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 PROPER OF THE SEASON

 

The Lent Fast

By His Eminence The Metropolitan Nikitas of Honkong

 

Let us love abstinence,

that we may not weep as Adam did outside Paradise,

but enter through the gate.

 

Each and every year, the Church sounds the trumpet and calls all her children to enter the spiritual arena and "to cast off the works of dark- ness and put on the armor of light". We, all of us, are summoned "sail the great sea of the Fast" and walk the path to the great Feast of Feasts: Pascha. The hymns of the Church remind us that the "time is now at hand to start upon the spiritual contest and to gain victory over the demonic powers". We are invited to join the march of the faithful to see the empty tomb.

For many people, the above words do not fall into the pat tern of their daily lives. The expressions are old and antiquated - something of the past. They feel these sorts of thoughts and this type of language out of step with the modern world and society. After all, we have become a world of the future where we each believe that we have the right to define the path of life, even the ways of the Church. This mind-set has never been
part of the Orthodox ethos, though, and it seems strange to those well-grounded in the faith. In Orthodoxy, there is no understanding that we must keep changing and be come more modern, as if everything new is better.

 

 The Church is not a mannequin which we change and dress, according to our personal desires and ways.

 

For these and many other reasons, the Church established the fast for all: one and the same for everyone. It never carried a tone of feeling of a personal character. While in the West there is the idea of giving up something for Lent, it was never to be found in the heart of the Orthodox East. We are all called to the same fast, where the Church instructs how and when we fast, according to our abilities and strengths and under the guidance of an elder or spiritual father. Just as a doctor will guide us in regaining and maintaining our health, our spiritual guide will help us to preserve the proper understanding and purpose of the fast.

While the fast is, indeed, important in our lives and does play a role in our spiritual development, we must be honest and admit that we have lost the vision of the fast which the Fathers of the Church held. Our contemporary understanding is one of foods, restrictions, and a means of abstinence. We have forgotten that the fast is a discipline that is used to humble and educate us, as well as cleanse our hearts, minds and bodies. It is only a part of our spiritual life and does not stand in isolation apart from the rest of Christian life. If it does, then the fast is only a diet of sorts with no benefit to the Christian soul. One only need to ask the question: "how does a strict vegetarian keep the fast?" We forget that God has instructed us to fast and to be obedient to his word, not only to abstain from foods. St. Basil reminds us of this (in his famous writing Concerning the Fast), when he says that because Adam did not keep the fast and he was disobedient to the commandment of God, we lost paradise. In order for us to regain and reenter paradise, we must now fast. The fast, though, for St. Basil and all the great fathers and mothers of the Church, is not what we have developed and live today. The holy people of God realized their total dependence upon God, through the fast. The ancient texts which make reference to the fast, teach about this. Through austere means, they were broken and led to a point of contrition, humility and a spiritual hunger for the "Bread of Life". The simple bread of man, though, could not satisfy them, nor could the waters of rivers and streams of the earth quench their thirst. But, when they drank of the spiritual waters which quench the inner thirsts, they were able to survive in the deserts of this world.

Christ and the Church do not make such difficult demands of us though. We are not called to be broken in the same way as the great spiritual athletes of old. But we are called, though, to break down our pride and liberate ourselves from the passions, which keep us in bondage. We do this when we observe "a fast acceptable to the Lord", as St. Basil and the hymns correctly teach. Only a fast which is pleasing, true and acceptable before God is the means of cleansing the soul and heart. We can then understand that "true fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury". It is this sort of fast that the fathers lived and to which we are called.

"Only a fast which is pleasing, true and acceptable before God is the means of cleansing the soul and heart."

The question then comes, "how should I observe the fast? What shall I eat and not eat?" Regretfully, these are the questions that plague the minds of many. While there are many answers to this simple and direct question, the first and easiest of these is the response "do what the Church directs - nothing more, nothing less". While it may seem simple, the answer is more complex than one can imagine. One can take the simple route and see the fast as a system of dietary laws, as if keeping "kosher". Or, we can eat corn oil, soy products, artificial eggs and keep the letter of the law. But, one needs to really go beyond this and explore the depth of the fast, as seen by the tradition of the Church. How funny it would seem to the great ascetics of the past to hear of our ways of preparing meals, so we adhere to the laws of fasting. We have forgotten, perhaps, that we are now in the time of grace and have been freed from the burden of the law. We should, first, re call that when the Lord speaks of fasting, he does not see it as a single unit, isolated and alone. He speaks of it coupled with prayer (See Matt 17:21). Christ reflects that which has always been lived and practiced by the Church - fasting and prayer were bound together in a special union. We see this important understanding to be found in the book of T obit, as well as in other scriptural passages. We know and realize that food and abstinence from it will not save any one. A person will only grow hungry and feel the pains of an empty stomach. 

 

"...true fasting is to put away all evil, 

to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, 

to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury."

We have forgotten that fasting is a means of acquiring liberty and freedom. The fast does not restrict us. We have forgotten that fasting is a means of acquiring liberty and freedom. The fast does not restrict us. Rather, it turns our thoughts away from food and even the need of the "what and how" to prepare it. Our minds, and even more important our hearts, turn to God, who will nourish us: with his I word of truth.

