The Meaning of the Great Fast

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE. Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

THE MEANING OF THE GREAT FAST
by His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

The True Nature of Fasting

'We waited, and at last our expectations were fulfilled,' writes the Serbian Bishop Nikolai of Ochrid, describing the Easter (Pascha) service at Jerusalem. 'When the Patriarch sang "Christ is risen", a heavy burden fell from our souls. We felt as if we also had been raised from the dead. All at once, from all around, the same cry resounded like the noise of many waters. "Christ is risen" sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians--one after another, each in his own tongue, in his own melody...Coming out from the service at dawn, we began to regard everything in the light of the glory of Christ's Resurrection, and all appeared different from what it had yesterday; everything seemed better, more expressive, more glorious. Only in the Light of the Resurrection does life receive meaning.'

This sense of resurrection joy, so vividly described by Bishop Nikolai, forms the foundation of all the worship of the Orthodox Church; it is the one and only basis for our Christian life and hope. Yet, in order for us to experience the full power of this Paschal rejoicing, each of us needs to pass through a time of preparation. 'We waited,' says Bishop Nikolai, 'and at last our expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost.

So it is that before the festival of Pascha (Easter) there has developed a long preparatory season of repentance and fasting, extending in present Orthodox usage over ten weeks. First come twenty-two day (four successive Sundays) of preliminary observance; then the six weeks or forty days of the Great Fast of Lent; and finally Holy and Great Week. Balancing the seven weeks of Lent and Holy Week, there follows after Pascha (Easter) a corresponding season of fifty days of thanksgiving, concluding with Pentecost.

Each of these seasons has its own liturgical book. For the time of preparation there is the Lenten Triodion or 'Book of Three Odes'. For the time of thanksgiving there is the Pentekostarion, also known as the Festal Triodion. The point of division between the two books is midnight on the evening of Holy and Great Saturday, with Orthros (Matins) for Pascha Sunday as the first service in the Pentekostarion. This division into two distinct volumes, made for reasons of practical convenience, should not cause us to overlook the essential unity between the Lord's Crucifixion and His Resurrection, which together form a single indivisible action. And just as the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are one action, so also the 'three Holy Days'--Holy and Great Friday, Holy and Great Saturday and Pascha (Easter) Sunday--constitute a single observance. Indeed, the division of the Lenten Triodion and the Pentekostarion into two books did not become standard until after the 11th century; in early manuscripts they are both contained in the same codex.

What do we find, then, in this book of preparation that we term the Lenten Triodion? It can most briefly be described as the book of the fast. Just as the children of Israel ate the 'bread of affliction' (Deut. 16:3) in preparation for the Passover, so Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of the New Passover by observing a fast. But what is meant by this word 'fast' (nisteia)? Here the utmost care is needed, so as to preserve a proper balance between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, 'a living creature fashioned from nature visible and invisible' in the words of the Triodion; and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.

The second tendency is doubtless the more prevalent in our own day, especially in the West. Until the 14th century, most Western Christians, in common with their brethren in the Orthodox East, abstained during Lent not only from meat but from animal products, such as eggs, milk, butter and cheese. In East and West alike, the Lenten fast involved a severe physical effort. But in Western Christendom over the past 500 years, the physical requirements of fasting have been steadily reduced, until the physical requirements of fasting have been reduced, until by now they are little more than symbolic. How many, one wonders, of those who eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday are aware of the original reason for this custom--to use up any remaining eggs and butter before the Lenten fast begins? Exposed as it is to Western secularism, the Orthodox world in our own time is also beginning to follow the same path of laxity.

One reason for this decline in fasting is surely a heretical attitude towards human nature, a false 'spiritualism' which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of his reasoning brain. As a result, many contemporary Christians have lost a true vision of man as an integral unity of the visible and the invisible; they neglect the positive role played by the body in the spiritual life, forgetting Saint Paul's affirmation: "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit...glorify God with your body" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Another reason for the decline in fasting among Orthodox Christians is the argument, commonly advanced in our times, that the traditional rules are no longer possible today. These rules presuppose, so it is urged, a closely organized, non-pluralistic Christian society, following an agricultural way of life that is now increasingly a thing of the past. There is a measure of truth in this. But it needs also to be said that fasting, as traditionally practiced in the Church, has always been difficult and has always involved hardship. Many of our contemporaries are willing to fast for reasons of health or beauty, in order to lose weight; cannot we Christians do so as much for the sake of the Heavenly Kingdom? Why should the self-denial gladly accepted by previous generations of Orthodox prove such an intolerable burden to their successors today? Once Saint Seraphim of Sarov was asked why the miracles of grace, so abundantly manifest in the past, were no longer apparent in his own day, and to this he replied: 'Only one thing is lacking--a firm resolve'.

The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food--particularly in the opening days--involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ's statement, "without Me you can do nothing" (St. John 15:5). If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow over-confident in our own abilities, acquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines the sinful complacency. Stripping from us the specious assurance of the Pharisee--who fasted, it is true, but not in the right spirit--Lenten abstinence gives us the saving self-dissatisfaction of the Publican (St. Luke 18:10-13). Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us 'poor in spirit', aware of our helplessness and our dependence on God's aid.

ON FEBUARY 5th THE BEGINNING OF THE TRIODION PERIOD
The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (Gospel reading: St. Luke 18:10-14)

On this and the following two Sundays, the theme is repentance. Repentance is the door through which we enter Lent, the starting-point of our journey to Pascha. And to repent signifies fare more than self-pity or futile regret over things done in the past. The Greek term metanoia means 'change of mind': to repent is to be renewed, to be transformed in our inward viewpoint, to attain a fresh way of looking at our relationship to God and to others. The fault of the Pharisee is that he has no desire to change his outlook; he is complacent, self-satisfied, and so he allows no place for God to act within him. The Publican, on the other hand, truly longs for a "change of mind": he is self-dissatisfied, 'poor in spirit', and where there is this saving self-dissatisfaction there is room for God to act. Unless we learn the secret of the Publican's inward poverty, we shall not share in the Lenten springtime. The theme of the day can be summed up in a saying of the Desert Fathers: "Better a man who has sinned, if he knows that he has sinned and repents, than a man who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous." (Source: The Lenten Triodion)

(To be continued)

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MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU

The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George