Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974).
If, like me, you come from low Protestantism and can’t for the life of you understand why people like written liturgies so much, then you have to read something, anything, by Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983). Together with a handful of other Russian émigrés in Paris and New York, Father Schmemann effectively created twentieth century Eastern Orthodoxy as it is understood in the West. Trained at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, he taught there for five years before settling in America and guiding St. Vladimir’s Seminary as its Dean for over twenty years. As a specialist in liturgical theology, most of Fr. Schmemann’s writings are extended commentaries on Eastern Orthodox church liturgy. He takes these long, repetitive readings with their tangled, complicated histories and uses them to explain profound Christian doctrines. Fr. Schmemann shows how liturgy shapes the life of the church in time and space. He writes that “our modern approach to worship is either rational or sentimental.” But it should be neither. Instead, he argues, worship should be a celebration, which “is possible only when people come together and, transcending their national separation and isolation from one another, react together as one body, as indeed one person to an event (e.g., the coming of Spring, a wedding, a funeral, a victory, etc.). And the natural miracle of all celebration is precisely that it transcends, be it only for a time, the level of ideas and that of individualism. One truly loses oneself in the celebration and one finds the others in a unique way.” In this way, worship takes our head-knowledge of Christianity and makes it into an event that changes our lives today.
Great Lent (1969) starts with the observation that “there must be a reason … why the Church has set apart seven weeks as a special time for repentance and why she calls us to a long and sustained spiritual effort.” As he answers this question, Fr. Schmemann shows that Lent is a chance for us to return to our true selves and to set things right with God. We make a habit of ignoring God in our everyday lives, and during Lent we repent of our failure to worship by putting God back into His rightful place. True repentance takes time and effort, and requires the whole seven weeks if we are to be ready to experience the life and joy that Christ’s resurrection brings to Easter Sunday. Lent is a difficult time, but it is also when we experience God’s sustaining presence in vital new ways. Fr. Schmemann explains, “the Fathers often compared Lent to the forty years journey of the chosen people through the desert. From the Bible we know that in order to keep His people from despair, in order also to reveal His ultimate design, God performed many miracles during that journey.”
The Lenten liturgy is repetitive, melancholy, and lacks the movement and light associated with other seasons of the liturgical year. Fr. Schmemann characterizes this period as one of “sad brightness: the sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, and the peace of the recovered home.” Lent impacts our soul subtly and in slow, barely noticeable ways. We abstain from food or other pleasures as a way of rejecting the lie that bread is what gives us life and as the things of this world define our days less and less, God’s glory shines ever more brightly. A prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) is read twice during each weekday service in Lent and sums up what Christians hope to get out of this time:
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. but give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Fr. Schmemann concludes his reflections by saying that “it is by ‘slowing down’ on music and entertainment, on conversation and superficial socializing, that we rediscover the ultimate value of human relationships, human work, human art. And we rediscover all this because very simply we rediscover God Himself – because we return to Him and in Him to all that which He gave us in His infinite love and mercy.”