The fast is; also a very: personal matter. It is not necessary to discuss how we fast with others, as if comparing our spiritual and physical abilities with them. One only need to recall the words found in the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, where we read the following:


"Then all gathered in the church, and after praying earnestly with prostrations, the elders kissed one another and asked forgiveness. And each made a prostration to the abbot and asked his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before them. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open, and singing, The Lord is my light and my Savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 26: 1) and the rest of that psalm, all went out into the desert and crossed the River Jordan. Only one or two brothers were left in the monastery, not to guard the property (for there was nothing to rob), but so as no to
leave the church without Divine Service. Each took with him as much as could or wanted in the way of food, according to the needs of his body: one would take a little bread, another some figs, another dates or wheat soaked on water. And some took nothing but their own body covered with rags and fed when nature forced them to it on the plants that grew in the desert.

After crossing the Jordan, they all scattered far and wide in different directions. And this was the rule of life they had, and which they observed - neither to talk to one another, not to know how each one lived and fasted. . . . Everyone of them while in the desert struggled with himself before the Judge of the struggle - God - not seeking to please men and fast before the eyes of all. For what is done for the sake of men, to win praise and honor, is not only useless to the one who does it but sometimes the cause of great punishment."

 

 

Fasting is, indeed, a very personal matter

 

The spiritual discipline of the Church, which we have come to call fasting, is, indeed, a very personal matter. It is not a public matter or something of display. It is the struggle in the days of Lent to regain much that has been lost, including the very understanding of ourselves as people and children of God.

 

As the years passed, we not only lost paradise but also our real nature. We became people living in a world, strangers in a strange land, with the consequences of the fall. We were no longer in communion with the divine; rather we lived separate and distant from God. A hymn of Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare) says the following:

"Adam was cast out from the delight of Paradise: bitter was his eating, when in uncontrolled desire he broke the commandment of the Master, and he was condemned to work the earth from which he had himself been taken, and eat his bread in toil and sweat. Therefore let us love abstinence, that we may not weep as he did outside Paradise but enter through the gate."

So many hymns of the Church speak to us about regaining Paradise. It is actually our very purpose and goal. It is not for one to think, though, that a system of dietary laws and regulations, on their own, would take us back to the point of origin, for "the kingdom of God is not food and drink", as we are instructed in the hymn of the Fifth Sunday of Lent. The fast, as the various hymns of the Church correctly remind us, is only a small portion of Christian life and character. It is combined with other spiritual disciplines and means to change and transfigure us from simple, worldly people into earthly angels and heavenly citizens.

The central factor, though, in Christian life is love and how love is lived in this life and world. If one keeps the fast for any other reason than for the love of God, he is in error and his vision is blurred. Saint John of the Ladder states:

"Let us love God at least as much as we respect our friends. For I have often seen people who attended God and were not in the least perturbed about it. And I have seen how these same people provoked their friends in some trifling matter, and then employed every artifice, every device, every sacrifice, every apology, both personally and through friends and relatives, not sparing gifts, in order to regain their former love." (Step 1 :15)

The fast is given to assist us in returning to the embracing and loving arms of God, who awaits our return. He is the one who expressed this in the parable of the prodigal son and has repeated that he awaits every sinner who repents and desires to be saved.

During these sacred days of the fast, we are like the Jews of old, who were taken in captivity to Babylon and who longed for the promised land. We ponder our separation from God and our longing for him and his kingdom. We recall the words of the Psalmist King and those who said:

 

"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of lion!' How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"

 

One of the means for us to return to the paradise lost is through fasting, which we offer through love. There are those, though, who feel that such practices are out-dated and irrelevant. Or, there are those who question the wisdom of the Church in following this ancient style of discipline. They forget that even the Lord said, "when you fast," clearly instructing us to do so. The following example taken from a sermon of Metropolitan Philaret (of blessed memory) is statement to those who challenge the ways and disciplines of the Church.

"Often times I have quoted the words of Saint Seraphim, and once again shall I mention them. Once there came to him a mother who was concerned about how she might arrange the best possible marriage for her young daughter. When she came to Saint Seraphim for advice, he said to her: 'Before all else, ensure that he, whom your daughter chooses as her companion for life, keeps the fasts. If he does not, then he is not a Christian whatever he may consider himself to be.' You see how the greatest saint of the Russian Church, Saint Seraphim of  Sarov, a man who, better than we, knew what Orthodoxy is, spoke concerning the fasts?"

People have forgotten, though, that the path of Christian life has an ascetical character. It is the path of denial and sacrifice, as we were told by the Master:

"He who would come after me, let him take up his cross, deny himself, and follow me."

The Lord said this, inviting every person to a time of self-denial of ascetic labor. It is for these reasons that the Fathers of the Church saw and lived the importance of fasting. St. John of the Ladder reminds us that this great spiritual tool is,

"the uprooting of bad thoughts, purity of prayer, the light of the soul, the guarding of the mind, deliverance from blindness, the door of compunction, humble sighing, lightening of sleep, health of body, agent of dispassion, remission of sins, the gate of Paradise and its delight." (Step 14:33)


We are all called, beloved people, to join in the battle against the passions and the ego through fasting and other spiritual means. We must not, though, misunderstand the true and deeper meaning of these disciplines. We must live them in and for the love of God.

 

By permission and with thanks to

Copyright Metropolitan Nikitas of Hongkong

The Censer, February and March 2004, www.omhksea.org .

 

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