“The Spirit of Lent”
If the Lent is defined by the thought that it is primarily the fasting and forbearance from select food items, it would be the greatest disservice we would do to its spiritual richness. Surely, the Lenten season does call for giving up foods we delight to see on our daily menu; but that is mainly as a symbol of forsaking external aspects of joy and celebrations. As is commonly observed, when we celebrate a joyous occasion (such as a wedding or baptism), the reception features dishes of meat, fish and eggs as part of our festivities. Since the period calls for repentance and abstinence, we give up these food articles as a part of our observance.
But that is not the actual focus of the Lent. The dominant experience of God in a Christian’s life must be love. St. John defines God as love (I Jn 4:8). St. Paul describes love as the greatest gift that the Holy Spirit bestows (I Cor 13:13). It with love that God created man and woman in the image and likeness of His Only-Begotten Son, and into whose glorified likeness we will ultimately be transformed (Rom 8:29; Cor 15:49; I Jn 3:2). It is a loving relationship that God intends to have with His children, proved from the very beginning by the heartrending call He makes for the recusant Adam (Gen 3:9). And the salvific summit is one where God lives in all eternity with His children. It is this loving relationship that lies as the basic experience of Lent.
Somehow, our minds have been conditioned by the thought that our relationship with God is to be characterised by good deeds. It becomes difficult to dislodge the concept that it is based on our good character that God will love us and the basis of which we will be permitted to enter into heaven. But this is a totally wrong approach to having a relationship with God. His love cannot be defined in human terms, for it is there even while we are still sinners. Note what St. Paul states:” But God proves His love for us in that while e still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 cf. also I Jn 4:9). God’s love is so deep that He loves us all even while we are in a sinful condition. So, then we love God in response to His love and it is out of this love that we dedicated our lives to good deeds, for this is the mind of God. And those who love God live in conformity with what He has in mind for His children. Sin is, therefore, not an accumulated debit account with God, but the disruption of a loving relationship. Our sins have so alienated us from God that we cannot bear to stand in His presence or be called His children. All this is best expressed by the Parable of the Prodigal Son (St. Lk 15:11-32), which actually should be called the Parable of the Loving Father.
We can now begin to understand the significance of Lent from this perspective. The Lent becomes a sustained effort on our part to regain our lost love of God. Primarily, we ask God for forgiveness and for a repentant heart so that we can once again experience the joy of being His children once again. And it is this joyful reunion that prompts us to the acts that characterise the Lent. Thus, our fasting becomes a sign of our longing to be one with Christ; we await His arrival, no matter how late, to share food with Him, much as a bride would await to receive her groom and share a meal with Him. Our prostrations are expressions of our truly repentant spirit. In bowing down to the ground, we proclaim that we have gone astray and now seek the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to heal our sinful condition. Our prayers become our loving calls to our Saviour to be one with us so that we can enjoy the full communion with the Father He has promised.
So, an actual engagement with the Lent is not the performance of prostrations or the abstinence from food. Rather, they are our symbolic expressions that we long to regain our lost loving relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And that puts the entire Lent in a different light, for now we do these acts not as mere outward performance of church stipulations, but because they arise out of the love of God in our hearts. This should be the spirit in which we celebrate the Lent.
Experienced in this fashion, the Lent becomes a joyful struggle to restore our relationship with God and to enjoy His grace and love in a deeper level. It is this joyful experience that culminates in the joy of Easter, for we have been truly liberated from darkness and death to live in the light of His glory. And God, in His infinite love, dwells with His children to complete their joy (Rev 21:3). There will be no more tears and death, for God will wipe them all away. And that indeed would be heaven.
Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios
Thought for the Month
The Silver Lining in the Cloud
“Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark
As we anxiously labour under the cloud of COVID-19, we wonder when this virus will be eradicated, and what precisely is God’s intend in all this. And with the infection showing no signs of abatement, the situation becomes a fertile ground for all kinds of doomsday predictions. Amidst all this, when we raise our eyes to God for answers, we are reminded that there are no accidents with God; in fact, for those who trust and have faith in Him, all things work for good. As St. Paul writes,” We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). Therefore, we have faith that God’s purpose which we cannot understand is working even in the midst of this viral infection to bring about a transformed heaven and a transformed earth. So, we ask ourselves the question: can any good come out of all this? For those with an abiding trust in God’s love, the response will surely be a categorical “Yes”! And so, while the cloud still hovers over us, we look for the proverbial silver lining that points to God continuing to work in these troubled times. Let us look at some of them.
- A Closer Walk with God: At no other point in the liturgical calendar of the Church is there the awareness of God’s proximity than during the Lent. The fast, the selected readings from the Holy Scriptures, the special services and meditations, all create in us an experience that we are walking closer with God. In fact, for some members the Lent is like a spiritual dry cell, for they appear to store up a divine energy, for we never see them in the Church for the rest of the year! The viral infection has only intensified this experience, for we are at one stroke impressed with our mortality and sense that God alone can remove this sickness, a theme that is reiterated in the hymns and prayers of this period. Burdened as we are with a deep sense of helplessness, we have now turned to God with the conviction that He alone can save us from this situation. It is true that we have been deprived of our freedom to worship God in our churches. But that too deeply impresses upon us what we took for granted, that the joy of our Christian fellowship that follows our corporate worship on Sundays is also a gift from God. All this has only made profound our prayers as we raise up our feeble hands to God for salvation, not only from this virus, but also from the disease of sin. Yes, our prayers become more poignant because we now pray with a conviction that God alone can save us from our dreadful situation. Now in the confines of our homes and out of sight of others, we now raise our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1) to God, in a way finding truth in the promise of Christ that when we pray in secret, our heavenly Father will see us in secret and reward our prayers (St Mt 6:6). In a way, the loss of public worship in our churches has been ameliorated by a deep personal proximity to God, an experience we would not have attained without the presence of this virus. Truly, our sense that our entire being is being permeated by the love and presence of God is a blessed outcome of our predicament.
