Speaking the Truth in Love:
In Orthodox Church tradition, the season of Great Lent is called, in the liturgical books, the “tithe of the year.” We know that in the Bible the believers were obliged to give ten percent of their possessions, their time, their crop, their money to the Lord, to the temple. And the rule of the tithe wasn’t at all because ninety percent of our possessions are our own and ten percent belong to God.
The tithe was to remind the people of God that they belonged to God, that he had saved them, he had delivered them from Egypt, that he was their God. And so that they would never forget that God is God and they were to keep his ordinances and commandments and that all things belonged to him and that they possessed things as gifts from him, they were obliged to this rule of ten percent. Of course in the New Testament when the Lord Christ came, the teaching was if you will be perfect, you give everything, and you follow me. And as some of the saints like John Chrysostom say: “We speak about giving all, and then we don’t even give the ten percent.”
Now this lenten season, as far as time is concerned, is just about exactly ten percent of the year. If we have 365 days and you have 40 days of the lenten season and then, in the Orthodox tradition again, the Holy Week of Christ’s Passion added on, that adds up to be virtually ten percent of the year. And the lenten season is that time of the year when believers, Christian believers, try to be what they ought always to be and to do what they ought always to do, but don’t.
It’s not a time for a special pious devotional activity. It’s a time for normal Christian life and normal Christian activity, the way it should be lived all year round but is not. So the season of repentance, the lenten spring as it’s often called, this “tithe of the year” is when the believers mobilize themselves individually and together, corporately, to try to be God’s people, to be a Christian, to be a human being, to be a person, as a Christian, to know that we were not simply brought of Egypt into Palestine.
We were brought from death to life, earth to heaven. We are in the new Passover. We belong to God, not simply because he delivered us from earthly bondage, but we belong to him because we were bought by the Blood of Christ, redeemed from hell itself, from death itself, in order to live forever with God.
Now during this “tithe of the year,” Christians are called to do all those things which open them up to the grace of God, all those disciplines that prove that they are believers. Usually they’re summarized, as they are in Orthodox tradition, in the Gospel readings on the Saturday and Sunday before Lent begins, by those three teachings of Jesus that are found in the Sermon on the Mountain—when you pray, when you fast, and when you give alms or more technically, more correctly translated, when you do acts of mercy.
So the lenten season would be a time for praying—personally, corporately, in one’s heart, in one’s room, in one’s church, as a member of the Church. It would be a time for fasting in secret—abstaining from foods, not overeating, realizing that our food and drink is the Word of God, and not some physical food, our food is the Bread of Life who is Christ himself. And then also that it would be a time of doing acts of mercy—helping others, giving to the poor, spending time with people.
And then in addition to those three things, you would have confession of sins; you would have a practice of silence; so many things, reading the Bible, that Christian believers should be doing all of the time. So the lenten season is that “tithe of the year,” when we try to be and do what we should be and do at all times.
A few years ago, I was asked: “Father Thomas, if you summarized, in the shortest form, what a practical life of a believing Christian, of a human being who believes in God and believes in Christ, what would it be like? What kind of maxims or rules would that include?”
And in response to that request, I made up a list of what I called “55 Maxims,” 55 things that a believer, very simply, would do if they were really a believer and were really obedient to God and wanted to live the way God would have us live. And I will just now, read these maxims to you.