It’s Lazarus Saturday today (Mar 31), which means Great Lent is over and Holy Week will begin in two days. Once again, here’s a quick overview of the differences between Orthodox and Western Lent and Easter/Pascha. First, the Orthodox will celebrate Pascha on April 8. (You can’t have Pascha until after Passover, which is Mar 30 – Apr 7 this year, so that puts Pascha on Apr 8.) Second, the Orthodox count all the days of the week in Lent while the Western Churches don’t include Sundays, so we get to 40 days in two different manners. Orthodox Lent begins on a Monday and then ends on a Friday (7 days x 5 weeks = 35 + 7 more days = 40). So Great Lent ended yesterday. The Holy Week fast begins on Monday. That leaves two days in between: Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.
This interim time between the two fasts is an opportunity to reflect on what I have come to think of the three proper states of being for Christians. (This is my own thought; I haven’t seen it anywhere else, so consider the source and take it for what it’s worth.). Those three states are repentance, mourning, and joy. The Lenten fast is a season of repentance. Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Pascha are seasons of joy. The Holy Week fast is a season of mourning.
This distinction was lost to me as a Protestant because Lent—that period from Ash Wednesday to the day before Easter—was an amorphous whole. As a result there was no specific season of mourning, except for Good Friday and maybe on that Sunday once every three years where that verse, “Jesus wept,” came up in the lectionary. I therefore want to consider the role of each in our Christian lives.
Mourning is a recognition and response to the fact that things are not right in the world. Geo Pallikunnel, a Syro Malabar (that is, the quite ancient Orthodox communion on the Indian subcontinent, also called the St Thomas church) theologian describes it this way. “Human nature is basically good, even though sin disintegrated it.” The world was created very good and humans were created in the image of God (thus we are basically good) but sin has marred and disrupted it. I especially like Pallikunnel’s use of the term “disintegration” in this context. In his monograph he describes our life of salvation in terms of our disintegration because of sin and Jesus Christ’s integration of our beings.
In this metaphor sin is more process than act. Things are coming apart at the seams and we know that this is not right, that things once were better (“very good” in fact) and should be better. But they’re not. We too often beat ourselves up for this state of affairs. We too often rage against our own frailties, our fellow Christians’ hypocrisy, and the evil that the world spawns. But such regrets and recriminations are not a proper Christian state of being. “Blessed are those who mourn …” says Jesus, not, “blessed are the angry.”
Rather than regrets and recrimination, our proper response (the second state of being) is Repentance. Repentance is not being sorry that I sinned; that’s, just … well, sort of sorry. Repentance isn’t an attitude, it’s an action; it’s turning around; it’s changing our direction. This is embodied in three specific actions: fasting, prayer, and alms. Said another way, repentance focuses on ourselves by denying (and thus, to a certain extent, taking control of) our out-of-control desires that are causing the disintegration of our being in the first place. Repentance is also focusing on others by truly looking at them in their life situation and helping to meet their needs which grow out of their own and the world’s disintegration. Repentance also focuses on God. The disintegration that I keep going on about is a symptom of a deeper problem. Cut off from God, who is life itself, all creation is dead (in the same way cut flower is dead—still beautiful and fragrant, but severed from its life-giving source). Repentance is specifically a turning toward God-who-is-Life-itself in order to re-establish the flow of life through prayer and the Eucharist.
Lent is a season set aside to focus on this second state of being: repentance. Holy Week, in contrast, is not about repentance; it’s about mourning. It is looking at the incarnation (that is, the whole earthly life of Jesus Christ) as a prolonged death, a seeming disintegration of God. “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” And ironically, just as Jesus said would happen, as we mourn, we are comforted. As we mourn we see clearly the current state of affairs and that it is not the true or intended state of affairs. Furthermore we see that God hasn’t left us to our own devices, but walks besides us, suffers beside us, and is “disintegrated” (if we dare use that term!) on our behalf.
But mourning does not occur in a vacuum. We can dwell in this state of being because we know there is another state of being: Joy. Lazarus Saturday is a truly special day on the Orthodox calendar. Saturday morning there is a Eucharistic Divine Liturgy that is a foretaste of Pascha. Everything is light instead of dark. The talk is of victory rather than death. It is a foretaste of Christ’s victory over death. It is an absolute proclamation that what looked like divine disintegration turns out to be the re-integration of all creation with its Creator.
We Christians have no need to rage. (The nations rage and the Psalmist asks, “Why?”) Instead we can mourn for a season because there is a state of joy. For the most part we exist in these three distinct states of being (repentance, mourning, and joy) simultaneously. But the Church helpfully breaks them apart as three distinct seasons to help us understand this admittedly odd state of affairs. And these three seasons come together in a mysterious and wonderful manner on these two days (Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday) between the two very different fasts of repentance and mourning that precede the greatest of Feasts of Rejoicing: Pascha.
Jesus wept … Lazarus come forth … But surely he stinks and smells of decay! That is life in a nutshell. Amen.