The Meaning of the Great Fast (Part III)

St. Theodore Stratelates "the General"

St. Theodore Stratelates "the General"

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 (Part III)
by His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

The True Nature of Fasting

"Prayer and fasting should in their turn be accompanied by alms-giving."

In the words of the Triodion:

"Knowing the Commandments of the Lord, let this be our way of life: Let us feed the hungry, let us give the thirsty drink, Let us clothe the naked, let us welcome strangers, Let us visit those in prison and the sick, Then the Judge of all the earth, will say even to us: 'Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you" (Vespers for Saturday evening [Sunday of the Last Judgment])

This stanza, it may be noted in passing, is a typical instance of the 'evangelical' character of the Orthodox service-books. In common with so many other texts in the Triodion, it is simply a paraphrase of the words of Holy Scripture.

It is no coincidence that on the very threshold of the Great Fast, at Vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness, there is a special ceremony of mutual reconciliation: for without love towards others there can be no genuine fast. And this love for others should not be limited to formal gestures or to sentimental feelings, but should issue in specific acts of almsgiving. Such was the firm conviction of the early Church. The second-century Shepherd of Hermas insists that the money saved through fasting is to be given to the widow, the orphan and the poor (a forgotten tradition among Orthodox Christians today). But almsgiving means more than this. It is to give not only our money but our time, not only what we have but what we are; it is to give a part of ourselves. When we hear the Triodion speak of almsgiving, the word should almost always be taken in this deeper sense. For the mere giving of money can often be a substitute and an evasion, a way of protecting ourselves from closer personal involvement with those in distress. On the other hand, to do nothing more than offer reassuring words of advice to someone crushed by urgent material anxieties is equally an evasion of our responsibilities (see St. James 2:16). Bearing in mind the unity already emphasized between man's body and his soul, we seek to offer help on both the material and the spiritual levels at once.

"When thou seest the naked, cover him; and hide not thyself from thine own flesh". The Eastern liturgical tradition, in common with that of the West, treats Isaiah 58:3-8 as a basic Lenten text. So we read in the Triodion:

"While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; Let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; Let us tear up all unjust agreements; Let us give bread to the hungry And welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, That we may receive great mercy from Christ our God" (Vespers for Wednesday in the first week).

Always in our acts of abstinence we should keep in mind Saint Paul's admonition not to condemn others who fast less strictly: "Let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats" (Romans 14:3). Equally, we remember Christ's condemnation of outward display in prayer, fasting or almsgiving (St. Matthew 6:1-18). Both these Scriptural passages are often recalled in the Triodion:

"Consider well, my soul: dost thou fast? Then despise not thy neighbor. Dost abstain from food? Condemn not thy brother or sister. Come, let us cleanse ourselves by almsgiving and acts of mercy to the poor, Not sounding a trumpet or making a show of our charity. Let not our left hand know what our right hand is doing; Let not vainglory scatter the fruit of our almsgiving; But in secret let us call on Him that knows all secrets: Father, forgive us our trespasses, for Thou loves mankind". (Orthros [Matins] for the Sunday of the Last Judgment; Vespers for Sunday evening (Sunday of Orthodoxy).

If we are to understand correctly the text of the Triodion and the spirituality that underlies it, there are five misconceptions about the Lenten fast against which we should guard. In the first place, the Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people. Nowhere do the holy Canons of the Ecumenical or Local Councils suggest that fasting is only for monks and not for the laity. By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians--whether married or under monastic vows--are Cross-bearers, following the same path. The exterior conditions in which they live out their Christianity display a wide variety, but in its inward essence the life is one. Just as the monk by his voluntary self-denial is seeking to affirm the intrinsic goodness and beauty of God's creation, so also is each married Christian required to be in some measure an ascetic. The way of negation and the way of affirmation are interdependent, and every Christian is called to follow both ways at once.

In the second place, the Triodion should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense. If the Lenten texts are continually urging us to greater personal efforts, this should not be taken as implying that our progress depends solely upon the exertion of our own will. On the contrary, whatever we achieve in the Lenten fast is to be regarded as a free gift of grace from God. The Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete leaves no doubt at all on this point:

"I have no tears, no repentance, no compunction; But as God do Thou Thyself, O Savior, bestow them on me" (Canticle Two, Troparion 25).

In the third place, 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. This accepted pattern, expressing as it does the collective conscience of the People of God, possesses a hidden wisdom and balance not to be found in ingenious austerities devised by our own fantasy.

Abba (Father) Antony said: "I know of monks who fell after much labor and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work and neglected the commandment that says: "Ask your father, and he will tell you" (Deuteronomy 32:7).

In the fourth place, paradoxical though it may seem, the period of 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 Saint John Climacus, is a 'joy-creating sorrow'. The Triodion deliberately mentions both tears and gladness in a single sentence:

"Grant me tears falling as the rain from heaven, O Christ, As I keep this joyful day of the Fast."

Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality. Certainly it has its somber aspect, with the repeated prostrations at the weekly services, with the dark vestments of the priest, with the hymns sung to a subdued chant, full of compunction.

Fifthly, and finally, our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation. As Saint Paul insists, "Nothing is unclean in itself" (Romans 14:14). All that God has made is "very good" (Genesis 1:31): to fast is not to deny this intrinsic goodness but to reaffirm it. "To the pure all things are pure" (St. Titus 1:15), and so at the Messianic Banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no need for fasting and ascetic self-denial. But, living as we do in a fallen world, and suffering as we do from the consequences of sin, both original and personal, we are not pure; and so we have need of fasting. Evil resides not in created things as such but in our attitude towards them, that is, in our will. The purpose of fasting, then, is not to repudiate the Divine Creation but to cleanse our will. During the fast we deny our bodily impulses -- for example, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink -- not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by sin and require to be purified through self-discipline. In this way, asceticism is a fight not against but for the body; the aim of fasting is to purge the body from alien defilement and to render it spiritual. By rejecting what is sinful in our will, we do not destroy the God-created body but restore it to its true balance and freedom. In Father Sergei Bulgakov's phraise, we will the flesh in order to acquire a body." (Source: The Lenten Triodion)

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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