Emmitsburg Council of Churches


Last Minute Lenten Thoughts

Just in case you feel as though you have not properly prepared for Easter at this late Lenten Date, here are some thoughts and disciplines you might like to consider. Ideally, as a tribute to our resurrected and ever present Lord, you will initiate some new forms of devotion based on the themes of Lent. May Christ our Lord bless you as you seek to live each day for him and in service to others. Peace, Vicar Jon.

The intent of this research paper is to explore several different aspects of the Lenten Season that will enable Christians to grow in their embodiment of the faith and to present the time of Lent as a time of preparation for celebrating the Paschal Feast at the resurrection of Christ Jesus from the tomb. Whether you are a long-term member of the Church or if this Lenten season is your first season of introduction into the Christian faith, there are valuable lessons and experiences to be undertaken during Lent. Within this report I will draw on the experience of the Patristic Fathers and early Church history that reflects the ancient traditions practiced, which enlighten and bring a unified understanding of the faith to all members in the church. It is my contention that Christians living in the dawn of the twenty-first century have a great need to engage themselves in tangible examples of devotion to God and exercises of faith through practice. 

This is true because of the highly competitive atmosphere that prevails in today’s modern media culture. The Christian faith has a great need for its adherents to become more intensely aware of their self-assertion and embodiment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Undergoing a tangible experience of the faith can provide the means necessary for Christians develop their spirituality in powerful ways. Faith that is tested is able, in its humility, to shine as a bright light amidst the noise and tumult of the world we live in. In order to accomplish this “tested faith” there is the need of setting aside time for significant reflection on one’s individual trueness to the faith as well as the need to contemplate the meaning of belonging as a member of Christ’s mystical body--the Church.

The season of Lent should be a time of disciplined excitement. Each new day should bring us new words for prayer and new challenges to undertake in the Holy Scriptures. The goal of Lent is to experience a deepening of meaning and relationship with the risen Christ. In order to obtain this freshening of our faith the church has instituted observances, times set aside and active means of discipline by which we may remind ourselves that we are in a time of preparation for the Paschal announcement, “Christ is risen!” Some traditional forms of preparatory observance have included: “Abstention from flesh, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) and the Apostolic Constitutions (5.18) mandate the eating of bread, salt, water, and boiled vegetables only. Some Christians had only one light meal toward the end of the day. Fasting rules relaxed after the ninth century. The Eastern Church retains both the duration and the strictness of fasting of the early centuries. The fast was a period of penitence and spiritual preparation for the baptized Christians and a period of instruction for the catechumens, as the Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) indicate.” Intentional engagement in the penitential season of Lent is a good way to balance the life of faith within the powerful cultural currents in which we live.

As an explicative against being drawn down the rushing stream of the world’s torrents
St. Leo (mid-fifth century) recommends alternative forms of fasting. “‘Our fast,’ he declares, ‘does not consist chiefly of mere abstinence from food, nor are dainties withdrawn from our bodily appetites with profit, unless the mind is recalled from wrong-doing and the tongue restrained from slandering. . . . For it is not enough that the substance of our flesh should be reduced, if the strength of the soul be not also developed.’ Finally, he urges:’ let us enter upon the celebration of the solemn fast, not with barren abstinence from food . . . but in bountiful benevolence.’” p.9

Thus, we are encouraged to enter into a fast (or fasts) of our self-indulgence. By this teaching from St. Leo, we can learn about fulfilling “self denial” by giving materially or through the medium of our physical talents and skills offered in service to others. Through this proactive form of fasting we can make a deliberate entrance onto the path of service that Jesus calls us to in caring for others. We will be most truly engaging in this fast when the beneficiary of our self denial is someone we have never served before or something, such as an animate or inanimate being from the natural world, who has need of protection of restoration in order to flourish as God intended from the beginning of creation. Our service to the stranger becomes a form of devotion and adoration of Jesus who suffered and died for all of humanity and all of creation.

