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Over the past several years I have noticed an increase in the number of Protestants who desire to observe Lent but have no real training for how to do it. Now I am no authority on church matters, but in 15 years of being an Orthodox Christian I have learned a thing or two about Lent. We really do Lent. In our Lenten tradition we stop eating meat, dairy, eggs, fish, olive oil, and alcohol. We lessen our dependence on entertainment. We increase the number and length of our church services. The daily readings of the church, the tone of our music, and the prayers we say all change.

But don’t panic! My four point plan doesn’t look anything like that. Even we Orthodox ease into the more serious observances of Lent over the course of a lifetime. I hope you will indulge me as I share my thoughts on the main characteristics of Lent and how you can apply them to your life as you desire to prepare for Easter — the Resurrection of Christ.

Point 1: Choose something to give up that you will look forward to getting back at Easter.

This gets to the real heart of what it means to both fast and feast. You can’t have one without the other. Pick something to give up, or abstain from, that you particularly like and can anticipate celebrating its return joyfully at Easter. This is often food, but doesn’t need to be. The important part here is that you do it every day. Its absence colors your Lenten season and brightens your Easter season. Choose it, lay it aside, and meet it again at the resurrection.

A note on food: If, like me, gluttony is one of your big failings, it can be tempting to use Lent as a sort of diet period. Sometimes the results of abstaining from a food may result in weight loss, but do yourself a favor and put the scale away. Don’t also start an exercise program. Lent is a time when you dedicate your sacrifice to God. If you can’t add, “to the glory of God” to the end of the sentence, “I’m giving up _____” then pick something else.

Point 2: Cultivate a good habit.

Ideally your good habit would be church related. Maybe go to more church services, give money to charity, volunteer somewhere, or motivate yourself to do something else you have been meaning to do. It could also be home related, as your home is really a little church. As with Point 1, you just want to make sure you do it every day and with an eye toward Easter. (See above: this is not the time to start an exercise program.)

Point 3: Eliminate a bad habit.

This is what we all want to do for Point 1 anyway, so I’m putting it in here. Lent gives us an opportunity to examine our inner selves and figure out what we want to get rid of so we can live a more Godly life. You can use this time like a sort of boot camp. Christ endured spitting, scourging, humiliation, and the cross for you. Keep your eyes on that cross and let’s root out some bad habits so we can receive Him joyfully at Easter.

Point 4: Read something lovely or edifying.

While you’re doing your difficult inner work you are going to need to fill those newly emptied spaces with something beautiful. I like church writers for this time, but classic literature can work, too. Just make sure it is beautiful and true.

A note on community: Ideally Lent is celebrated as a community. It is wonderful when a group of people are all fasting the same way and can encourage each other. But even when that is the case, the real work happens in each person’s heart and is a very individual effort. If you find yourself fasting alone this year, know that God sees your effort and will sustain you. Know also that you’re not really alone — there are many of us out here doing the same work and seeking the same reward. You can do it!

The best part of following a plan for Lent is that when Easter comes you can feast! Celebrate the day with whatever you gave up. Enjoy the fruits of your newly cultivated habit. Notice the lessening of the habit you rooted out and the increase of beauty in your inner life. In the Orthodox Church we celebrate Easter (what we call Pascha) for 40 days, so there is a real balance between Lent and the Easter season. Once you’ve got the hang of Lent the real trick is figuring out how to meaningfully feast for 40 days! But that’s another blog post.

 

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Today I am going to post a lengthy transcript from a podcast by Fr. Evan Armatas of St Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado. This is an excerpt from his Introduction to Mark (starting around minute 26) that particularly struck me. I transcribed it myself and left out some of his side commentary that I felt detracted from the main point. Skipped portions are indicated by ellipses. Audience comments are indicated in parentheses. I have tried to preserve Fr. Evan’s speaking style and have made only minor changes for clarity.

You can listen to the whole lecture, as well as his study (so far) of the Gospel of Mark, at Ancient Faith Radio.

 

Is it fair to say that at the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing that there are others who are writing life stories of Jesus? Yes. Why didn’t we accept them? (They didn’t have the intimate knowledge that these four did.) Some would say that they didn’t have the intimate knowledge. (They weren’t in line with the oral tradition.) They weren’t in line with the oral tradition: very important. The oral tradition carries a huge amount of weight. It’s always standing there, and against it the Church is testing. Why else?

There’s lots of historical reasons why. I’ll give you some of them. Within those centers of Christianity in the early Church – Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, eventually Constantinople – what books were being read? These four. The others weren’t. So in an outlying parish somewhere they might have been reading from other accounts, but when they really sat down they said, “you know, this hasn’t been the central message. In Jerusalem we haven’t been reading that book. And the community here in Jerusalem was pretty intimate with what happened.”

