Great Lent is the time for inventory and recovery of living the Orthodox Christian Faith. The period stores all the treasures accumulated in the history of the Orthodox Church. It provides us with the opportunity to review our living faith and correct it if needed. Therefore, if someone wants to know about the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is also the best means to learn the living faith. All other information should follow after the Lenten experience.
Great Lent provides us with all the understandings of theological notions found in text books for catechumens and academic books on theology in an empirical way. Beginning from the notion of incarnation, deification, transfiguration, ecstatic experience, and finally ascesis are found in the experience of Great Lent.
Especially, we all should not miss the fact that Saint Maximus the Confessor's essential notion of man who lives in the process of being, well being and eternal being is fully materialized in the process of Great Lent. Therefore, it is a pity if the experience of Great Lent is only introduced as something that we do as Orthodox Christians before Pascha or considered as the period of observing strict dietary regulations.
On the calendar, Great Lent introduces a sense of direction. Each Sunday, before and during Great Lent are set as mile stones towards the celebration of Pascha. Every Sunday provides us with a theme to work on. The Sunday readings remind us to check if we still have the points clarified in them. They also encourage us to recover what is lost so far. Spending each week and Sunday as a mile stone for the journey towards Pascha, we learn that we are working on our souls in a progressive manner. The basic stages proposed by Saint Maximus the Confessor is the basis of our growth in Christ and also based on the worlds of Saint Paul who said that we should grow into the stature of Christ.
The proposed three stages by Saint Maximus are not distinctively separate but at least summarize each state of human growth. Our simple state of being is the beginning and basis of life. The next is the state of well being. We learn to do good. We acquire a sense of virtues. Practicing virtues keeps us at this level. Hopefully, in the end, we may reach an eternal state which can be only achieved by living the words of Christ to a maximum extent. Great Lent is an opportunity to experience this dynamic growth of ourselves into the stature of Christ.
For didactic purposes, our growth is presented in Great Lent as if it is a journey in time. In a sense, it is in time because we live in time, but we do not grow according to the calendar. Although Great Lent gives us a clear vision of recovering ourselves or growth into the stature of Christ, we should not fool ourselves by thinking that we can only achieve a certain state by following the calendar or Lenten practice. Great Lent give us the basic view of our life as growth towards God. What we learn during this period should be incorporated into our daily life, becoming our attitude of life. The things Great Lent offers through hymns, prayers, and readings of the Holy Scriptures should be incarnated through our Lenten effort.
As we go through the Lenten calendar, we should be able to see things more clearly with the eyes of our heart. We should be able to orient ourselves more towards God. We should be able to bless everyone around us and our life with good thoughts and deeds.
By the time Pascha arrives at our door step, we should be able to see that the Kingdom of God is not somewhere in a distant future but where we resurrect into after dying to our old self today. On the day of Pascha, the Gospel of death and resurrection of Christ should shine in us this way.
Without being reminded, as soon as we hear the word, Great Lent, concerns for its dietary aspect come to our mind. Although if we remain at this level, Great Lent becomes just another religious custom of fasting, the dietary concerns can not be ignored.
Our aim of fasting is to recover the joy of Pascha in our life. If we miss this point, Great Lent becomes a long period of torture not being able to eat meat and dairy products. In such a case, Pascha unfortunately becomes a celebration of being able to eat them again. The Paschal greetings beginning from the night of Pascha remains only in the services we attend because there is no basic Lenten effort by keeping the fast in daily life.
The joy of Pascha is rooted in our resurrection in Christ in daily life. Great Lent is the time we find out how dead we are to God and heavenly life. When we find out how dead we are, we will be moved to the extent that we should do something about it like the Prodigal Son did. The dietary fast gives us this opportunity of finding out how dead we are to God and heavenly life. By fasting, we can also raise ourselves to return home. We begin walking back heavenly home whose door was finally opened by Christ at the time of the Death and Resurrection of Christ.
If we are deeply in love with ourselves and this world, the sound of the word Great Lent already makes some of us gloomy because of the Lenten diet. The more dead we are to God and heavenly life, the more dreadful Great Lent sounds. Our denial mode is activated and we begin to deal with ourselves either how to make an excuse not do it or how we can minimalize our participation.
We choose to fast from certain kinds of food, namely the food which provides us with strength so that we will find out our misbelief that we live by bread alone. Our strength is recovered only when we start living with God according to His words. Forgetting this fact, some of us try to compensate by eating double. Each time when we encounter with a situation to eat or not eat the items which we fast from, we go through a struggle of dealing and a negotiation with ourselves. In this act of dealing in mind and heart, we find that we do the same thing with other people, things and most of all with ourselves.
We also find that the degree of being influenced by other people and things around us. The practice of having a dietary fast is very simple but some of us are even troubled by it daily at meal time. Sometimes, we even consider our reactions against other people or things as ourselves. We realize that our thoughts easily take over ourselves and act accordingly. Fast is the fastest way to find out about how much we are involved with ourselves instead of heavenly life.
The whole process of reacting against other people and things around us makes us busy with ourselves making transactions in our heart to gain profit for ourselves. Here, we should remember the time when Christ drove the merchants away from the temple. We make our body into the temple of our self business transaction. A simple practice of dietary fast shows us how dead we are to God and heavenly life because of the business transaction in our mind.
When we recover peace by learning to give up our busy business transaction within ourselves through the act of dietary fasting, we recover the original state of ourselves like the time when we were called into this world by God. The true journey back to God and heavenly life begins from there. Through dietary fasting, we should come to the point where an infant in mother's or father's arms is breathing in peace. When dietary fasting places us at the place where we are quite content with what is given from God without anything extra, our sincere communication with our own life and God begins. That is the time we raise ourselves to walk back to God and heavenly life. In return, we receive overwhelming strength from God. Unless we go through this Lenten dietary experience, we will not quite be able to approach the core of Paschal joy because there is no room in us for God to bring the Paschal joy.