On the Beginning of the Great Fast
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes at Forgiveness Vespers at the start of Great Lent on Sunday, March 13, 2016
I always look forward to this night because it is so beautiful, so quiet, so peaceful, so instructive. We have begun the great fast again, and I've been thinking about it: every year we go through the Fast, we reach Pascha, we have a great celebration, and then we start life all over again as if we hadn't had Lent and Pascha at all.
So, what is the point of Great Lent? Is it just to impose upon ourselves some kind of new discipline, some extraordinary, unique, spiritual practice that we forget when we leave it? I think Lent really isn't about that. I think Lent is about helping us to understand how to develop a spiritual life that we can carry with us all year around. Not that we have to fast like monks all year around. We can't do that, we're not monks; we don't have that community.
But we can develop the spirituality that is reminiscent of Lent, an inward-looking spirituality, where we start to care for the condition of our souls, as much as we care for the condition of our outward lives. A balanced life is what Lent is supposed to be about. A balancing with the pivot of our souls looking both inward and outward.
We have the prayer of St. Ephraim which is really a beautiful prayer, one that we should meditate on throughout the entirety of Lent and beyond. There is also another prayer which I find most helpful, something I am going to be meditating on for the entirety of Lent.
It's from St. Francis of Assisi, who in my opinion is a saint, even though he came after the schism of course. But you all know this prayer, but listen to the words. This is what Lent is about.
"Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy."
Not only to those outside of us, but to the least of the brethren inside of us.
"O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
and it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
I'm going to be thinking about that all Lent, and I hope that you might join me in that meditation. Tonight, we are about to anoint ourselves not with ashes, as our brothers and sisters in the West, but with humility, by an act of forgiveness that opens the door to the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us. Without forgiveness, we cannot enter that Kingdom. We carry too great of a burden to go through the eye of the needle. So, tonight, as much as we possibly can, we are going to lay down those burdens, so that we can begin the journey, both inward and outward, of Great Lent to Blessed and Holy Pascha.
As you know, our practices will begin here with me. You don't have to do a full prostration if you don't have the strength to do that. A metanoia, reach to the ground, make the sign of the cross is fine. If that is too much, it doesn't matter. Just a bow and then you say, "forgive me, my brother or my sister, for my sins." And the answer is, "the Lord forgives, and I do too" because we have to join in as well.