For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent–something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.
Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p. 31.
I would note that this is true not just for the Eastern Orthodox but for any Christians who attempt to keep a Lenten discipline. The risk of merely formal disciplines, understood negatively as abstention, is high. The hidden meaning of every discipline–and I’d be the last to underestimate their importance–is the softening and the opening of the heart for communion with God.
Lent is meant to be a journey toward something. Fr. Schmemann does not call it “journey to pascha” in vain. Its entire purpose is Easter joy, which is deepened by the desert season that comes before, and which suffuses that desert season like hidden leaven. Every Lenten discipline is pregnant with the possibility of conversion, of a new dying and rising with Christ, of a deepening communion with God.
As we are marked for death on Ash Wednesday, we are brought to remember our baptism and the words that were spoken to us then, when we were sealed with holy chrism (in the very same spot) and marked as Christ’s own forever.