Great Lent is now upon us. It is a time for what Fr. Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) called "bright sadness." It is a time, above all, for reflection and movement back to God.
Sin, in literal translation, means "missing the mark." Not being where we should be. Where we should be, but are not, is in communion with God. So, for practical purposes, sin is separation from God. And, by definition, separation from God is death — because life can only exist where God is present.
Great Lent is the time when we try to reverse the effects of sin in our lives. We are, since sin came into the world with the very first person created by God, "consumers," filling ourselves with everything. Food, possessions, material wealth, sexual adventures, various and sundry substances (not just drugs, but alcohol, etc.) all become simply "ways" to satisfy our urges. During Great Lent, we fast in order to restore the proper understanding and balance between our desires and the basic necessities that God provides for our nurture. Food is denied not because it is bad, but because we only need a little. Food is restored to its proper place.
Prayer, both personal and corporate, is also important during the lenten season. Hunger that grows with our fast should be transformed by prayer into a hunger not for food, but for God Himself, who is the Bread of Life and the Fountain of Holiness. Fasting without prayer is like the man who had the unclean spirit and cleaned it out, but left his heart empty, so seven spirits even MORE unclean than the first possessed him.
But the most personal and difficult aspect of our effort is the journey to the Sacrament of Confession. Confession of our sins is basic and necessary. But Confession in Orthodox Tradition has always been face-to-face — a hard journey!
Many people outside our faith wonder why we simply do not confess our sins in private "to God." The answer is very simple — God already "knows" about our sins. Confession is a gift from God that allows us to not only confess our sins, but to receive the assurance of God's forgiveness and the spiritual guidance that we need to help us overcome these sins.
An old man was asked, "What is humility?" and he said in reply, "Humility is a great work, and a work of God. The way of humility is to undertake bodily labor and believe yourself a sinner and make yourself subject to all." Then a brother said, "What does it mean, to be subject to all?" The old man answered, "To be subject to all is not to give your attention to the sins of others but always to give your attention to your own sins and to pray without ceasing to God."
An old man said, "Every time a thought of superiority or vanity moves you, examine your conscience to see if you have kept all the commandments, whether you love your enemies, whether you consider yourself to be an unprofitable servant and the greatest sinner of all. Even so, do not pretend to great ideas as though you were perfectly right, for that thought destroys everything."
As abba Macarius was returning to his cell from the marsh carrying palm-leaves, the devil met him with a sharp sickle and would have struck him but he could not. He cried out, "Great is the violence I suffer from you, Macarius, for when I want to hurt you, I cannot. But whatever you do, I do and more also. You fast now and then, but I am never refreshed by any food; you often keep vigil, but I never fall asleep. Only in one thing are you better than I am and I acknowledge that." Macarius said to him, "What is that?" and he replied, "It is because of your humility alone that I cannot overcome you."
The Akathist Hymn, which in its present form was added to by many Ecclesiastical Hymnographers, existed for most part even before it was formally accepted by the Church in 626 AD. The Kontakion "To the Invincible Champion... we ascribe the victory" was added then, and came to be recognized as the Akathist Hymn, because of the following described miracle attributed to the intercession of the Theotokos.
While the Emperor of Byzantium Heracleios was on an expedition to fight the aggression of the Persians on their own grounds, there appeared outside the walls of Constantinople barbaric hordes, mostly Avars. The siege lasted a few months, and it was apparent that the outnumbered troops of the Queen City were reaching desperation. However as history records, the faith of the people worked the impossible. The Venerable Patriarch Sergius with the Clergy and the Official of Byzantium Vonos, endlessly marched along the great walls of Constantinople with an Icon of the Theotokos in hand, and bolstered the faith of the defenders of freedom. The miracle came soon after. Unexpectedly, as the chronicler narrates, a great storm with huge tidal waves destroyed most of the fleet of the enemy, and full retreat ensued.