Lent is also an intentional period for personal and corporate lament for sins and waywardness from Christ. St. Leo maintains that “‘we should remain in God’s sight always the same, as we ought to be found on the Easter feast itself.’ But since few actually do so, ‘The Divine Providence has with great beneficence taken care that the discipline of the forty days should heal us and restore purity of our minds, during which the faults of other times might be redeemed by pious acts and removed by chaste fasting.” This is a serious business, the overcoming of temptations and sins during Lent. The intention of the Christian is to place a special emphasis on works of piety, which might be justified in the name of the cross. Luke’s gospel instructs the church to live out the Lenten fast daily as Jesus tells us, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

St. Leo exhorts the would be Lenten disciples to prepare to do battle in order to maintain a disciplined life, “‘As we approach then, dearly beloved, the beginning of Lent, which is a time for the more careful serving of the Lord, because we are, as it were, entering into a kind of contest in good works, let us prepare our souls for fighting with temptations, and understand that the more zealous we are for our salvation, the more determined must be the assaults of our opponents.’”
Thus, we should remain vigilant to take note how easily our good intentions are undermined by the enemy of our souls. We must redevote our little works to Christ, and entrust our weak selves fully to him as a continual process of the Lenten discipline. Remaining humble and disowning our self-righteous piety is always a struggle, one that John Cassian will provide a corrective for as will be found further on in this writing.

The forty days of Lent are also an exciting time of entering or reentering into the commitment of faith by following the historic tradition of the Church through the ages. From the writings of John Cassian (495 c.e.), also known as “The Blessed Cassian,” leader of monastic orders, we gain a sense of the prevalent cultural condition for Christians during the time of the early fifth century. Cassian explains about the importance of the observance of Lent due in part to an increasing level of laxity as Christianity has become absorbed into secular culture:

“But when the multitude of believers began day by day to decline from that apostolic fervor, and to look after their own wealth, and not to portion it out for the good of all the faithful in accordance with the arrangement of the apostles, but having an eye to their own private expenses, tried not only to keep it but actually to increase it, not content with following the example of Ananias and Sapphira, then it seemed good to all the priests that men who were hampered by worldly cares, and almost ignorant . . . of abstinence and contrition, should be recalled to the pious duty by a fast canonically enjoined, and be constrained by the necessity of paying the legal tithes, as this certainly would be good for the weak brethren and could not do any harm to the perfect who were living under the grace of the gospel and by their voluntary devotion going beyond the law, so as to succeed in attaining to the blessedness which the Apostle speaks of: “For sin shall not have dominion over you’ for ye are not under the law but under grace."

In spite of the unsalvific nature of good deeds, we are yet compelled to act and enact our good works as a reasonable response to the good work accomplished by Christ the crucified One. Besides of which, our adopting an active form of Lenten discipline will become an important step toward journeying with Christ to the Cross. While keeping watch with Jesus during Lent is in fact an experience wherein Jesus remains present with us (after all, we are living and practicing a post resurrection faith!), Lenten disciples need to keep a sober check on the inherent invasion of darkness that becomes increasingly present as Jesus is betrayed into the hands of sinful men and women. The presence of evil and darkness must be balanced with our present hope in the resurrected Christ as we contemplate alternative forms of fasting. We should seek to challenge ourselves or undertake the instruction of a Lenten guide such as the pastor or other spiritual leader who can point out our weaknesses and suggest some good practice to deepen our faith and commitment to Jesus. In the ancient monastic orders such as the Benedictines, it was the abbot who acted as a type of spiritual taskmaster. The monks were bound to his orders and to the disciplines that he prescribed.

From The Rule of St. Benedict we hear that “the whole life of a monk ought to be a continual Lent.” However, St. Benedict admits that such intense devotion would be uncommon amongst even the most faithful and clarifies his statement by saying, “I advise everyone, during the holy season of Lent, to practice particular purity of life, and redeem their negligence of other times. This will be rightly performed if we control our faults, and betake ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence. . . . In Lent everyone must of his own accord add something above his usual practice; for example, by offering more prayer in private, by taking less than usual in food and drink, so that everyone may, with comfort in the Holy Ghost, make a voluntary sacrifice to God of something beyond what is normally appointed him. This means that each shall deprive his body of something in eating, drinking, sleeping, talking and the little liberties of merriment and discourse; and he is to look forward, with a pure joy of spirit, to the holy feast of Easter. . . .” [And of course!] “Everything must be done with the abbot’s approval.”

