Great Lent, the Welcome Time

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“Behold the welcome time,

Behold the time of repentance;

Let us reject the works of darkness

and take up the weapons of light”.

Apostichon at Vespers on the Sunday of Cheese-Fare.

prayer3

Time has always had a special significance for people, but from a Christian point of view it has acquired incomparably greater value. Time is now sacred. It’s been sanctified, because our Lord entered it through His incarnation and lived within it as God and Human. Christ’s coming into the world makes it clear that the “fullness of time has come” (Gal. 4, 4), that “the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark, 1, 5).

We Christians live in a new age, which was inaugurated by the advent of Christ and which will endure until His glorious return. The time in which we’re living is that of the Church. It’s the time during which we’re struggling to respond to the call God has made to us to bring about our salvation. We’re preparing to welcome in the Day of the Lord; to see the full manifestation of the Kingdom of God; to pass from the present age into the future.

The sacred nature of time is also demonstrated by our everyday Church life. The Church sanctifies historical time, transforms it. Natural time becomes liturgical time. At any given moment, the Church is linking the time of human life with the mystery of salvation. It makes the fact of salvation always a topical issue, present in historical time.

These thoughts help us to understand more fully the words of the apostichon:

“Behold the welcome time,

Behold the time of repentance;

Let us reject the works of darkness

and take up the weapons of light”.

Here we are at the threshold of Great Lent, the most sacred period of time in the Church’s year. The hymnographer takes the words of Saint Paul [“Behold the welcome time, Behold the time of repentance” (II Cor.6, 2); “Let us reject the works of darkness and take up the weapons of light” (Rom. 13, 12)] and applied them to this sacred period which opens its gates tomorrow [the Monday of first week].

A.

First of all, Great Lent is a welcome time. Welcome means fitting, appointed. And the welcome time, as Saint Paul means it, is the time of grace, the time during which God receives us, hearkens to us and saves us. It’s the time during which people have the chance to fight for and win their salvation.

And this time, which began with Christ’s coming into the world, with people’s redemption through the cross and the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, will endure until His second coming. Whereas the time after the Lord’s glorious return is the time of judgement and recompense.

Basil the Great writes: “ ‘Now the time is welcome’ says the Apostle, ‘now is the time of salvation’. This is the age of repentance, while that is the one of recompense; this is the one of labour, that is the one of remuneration; this is the one of patience, that is the one of solace. Now, God is the helper of those who are returning from the path of evil; then, He is a dread and unerring examiner of human deeds and words and thoughts. Now, we enjoy His patience; then, His righteous judgement, when we arise, some to eternal damnation and others to eternal life, each according to his actions”.

But for each person, the welcome time is very brief. It lasts only as long as our life here on earth. It begins on the day of our birth and goes on until the hour of our death. As Saint John Chrysostom puts it: “as long as we’re in the pit of this life, as long as we’re working in the vineyard, as long as the eleventh hour hasn’t come”, the eleventh hour being the last opportunity, just before our death, to repent and conform to the will of the Lord [or, as the well-known English verse has it, “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy he sought and mercy found”].

So the time is welcome, the time until the glorious return of the Lord.

So the time is welcome, the time of the earthly life of each person.

Finally, the time is welcome, Great Lent.

If, as Christians, we fight the good fight of the faith throughout the years, how much more should we do so at this sacred time.

If we always have a duty “with fear and trembling” as Saint Paul puts it (Phil.2, 12) to work at our salvation, then we must do so even more carefully, with even greater zeal, now in Great Lent.

This is precisely what the divine hymns for Matins tell us on this day:

“The arena of the virtues has been opened. Let all who wish to struggle for the prize now enter, girding yourselves for the good fight of the fast; for those who strive lawfully are justly crowned”. (Sticheron 2 at Lauds).

B.

But the hymnographer also calls Great Lent something else. He says it’s the time of repentance. If we want to understand better why he gives it this appellation, we need to define precisely what repentance is.

