Last Sunday we began our journey to the Lord’s Resurrection with the Liturgical cycle of services known as the Triodion. Yet given that we actually don’t begin Great Lent for another few weeks, the commemoration of the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Sunday of the Last Judgement, are a kind of Lenten preseason.
In the same way that professional sports teams take the time preceding their regular season to work out the kinks in their lineups, or work to better integrate strategies, and assess weaknesses; we as Orthodox Christians are provided this time to do the same in preparation for the arena that is Great Lent.
It is in the arena that great sporting events take place, and unbelievable displays of talent, strength, and endurance are displayed. But for Christians the word “arena” generally brings up images and thoughts of the places where Christians of the first few centuries were thrown to wild beasts and or were executed for the enjoyment of pagan emperors and spectators alike.
Indeed our whole life as Christians places us in the arena to one degree or another, like those martyrs of old. It is where we strive to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us… and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12: 1-2). Great Lent is a season where we strip aside those elements and temptations that distract us from the life and death reality that is our confession of Jesus Christ.
Truly it is in this arena where we offer our witness (literally our martyrdom) and die to the world, for the “life of the world” (Jn. 6:51) as manifested in the victory of our Lord over sin and death on the Holy Pascha. It is where we “play for keeps” and where victories and defeats matter. “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (1 Tim. 4:4-5). This spiritual season of Great Lent, places the priority on being prepared to compete, and as St. Paul notes “know the rules”. These rules are not necessarily the guidelines and parameters of what one should eat or not eat, or what services one should attend. These are important, but at the heart of these rules is love.
The witness and martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch, or Polycarp of Smyrna, among many others, was because they told the emperor that he shouldn’t be eating meat, or that he should be attending more services. Rather it was because they loved the source of love -the Lord- more than the vanities and lies of this age. The offering of ourselves to the Lord, and the witness of our faith in this arena of Great Lent, is realized when we love as these holy martyrs loved (even in the face of death).
These three Sundays in preparation for Great Lent are the opportunity in which we can, in a dedicated way, start to work out the kinks in how we approach such a blessed endeavor, where we integrate strategies of fasting, charity and forgiveness into our own lives, and assess the weaknesses of our broken hearts by seeking the Lord and Him alone.
“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him”. (Jam. 1:12). A crown placed on our heads with the proclamation that “Christ is Risen” at His Resurrection. May the Lord indeed bless us in this preparation.