For some reason, Lent has seemed to me for many years to be more of a "making resolutions" time than January 1st. It's probably because the church calendar just seems far more significant than the secular one that can be changed at whim - leap days, leap years, leap seconds, whatever. The church calendar doesn't change. Ever. "How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?" the answer is either, "Change???" or "None. We use candles."
I'm not totally up on word origins, but I think it's significant that the word "resolution" is mostly "solution". We resolve - to solve. At New Year's, we seek to "solve" our weight, our level of fitness, our grades in school, our study habits, our BAD habits. And whether it's eating less, exercising more, or putting an end to nail-biting, to solve a personal problem takes discipline.
Lent is about many things, but the first one that comes to my mind is DISCIPLINE. That's because after remembering all the extra church services I love, the very next thing I think of is fasting.
The Lenten fast, for Orthodox Christians, is no meat, dairy or alcohol - for the duration of Lent. This is Monday of Meatfare Week, the last week we eat meat until Pascha (Easter). Next week is Cheesefare - "farewell" to dairy (eggs fall under dairy, as an animal product). And from then on... well, I fix a lot of bean soups and salads.
Why do we do this? It's not because cheeseburgers are sinful. It's not because pizza is inherently bad for you. It's not because a glass of wine is immoral (after all, Jesus did not turn water into fruit punch). If it were about "being righteous", we wouldn't gather in the church basement for a feast of meat, cheese, and wine immediately after the midnight Paschal Liturgy! Neither is it about earning salvation through self-deprivation, or being more strictly Orthodox than the next person. It's not about following rules and regulations for the sake of being "correct". If you're doing it for strict, legalistic reasons, you're doing it wrong.
This is my own understanding, and I am NOT a theologian, these are just my thoughts on the subject, BUT:
What it comes down to is discipline. We are creatures of impulse - ask anyone in the field of advertising. We are good at making rules for ourselves, but we are better at breaking them. We are pitiful at saying a simple "no" to what we want, and we excell at finding ways and reasons to say, "Oh, why not." And so, for 49 days out of 365, we say no - A LOT. I'm running errands and I'm hungry - a drive-thru burger is not an option. I'm in the checkout line and want something to munch - half of what's there is MILK chocolate. You have no idea how little willpower you have until you find yourself mesmerized by the latest Olive Garden commercial.
And why is this a problem? Think of it this way - if you can't say no to a piece of pizza, how can you say no to temptation when it counts? We all think that if an answer sheet fell out of the blue sky onto our desk during a test, we would not cheat. We would be Good. Because, you know, we're just Good People. Right? But if there were enough riding on that test - if the stakes were high enough? Suppose it's not a test in school, but a test in life. If the stakes were high enough, how would our willpower - our resolve - hold up? Would we lie? Steal? Hurt? Kill? Would we deny Christ Himself? We all swear like St. Peter, "Even if all are made to stumble, I will not be!" (Mark 14:31). St. Peter was a disciple, one of the Twelve, a great apostle who went on to do great things. But when he was scared, well... three times before the cock crowed.
If we can't turn down a stick of string cheese, we're in trouble.
Next post: My Lenten Resolutions