By Archimandrite Ignatios,
Abbot of the Holy Monastery of the Shepherds in Beit Sahour,
in the District of Bethlehem
Holy and Great Lent is the Orthodox Christian period of fasting and the spiritual, mental and physical preparation of the faithful for Holy Pascha. We also commemorate the fasting of our Lord Jesus Christ in the desert, which lasted for forty days. It is the oldest of all the major fasts of the Orthodox Church, having been established in the fourth century. Originally it lasted six weeks, and later another week was added. In total it lasts 48 days, including Holy Week. It begins on Clean Monday and ends on Holy Saturday.
Great Lent stresses the world-saving event of the Resurrection of our Lord, and we remember His Passion. In this arena of the contest, with fasting, confession, prayer, alms, frequent divine services and all the spiritual struggles, each Christian prepares to also resurrect from their passions and sins.
And, with the help of God, we have begun our spiritual journey towards Holy Pascha. We begin our preparation with the Three-Day Fast, which are the first three days of Great Lent. Three days of absolute fasting, with absolutely no food or water, especially in the Lavra of Saint Savvas, the Convent in Bethany, as well as other monasteries in the Holy Land. The Three-Day Fast is difficult. It is not easy, but it helps in the best way to begin our spiritual struggle. It is like mourning, by cutting off our physical strength our minds are restricted only to the spiritual. There are no duties or ministries that take place these first three days, except prayer and divine services.
Thus with Clean Week, called so because the faithful "cleanse themselves through fasting," we begin Holy and Great Lent. It introduces us to a period of repentance and detoxification - of the body and the soul - with a unique orientation towards God and Holy Pascha.
"It is the time of repentance and the hour of prayer," according to a hymn of our Church.
Those here in the Holy Land, had time to experience the old fathers of the Holy Sepulcher, Elder Seraphim the Sabbaite, Elder Theodosios of Bethany, Fr. Sophrony the Typikari of Saint Constantine, and many others, and we saw their faithful observance of the sacred canons, the fasts and the sacred Rudder.
Fr. Seraphim fasted until he was 102 years old, the monk Fr. Philaretos of Cyprus until he was 89 years old, Fr. Damaskenos of Saint Savvas until he was 90 years old. And not only them, but how many other discerning fathers of Jerusalem.
These things may seem to some to be exaggerated, but there were and are fathers of the Holy Sepulcher who fasted and fast with total abstinence from food and water the entire first week of Great Lent and communed and commune the first Saturday of the Fast.
We younger people, being ignorant, would ask them: "Why such extravagant fasting?"
And they answered us wisely and paternally: "As the outer man suffers corruption, so the inner man, namely the soul, is quickened and fed! The more we subjugate the flesh and stomach, the more the spirit benefits." They would say: "It is better to kill the flesh rather than the flesh corrupt my soul which is immortal."
"Through fasting, vigils and prayer we receive heavenly gifts." Also, "self-control, exercise, eating little food and rising in the morning fosters longevity."
I remember it was Clean Week 1995. A small group of Greek pilgrims had visited the Monastery of the Shepherds to see Elder Seraphim. Among other things he told them: "Do not be greedy children, because greed will bring evil, it will bring a crisis. Why? Because what is left over is not yours, it is not mine, but it belongs to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sick, the imprisoned, or whoever has any need. It is not for the banks of this world, but for the savings of almsgiving in the bank of heaven." How relevant for our days are these words of Elder Seraphim? How true are these words, now that we have reached a world crisis?
Once we entered Holy and Great Lent the fathers urged us towards more prayer. They urged us towards more persistent reading and study of the Divine Scriptures, the Synaxarion, the Lives of our Saints. "It is important food, nutritious with vitamins for the soul," they would tell us.
My blessed brethren,
Through the prayers of all our saints, may this Holy and Great Lent be forty days of a new beginning, of cleansing, of sanctification, of sincere repentance, of theosis, and our psychosomatic uplifting and resurrection from the lower Jerusalem to the upper.
Amen. Let it be so.
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.