- Retrieving the Tradition of Family Prayers: But that is not all! What about a tradition that all but disappeared from our homes, what with its fast-changing social mores. For once the veracity of the old adage, that a family that prays together, stays together is driven home with a strong conviction. The deprivation of church services now serves to bring the family together around the feet of God and there as a family we begin to renew a closeness that was rarely seen before. The family is truly the undergirding unit of the parish, the place where God is first experienced, where prayer life is taught and a new generation finds its roots in God and the Church. Devoid of this foundational spiritual bedrock, our young men and women become easy prey to new-found spiritual groups who teach instant spirituality. Now that tradition that had been consigned to oblivion has once more become a feature our family life as they gather together to pray, or even just to view the services on the YouTube. Somewhere in that process I am sure the family will find the chance to pray together. Perhaps, this enforced quarantine will have the salutary consequence of retrieving the tradition of family prayers so that it will become a perduring feature of our families.
An observation that will be made is that most of these services are in Malayalam and so remain unintelligible to many of our young men and women. Allow me to share my experience. I too grew up with little knowledge of my mother tongue. But that was not an impediment for my participation in the family prayers in my grandparents’ home. Even though I couldn’t understand them, the deep sense of being in prayer was always present. And I learned most of these prayers by heart as a result of these daily prayers. Today, they have become meaningful, as they are a rich source of my own prayer life. That, too, I pray will result from this coerced family prayer meetings. And it is when families experience difficulties that they draw closer together, a bond that will preserve their unity and cohesiveness well into the future.
- Regaining the Joy of Family Communications: Surely, there will come a time during this period when we tire of staring at the TV or being engaged with our handsets. And so, we will be forced to engage in talk with family members. Family members talking to each other is another casualty of our communication technological explosion. The paradox is that even as we spend more time in talking to friends and being engaged on social media sites, we rarely talk to family members, even at home. Now out of necessity we indulge in talking to one another. As the days pass, our conversation progresses from small talk to sharing our life stories, so that the bonds that keep a family together are strengthened. Fathers are able to spend quality time with their children and it is my hope that husbands and wives will also talk to each other. In fact, I hope that family members will put aside their handsets so that they can all come together to spend time in talking and sharing their life experiences.
One certain outcome of this lockdown is that families are compelled to have meals together. This used to be a welcome part of growing up in a family. But with the fractured life we lead, families are not always able to come together for meals. Now for a change all come together to share meals as a family. And the experience of sharing a meal as a family now become once more a happy occasion for all to talk and laugh over a good and delicious meal. Our nostalgic recollections should include such reminiscences of the family in later times, so that they can bring a wistful smile of delight to our faces.
- Managing with What We Have: The virtual curfew imposed all over the country has disrupted supply channels so that we have had to curtail our consumption to what is necessary or essential. Because we cannot avail of all what we wish for we are learning to manage with what is essential. What is prepared at home is carefully done so that we have cut down the waste. I recall my childhood days when every part of a pumpkin was served as some dish or other, without diminishing its taste. And there was little to waste, considering the food chain that was a regular feature of our homes in Kerala. Here in the NCR a whole new generation has grown up experiencing a life-style that minimises sacrifice and sharing. Most families enjoy a comfortable financial situation here in the NCR (this can be contested, but I offer this as a relative statement) which allows for a wider range of spending by the upcoming generation. In our changed circumstances there are the demands now for a changed pattern of living which places limits on what is spent, the food eaten and so forth. If nothing else, this upcoming generation will learn that controlling consumption is a virtue that needs to be cultivated. It is also a valuable experience for parents to impose some control, all aimed at enabling the family to become a happy, enriching and valuable learning experience for all.
- Sharing What We Have: The fasts of the Lenten season are not meant to be a goal in Itself, but an exercise in sharing what we have. Thus, the money saved by abstaining from food is to be collected and donated for the relief of those who are financially disadvantaged. Thereby, we learn the art of sacrificing and sharing what we have with others. This is an important lesson of the Lenten season. The onus is on the believer to find out those in need and to share a part of what God has given us with others. We live in a context where our unlimited consumption creates no compunctions in us. At least for a time, the sense that we have extravagantly utilised our assets should compel us to evaluate our life-style and see where we can sacrifice and share our assets with others. We should recall the observation of St. Paul, “In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus , for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to giver than to receive’ (Acts 20.35).”
If at the end of all this lockdown we could all so benefit from our difficulties, would that not be a welcome experience? Then, we could surely share the sentiments of Shelley which appears at the beginning of this article. Let us pray that this period will be a time of healing and learning to see the silver lining in the cloud of COVID-19.
Met. Dr. Youhanon Mar Demetrios