Written by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent is a book of spiritual reflections on the journey through Lent to Pascha. This particular excerpt is from the introduction.
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When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Easter, “the Feast of Feasts.” It is the preparation for the “fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation…”
Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. But what is that joy about? Why can we sing, as we do during the Paschal liturgy: “today are all things filled with light, heaven and earth and the places under the earth”? In what sense do we celebrate, as we claim we do, “the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell, the beginning of a new and everlasting life…”? To all these questions, the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we “were buried with Christ…unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us... He made us partakers of His Resurrection. This is why at the end of the Paschal Matins we say: “Christ is risen and life reigneth! Christ is risen and not one dead remains in the grave!”
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Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours, that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us?… We simply forget all this – so busy are we, so immersed in our daily preoccupations – and because we forget, we fail. And through this forgetfulness, failure, and sin, our life becomes “old” again – petty, dark and ultimately meaningless – a meaningless journey toward a meaningless end. We manage to forget even death and then, all of a sudden, in the mist of our “enjoying life” it comes to us: horrible, inescapable, senseless. We may from time to time acknowledge and confess our various “sins,” yet we cease to refer our life to that new life which Christ revealed and gave to us. Indeed, we live as if He never came. This is the only real sin, the sin of all sins, the bottomless sadness and tragedy of our nominal Christianity…
Even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return – the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own “passage” or “pascha” into the new life in Christ…
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see – far, far away – the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Easter, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man!”
Excerpt from Great Lent: Journey to Pascha by Alexander Schmemann, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969, p. 11-15.