Orthodox Christians around the world are embarking upon the spiritual journey of Great and Holy Lent, a time that encourages all people to renew, refresh and rediscover their life in Christ. But as this blessed season begins to unfold in earnest, it is important to correct the misconception of the practice and experience of Lent as a lonely or solitary journey. This important clarification applies especially to those in the community of marriage. For although no one can do the work of prayer, fasting and almsgiving for another, when the two are made one within the sacrament of marriage, the grace of God blesses and transforms every aspect of their shared life. The transcendent and sanctified reality of marriage obligates husbands and wives to actively contribute and support one another’s spiritual growth and edification. There is no better time to express and expand on this blessed truth than during the Lenten season. Simply put, because the state of marriage is a living icon of faith in Christ, Great Lent offers a golden opportunity for a couple to grow and shine to the glory of God. And make no mistake, this potential exists as much for the inter-Christian couple as for an Orthodox Christian couple; despite limits to what an inter-Christian couple may sacramentally participate in together, the possibilities for spiritual growth and dynamism during Great Lent remain limitless.
Rather than approaching the manner and means of pursuing the spiritual practices of Lent by one’s self, a married couple should pursue a broader paradigm. As icons of Christ in the world, husbands and wives have the unique and sacred opportunity during Great Lent to help one another refocus their shared life toward God. Working together to embrace the faithful labors of Lent does not alleviate a person’s individual spiritual responsibilities any more than anyone’s Lenten labors can repay or match Christ’s profound love and sacrifice for mankind. Instead, a Christian couple should cooperatively transform the daily and practical operation of their shared married life to directly experience Christ in their midst.
A wise priest once noted, as a stool has 3 legs to remain upright, so too does our life in Christ stand on the pillars of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Nevertheless, people sometimes regard these basic columns of faith in terms that inadvertently make them aspirational rather than practical, confusing rather than clear and arbitrary rather than universal. In reality these three basic pillars of Great Lent can neither be detached nor deferred. A couple cannot postpone their Lenten labor any more than a wife can pray in lieu of her husband or a husband can fast in place of his wife. Instead, a married couple must contribute toward an atmosphere within their marriage whereby they support and encourage one another to personally and collectively observe all three fundamental responsibilities of Great Lent.
Life has so many demands and so many distractions that without well-established and clear objectives even the noblest of intentions may be lost to the cacophony of living in the twenty-first century. So it is a good idea for husbands and wives to sit down and honestly map out a daily practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving that begins on Clean Monday and culminates with the celebration of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. On the surface the notion of creating a shared and specific Lenten plan may sound a bit too involved, a bit too regimented or a bit too obvious. But by setting up a detailed spiritual plan of action for each day of Lent centered on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a spirit of encouragement and accountability is infused within a couple’s entire Lenten journey. It is never enough to simply “want” to pray, fast and give alms every day of Lent; a couple must determine exactly how they will pray, fast and give alms for forty days. A couple that together sets up a defined Lenten action plan grounded in accountability and mutual support will move their Lent journey from a noble aim to a reality.
Every married couple would do well to take to heart the clarion call recorded in the book of Joshua (24:15): “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Great Lent is a perfect opportunity to transform these words into a way of life, together. A couple that decides to embrace a clear and broad practice of fasting for forty days, not because it might simply be healthy or wise, but because such an effort breathes life to the principal “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” will never be disappointed. When spouses encourage one another to collectively adjust or change their daily life in word and in deed, the essential nature of fasting not only takes root but bears spiritual fruit. A Christian couple that deliberately finds ways to love and honor the Lord through charitable gifts and deeds will make the declaration “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” a transformative and practical reality. For with a frank analysis and application of personal and mutual gifts, spouses help each other develop a broader spirit of charity within themselves, their marriage and their corner of the world. And when a couple cooperatively develops ways to expand their prayer and worship life, based on the principal “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” they will without question draw closer to God and one another. Making time to pray personally, as a couple and within the worshiping Church has never failed anyone, anywhere, ever.
The Holy Orthodox Church invites every man, woman and child to reorientate their life in anticipation of celebrating the Holy Resurrection of our Lord and Savior. And within this universal calling, husbands and wives are invited to embrace, employ and enjoy the noble nature of their union this Great Lent so as to spiritually encounter the Risen Lord, together. Now is the time for spouses to work mutually to create a plan centered on prayer, fasting and almsgiving that helps make the forthcoming days of Great Lent holy and great. By pursuing the spiritual journey of Lent with fervor, faith and love, every husband and wife will ultimately behold the glory of God, together.
Rev. Nicholas Verdaris, DMin, is the parish priest of the Annunciation in Little Rock, Arkansas.