“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2: 12-13)
Yes, I do know that it is “not” Ash Wednesday, or the beginning of Lent, for us Orthodox Christians today. Nonetheless, the above-quoted passage is, indeed, part of our Church’s reading for today, Cheesefare Wednesday. Because this week, or Cheesefare Week (Maslenitsa in Russian), the week preceding Lent, is liturgically already preparing us for the season of fasting and “return to the Lord” that is Lent. In fact, today, on Cheesefare Wednesday, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, and the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem is read throughout the services of the Hours or the Divine Office (with great prostrations), according to the order prescribed by the Typikon for this day, so as to prepare us for the upcoming season of Lent.
So, as I observe Latin Christians walking about in the streets today, here in Vienna, with dark marks on their foreheads, let me be inspired for our upcoming Lent, which is beginning next Monday. The ashes, from which Latin Christians get their marks on their foreheads today, are from their burnt Palm-Sunday branches of the previous year, reminding them (and me, as it happens) of our readiness to walk the cross-carrying journey up until and through our Lord’s Entrance into Jerusalem (on Palm Sunday), and His ensuing Passion or suffering during Great Week (or “Strastnaya Nedelya” in Russian, seven weeks from now).
Today let me feel inspired, rather than alienated, by the tradition of other Christians (of “Ash Wednesday”), as I prepare for Lent. Let me begin to return to the Lord “with all my heart,” in heartfelt prayer, “for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as our Church’s reading for today reminds me.