THE LAST SUNDAY BEFORE THE GREAT FAST has several descriptive names. It is called the Sunday of the Expulsion, remembering the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden. It is also Cheesefare Sunday, the last day for eating dairy products. Finally it is the Sunday of Forgiveness. On this day we are expected to ask forgiveness from anyone we have offended. Perhaps it is a good idea to give this day yet another name, one which includes the meaning of the others. Let’s call it Ego-fare Sunday.
The Expulsion from Paradise
The story of Adam and Eve – really the story of any sin – is about ego. In Genesis we read that God said, “…if you eat of it [the tree] you will surely die.” But Eve said, “Gee, it looks good. I’d like to see for myself.” And we know the rest.
Sin is about ego: someone (Eve or me) decides that they will ignore someone else (God or my spouse) and do what I want. I prefer my will to the will of another, to God’s word in the Scriptures or to the Tradition of the Church. And so the remembrance of the original sin on this Sunday is a call for us to see that our ego is at the heart of our own sins and to resolve to hold it in check. This struggle is at the heart of any profitable Fast.
Farewell to Dairy Products
While we strive to control our greed, lust or pride, ego does not take a break. Fasting (and actually any Church practice) can become focused on my will. One example is what we fast from. Before children are old enough to actually fast, they are often encouraged to “give something up for Lent,” to decide what they want to do in observance of this season. Unfortunately many people don’t progress beyond this age spiritually. They still try to decide what they want to do. Ego again!
When we fast we are called to follow the Church’s way of fasting, not to decide for ourselves how or when to fast. We fast, for example on most Wednesdays and Fridays, not Tuesdays and Thursdays. We may need to lessen the amount of fasting because of our health or the rigors of our work, but we should be wary of letting what we want to do turn our fasting into an ego trip. We may feel the need of more protein than some fasting foods provide while conveniently forgetting that some pulses (e.g. lentils) contain more protein that meats. This is why making any changes in the traditional practice should be done with the blessing of one’s spiritual father who can help us distinguish a real need from the promptings of our ego.
Another way fasting can become an ego trip for the unwary is the way we take pride in it, be it our personal fasting or that of our Church. “We don’t fast just one day – our 40 days is 40 days!” As Christ indicated in Mt 6:16-18, there are always people who fast with fanfare – another manifestation of the ego. This is something we must be on our guard against as it is so easy to fall into this trap. If you are having lunch with friends or colleagues avoid saying things like, “I can’t eat that, I’M FASTING!” It would be more in the spirit of a true Fast to say something like, “I’ll just have a salad, I’ve been watching my diet lately.” This is a verbal way of anointing one’s head and washing one’s face, to use Christ’s imagery, lest we appear to be broadcasting our fast to one and all.
As we prepare to intensify our fasting during this season, let us examine the spirit in which we fast. Let us begin the Fast with this understanding: not measuring our fasting by what we eat and how much, but of the effect it has on us, whether our fasting makes us free or whether we become slaves of fasting itself.
Forgiveness and Our Spiritual Health
A great way to deal with our ego is to ask forgiveness of others before we presume to begin the Fast. In the rite of forgiveness at the first service of the Great Fast, Sunday evening vespers, everyone in the church asks forgiveness of everyone else. The lesson is clear: even if I’m not conscious of having offended you, I want to clear up any thing I may have done, even in ignorance.
Some people balk at this rite, feeling that they really haven’t done anything that heeds to be forgiven (that ego again). After all, no one is mad at me. Father Alexander Schmemann often pointed out that the rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us acknowledge – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to others is inadequate. As Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden, so we hide from one another, routinely erecting a wall around ourselves, avoiding any real concern for other people. We make sure that we are polite and “friendly” to others, while we are actually indifferent to them, unconcerned with their real needs.
Another secret way by which we offend others is by judging them in our hearts. In words that seem particularly modern, St Macarios the Great writes, “Christians ought not to pass judgment of any kind on anyone, not on the prostitute nor on sinners nor on disorderly persons. But they should look on all persons with a single mind and a pure eye so that it may be for such a person almost a natural and fixed attitude never to despise or judge or abhor anyone or to divide people and place them into boxes” (Homilies 5.8). We know that, as we look around the church, we constantly pigeonhole people. “She’s always talking about her ailments… he’s always bragging about his latest acquisition.” We need to confess our judgmental attitudes to acquire the “pure eye” of the true Christian.
So it does not matter whether we have publicly failed that person directly when asking for forgiveness, because whenever we fail to follow the Gospel, we become less than we can be and inevitably affect each other. This is why we need to ask forgiveness of all people on this day.
The Fast and Almsgiving
The Great Fast is a time to struggle with our ego, our self-centered self-love. Our fasting is truly effective in this regard when we pay less attention to our selves, to our wants to our needs and increase our love for others. Find someone who is hungry for food and feed them, or someone who is spiritually hungry and nourish help them. To do that, we must be able to see and pay attention to the needs of another. And we can’t do that if we are constantly focused on ourselves.
It is easier to observe the Church’s fasting rules, attend its additional services, and contribute to its charitable programs in a formal way without struggling against our ego. To do so empties our Fast of any worthwhile result as the following hymn from the Triodion indicates: In vain do you rejoice in not eating, O my soul! For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified. If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.