God invites everyone, each of us, to come into communion with Him. But, as people, we’re sinners. We carry within us the tendency towards sin and we often submit to its provocations. We willing subject ourselves to the yoke of sinful passions and tread down upon the will of God.

So our answer to God’s invitation presupposes from the beginning a turn around and, thereafter, throughout our lives, an attitude of repentance.

Repentance, therefore, means that we distance ourselves from what is evil and turn towards God. It is precisely this that defines the essence of this turnaround, which involves a change of behaviour, a new orientation of the whole of our life and way of living.

This becomes apparent in the significance given by the Scriptures to the verbs “repent” and “return”, which are used frequently. The verb “to repent” generally means an internal turnaround, a change of mind and outlook, while “to return” usually denotes a change in practical behaviour.

We’re able to see precisely what we mean by “repentance” through the wonderful definition of it given by Saint John of the Ladder in his fifth discourse:

“Repentance is the recall of baptism;

Repentance is a pact with God for a second life…

Repentance is conscious purification”.

In other words, repentance is a return to the purity and grace we enjoyed at the moment of our baptism. It’s a fresh agreement with God about a new way of life. It’s the cleansing of our conscience.

Repentance is the foundation of the Christian life. It’s an attitude to life, which embraces the whole of our time here on earth. It floods our hearts on a daily basis.

Repentance is an outstandingly dynamic event, a condition rather than a momentary phenomenon. We Christians have to live in repentance.

If repentance ought to stamp the whole of our lives, how much more should we practice it in the sacred period of Great Lent, into which we are ushered at Vespers this evening.

Lent really is the period of repentance. It aims at preparing us spiritually to participate worthily in the celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord. And for that to happen, we have to follow the path of repentance, which means a change of mind, a profound renewal and a genuine turnaround. An internal alteration, but also a real return. To God and His Gospel. To the life that He inspires and which we can live only in His Church in the communion and unity of all the redeemed children of God.

C.

None of this is a theoretical hypothesis. It’s actually a very concrete way of life. The sacred hymnographer, underlines it emphatically, again having recourse to the words of Saint Paul: “Let us reject the works of darkness and take up the weapons of light”.

The deeper meaning of repentance is to be found in this double and fundamental aim: to get rid of the works of darkness, of sin; to cast off the yoke of the various passions; to root out from our heart every passionate desire.

And at the same time, we should take up the weapons of light. As soldiers of Christ (II Tim. 2, 3) we need weapons, and, for the faithful, this means the Christian virtues. These are the weapons with which we counter the “schemes” of the devil (Eph. 6, 11).

Saint John Chrysostom teaches: “Let us cast off imaginings, free ourselves of the dreaminess of this present life, reject torpor and instead clothe ourselves in virtue rather than garments. For this is what is meant by: ‘Let us reject the works of darkness and take up the weapons of light’. The day calls us to arms and to battle”.

And to put on virtue doesn’t mean conforming to some external commandments, but a profound change in our inner world.

In the end, our garment is Christ Himself. Saint Symeon the New Theologian asks: “And what is it that I and everyone else should clothe ourselves in so that we will not then be found naked?”. And he answers: “Christ and God, brethren!”.

And to clothe ourselves in Christ means that Christ dwells inside us. Then we live united to Him. Then we follow Him faithfully and observe His holy commandments with no thought for ourselves.

***

Brethren,

“The time for the beginning of the spiritual contests has arrived”. It’s Great Lent, the welcome time, the time of repentance, which, once again, the love of God has granted us.

Let’s accept it with joy and make the best use of it.

And, through the prayers of His all-holy Mother and the intercessions of all the Saints, may Christ make us worthy “to fight the good fight, to finish the course of the fast, to preserve the faith intact, to shatter the heads of the invisible dragons, to be shown to be victors over sin, and, uncondemned, to come to reverence the holy Resurrection”.

by Metropolitan Symeon of New Smyrna

Source: Στο κατώφλι της Μεγάλης Τεσσαρακοστής, Λειτουργικά και κατανυκτικά κείμενα, 2nd ed., Apostoliki Diakonia, Athens 2002, pp. 15-26.