Fasting may take the form of good works or intercessory prayer -- preferably for someone that we do not know and will never be in a position of paying us back for the kindness. Praying for one’s explicit enemies may prove to be a most useful discipline and a valid form of contemplating Christ’s prayers for his persecutors and executioners at Golgotha: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Cassian instructs the monks under his care that their fasting must be kept pure and not carried out as though it were a form of cursing and temptation -- for this is blasphemous. “There is too another evil sort of vexation which would not be worth mentioning were it not that we know it is allowed by some of the brethren who, when they have been vexed or enraged actually abstain persistently from food, [and in such a state do not] feel fasts even for two days.” In this instance the fasting is in actuality an expression of rage and anger to which Cassian responds, “Wherein they are plainly guilty of the sin of sacrilege, as out of the devils own rage they endure fasts which ought especially be offered to God alone out of desire for humility of heart and purification from sin.” Cassian then adds Deuteronomy 32:17, “They sacrificed to devils and not to God; to gods whom they knew not.”

Thus, we may take instruction from Cassian’s teaching that our fasting, whether for our personal purification and enlightenment or for some great cause that comes to burden our consciousness or is raised to a high level of concern as we consider the state of our world in light of Christ’s conflagration with the Temple authorities or his rebuking the disciples, in all of these things we must discipline our mind in fasting, in order that we may offer up our human angers and frustrations to God and purify our thoughts such that our concerns are indeed godly. We must be careful in the intention of our hearts that we have not allowed our “selves” to become the central theme of appeasement, but the emotions and the intellect must be transferred to God as a burnt offering -- like that exemplified in Leviticus: “Then the priest shall turn the whole [offering] into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9b). We may also gain instruction from the New Testament equivalent where we are instructed by the Apostle Peter, “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). These forms of devotion and self-sacrifice make good models for the giving up of ourselves to God and in service to others during Lent -- an acceptable practice of remaining with Christ in the Garden, of not denying him outside of the wall when the rooster crows, and of staying nearby as he is in agony on the cross. Thus, we offer the little gifts of our time, energy, influence and devotion during Lent.

Athanasius, St. of Alexandria, (293-373) tells us that being an adherent to the call of Lenten discipleship is to be as an Israelite who must purify him or herself before entering into the Temple of Jerusalem. In this short discourse of Athanasius, all Christians are challenged to consider the extent of our willingness to prepare ourselves for greeting the resurrected Christ on Easter Sunday: “Let us first be purified and purged, so that when we depart hence, having been careful of fasting, we may be able to ascend to the upper chamber with the Lord, to sup with Him; and may be partakers of the joy which is in heaven. In no other manner shall we be able to go up to Jerusalem, and to earn the Passover, but as we apply ourselves to the fast of forty days.” Elsewhere Athanasius writes in a fervent tone about the importance of fasting as a church wide practice, the text that follows even suggests a form of fellowship and unity that although painful for the forty days, serves as a reminder to all Christians that fasting during Lent is a trademark discipline for Christians and all should participate equally: “For I have written this to each one -- that thou shouldst proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast; to the end that, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should not become a laughing-stock, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days.

For if we do not fast, because the Letter is [only] then read, it is right that we should take away this pretext also, and that it be read before the fast of forty days, so that they may not make this an excuse for neglect of fasting. Also, when it is read, they may be able to learn respecting the fast. But, O, our beloved, whether in this way or any other, exhort and teach them to fast forty days. For it is even a disgrace that when all the world does this, those alone who are in Egypt, instead of fasting, should find their pleasure. For even I also, being grieved because men make a laughing-stock of us for this, have been constrained thus to write to thee. When thou, therefore, receivest the letters, and hast read them and given the exhortation, write to me in return, our beloved, that I also may rejoice upon learning it.”

One final alternative is to think and act as one of the early Desert Fathers, Abba Paul the Great. “It was said of Abba Paul that he spent the whole of Lent eating only one measure of lentils, drinking one small jug of water, and working at one single basket, weaving it and unweaving it, living alone until the feast. Abba Paul said, “Keep close to Jesus.” Even though Abba Paul’s Lenten discipline is most likely unattainable for average Christians, yet we can meditate on his extreme asceticism and consider how his tremendous slowness of pace, deepness of thought, and depth of intention might enable us to slow our pace in order to contemplate more fully and completely what it means to spend each day of Lent attempting to understand and working through the meaning of “Keeping close to Jesus”-- hour by hour and day by day.


Read more writings of Pastor Jon