Pastoral Reflection for March 12, 2021

MARCH 12, 2021

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me to the end?
How long will You turn Your face from me?
How long will I take counsel in my soul, having grief in my heart daily?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
Look upon me and hear me, O Lord my God; enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep in death, lest my enemy say, “I prevailed against him”; those who afflict me greatly rejoice, if I am shaken.
But I hope in Your mercy; my heart shall greatly rejoice in Your salvation; I will sing to the Lord, who shows kindness to me; I will sing to the name of the Lord Most High.
(Psalm 12)

The Church enters liturgically into Great Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, and like every other Vespers service, the new day begins with the singing of the prokiemenon. At Forgiveness Vespers, that prokiemenon is “Turn not away Your face from Your child, for I am afflicted. Hear me speedily, draw near to my soul and deliver it.” (Psalm 68:18-19) With those words, the Church is plunged into the “bright sadness” of the Fast. Colors darken, melodies get somber, lights are extinguished, Orthodox “calisthenics” begin (prostrations, bowing, etc.). Psalm 12 quoted above is read each evening in the Compline service. With our entrance into Great Lent, our minds immediately turn to “rules”: what can we eat, how much can we eat, how are we to fast for Holy Communion? Do you recommend something for “lenten” reading? And of course, the annual “what should I give up for Lent” question. As with many things in the life of the Church, there is paradox attached to all these things and more revolving around the days of Great Lent. The paradox is this: we are not to be wrapped up in rules, seeking only to fulfill the “law.” And yet, the rules are life-giving and we should make every effort to keep them allowing for our personal circumstances.

How do we strike that balance? How do we live that paradox and not be crushed by it? We can only manage our way by beginning at the beginning. The Psalmist voices where we must begin — with a profound and sad sense of exile and grief, a realization that we are, each of us, under assault from the enemy, and we must trust and hope in His mercy. We live our lives “sleeping in death” and the Church shakes us and rouses us from that sleep by calling us to repentance and the lenten effort. She brings us back to the beginning, a “reset” if you will, to start again. That’s why the Church reads Genesis during Great Lent — we are brought back to the time before the Son of God was incarnate, and paradise was rejected by God’s creation and they (we) were cast out to toil and make their (our) way by “the sweat of their (our) brows.” Lent begins with that realization, which must be a realistic acknowledgement that I am in exile, and not a series of excuses and rationalizations about “why” I am the way I am. I must begin by seeing who I really am.

But it never ends there, or at least we certainly hope not. Because Lent starts with exile and assaults from our enemies, but it ends with hope in His mercy, and hearts that greatly rejoice in His salvation. We come to the empty Tomb to “sing to the Lord, who shows kindness to me,” and we “sing to the name of the Lord Most High.” The lenten journey, if taken seriously, opens us up step by step to the gift of God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, and kindness in His Resurrection. We are gently guided through the desert of Lent (and our lives) through confession of our sins (to cleanse us and dispel darkness), through oases of frequent communion (to strengthen us), through remembrance of those gone before us (to connect us with those still alive in Him), through praise of the Theotokos (our mother also, who intercedes for us and comforts us with her love), through the first steps of the vanquishing of death at Lazarus’ tomb (hinting to us the victory to come), through the glorious entrance of the Savior into Jerusalem (revealing to us the One we should know — the King), through the almost unfathomable grief of Holy Week and the Cross (to remind us that no one comes to Him except through the Cross), and finally to the glory of the Resurrection (the kindness sung about by the Psalmist). A journey indeed of salvation.

Let us meet together in exile at Forgiveness Vespers and hold hands as we sojourn from exile to glory!