Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

In the Epistle reading for Sunday February 26, the day we call both Cheesefare and Forgiveness Sunday, Saint Paul’s words should inspire and challenge us as we begin the holy season of Great Lent. Saint Paul writes to the Romans, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” A Father of the Church said this about the passage, “We are on the threshold of the resurrection.”

With each passing day of Great Lent we draw closer to the resurrection and the day of salvation. Lent is our journey to that day. As individuals our journey is meant to be physical, spiritual, and intellectual. Physically we begin the Great Fast. When we are observant, and I hope that you will make every effort to observe the fast, our diets become simpler. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, of blessed memory, writes, “The primary aim … is to make us conscious of our dependence on God… to bring us to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’” (John 15:5).

The fast though is more than a temporary diet, but a means to challenge us spiritually, to bring us to repentance – a change of mind and heart – about our relationships with God and with the world around us. Repentance begins when we honestly examine our lives and recognize that our lives are not what God intends. The Sunday Gospel lessons leading up to Clean Monday have provided the keys for self-examination. Instead of boasting like the Pharisee about our good works, overlooking our failings, have we humbled ourselves before God, recognizing that we are all sinners? Instead of wasting our inheritance like the Prodigal, have we recognized that we were better off when we lived according to our heavenly Father’s way and we should return to Him? Then on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, when we hear “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:25-36). Have we recognized that at the heart of the Gospel is how we care for people?. On Forgiveness Sunday, have we reached out to someone to ask for forgiveness? These lessons from Scripture are not for someone else, they are for us. When we reflect on them in this way, we can see that we have all strayed from the path that the Almighty God intends for us and that we must return to Him.

Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, the Lenten services that our parishes will offer in these days will continually emphasize the need for repentance. The hymns boldly tell us the truth, if we are paying attention. They demand honesty from us in our reflections. They do not allow us to hide behind excuses. For example, in the Vespers of Clean Monday, we will hear this, “I have committed every sin; more than all men I have lived as the Prodigal” and in the Great Compline, we will head, “Where shall I begin to weep for the actions of my wretched life?” As Saint John Chrysostom writes about the Epistle passage but is equally applied to our lenten services, he says “Paul is not trying to frighten his hearers but to encourage them, so as to detach them from their love of the things of this world.”

Our Lenten journey is an intellectual journey. As we know, Great Lent’s origins are connected to the ancient catechumenate, when those preparing for baptism at Pascha would be instructed daily about Christ, the need for salvation, and the doctrines of the church. Our parishes will offer many opportunities for deepening our knowledge of our Orthodox Christian Faith, from Bible studies to lenten discussion groups. Greater knowledge of our Faith can only strengthen your experience of Great Lent and increase your celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord.

My beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, Great Lent is a communal and family observance, as well as a personal practice. We are not meant to “go it alone.” We fast as a community and family, observing the same basic principles. We increase our activities at our parishes, from attendance at the many liturgical services and participation in the educational life of our parishes service to the many philanthropic works, experiencing these days with our fellow Orthodox Christians. In our communities and families, we have the experience and wisdom of those who have observed these practices of Great Lent before us. Grandparents can teach their grandchildren. “Cradle” Orthodox can teach those new to the Faith. Of course, the priests and deacons in our parishes are the guides for all of us.

And amid all the preparations and our observance of this holy season, do not forget the goal. All of this prepares us for the Resurrection of Christ, the day of salvation, the day when death is destroyed. Even on the very first day of Great Lent the Church wants us to remember that salvation is not too far away, that we are at the threshold of the resurrection. A hymn of Clean Monday says it best, “Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God…. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eternal life.”

My beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, God bless you on your Lenten journey. Kali Tessarakosti!