We are given a most beautiful gospel reading this morning. In it, in the person of this paralyzed man, we have an image of what the church should be like, what the parish and the community should be like. We hear about how Jesus comes to the city of Capernaum and there lives a certain paralytic who wants very badly to go and meet this famed Rabbi and ask that He might heal him of his infirmity. Due to his handicap, of course, he is unable to go anywhere. So, he finds four of his friends who, out of their love for their friend, carry him to the house where Jesus was teaching. Once they arrive, however, they see that there are so many people already there that there is no more room and no way to enter.
Yet they are so determined to help their friend that, St. Mark says in his gospel, they uncovered the roof of the house and let him down that way. Jesus, seeing their great faith, heals the paralytic man.
As Forgiveness Sunday was that Sunday which opened the doors to Lent for us, we can say that we observe this Lent season not as individuals but as a community. More than this, we can say that it is our salvation itself that we work for not in isolation, but as brothers and sisters. Our Lord tells us that He will be present where there are “two or three are gathered in My Name…” (Matt. 18:20). In fact, unlike other churches that have an early morning service and then a later one and maybe an afternoon one, one of the reasons why only one liturgy is served per day in the Orthodox Church is for the simple reason that when we come to take communion we do so out of one, same cup.
Historically speaking, we can find the origins of Lent in the community. For, in the early Church it was not the Christians who fasted but the pagans (1). That is, those wishing to be baptized and become Christians themselves. They were the ones who spent these days observing the fast in preparation for their reception in the Church. Being baptized wasn’t as simple then as it is today since there were only a few times during the year that baptisms were performed and certainly one of the more dominant times was on the day before Pascha, Great and Holy Saturday.
One can imagine the confusion that this could have caused. You, a Christian for instance, begin preaching the Gospel to your neighbor, telling him about Christ and the Church. He accepts all of this with his whole heart and expresses a desire to be baptized, to become a Christian as well. And so he awaits the big day and prepares for it with fasting and prayer. He happens to comes over your house for a visit where he finds you having chicken for dinner. You, a Christian, who told him about Christ and fasting, are not fasting. And so, to avoid such uncomfortable situations, Christians decided to fast also during this time for the sake of pagans, that is, for the sake of the greater community, whom they recently led to Christ. Thus, Great Lent originated in the Church as a fast of solidarity, a time for praying not even so much for ourselves, as for those in this world whom we hope to guide to Christ.
In those days Christians themselves were fasting not during Great Lent or the Great Forty Days, but during Holy Week. So until now our fast is divided into two parts: the Great Forty Days and then Holy Week. Actually, if we were to look in the liturgical books we would notice that on the Friday before Lazarus Saturday we sing how we have completed the forty day fast.
Holy Week is practically not even Great Lent – it is a separate, special time. We may say that the Great Forty Days is a time when we’re making steps towards God. Holy Week is a time when God steps towards us. He goes through suffering, through the arrest, and through the Last Supper, Calvary, the Descent into Hell and, at last, to the Resurrection.
From this practice we see also the origins of the Apostles’ Fast in the summer. Saint Hippolytus the Roman in his “Apostolic Tradition” (3rd century) describes the story of the origin of this fast: “If one couldn’t hold a fast during the Holy Week before Pascha, he should hold it a week after Pentecost”.
St. John Chrysostom writes at one place that after the fast has finished we should continue fasting, abstaining not from meat and dairy products but from sin. Likewise, if during the fast we are called more to prayer, if we are encouraged to read more spiritual material and to do charitable works, than we should continue doing those things after the fast is over. In that same manner, if helping and caring for our neighbor is a characteristic of Great Lent then we should certainly continue it long after the fast, indeed, all of our days.
May these days of fasting and prayer be blessed and fruitful for us and all Christian who faithfully observe them throughout the world. Amen.
1.) Deacon Andre Kuraev, About Great Lent, Orthodoxy and the World