The Beginning of Great Lent

OCA Chancery
Syosset, New York

February 22, 2004

To the Venerable Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America

Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

Immediately after His baptism in the Jordan, Our Lord Jesus Christ entered the wilderness of the desert. There, in preparation for His public ministry, He fasted for forty days and nights. And “from that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

Repentance—the conscious transformation of our hearts, our minds, and the very essence of our lives—stands at the heart of Great Lent, which we now enter. Weeks before we begin our preparation for the glorious Pascha of Our Lord, the Church in her wisdom calls us to repent, to fall before our Lord and Master and cry out, “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Giver of Life.” And on the eve of the first day of Great Lent, at the conclusion of Forgiveness Vespers, we acknowledge our need to repent as we recite the Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephrem of Syria. “Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother,” we pray, acknowledging that it is only when we enter the “wilderness of the desert” and focus inward that we take the first step on the road to repentance and the journey to—and beyond—the empty tomb.

Great Lent offers us an opportunity to seek release from those things we have allowed, often unconsciously, to hold us captive, yet which in and of themselves have no real power to do so. As Our Lord confronted a powerless devil in the wilderness by saying, “Away with you, Satan!” (Matthew 4:10), we are challenged to do away with our passions, our preoccupations, our jealousies and pride and anger, assured that the doors of repentance are always open to those who knock and that our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have the power to transform our own lives and the lives of those around us.

Repentance, however, must never be regarded as something strictly limited to the lenten season, something which merely prepares us for Holy Pascha, with little application beyond. To the contrary, repentance stands at the very heart of our spiritual lives. It is a continual pursuit, one which at the same time prepares us to share in Christ’s ultimate victory while finding its fulfillment and perfection in the manner in which we live long after we have left the empty tomb. Repentance is ongoing, continual, a “daily pursuit” by which, as Saint Peter reminds us, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him Who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these [we] may be partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:3,4). Hence, our “passing through” the doors of repentance during Great Lent must be fulfilled in our paschal “passing over” from “our old man, crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:6).

Together, we stand at the doors of repentance. Together, we knock and implore the Giver of Life to lead us from the barren desert of an unrepentant life to the joy and refreshment which interior change, in the image of Our Lord, brings us. Making the conscious decision to “no longer be enslaved to sin,” we embark on a journey that knows no end, that leads us to that “day which knows no sunset” granted now to those who repent.

May He Who fasted and prayed in the wilderness grant us the blessings of this lenten season, and may our tears of repentance bring us that joy and interior change so essential in our proclamation of the Gospel to all who would receive it!

With love in Christ,

Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada