A Briefing Before the Ascent
O almighty Master, who in wisdom hast fashioned all creation; who, through Thine ineffable providence and great goodness, hast led us to these all-revered days for purification of souls and bodies, for restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection; who, during the forty days, didst put into the hands of Thy servitor Moses the tables in letters divinely inscribed: grant unto us also, O good One…to attain unto and to worship the holy Resurrection….
This prayer, said by the priest at the end of the Presanctified Liturgy, neatly sums up the aims of Great Lent: purification of souls and bodies, restraint of passions, and hope of the Resurrection. Furthermore, we are given an example of fasting and prayer in Moses. The reference here is Exodus:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me into the mountain, and be there. And I will give you the stone tablets, the law and the commandments that I wrote to legislate for them….” And Moses was there before the Lord for forty days and forty nights. He did not eat bread and he did not drink water. (NETS, 24.12; 34.28)
Jewish scholars, when comparing these passages with others in the scriptures, noticed something very interesting. For, while Moses is commanded to go up into the mountain to be with God, elsewhere this meeting is described as happening in heaven: “And you came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven” (NETS 2 Esdras 19.13 [Neh 9.13]) The way beyond this seeming discrepancy between the terrestrial Sinai and the abode of God in heaven was found by recognizing that elsewhere God is said to have bowed the heavens and come down.
R. Akiba said: One verse says, "For I have spoken to you from the heavens" (Ex 20.21) while another says ''And the Lord descended upon the mountain" (Ex 19.20). This teaches that God must have bent the highest parts of heaven down to [touch] the top of the mountain and then spoken with them there - from the heavens! And so it is written ''And he bent the heavens and went down, and there was darkness under His feet" (Ps 18.10).
(Interestingly, a few of the rabbis went even further by saying that Mount Sinai itself was raised up into heaven and that the people below actually stood underneath the mountain [the literal meaning of the Hebrew word generally translated “stood at the foot of the mountain”].)
Now, this is very interesting, not least of all for us as we contemplate the purpose of Great Lent as described in the prayer from the Presanctified Liturgy. What is the goal of Great Lent? Fasting and prayer and almsgiving, we might say, combined with Lenten services. But we would be mistaken. These are not the goal of Lent, but rather the means, the tools necessary to arrive at the goal. The purpose, however, lies in the command: “Come up to me….”
Lent is a season to ascend, to climb, to go up into the mountain in order to be with the Lord. Moses, in his fasting and ascent, found himself not merely atop a craggy peak, but in heaven! God bowed the heavens and came down and spoke with him, “face to face, as if someone should speak to his own friend.” (NETS, Ex 33.11)
Our Lenten climb, then, is not about fasting, that is but the means - albeit an important one - of our ascent. Our goal, our hope, and our desire is to be with the Lord. He it is who has come down to us, only now not in thunder and lightning, but in the self-emptying of his incarnation. Indeed, in his extreme humility, our Lord himself has bowed the heavens by his ascent of the Cross. Let us go up to him there, in his Cross, that we might at last “attain unto and … worship the holy Resurrection.
”Ascend, brothers, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend….
-St John of the Ladder
With love in Christ, Fr John