As our society approaches December 25 each year, we hear about the spirit of Christmas and we know what that means. It is a spirit of joy, a spirit of love extended to everyone around you. Some might say that it is a spirit of giving, and many Orthodox would probably agree with that to the extent that it is not a consumeristic spirit. What then is the spirit of Great Lent, the most important season on the Orthodox calendar?
It is easy to assume that it might be a sombre spirit as a result of the fasting, struggle and prayer, and this is how it is seen in the West. In the West, heads are covered in ashes and the chanting of “Alleluia” ceases.
If we were to quickly discuss fasting, Christ Himself tells us not to be downcast when fasting, but to wash our faces, anoint ourselves with oil and to appear as though we were not fasting at all (Matthew 6:16-18). That is something which this author struggles to accomplish.
Moving to the topic of struggle, if one follows the steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, practically required reading for devout Orthodox Christians during Great Lent, one can see that there is a great deal of struggle. We start off on step one of the Ladder by renouncing the world and move onto fighting passions such as pride and hate which are a struggle for any person in our fallen state. Prayer is the method by which we struggle and the reason why we fast, and we can feel at times as though this is arduous.
And yet to say that Great Lent has only one spirit, one of prayer, struggle and fasting, is to leave aside the joyful aspects of Great Lent and to fall into the trap of despondency (discussed at step 13 of the Ladder). Throughout Great Lent we attend the Salutations to the Theotokos (also known as the Akathist), services which are joyful in their nature. In the hymns of Triodion, which lead into Great Lent, joy is proclaimed.
In the Vespers of Wednesday of Cheesefare Week, we chant “The Lenten Spring has dawned!”, and in the Matins of the Monday of Cheesefare Week, we chant “Now is the season of repentance; let us begin it joyfully, O brethren”. Contrary to the West, the chanting of “Alleluia” increases during the Lenten season.
All of the feasts of Great Lent and Holy Week are celebrations. Even the services commemorating the Crucifixion of Our Lord are celebrations, as we know that this unique sacrifice had a truly joyful purpose.
And so when we pray and fast and struggle this Great Lent, fighting to repent and to purify ourselves, we should remember that prayer, fasting and struggling are joyful because their purpose is the love and joy of God. According to St John Climacus, our repentance, our remembrance of death, and our mourning for our sins lead us to true joy. When we ask ourselves why we undergo these trials and struggles during Great Lent, let us remember that joy is the spirit of Great Lent.