The Intense Asceticism of Orthodox Lent May Be Exactly What Modern Man is Aching For

The Intense Asceticism of Orthodox Lent May Be Exactly What Modern Man is Aching For by Rod Dreher via Russian-Faith

We see this a lot with younger seekers, especially males. They respond to a form of Christianity that asks them to do something more than sit quietly and think, or adjust their emotions.

If you’re an observant Orthodox Christian, chances are your lower body aches today. That’s because Sunday night was Forgiveness Vespers, the service that begins Lent. From the Orthodox Church in America:

Then, after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!” [and] after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people, Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says: “In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!  For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified.  If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.”

I’m not sure that all Orthodox congregations observe Forgiveness Vespers as we do in ours — an OCA parish — but it really is a physical workout. First, it began with our pastor following the example of the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, who started Forgiveness Vespers by confessing his sins against the congregation in the previous year. (It’s not a sacramental confession, but rather an acknowledgement of his own failings.) This is not standard, but it’s something that ++Dmitri did, and our priest, ++Dmitri’s spiritual son, has taken up. Then, each of us ritually asks the other members of the congregation, personally, for forgiveness — and offers forgiveness to the others.

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