We cannot understand the significance of this season of Lent unless we understand the centrality of Easter to the Christian faith. As early as the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers realized that the Christian faith rises or falls on the Resurrection of Jesus. To the Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost, Peter said Christ had been raised from the dead and “exalted at the right hand of God.” The Holy Spirit, he said, had been poured out as a result.
After his conversion, the apostle Paul continued the theme. “If Christ has not been raised,” he wrote to the Corinthians, “then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins.” Without the Resurrection, then, Christian faith and ministry are worthless, and the human position is hopeless. Not surprisingly, then, the Feast of the Resurrection—Easter, or in Greek, pascha—stands at the center of the liturgical calendar. It has understandably been called the Feast of Feasts.
In its wisdom, the church has long prepared for great feasts with a fast of some length. One of two great poles of the calendar is the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas, and Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world with the Nativity Fast. Fitting then, that the Feast of Feasts is preceded by the fast of fasts: Great Lent, which western churches call Lent.
A longer treatment of the Lenten season lies outside the scope of this essay, but we can provide some essential context with a quick aside about the fast. Churches in both east and west observe Lent for 40 days before Easter. The length of time recalls the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, contending with Satan. It also evokes the 40 years of Israel’s wandering, during which the people learned absolute dependence upon God. The form of Lent was well established by the fourth century, and the “forty days” are mentioned at the Council of Nicea (325). Briefly, the season provides the church with a season of repentance and spiritual growth ahead of Easter.
Both east and west observe Lent, but their approaches to the season differ. Both see it as a time of repentance and preparation. Both recognize the great potential for spiritual transformation during Lent. The days that lead into Lent provide some insight to the churches’ differing focuses.
02. Ash Wednesday
In the western church, the first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. Christians typically begin their fasting or Lenten sacrifice on this day, and they attend a special service. There, the minister places ashes on the heads of worshipers, sometimes by sprinkling, but more often by marking their foreheads with a cross. The ashes traditionally come from burning the palm branches used during the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The minister accompanies this action with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” or more recently, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Though the church observed Lent earlier, the sixth-century pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) was responsible for Ash Wednesday. Gregory moved the beginning of the season to create a 40-day period, and he imposed ashes to remind worshipers of their mortality and dependence upon God.
03. The Eastern Approach to Lent
While the western church sets aside just one day to prepare for Lent, the eastern church’s “on-ramp” extends to four Sundays, which draw their primary emphasis from the day’s gospel reading. The first, the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, the monk of the Eastern church writes, “could be thought of as a gate . . . which opens into that atmosphere of repentance, to that life of repentance which Lent should bring to each one of us.”The Year of Grace of the Lord, p. 110.
The second recalls the Prodigal Son’s return home, though the focus is unmistakably the selfless and forgiving father. He demonstrates the extravagant grace God grants the repentant sinner, which is far more than a simple return to the way things were.
The third Sunday turns to the last judgment, in the form of Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Those who experience God’s grace are expected to extend that same divine grace to those on the margins of society.
04. Forgiveness Sunday
Finally, we come to Forgiveness Sunday, the Sunday before Lent begins on Monday. Like Ash Wednesday in the west, Forgiveness Sunday centers on repentance and humility, providing worshipers the opportunity both to give and to receive forgiveness from others.
Following the liturgy, the entire congregation lines the church and then moves toward one another in a rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. Each encounter is an exchange of forgiveness where the words “Forgive me, I am a sinner” are answered by “God forgives.” The rite involves more than words, however. The person asking for forgiveness bows in humility, and she receives a kiss of reconciliation in return.
Such a rite may seem stranger to western eyes than the imposition of ashes. But forgiveness, as the Orthodox priest Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes, “is both the beginning of and the proper condition for the Lenten season.” He goes on to say that we can be deceived into thinking that being nice and polite—or simply not mean—we are loving others as God commands. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The rite of forgiveness “makes us realize…that our entire relationship to other men is wrong [and] makes us feel that mutual ‘recognition’ which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.”Introduction to the booklet, Forgiveness Sunday Vespers, by Fr. Alexander Schmemann (Accessed at https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr-alexander-schmemann/forgiveness-sunday) In other words, practicing forgiveness in this way shows us the effects of the Fall, the brokenness of our condition, and the real promise of reconciliation that God promises in the gospel. And participants essentially are saying, “I see you, I know you, because I see myself. And God has reconciled us both to one another and to himself.”
Fasting, too, comes to the fore during these Sundays, beginning with the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. There, Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christians should not be ruled by food or impurity. The next week (the last judgment) is Meat-fare Sunday, and the fast begins on the next day with abstinence from meat for all who are able. The day after Forgiveness Sunday, also called Cheese-fare Sunday, adds eggs and dairy to the fast, and Lent begins.
As you approach Lent, regardless of the church tradition in which you find yourself, keep the purpose of these preparatory days in view. Great Lent invites us to remember our mortality, and to repent not only of our outward sins, but also of our tendency toward independence and self-sufficiency. (This is one of the reasons for the fast.) Like the patriarch Job, we lament our brokenness and sin. But we do not simply perform repentance for a distant and capricious king’s approval. We repent based on a near and gracious king’s self-sacrifice. We might begin the season in ashes—real or metaphorical—but we journey toward Easter not looking backward at our sins but forward with faith to the promise of Christ’s resurrection—and our own.
05. Practices to Consider
- If Forgiveness Sunday is out of your tradition, consider finding and attending a service. It may be a good idea to contact the parish priest first.
- Practicing forgiveness can begin in your own household. Explain the rite of forgiveness (you’ll find Schmemann’s introduction [https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr-alexander-schmemann/forgiveness-sunday] helpful). Then simply ask and offer forgiveness to each family member, reminding them of the reality of God’s love and mercy.
- Contemplation of beautiful things can clarify our understanding of what forgiveness means and costs. Here are a couple suggestions for contemplation:
- Paintings: The Prodigal Son’s return. Rembrandt’s [https://fineartamerica.com/featured/return-of-the-prodigal-son-rembrandt-harmenszoon-van-rijn.html] is the most famous, but also consider those of Doré [http://sedition.com/img/pd/dore/075.jpg] and Tissot [https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-prodigal-son-in-modern-life-james-jacques-joseph-tissot.html].
- Songs: “Deeper Still,” by David Wilcox; “Boundless Love,” by John Prine.
- Films: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “The Straight Story” and “Babette’s Feast.”
- Novel: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, Godric, by Frederick Buechner, and Atticus, by Ron Hansen.
Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons