“Lord and Master of my life, grant me not the spirit of idleness, despondency, love of power, and idle talk.” (Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem, Part One)
Today Lent begins for many Christians, while for those of us in (most of) the Orthodox Churches, it will only begin next Monday. Nonetheless, (little-known “fun fact”), even we Orthodox Christians have Lenten-style services on this Wednesday and Friday of the pre-Lenten “Cheesefare Week,” although dairy-products and fish are allowed. By “Lenten-style services” I mean that this Wednesday and Friday no Divine Liturgy is celebrated (as it is not on weekdays of Lent); and along with other hymns and prayers from the Lenten Triodion, the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem is read, with great prostrations. So we have a foretaste of Lent this week, not only because we might see Christians of non-Orthodox churches walking about with ashes marked on their foreheads, but also because we have these Lenten services in our tradition.
All this might “rain on the parade” of our pre-Lenten excesses, traditional for “Cheesefare Week,” but at the risk of being a party-pooper, let me suggest that this is a good thing. I do realize that most of us, if not all of us, reading this, will not be at Lenten services today, because we don’t find ourselves in a monastery. But it’s a good thing that we have, (even if it’s just in the back of our minds, because we know about it), a gradual introduction to Lent, rather than having the whole thing sprung upon us suddenly, with no transition. It’s a big and beautiful thing, Lent, into which I need to be eased gradually, is what our tradition is acknowledging, by providing these pre-Lenten foretastes of the fasting-season. So let me just take in a bit of the prayer of St. Ephrem today, and also appreciate the mark of ashes on the foreheads of other Christians, if I happen to see them, as these might nudge me to begin re-focusing on the New Beginning that is Lent. As I celebrate Cheesefare Week, I begin, at least in the back of my mind, to transition from the old, which I’m willing to “burn” to “ashes” in my heart, and to turn to the new, in the Season of Repentance that is Lent.