Today I would like to talk about the purpose of the Great Lent. Spiritual exercises like fasting, prayer, reading the holy fathers, Confession and participation in the Sacraments constitute every Christian’s daily necessities. What is the meaning of fasting during this period? Why should we observe this fast?
Chronologically, Great Lent precedes the eve of the Holy Easter. It begins with Forgiveness Sunday, when Adam’s expulsion from paradise is remembered at the evening service: “Adam sat before the gates of Eden, bewailing his nakedness and crying out…” This hymn is repeated several times during the All-Night Vigil, along with the penitential troparia “On the rivers of Babylon” and “Open to me the gates of repentance”. Thus, we enter Lent, identifying with exiles “at the gates of paradise”. Everyone remembers the uniqueness of Paschal services when the holy doors (and all other altar doors) are open at any time of the day throughout Bright Week, starting from the Paschal Midnight Office. This is not an accidental symbol. Being exiled from paradise and seeing its doors close before us, we then walk the path of Great Lent to find ourselves in front of the open gates once again. The Easter procession has a similar symbolic feature. According to the Typicon, as the Easter bell ringing begins, all believers leave the church, carrying banners and singing Easter hymns. After making a circle around the church, they stop at the closed entrance doors. The doors of the church are opened with the singing of the Paschal troparia only after the priest proclaims the prayer “Glory to the Consubstantial and Life-Giving Trinity!”
The symbolism of the gates is very important in understanding the true meaning of fasting. Lent is not simply a tradition, or an ascetic experiment, exhausting our body and soul. It is an exercise preparing our spirit, soul and body for entering the days of Holy Pascha. What should we focus on? We absolutely must not lose sight of our ultimate goal, i. e. the image of the open holy doors of Pascha. Not for one day. As soon as we forget this, Lent loses its meaning. The state for which the entire 40-day fast is preparing us is the experience of contemplating the Passion of Christ and His Pascha. The services of Holy Week act as the spiritual beacon, showing us the way during this time. These services differ from the services of Great Lent in that the prayers and chants, sung during Holy Week, are “impersonal”, that is, we do not ask anything for ourselves. Instead, they represent our contemplation of the Passion of Christ.
We see the Lord entering Jerusalem, and we hear the people crying out “Hosanna to the son of David!”; we listen to His parables in the temple; we contemplate the betrayal of Judas, almost feeling the coldness of silver coins in his palms. Then we see how Christ is betrayed and committed to the trial of Pilate; we hear the sound of scourging… Great Lent prepares us for this moment of contemplation, when we forget ourselves. This is the main purpose of Lent. If we do not forget ourselves and continue looking for some kind of self-interest, then we have fasted wrong.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds