The First Day (Pure Monday) of Great Lent: The Journey to Pascha
By Alexander Schmemann
When a man leaves on a journey, he must know where he is going. Thus with Lent. Above all, Lent is a spiritual journey and its destination is Pascha, “the Feast of Feasts.” It is the preparation for the “fulfillment of Pascha, the true Revelation.” We must begin, therefore, by trying to understand this connection between Lent and Pascha, for it reveals something very essential, very crucial about our Christian faith and life.
Is it necessary to explain that Pascha is much more than one of the feasts, more than a yearly commemoration of a past event? Anyone who has, be it only once, taken part in that night which is “brighter than the day,” who has tasted of that unique joy, knows it. But what is that joy about? Why can we sing, as we do during the Paschal liturgy: “today are all things filled with light, heaven and earth and places under the earth”? In what sense do we celebrate, as we claim we do, “the death of Death, the annihilation of Hell, the beginning of a new and everlasting life . . .”? To all these questions, the answer is: the new life which almost two thousand years ago shone
forth from the grave, has been given to us, to all those who believe in Christ. And it was given to us on the day of our Baptism, in which, as St. Paul says, we “were buried with Christ…unto death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead we also may walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Thus on Easter we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection as something that happened and still happens to us.
Such is the faith of the Church, affirmed and made evident by her countless Saints. Is it not our daily experience, however, that this faith is very seldom ours that all the time we lose and betray the “new life” which we received as a gift, and that in fact we live as if Christ did not rise from the dead, as if that unique event had no meaning whatsoever for us?
In the early Church, the main purpose of Lent was to prepare the “catechumen,” i.e., the newly converted Christian, for baptism which at that time was performed during the Paschal liturgy. But even when the Church rarely baptized adults and the institution of the catechumenate disappeared, the basic meaning of Lent remained the same. For even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at Baptism.
Therefore, Pascha is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return—the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own “passage” or “pascha” into the new life in Christ. If Lenten worship preserves even today its catechetical and baptismal character, it is not as “archeological” remains of the past, but as something valid and essential for us. For each year Lent and Pascha are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the “bright sadness” of Lent, we see—far, far away—the destination. It is the joy of Pascha, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom. And it is this vision, the foretaste of Pascha, that makes Lent’s sadness bright and our Lenten effort a “spiritual spring.” The night may be dark and long, but all along the way a mysterious and radiant dawn seems to shine on the horizon. “Do not deprive us of our expectation, O Lover of man!”
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha