Lessons in Love
The first thing that comes to my mind when asked to write about lent is fasting. Unfortunately, growing up, fasting had negative connotations to me because it was usually accompanied by immense guilt whenever I failed or frustrations when I couldn’t eat meat on certain occasions. Thus, the period of lent was a sort of dark cloud. I no longer think of fasting in this negative way, but wasn’t sure why until I started to write this article. Outside of the church life, growing up in the schools I remember classmates discussing “giving something up” for Lent. The funny thing was, I don’t remember anyone explaining the “why” part other than the common explanations, “to prepare for Pascha” or “to help us focus on God”. While both of these answers are true, I now realize that the true reason is love. I experienced much more meaningful fasts when I also attended Lenten services more frequently, because it is within the unity of the church that the lenten focus of love comes alive and in that mindset, guilt is replaced by joy.
The Pre-Lenten Sunday lessons remind us of this love in various ways. Zacchaeus teaches us to desire our Lord with our hearts; the Publican and the Pharisee demonstrate the importance of love by not judging; the Prodigal Son is a model for us to love unconditionally as our Lord loves us; and finally the Last Judgment emphasizes that to be saved, we should love and care for others selflessly with a heart so loving that it doesn’t even recognize its willingness to love. Hopefully, through these lessons we may learn to open our hearts and fill it with this love so all of our Lenten choices are directed towards loving God and others.
I find this love comes alive within me most by making more efforts to participate in the life of the church during the Lenten season because I believe it is through the unity that happens in church life that love is able to grow. This unity is a sort of mystery. We sometimes feel it outside of the church between our family members or those we hold most dearly. It is a taste of a divine connection that calls us to love each other and our Lord with one mind and one heart. Attending church is the first step to feeling that unity with others, which brings a natural sense of peace. Something mysterious begins to happen when attending services during Lent. We are no longer alone whether failing or succeeding with fasting; we are working together to achieve a oneness of faith. The increase of gatherings accompanies a mysterious joy.
In my own experience this unity especially grows within our Minneapolis community as we have MEOCCA Vespers every Sunday evening during Lent, hosted each Sunday by a different parish. Each parish also prepares a Lenten meal so we may participate in the fast together. Suddenly there is even more unity, enriching us in love and bringing us joy in the fast as we prepare for Christ’s Holy Pascha.
Lent is not a time to focus solely on guilt, but on opening the heart to love. I hope that this Lent I will remember the lessons of love within the church community and fast with joy to prepare the heart by making more of an effort to experience the unity we are called to be a part of. It requires effort. It requires us to enter into the church. It requires us to participate in church life. It requires us to celebrate with each other and to help each other prepare for the day we celebrate the Lord reuniting us with His love by opening the gates of paradise through the sacrifice of His Son.