The word “lent” comes from a root which means “discipline”, so that “Lent” is the Season of Self-Discipline. Its imagery is marked, above all, by two things: the colour purple and the practice of fasting. The word “fast” comes from a root meaning “to be firm”, “to be strong”, and especially, “to not be loose”, and so to stay together. It is this last sense which gives the word “fast” the nuance of “swiftness”, because it means that one stays close to what one is chasing. To “fast”, then, has a meaning which complements that of “Lent”: it means that one remains strong and sticks to one’s goal.
Fasting is a major spiritual practice. There is also a great deal of evidence for the health values of fasting. Anyone who disdains fasting is losing the opportunity to practice one of the most important of all spiritual techniques. What is essential, as I have often written, is to not forget the reason why one is fasting. When one is hungry, but remembers that it is not yet 12 noon and so cannot eat, one should not just think: “Okay, no food just yet,” although even this can help to strengthen one’s will power, and obtain health benefits. Rather, one should think: “No food just yet, I am fasting to do penance, to strengthen my will power, and to remind myself that I wish to change for the better.”
Fasting has always been of the greatest spiritual importance in the Maronite Church. I shall return to the practice of fasting on its own, but first some notes: we Maronites used to have a forty day fast before Christmas, as well as before Easter, but a Council at Ba3oofa cut it down to twenty days, and from there it fell to fifteen, and now it stands at nine. Then, in addition, there were twenty-one day fasts as follows:
- The Fast of Nineveh (which prepares for the Great Lent)
- The Fast of the Apostles (that is, the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on 29 June)
- The Fast of the Virgin (15 August)
- The Fast of the Cross (14 September)
A twenty-one day fast means a fast over three weeks. As there is never fasting on Sundays, and the only Saturday on which we fast is the Saturday of Light (the day before Easter Sunday), this meant that over those twenty one days, there would be fifteen days of fasting. In addition, there is a six-day fast, that of the Week of Sufferings (Passion Week). The Lenten Fast was once sandwiched between two others. That is, there were once three consecutive fasts: the Fast of Nineveh, named after the fast in the Book of Jonah (three weeks); then the Lenten Fast (six weeks); and finally that of the Week of Sufferings.
The period which is least well understood is that of the Fast of Nineveh. Today, we still keep the three Sundays from that Fast: the Sunday of Deceased Priests; the Sunday of the Righteous and the Just; and the Sunday of the Faithful Departed. However, we have removed the fast from those weeks. If you consider it, you can see that these weeks when the priest wears purple and we commemorate the deceased, do belong more to a penitential period than they do to the Epiphany (with which they have nothing to do).
In the Orthodox tradition, on “Meatfaring Saturday”, which falls in this period of preparation for Lent, they have a memorial Mass for those who have had no proper funeral. Some people perish at sea, or in the desert, or in other circumstances where the body is not recovered. This day is to remember them, and offer our prayers on their behalf. It is not the same as in our tradition, but it is clearly related and analogous.
The Three Sundays of Commemoration
The Gospels for each of these three Sundays are:
(1) Sunday of Deceased Priests. The parable of the good and faithful slave (Luke 12:42-48).
(2) The Sunday of the Righteous and the Just. The parable of the King’s Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)
(3) The Sunday of the Faithful Departed. The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
The Theme of these Gospels of Commemoration
It is notable that these three Gospel passages have to do with the judgment of the dead: the time when Jesus rewards all people according to their deeds. Sometimes one hears that one is judged according to faith, or even that one is elected (predestined) to be saved or to be damned. This is most definitely not a lesson which one could take from the teaching of Jesus. In the first Gospel He speaks of the servant who knows and executes his master’s will. In the second, He speaks of what people did and omitted to do. In the third, the message is that people should listen to “Moses and the prophets”, that is, to divine revelation through the scriptures (which were, incidentally, what we now call the Old Testament).
The third gospel, the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, is interesting because Father Abraham does not specifically rebuke the Rich Man on the grounds that he was heartless. Nor is Lazarus said to have been virtuous (after all, beggars can be immoral, too). But this is implied, and it correctly understood to have been part of the teaching, because of what is said about sending Lazarus back to warn his brothers. In the context, it can mean nothing but that he knows he had been selfish, and he wants to warn his brothers to be charitable.
Because there is a week between each of these Sunday Gospels, we do not often think about the connection between them, but when they are taken together, this eschatological or “end times and judgment” theme is preponderant. This is a very fitting introduction for the Season of Lent because that is going to lead us through five stages:
- Examination of Conscience or seeing where we have gone wrong
- Mortification or Penance
- Eternal Life or the Second Death
Now, stage 1 really presupposes, or includes in itself, that one already knows the faith to a degree sufficient to make an examination of conscience. It also presupposes that one can see oneself well enough to be able to objectively see where one has gone wrong. Obviously, we can always know more and we can always be more impartial to ourselves. And as we see our sins better, we also come to learn more, to realise that areas of the faith were more important than we had thought, and to then see deeper and further.
I can take one very practical example of what I mean by this, because this has to do with the entire Lenten journey. That is this: the sin of pride. Pride is, I believe, probably the least confessed of all the major sins. People can often see more trivial or superficial matters, such as swearing, laziness, bad temper, gossip, sins of the flesh and so on. To an extent this is because the culture we live in is more focussed upon these. But I wonder if it is not also because pride is so unflattering to our own self-image. Yet, people often see the signs or symptoms of pride. They may, however, need a spiritual adviser or director who can guide them to seeing how pride is often at the root of the other issues (e.g. without pride perhaps I would not swear so much, or get so angry with others).
Also, when one considers the terms of the Gospels, one also sees that they have to do with humility and penance. Humility is, of course, the virtue which is opposite to pride. There is a great deal more to this, and in the next conference we shall begin to probe into this, but to offer one clue: the work of the Lord which is performed through these miracles is a priestly work. To really enter into the spirit of these miracles and their story, we shall need to learn very much more about the priesthood, and its essence, which is mediation between heaven and earth, or between God and man.
So if we take all this material together, we have the following picture:
1) Commemoration of the Dead for Three Weeks
2) Penance and Mortification for Six Weeks
3) Identification with the sufferings of the Lord for one week
4) The Resurrection of the Dead.
The entire Lenten journey to Easter, then, is really from death to life. And in the course of that journey, we are shown many and various aspects of spiritual death. We are only ever invited: you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. You can take the Lebanese to the midan but you can’t make them drink the coffee.
The Significance of the Entry into Lent
Obviously, the most important aspect of the entry into Lent is the words of the priest when he draws the Cross of Christ on our foreheads with ashes: “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
This is the knot which ties together the entirety of the Season and also of its preparation. We have just been commemorating the three weeks of the deceased, when there is Cana Sunday, and then on Ash Monday this reminder that we too shall be among the deceased for who we have been praying.
When the priest signs your forehead with the Sign of the Cross, he is drawing the map of the entire Lenten journey upon you: for that map is from the ashes of Lent to the life of victory over the Cross at Easter.
Joseph Azize, 17 February 2018