Adam formerly sat before the gate of Paradise weeping, * and with his head buried in his hands, he cried out; * O merciful Lord, have mercy on me, a fallen one. (Ikos of the Canon, Matins of Cheesefare Sunday)
We do not have doors yet on the iconostas in our chapel (actually we only have two tall icons…though a design has been drawn up!), but if we did, we would be praying before these closed doors each day remembering our exile from Paradise.
The Great Fast, or Lent, is all about this exile. The Sunday before the fast begins, called Cheesefare Sunday (because it is the last day we eat dairy products before the fast) or Forgiveness Sunday (because at the end of vespers that evening, which marks the beginning of the fast, we forgive each other), the theme is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. We remember the sin of our first parents and our own sin, and in the prayers of Matins we call out to Paradise itself:
O pleasant meadows, O sweetness of Paradise, * you trees planted by God, * let your leaves, as so many eyes, pour out tears for my nakedness * and my estrangement from the glory of God. (Ode 4 of the Canon, Matins of Cheesefare Sunday)
Why are we called now to remember this particular chapter in our history?
It is because God is calling us to Himself, and He wants us to long for the Paradise we have lost. Before we experience His Resurrection, we must know why we need this Resurrection.
The prayers of the Church will take us on a journey. Especially in the Old Testament readings during vespers and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, we will travel from the Garden of Eden, through the whole book of Genesis, to the beginning of Moses’ mission.
As we listen to these stories we will see in them glimpses of our own sinfulness, our own tendencies to choose our own paths instead of God’s, and our own longings to be reunited with Him. The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise is especially appropriate, because we do not have anything to strive for unless we realize that we have fallen—fallen from a state of great dignity and glory. How will we hear God calling us to Himself if we do not know that we are separated from Him?
The 40 days of the Great Fast are a journey through a spiritual desert, just as the Israelites wandered for 40 years through the desert, exiled by their sins. We can reflect on many similarities: Our deserts are full of difficulties and temptations similar to the struggles faced by the Israelites; we will come face to face with ourselves and fall in our weaknesses just as the Israelites grumbled against God and fell into to the worship of idols; we are fed by the Eucharist at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts just as God provided manna for the Israelites; and at the end of our journey we know that the Resurrection awaits us, just as the Israelites entered into the Promised Land.
At Forgiveness Vespers, which begin the Great Fast, we softly sing part of the Resurrection Canon as we forgive each other. We will sing this Canon at Resurrection Matins in its full splendor, but we are given a little taste now so that we long for more.
It is your joyful task to continue to reflect on all that God is speaking to us during this journey through the desert. May we all recognize our longing for Paradise and know that this longing is a great gift.
O delightful Paradise, * share in the sorrow of your fallen master, * and, by the whispering of your leaves, beseech the Creator * not to keep you closed forever; * O merciful Lord, have mercy on me, a fallen one. (Ikos of the Canon, Matins of Cheesefare Sunday)
For additional Lenten reflections, we recommend listening to podcasts by Fr. Thomas Hopko at Ancient Faith Radio: http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko