Quarantine is a Latin word (quarantina) that means 40 days. It is a reference to Jesus’ solitary time in the wilderness. The church historically has viewed Lent (quadragesima) as the Christian’s way of entering into Christ’s journey in the desert and was viewed by ancient Christians as one of the most important events of the year. But in modern times, Lent has almost been forgotten and the focus has been primarily on Christmas and Easter. Perhaps during this time of quarantine, it might be beneficial to revisit why Lent was so important to early Christians.
The best resource I have come across is Alexander Schmemann’s “Great Lent: Journey to Pasha” which I am drawing on for this reflection. If you would like to go deeper, I highly recommend using this book every year as a guide for the entire season (which includes the five weeks leading up to Lent). As the subtext of the book suggests, Lent is the spiritual journey and its destination is Easter. Lent and Easter go together, so when we ignore Lent, we lose something with regards to Easter. It is akin to reading the New Testament without any knowledge of the Old Testament. Lent is the necessary precursor to Easter just as dying to ourselves is necessary so that we can receive new life in Christ.
What we learn at this school is not something you can study in a book. It is tacit knowledge as Michael Polanyi puts it. Learning therefore requires both time and spiritual disciplines such as fasting, solitude, and prayer. So we must wander for forty days through the desert of Lent, but at the end, Easter, the light of the Kingdom will shine all the more brightly. But the journey is also well lit. Schmemann calls Lenten worship a bright sadness that softens our hearts and opens it to the realities of the Spirit, and shows our hearts what hunger for communion with God feels like.
It is sad because we are confronted with what our sin truly is, but bright because of God’s constant presence and forgiveness. Schmemann tells us that biblical sin has a depth and density that we modern and post-modern people cannot comprehend because we have flattened everything. This makes it hard for us to experience true repentance. This is a long quote, but I had to include it entirely because it is so good.
The culture in which we live and which shapes our world view excludes in fact the concept of sin. For if sin is, first of all, man’s fall from an incredibly high altitude, the rejection by man of his ‘high calling,’ what can all this mean within a culture which ignores and denies that ‘high altitude’ and that ‘calling,’ and defines man not from ‘above’ but from ‘below’ – a culture which even when it does not openly deny God is in fact materialistic from the top to the bottom, which thinks of man’s life only in terms of material goods and ignores his transcendental vocation? Sin here is thought of primarily as a natural ‘weakness’ due usually to a ‘maladjustment’ which has in turn social roots and, therefore, can be eliminated by a better social and economic organization. For this reason even when he confesses his sins, the ‘modern’ man no longer repents; depending upon his understanding of religion, he either formally enumerates formal transgressions of formal rules, or shares his ‘problems’ with the confessor – expecting from religion some therapeutic treatment which will make him happy again and well- adjusted. In neither case do we have repentance as the shock of man who, seeing in himself the ‘image of the ineffable glory,’ realizes that he has defiled, betrayed, and rejected it in his life; repentance as regret coming from the ultimate depth of man’s consciousness; as the desire to return; as surrender to God’s love and mercy. This is why it is not enough to say: ‘I have sinned.’ This confession becomes meaningful and efficient only if sin is understood and experienced in all its depth and sadness.
The Lenten journey starts with a true understanding of sin and repentance, and then trains us for battle against passions, flesh, sin, and evil through the spiritual disciplines. The weapons in this fight are faith, hope and love (Heb 6:9-12), and we are trained in the use of these through prayer and fasting. The second half of the journey invites to look forward to the light prepared for us, even though this part of the journey must take us through the mystery of Christ’s suffering, His Cross and Death. This is the full liturgical experience that many modern churches are missing. Schmemann tells us that we have traded this in for is either rationalism or sentimentalism. Our modern liturgies are designed more to feed our intellects or to give us a vehicle to express ourselves, whereas the older liturgies were designed more to mold us into Christ’s image. That is all I will say about that here but you can read more in Great Lent.
In order for Lent to do its work in our lives, we must take it seriously. It is not enough to say “I will give up chocolate for Lent” or to do whatever fits us. Schmemann tells us this will render the whole notion of the Lenten effort meaningless. He refers us to Matthew 17:21 – after the disciples had witnessed the transfiguration and come down from the mountain, they were unable to cast the demon out because “this kind can never come out except by prayer and fasting.” Some evil in our lives are so rooted that it cannot be defeated without prayer. But there is also no Lent without fasting. That is because fasting is not a mere custom or obligation; “it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.”
Schmemann demonstrates this by connecting the original sin of Adam, eating what he was not to supposed to eat when tempted (breaking his fast) to Christ’s overcoming temptation in the wilderness by refusing to eat (keeping his fast). In other words, human life became mortal “because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on bread alone.” Food (and all of creation) is supposed to be a means of communion with God, and this is the only way eating can give us life. Only God has Life and is Life. Our modern scientific view misleads us into thinking that food as fuel is what gives us life. Fasting is the entrance and participation in that experience of Christ by which he liberates us from this false view. Fasting offers “not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science, and existence on that lie.”
The solitude of our quarantine this Lent can also be of spiritual benefit. It would be a great time to meditate on the character of our relationships and our work (how superficial are they?). It is also a good time to search for meaning in our vocations, friendships, and responsibilities. But our modern world, even in our quarantined state, makes this difficult because the world is in our homes through technology. Our eyes are bombarded by images from screens and our ears never experience true silence. Therefore, we must also fast from our technological addictions. Schmemann puts it this way “It is impossible to split our life between the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent and ‘The Late Show.’” Fasting from speech is also beneficial because it can teach us to control our speech, and to recover its sacredness.
Lent is the very beginning, the recovery by man of his faith, it is also his recovery of life, of its divine meaning, of its sacred depth. It is by abstaining from food that we rediscover its sweetness and learn again how to receive it from God with joy and gratitude. It is by “slowing down” on music and entertainment, on conversation and superficial socializing, that we rediscover the ultimate value of human relationships, human work, human art. And we rediscover all this because very simply we rediscover God Himself – because we return to Him and in Him to all that which He gave us in His infinite love and mercy…
David is a businessman with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of British Columbia and a Masters of Theological Studies from Regent College. He desires to see Christians integrate their faith and work, with a special interest for those who work in the fields of business, engineering, science, and technology.
In January 2019, David was a guest lecturer at our BGST-IMT (Institute for Marketplace Transformation) collaboration on the Marketplace Seminar, and also Aging Matters.