Lent began as a last, intensive stage of preparation for catechumens, converts who were to be baptized at Pascha (Easter). These people fasted, prayed intensely, and came to the Church daily for instruction and exorcism. Gradually others recognized the value of fasting and penitence during this time. It became the custom for all Christians to undertake a special period of more intense spiritual effort and concentration in preparation for the Feast of Our Lord’s Resurrection.
In the Orthodox Church Lent is introduced by three Sundays on which we read the Gospels of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:10 ff) the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 ff), and the Last Judgement (Matt. 25:31 ff). These teach the contrast between repentance and self-righteousness, and remind us of the Judgement to come. On the final Sunday before Great Lent we hear Our Lord’s commandment to forgive (Matt. 6:14 ff) and we solemnly ask forgiveness of each other before entering Lent, because as the Lenten hymns remind us, if we do not fast from envy and strife, our fasting from food is in vain.
During Lent itself the weekday Church services take on a special Lenten atmosphere; the musical tone is different, the scripture readings are from the Old Testament, and we repeat at every service the special Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian with bows to the floor. These special Lenten features are not seen in the Sunday services because every Sunday, even in Lent, is a celebration of the Resurrection and retains a joyous tone. The most characteristic Lenten service is the Presanctified Liturgy, served on Wednesday and Friday evenings during Lent. Another service used only during Lent is the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, a lengthy poem calling us to repentance by meditations based on Old Testament stories. Orthodox today make an increased effort during Lent to draw closer to God through prayer, fasting, confession, increased attendance at weekday Church services, and other personal efforts.
Almost all religions value fasting of some kind. Orthodox believe that God created the world and pronounced it ‘very good.’ There is no suggestion that foods or drinks, or moral social activities and entertainments, are evil in themselves. There are no foods that Orthodox never eat. Nevertheless, the story of the fruit in the Garden shows how we have a tendency simply see the things of this world as ends in themselves, to be caught up in them and not to receive them thankfully as gifts of God. Fasting part of the year is to set us free from attachment to the things of this world. It should not only be fasting from food, but should involve a change of activities, liberating some of our time from social activities, television, frivolous reading or even work, to have more time for prayer, church attendance, and works of mercy. We have created a culture in which we can be constantly surrounded by music and distractions and silence can be frightening, because we are alone with ourselves.
The Orthodox Pascha service invites even those who have disregarded the fast to ‘enter into the joy of Thy Lord,’ because He is so generous He rewards ‘even those who come at the eleventh hour.’ (cf. Matt 20:1 ff). But those who do make an effort during Lent to come to know Him, and themselves, better will find Pascha a greater joy.