Today we realise that Lent is at hand, for, as on the weekdays of Great Lent, there is no Gospel reading. This is because the Liturgy is not celebrated on the weekdays of the fast, but instead there are readings from the Old Testament at Vespers or at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (and these reflections will focus on one of these readings during this time). And, as Great Lent approaches, today’s readings convey a sense of urgency, but also of expectation.
The Prophet Joel’s words that we hear today will be echoed throughout the fast. We are told that God is gracious and merciful, and wants us to return to Him. We are called to fasting, weeping, and mourning, but are reminded that what we are really called to is compunction of heart – we are to rend our hearts rather than our garments. Our journey during Great Lent is a journey into our own hearts as we discover and acknowledge who we truly are before God.
In the biblical and patristic tradition the heart is not simply something emotional, but is a symbol for the whole person. It has to do with who we truly are in the depths of our being. Yet, for many of us, entering into the depths of the heart is not easy, for we have become adept at covering over our weaknesses and avoiding our vulnerabilities. And so the Lenten disciplines are given to us as tools that can help us get in touch with who we really are. For, as Saint Macarius the Great writes,
The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there is also God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the Apostles, the treasures of grace – there are all things.
A Reading from the Prophet Joel 2:12-26:
“Yet even now,” says the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and repents of evil.
Who knows whether he will not turn and repent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a cereal offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare thy people, O Lord,
and make not thy heritage a reproach,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
Then the Lord became jealous for his land,
and had pity on his people.
The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations.
“I will remove the northerner far from you,
and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his front into the eastern sea,
and his rear into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
for he has done great things.
“Fear not, O land;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Fear not, you beasts of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
“Be glad, O sons of Zion,
and rejoice in the Lord, your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the latter rain, as before.
“The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will restore to you the years
which the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.