The Western Church has already entered the Lenten season and the Eastern Church has just begun its journey, yet in many ways the congregants have been on a Lenten journey their entire lives. If we boil it down, Lent is an icon for our present life. Lent requires us to sacrifice certain aspects of our dietary preferences to instill a type of self-discipline. At the same time, Lent works to focus our attention on our sin and guilt before God, all in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection (Easter or Pascha).
The ancient Israelites held to a strict diet to reflect that God chose them. Contrary to popular belief, this diet doesn’t really have many health benefits (it does compared to modern dietary habits, but that’s mostly due to everything being real food as opposed to chemically enhanced and genetically modified food). The dietary restrictions existed as a type of self-discipline, as something small to be faithful in so that they could be faithful in bigger things. The Mosaic dietary law, or the pre-Christ fast, lasted up until Christ. One Christ fulfilled the Law there was no need for the dietary restrictions; Christ had come into our world and redeemed everything. We were set apart and chosen as God’s adopted children through the sign of the cross and by partaking in His blood and body. We could celebrate by eating all that God put before us.
Of course, if Christ ended the Hebraic fast then why do we continue with a Lenten fast? Because just like the Hebraic fast, the Lenten fast is not solely for self-discipline. Rather, both bring to mind the idea that while we are on this earth, we suffer. In other words, this present life is a type of Lent, one in which we must work to obtain self-discipline, but one that also begets suffering. Thought Christ is risen from the dead, we are not, at least not yet. We fast as a reminder that we are still enduring a Lent. That’s the beauty of Christianity, it is steeped in paradox; we ended the Hebraic fast because Christ came, we fast in self-discipline now because Christ is here, and we fast as a reminder of suffering because Christ will come.
In the course of life, we are birthed from two wombs. One womb is that of our mother. We grow in her and eventually come into this world. The second womb is the earth; we all die and eventually find our way back to the earth (whether through burial or the spreading of ashes). At the resurrection we escape the womb of this earth into the eternal life to come. Lent, therefore, serves as an icon for these wombs and preparation for them.
In the first womb, a fetus will kick his legs, move his arms, and even move his mouth. None of this is vastly beneficial within that womb. However, it prepares the fetus for birth, it prepares him for skills he will need once he is in this world. Within this world, as he grows, he learns certain ethical standards. Many of these standards help him to get along in this life, but others don’t bring vast benefits within this life. These commands, however, prepare him for the life to come. While he is in the womb of the present, he learns the self-discipline necessary that will benefit him in the life to come. Lent serves as an icon for this struggle in that it teaches us to obtain self-discipline by abstaining from certain foods; the foods aren’t evil, but the practice benefits us.
It is what comes after Lent, the celebration of Pascha, that also prepares us for the life to come. The feast that we engage in isn’t just for the now, isn’t just so we can enjoy meat and wine after not tasting it for a few weeks. It’s to prepare us for the ultimate feast, where we will no longer suffer under the Lenten season that is life, but instead shall bask in an eternal celebration of Pascha. Lent is an icon of our present life, while Pascha is an icon of the life to come.
In our current Lent, we are forced to abstain from life. We suffer from disease, deformities, and a whole host of ailments. Our sin forces us into this fast from true life. We war with each other and even against our own nature. We must take on a somber attitude in many places because of how fallen our world is.
We await the Paschal feast, the one that shall never end. We await the day when Lent is no longer necessary because we have been birthed into the new life. We await the day when the disabled must no longer partake in the fast of this life, the fast that prevents them from wholeness, but instead shall run to the eternal Paschal feast. We look forward to the time when the hungry will feast, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the poor shall be rich, the oppressed shall be liberated, the fatherless shall have a family, the rejected shall find acceptance, and the sinner will be made a saint. Just as we look forward to the Pascha feast throughout our Lenten season, let us be reminded that though we are in the Lent of life, we should also look forward to the eternal Pascha that is to come.