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Orthodox Lent- Prayers and a Clean Heart

 

 

HOUSTON, TX – As our Catholic and Protestant Friends celebrated their Easter Sunday, our Lent is barely underway.

We can go through the complicated explanations of full moons and vernal equinoxes to explain the five-week gap; we can point out that since Jesus went into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, it makes sense that Holy Week coincides with that holiday. Or we can quietly, reverentially prepare.

So how do we do that? Do we steel ourselves against 40 days of faki? Given that lentils are an outstanding source of protein and dietary fiber, that can’t be all bad. But as a priest once said to a group of Goyans, “If you’re only thinking about food during Lent, you’ve missed the point.” We fast – to greater or lesser degrees – to emulate Jesus’ sacrifice and to be better able to focus on its meaning.

We pray special prayers, different prayers. We are in church more. It looks different. It feels different. Quiet. Contemplative. Maybe some anxious anticipation. We even catch ourselves when we get a little judgy about the once-a-year Christians who show up on Palm Sunday or Good Friday or Midnight Mass, apologizing to God under our breaths for behavior unbecoming.

For many, forty days is a long time. For most, it isn’t enough. But for everyone, it’s a challenge. The Church knows that. Hence the rituals and traditions for support and guidance. Individual parishes know that too. At the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston, we begin Great Lent with a retreat on Clean Monday. Instituted many years ago, these retreats inspire participants to grow in their Orthodox faith as they begin their Lenten journey.

This year, our retreat leader was His Grace Bishop Neofitos, a friend and classmate from Holy Cross of Fr. Michael Lambakis, our Proestamenos. Born in 1970 as David Kiplagat, the bishop was baptized in the Anglican Church in Kenya as a teenager. After becoming friends with some Orthodox clergy in Kenya and deciding that this was the true faith, he converted to Orthodoxy in 1996. Two years later, he graduated from the Makarios III Seminary and subsequently earned a Masters in Theological Studies and a Masters in Theology from Holy Cross in 2004/2005. He was appointed Deputy Dean of Makarios III Seminary, Nairobi, Kenya, and the director of Archdiocese Affairs in August 2008. One of the first native born Kenyan clergy to become a bishop in the Orthodox Church of Kenya, His Grace was unanimously elected Bishop of the Diocese of Nyeri and Mount Kenya on 24 November 2015.

Nevertheless, even his own people are surprised that His Grace is a bishop. In a prayer he overheard, a woman begged God to protect him so that he can do His work. Part of God’s plan includes the creation of an orphanage – The Home for Children – north of Nairobi, and the construction of churches. His Grace is grateful for and proud of these accomplishments, rightly so, but the retreat participants could not help but notice the great disparity between the sanctuary in which they sat, and which is slated for expansion next year, and the tiny churches that dot the Kenyan landscape.

Obviously, the thrust of Bishop Neofitos’ presentation was about fasting and prayer during Great Lent as a tool to strengthen our faith. But, like my priest many years ago, he reinforced to his listeners that if we fast but fail to pray and let our prayers guide our lives, then all is for naught. And if we fast from meat and dairy but not from anger and selfishness, then we have not fasted at all. If we pray but fail to be truly introspective, we will not find the God that is within. “The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness” (Psalm 18:28); “The Lord is near to all who call upon him” (Psalm 145:18); “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).

He spoke as a reminder, a motivator, to do what we already know we must as we prepare for the Resurrection. What set apart his presentation, however, was the delight that he exuded through his ever-present smile. We are most fortunate to be in a faith full of love, he reiterated, and it was clear he was joyful to be Orthodox.

The day before the retreat, His Grace accompanied Fr. Michael to the hospice bedside of a young mother. There they administered the rites of the Church and provided comfort and consolation to her family. Though we were not eyewitnesses, we can rest assured that their presence offered further solace in the life-everlasting. Especially that smile – that joyous smile that radiates hope, love, and peace in the promise of Orthodoxy. In the middle of the retreat the next day, they were called away again to anoint her body and prepare it for her funeral. When they returned to the Cathedral, the retreat participants were waiting for them. They were not just being polite. They, too, needed that smile.

 

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