The Church offers us Lent (or Great Fast) as the grand and joyful stage set for spiritual struggles. It calls us to begin this period with great joy and eagerness in order to work spiritually harder on the virtues, while offering this time as a present to the Lord through our repentance and our spiritual struggle.
We hear “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (B Corinthians 6, 12) during the vespers of Lent. This is the time favorable to the Lord, the time for repentance and redemption. Lent is distinguished by the presence of the virtue of repentance, which attracts the grace of the Holy Spirit into people’s hearts. The Church sets forgiveness as the prerequisite of Lent, right from the very first day. Thus, the first vespers of Lent ( katanyktikos esperinos) are called the ‘vespers of forgiveness’. Just as Jesus said: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”(Matthew 6,14-15). One needs the presence of grace in order to wage any spiritual struggle.
Fasting during Lent is not a diet which one may follow just by sheer will for health reasons. Fasting here has a totally different purpose: the advent of grace in one’s heart, the avoidance of sin which kills one’s soul and the acquisition of divine illumination which leads one to the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, one needs the assistance and the presence of the Lord along with the physical struggle and the pain of fasting.
We offer forgiveness to each other so that through repentance and forgiveness, the Holy Spirit may enter our hearts, open our eyes and lead us to comprehend our sinfulness, turning us towards the Lord while seeking the forgiveness of our own sins as well. This whole spiritual struggle remains fruitless if it does not cause us to seek forgiveness and offer our repentance. It is repentance which really cleanses and develops our souls; the repentance which takes place in our hearts with pain and serious grief, in tears and with immense agony. Yet, it bears sweet fruits since it lifts the heavy load of sin off our shoulders. Then the Lord’s grace descends on us once again, regenerating us, lifting the burden of sin and giving us back the beauty of the ‘image’ as God had originally created us. This is the spiritual struggle of Lent; the struggle for repentance.
All means which we use in our spiritual regime, namely fasting, all night vigils, kneeling, reading , attending the numerous masses etc, aim to help our hearts feel compunction. They serve as serious blows to our cynical heart. This heart which has hardened because of sin and cannot shed a single tear for its numerous transgressions neither is able to feel any pain because it has turned away from the Lord, fractures and becomes softer by employing the ascetic regime offered by the Church. The tears of repentance spring from the fractures, cleansing, regenerating and illuminating us. Initially repentance blazes like a fire but then it turns into an illuminating light which sweetens man and informs him that Jesus is sweeter than anything else in the world.
Let us, therefore, launch this spiritual stage eagerly, without fear. He who feels fear will not be able to accomplish anything. The faint-hearted have no place in the Kingdom of God since they believe that their progress is up to them. They ignore the Lord’s power as well as St Paul’s saying: ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ (Philippians 4, 16). In other words, I can do anything but not because I rely on my own strength, but because the Lord is with me and strengthens me. As St John Chrysostom says we must begin the spiritual struggle with joy and enter the stage like lions with strength and precipitation, without fear or reservations that we may not succeed. The Lord is with us; He will not abandon us; He will strengthen us, insetad.
Give the Lord your good intention and you will receive from Him the strength to accomplish the task at hand: your salvation. This task is not only about fasting. If we are not able to fast as the Church stipulates it does not matter so much so long as we have the blessing of our spiritual father who will be able to accommodate our illness or our physical limitations. So, if we are not able to fast, is there anyone preventing us from humiliating ourselves or from showing repentance? One does not need to be young and vigorous in order to be humble, to avoid sin and keep his heart contrite. Everybody, whether they are young or old, healthy or sick, strong or weak, are able to preserve the grace of repentance in their hearts; the repentance which is born out of humility.
This is what the Lord wants from us: our heart. We will be able to give Him our heart if we are freed from the bondage of the various passions. Fasting is the first step towards acquiring this brave state which severs the bondage. Then we may bravely proceed with the spiritual effort towards getting rid of wickedness, cunningness and everything else which blemishes God’s image. Most importantly we ought to espouse the holy humility.
The humble one is able to repent, pray and acquire health for his body and soul. The proud cannot repent neither recognizes his condition. Since he does not feel that he needs God or anyone else, he never feels at fault; he is always right; he does not ask for forgiveness and he lives in a state of self-righteousness. Unfortunately though, he lives in the darkness caused by the absence of the Lord, since the Lord only lives in the hearts of sinners who repent and are humble and not in any hearts filled with pride. The Lord opposes the proud.
Let us therefore work harder on repentance along with fasting during this blessed time. Let us pray for this blessed condition of repentance, let us cry in front of the Lord and let us look for Him. Let us feel pain because He has loved us so much and yet we stay so far away from Him. This distance from the Lord ought to be the cause of pain and tears and agonizing prayer and make us yearning for God, our Father, to enter into our hearts. And we must also be certain that He will come into our hearts; He will console us and will let us experience His own love and our deliverance.
We do not harbor lies and conjectures, neither do we exhibit moralistic behavior in the Church. We are experiencing God, instead. The Lord is present in the Church and man is called to experience the Lord as the greatest experience of his life. All the Saints are themselves the proof that they have experienced the presence of the Lord. In the same way we will become true Christians if the Scriptures have indeed worked on us, bore fruit and transformed us into the temple of the Holy Spirit and God’s chosen vessel.
Metropolitan of Limassol, Athanasios (Excerpts from a homily)