in the spiritual reality of Easter. This means that as long as customs and traditions are not connected again with the total religious world view which produced them, as long as symbols are not taken seriously, the Church will remain disconnected from life and have no power over life. Instead of symbolizing our “rich heritage,” we must start integrating it into our real life.
To take Lent seriously means then that we will consider it first of all on the deepest possible level—as a spiritual challenge which requires a response, a decision, a plan, a continuous effort. It is for this reason, as we know, that the weeks of preparation for Lent were established by the Church. This is the time for the response, for the decision and the planning. And the best and easiest way here is to follow the Church’s guidance—be it only by meditating on the five Gospel themes offered to us on the five Sundays of the pre-Lenten season: that of desire (Zacchaeus), of humility (Publican and Pharisee), of the return from exile (Prodigal Son), of the judgment (Last Judgment), and of forgiveness (Forgiveness Sunday). These Gospel lessons are not merely to be listened to in church; the whole point is that they are to be “taken home” and meditated upon in terms of my life, my family situation, my professional obligations, my concern for material things, my relation to the concrete human beings with whom I live. If to this meditation one adds the prayer of that pre-Lenten season, “Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life…,”and Psalm 137—“By the rivers of Babylon…”—one begins to understand what it means to “feel with the Church” how a liturgical season colors the daily life.
It is also a good time to read a religious book. The purpose of this reading is not only to increase our knowledge about religion; it is mainly to purify our mind from all that which usually fills it. It is simply incredible how crowded our minds are with all kinds of cares, interests, anxieties, and impressions, and how little control we have over that crowd. Reading a religious book, concentrating our attention on something entirely different from the usual contents of our thinking, creates by itself another mental and spiritual atmosphere. These are not “recipes”—there may be other ways of preparing oneself for Lent. The important point is that we look at Lent as it were from a distance, as something coming to us or even perhaps sent to us by God Himself, as a chance for a change, for renewal, for deepening, and that we take that forthcoming chance seriously, so that we may be ready to make ours—be it only in a small way— the words of the Great Prokeimenon which inaugurates Lent:
Turn not away Thy face from Thy servant, for I am afflicted….
~Adapted From Father Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha