In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, Great Lent is upon us. For those in the West, Lent will start tomorrow, with Ash Wednesday. Great Lent is when we stop and take a good look at who we are, who we have become, and who we truly would like to be. It is a time for reflection, yes. But Great Lent is when we embark on a renewed road to God. It is when we embark upon a time of renewed and vigorous re-conversion. The Church gives us these weeks every year to re-evaluate ourselves in light of the Teachings of Christ and His Church.
I love some of the questions in prayer books, that we can ask ourselves as we approach confession. In the book, “Holy Things for the Holy” published by the Eparchy of Newton in 2006, there is a list of questions to ponder under several categories: “On the Love of God” – Have I had any doubts concerning the Faith or the teaching of the Church? Have I taken the Name of God in vain, or spoken disrespectfully of Our Lady, the Saints, or of sacred things or religious matters? Have I neglected to attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and Feasts? “On the Love of Neighbor” – Have I done my duty toward my family? Have I watched over my children and the company they keep, the books they read, the entertainments they engage in? Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness? Have I injured anyone by word or deed? Have I been immodest in my dress or conversation so as to be an occasion of sin for others? Have I neglected to help the poor and needy when I could have done so? Have I deceived anyone in business transactions? Have I purposely failed to pay my debts? Have I given false testimony against anyone or passed judgement on anyone? Have I gossiped or harmed the reputation of others? Have I wished for things God has not given me and been discontented with my lot? And on “Confession in General” – Is there anything that troubles me that might be a sin? Do I really intend to avoid my sins in the future?
These are a few of the questions under each section, under each of the Ten Commandments of God. And just these few should bring most of us up short, should we honestly look in the mirror and contemplate them, myself included. They are a place to start, when we take these initial days of Great Lent to plan our re-conversion, our re-imagining of ourselves into truly the Sons and Daughters of God.
In the East, we celebrate Forgiveness Sunday. This practice was strange to me, and a trifle intimidating, when I first was exposed to it. But you know how things can build up and you don’t even realize you are carrying around a sack of rocks on your back? The stress that builds from anger, hurt, jealousy, unfulfilled dreams, and many human disappointments? It is amazing how Forgiveness Sunday can relieve all of that. Even if the subject or focus of your issues is not present. There is a Latin Term for priests called “in persona Christi” (forgive me, son, if I said that wrong) and it means, “in the person of Christ.” Our priests are there, representing Christ for us. They do not become Christ; they are there for Him, like a “stand in.” (If any theologian reads this, please forgive me for my simplistic explanations). In the same light, we can look at our parishioners as standing in for those who we are having issues with. When you hug someone and seek their forgiveness, and they forgive and seek yours in return, it is like you dropped that bag of rocks at the altar. You feel lighter, and much more peaceful. It is almost as good as the feeling you get after a good confession, or a deep heart-to-heart with a trusted friend or counselor. Whew. I love it.
The sad part is when people go through motions, but it is nothing more than skin deep. When people are insincere. When they laugh behind your back or smirk at you behind your back after something like Forgiveness Sunday is shared. And that is the crux of the impetus for my post today. Insincerity. Deception. Dishonesty. When you purport to be a person of God, a Christian, we all make presumptions. We all do it. If you say you are a fireman, we presume you put out fires. If you say you are an attorney, we presume you know the law. An engineer fixes things. A mechanic can get your car running. A nurse can soothe your pain away. A secretary can organize the heck out of things. A plumber keeps the water flowing and the toilets flushing. A chef can make you an incredible meal, as a baker makes divine pastries. We all presume, or profile, about others based upon our perception of their title, or their category/classification. When you say you are a Christian, I presume you follow Christ. WWJD? What would Jesus Do? Hmmm…sometimes I think He would cringe at what goes on in our churches. At how un-Christ-like Christians can be towards one another. Presuming you know Christ and love Christ, and follow His teachings, we all presume certain characteristics about you. First of all, and for me foremost, is that you are trustworthy and honest. Christ abhors a liar, as do I. Being false in any way is not a Christian attitude. “Have I been guilty of hatred or vengefulness? Have I injured anyone by word or deed?” We’re supposed to contemplate these words before confession. And we are supposed to live them. During Lent, we are offered 40 days to reflect on how we are progressing as Christians, and how we are towards our fellow man. How does dishonesty or deceitful behavior fit into our perspective as Christians? Do we see these as our attributes when we contemplate our own reflections?
Please know that I realize so deeply how far from the mark I, myself, fall. And I am so very thrilled that the Church offers me these 40 days each and every year to fix myself. It is an incredible opportunity that so very many of us do not fully utilize. In the book of Matthew it says, “They give me lip service but their hearts are far from me.” It is just a sad state of affairs that so many of us Christians do not take advantage of the healing salve of faith our Church offers to us. The Church offers us countless opportunities to reconnect with our God. We have prayer times during the week, in our homes, in our cars, on a break, while driving. I have friends who automatically start the Rosary each and every time they are in the car. People who stop, cross themselves, and acknowledge Christ in the Tabernacle at each Catholic Church they go by – and they know all the ones in their town and the areas around them, so are constantly crossing themselves. I love that. They bring the Divine into the every day, in a physical way. During Great Lent, that can be so enhanced. We can re-focus our energies into our own personal walk with God by re-doubling our efforts at fasting, at praying, at attending weekly services, of reading holy books and books by the early Church Fathers (my favorite Lenten readings are “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” by Elder Thaddeus, and “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by John Climacus).
We are personally suffering right now; our hearts are aching. The little world we inhabit is upset and things are awry. It makes for a rough start to Lent. But, as I mourn the Coptic Christians beheaded for our Faith this week, and all those who suffer for our faith, I also feel lousy about complaining and reacting. I feel like crap (excuse me) for being down in the dumps. People will ALWAYS disappoint you. People will ALWAYS let you down. People will ALWAYS deceive you. It is part of being human. God never deceives, nor disappoints, nor lets you down. That all belongs to us. All of that is squarely on our human shoulders. And that bag of rocks I thought I had left at the altar last Sunday? Well, it’s back up on my shoulders.
I need to remind myself that some people who purport a faith, well, they are not that faithful. They “Talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.” It can be for a multitude of reasons. Life might just totally stink for them. They could have horrid jobs and even worse home lives. Divorces, drug abuse, teen issues, their health may be poor, they could have mental issues; they could be facing financial ruin. I don’t know, nor is it my place to know. The lesson I have learned is that Lent, Great Lent, is totally about me. About me and my God. Where I stand with my Creator. It does not matter where my neighbor stands. That is between them and God. It is not my place to judge. A great man, a Saint, once said, “Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother and bites the body of his neighbor. ” ― John Chrysostom. Deceit and deception, dishonesty and insincerity may be present because there is evil in this world, too. There is the pressure that evil puts on us when we try to be better Christians. There are a multitude of things that pull us away from God. I need to always focus on my walk with God, on my personal salvation. And I need to be sure that I am not deceitful nor dishonest, nor insincere. I need to pray always, for myself and everyone around me. My issues are petty and minor in comparison to the lot of our fellow Christians around the world. We need to gain some perspective. A good place to start is from the Foot of the Cross.
There is so much wisdom to be found in the writings of the early Church Fathers. So much caution about fasting from meat but devouring our neighbors. “I must keep my eyes on my own plate,” as St. John Chrysostom was fond of saying. As we dive into this Great Lent, my prayer for myself and for everyone is this:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”