Lately I've been in discussion with some people about the purpose of Lent. It can be a sort of springtime New Years Resolutions Revisited. Probably that's part of the reason I get anxious during the several-weeks run-up to the fast that we have in the Orthodox Church: Experience has shown me how unresolved and weak I am, and I can only imagine certain failure.
But so many homilies and Scriptures and hymns have comforted me in the last few days, I really do feel that joy they speak of as we set out on our journey. And yes, blog posts and e-mail greetings on the subject have been greatly encouraging. It seems that lenten grace is like all grace, in that you can't get it ahead of time; it's God with us in the moment. Even a balanced perspective on the meaning of Lent is only an intellectual understanding until I implement it and participate in it.
Prayer and almsgiving are just as important during Lent, but in this post I'm sticking to the fasting aspect. And as an example of helpful reading, I offer a truncated outline of a few points from a longer article, "The True Nature of Fasting," by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary. The passage is part of the Lenten Triodion in the section "The Meaning of the Great Fast." I commend the whole to your reading; it seems to me the most thorough and well-articulated statement on the subject, and I've found it worthwhile reading every year. (Italics are in the original.)
1) The Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people....By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians - whether married or under monastic vows - are Cross-bearers, following the same spiritual path.
2) It should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense.Whatever we achieve in the Lenten fast is to be regarded as a free gift of grace from God.
3) Our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient. When we fast, we should not try to invent special rules for ourselves, but we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition.
4) Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness....It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a 'joy-creating sorrow.'....Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality
5) Our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation....When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make an our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic - no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.