And then we have other champions, early writers like Clement, Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Polycarp. And who were they quoting? Who are they citing when they’re writing? … Matthew and Luke are being cited by ancient writers. They’re not citing, except maybe in derision or in confrontation, these others like the Gospel of Thomas. They’re citing those, but they’re citing them to refute them. So again, you have to understand who’s reading what. Well, the main churches are reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The main writers are citing these. The oral tradition is aware of what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are saying. In other words, what does Mark write from? The oral tradition. … Even the sociologists will tell you that oral history is powerful. It is fairly voracious. It is kept quite well.

Keep in mind that in every church you don’t have a Bible like you and I think we have. Rather what you probably have is fragments of books. You’ve got elements of the Prophets, elements of the Pentateuch, elements of the Psalms, elements of the Gospels. Remember when Paul writes and says, “read this letter that I sent you and then send it off to the Laodiceans, and then read the letter that I sent them” (ref. Col 4:16)? We don’t have that letter. … So they would have bits and pieces.

So the Church did what? Canonized it. It said here is the list of the 27. You get the festal encyclical of St Athanasius the Great that lists them. We’re talking in the 300s. These are the books. … So you’ve got all that time.

(Father, maybe now would be a good time to mention the so-called Lost Books of the Bible.)

Right, that’s what I’m saying. The Church is aware of those books. You know, when that whole thing came up recently with the Davinci Code, and everybody was freaking out, the Orthodox Church was yawning. What are you talking about? We already know about this book. We wrote all about it. We already dealt with it. Why is everybody so excited? I remember they interviewed an Orthodox monk about it and they were saying, “How come you don’t read from it? You should read from it.” And the monk said, “Well, you know about this book, but I don’t think it would be profitable to read from it.”

In other words, what we have tended to do in modern society is, against what Saint Paul says, say, “Oh, it’s all good. Try it all. There’s no filter. Let it all in. Let your kids watch PG13 movies, no problem. It’s not going to effect them.” And they Church says, “You’re kind of stupid, aren’t you?” Because you don’t want to watch PG13 movies with your kids. You don’t want them to read trashy novels. Because the formation of their souls, their minds, their hearts, their nous, will be malformed, and later on in life they’ll suffer because of it. Those of us who grew up with no filter already know this. And so the Church isn’t necessarily saying, “Don’t go read that. We’re not going to let you read that.” We just say, “Why would you read it? It’s not profitable. It’s not good for you. Now if you want to go read it, you’re going to go read it.” But we know of them, and we canonized only certain Gospels. (There are some really early stories about that. Writings where they said, “sure you can read that, but why would you want to?”) Exactly. We still say this. You can go read it, no one is going to stop you.

It’s like when you look at life and you say, “what’s the big deal about gambling?” Or, “why are you such a prude? Why wouldn’t you let your kids watch prime time tv? Let them wear a bikini.” Whatever it is. The Church in its worst case says to people, “No, you can’t do it.” That’s that rather restrictive church of the Middle Ages. The Orthodox Church didn’t take part in that. So we never had this idea that we should restrict peoples’ freedom. We’re about freedom.

I’m about to get scandalous. Some people say, “what about abortion, Father?” The Church is against abortion. We’re clear: we shouldn’t abort children. But the Church can’t force you. What are the two primary theological concepts that we talked about earlier? God’s love and man’s freedom. You can’t stop man’s freedom. If you try to, you end up with tyranny. And what do men do when they’re put under a tyrannical rule? They rebel. So they Church is clear on that. Same with your children. …

Rather what the Church has done has wooed humanity. Shown them. “Look at the nice playground we built. Look how clean and pretty it is. It’s got all the bells and whistles you’d ever want: it’s got joy, it’s got mercy, it’s got compassion.” We preach light, we don’t preach darkness. And therefore the Church has said, “you can read them, but we’re going to tell you where the light is. We know where the light is.”

That’s where the Church does its best work. There was a petition that was sent to all the clergy saying we should come out hard against gay marriage, we should come out hard against abortion. You know, during the political season. I said no, I’m not going to do it. And I was talking to one of my classmates and he said, “me either. I’m going to preach the light.” And that’s what the Church does at its best: we preach the light. When you preach the light people recognize it. … And we can preach the light when it comes to these alternative stories. We say, “you can read them, but we’re going to preach the light and we think you might be better off if you read those instead.” How does one learn to detect counterfeit money? You handle real money. …

The other thing that we have to say about these other books is what was the point of the Church back then, and what is the point today? Salvation. That’s it. Our job is to get you into the Kingdom. My job is to get in myself, and take as many of you as I can with me. That’s my job. We’re solely committed to preparing you for the event of your death so that you transition peacefully from this life into the next. So we don’t think in the Church like the world thinks. So in promoting a certain canon, the reason the monk said it wouldn’t be profitable is because the Church’s purpose is your salvation. We’re not playing games.

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