“Nothing is as beautiful, as deep, as inspired and inspiring, as that which the Church, our Mother, reveals and freely gives to us once we enter the blessed season of the ‘lenten spring.'” —Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent
If you are like me, I imagine you have difficulty thinking of Lent—that severe season of austere penance—as being particularly beautiful, inspiring or spring-like. Instead, it can feel much more like something we must endure in order to placate an evidently dour deity whose inescapable, suffocating nature perennially frowns on our pleasure .
But Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox Christian priest and writer, seems to think we have the wrong perspective. And perhaps the key to his understanding is in those last two words: Lenten and spring.
I only recently discovered that Lent means spring, and derives from the word long or lengthen. It refers to the lengthening of days when the sun releases the earth from her icy bondage, drawing leafy green from the warming, fecund soil. It represents a turning from barrenness to fruitfulness: a return to life in all its diverse fullness. It heralds the affirmation that death will not have the last word because the very soil from which life springs consists of redeemed death.
When you understand the generative relationship between spring warming and the nature of soil, you start to get a glimmer of the beautiful inspiration the season of Lent offers:
Soil is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as a memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. —Wendell Berry
Reflecting on these insights, theologian and ecologist Norman Wirzba, exclaims, “soil is a marvel… the site of resurrection.”
But it is hard for us as fallen creatures to fully appreciate how far we have deviated from the fullness of life, love, and their ultimate object, God Himself. We are accustomed to our winter, our retreat from life. And we have so invested in its continuance—with our petty attachments and disordered loves—that we resist winter’s thaw, tragically fearing the greening of spring as a loss or death, rather than a release. Such is the nature of our sinful disorientation.
(Claude Monet, The Break-up of the Ice, 1880)
And so, our reorientation takes some time and requires a bit of work. Time and effort are essential, says Schmemann, because it takes both variables to “uproot and heal the universal and common disease which men have come to consider as their normal state.”
The church has therefore set aside forty days each year (roughly a tithe portion of the year) to devote toward this work of reorientation. One of the main themes is desert or wandering in the wilderness. This, of course, harkens back to Israel’s forty years wandering in the desert, which is re-enacted and redeemed by Christ’s forty-day temptation in the wilderness.
Yes, Lent is a season of austerity and disorientation. It is a season in which we voluntarily destabilize ourselves with some kind of fast (mini death) that brings into focus the many ways we cooperate with death and the freezing of our own souls. But this time gives us the opportunity to know the truth of our lives—that we may turn (repent) and live. It loosens the soil of our souls so that we can, with joy, receive the seed of salvation that comes to us by the grace of Christ’s own death and resurrection.
Again, Alexander Schmemann explains:
Hunger is the state where we realize our dependence on something else.
But there is a positive (active) side to fasting as well. It is not only about giving something up for the sake of our own interior renewal but is equally about adding something that is good: works of mercy which help us turn from our self-orientation toward the flourishing of others.
Here we understand that we have not only been invited to participate in our own liberation, but that of all creation as well. On offer to us is the dignity of participating with Christ in the redemption of the world.
I discovered a thoughtful litany which articulates both the negation and the affirmation (fast and feast) that are key to Lenten renewal. It may be helpful for your own discipline of renewal in the coming days.
Fast from judging others; Feast on Christ dwelling in them.
Fast from apparent darkness; Feast on the reality of Light.
Fast from pessimism; Feast on optimism.
Fast from thoughts of illness; Feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; Feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from anger; Feast on patience.
Fast from worry; Feast on unceasing prayer.
Fast from complaining; Feast on appreciation.
Fast from hostility; Feast on non-resistance.
Fast from bitterness; Feast on forgiveness.
Fast from anxiety; Feast on hope.
Fast from yourself; Feast on a silent heart.
Suffice it to say, Lent is a very rich season. It can certainly be a time for somber reflection and penance, but the whole effort is in anticipation of something fresh and green. And here is a song about that:
FRESH AND GREEN (Psalm 92)
music and lyrics by Steve Bell
Fresh and green we will remain
Bearing fruit to a ripe old age
Happy to tell about Your name
A blessed endeavour
The righteous flourish like the palm
And grow like cedars of Lebanon
Planted in the courts of God
Forever and ever
The senseless person doesn’t know
The wonders of Your glory
And yet their hoppers overflow
But they don’t understand
That folly springs up like the grass
And spreads throughout these vast lands
But harvesting will come to pass
When everything is shown
Everything will be exposed
Fresh and green…
It is so good to sing of You
At the first light of the morning
And at night Your faithfulness review
Before I close my eyes
And sometimes in the dimming light
I stumble on Your glory
That overwhelming sudden fright
But not the daunting kind
It’s so hard to describe