Melkite Greek Catholic Church
IF YOU WERE TO ASK a fitness devotee to describe Clean Week, you would hear about a seven-day nutrition and exercise program involving eating and lifestyle changes designed to “create the healthy habits you need for lifelong health and fitness.”

If you were to ask a committed Eastern Christian to describe Clean Week, you would hear about the first week of the Great Fast with its eating and lifestyle changes, its workouts (prostrations), and its programs for accountability (confession) and support (daily services).

Both approaches invite participants to put aside self-indulgence for a higher goal. The bodybuilder seeks health and fitness; the Christian seeks another kind of transform-ation, one described in the Scriptures as leading to something far greater: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3: 1-4).

“Cast Off the Works of Darkness”

Because our human nature has been scarred by the fall, pursuing the spiritual life does not come easily to us. It is necessary that we take pains to pursue it. We must make a concerted effort to change our focus from earthly things and to set our minds “on things above.” In the Great Fast, the Church provides us with an opportunity to make such an effort. The first step in this program for spiritual health is to distance ourselves from that which is harmful: what St Paul calls “the works of darkness.” In the Epistle to the Romans, he offers a catalogue – by no means an exhaustive one – of such works: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy” (Romans 13:13). These things were recognized as destructive long before Christ or even before Moses. They are the stuff of the “shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments, and yet they appeal to people of all ages and places. Their appeal is proof of the brokenness of our nature.

Traditionally the days immediately preceding the Great Fast are devoted to separating ourselves from earthly pleasures. Most such attempts should be personal, de-termined by the believer and his or her elder. Some practices are communal, meant to remind us of our need to enter fully into the spirit of the Fast.

One such practice in Greece and the Middle East takes place on the Thursday before Meat-fare Sunday when any meat remaining in the house is eaten. In Lebanon this day is called khamis al-sakara (Drunkard’s Thurs-day), because not only meat but also alcohol must be consumed as well. A similar observance is the Slavic custom known as Maslenitsa. In the week before the Fast, all the dairy products in the house are con-sumed, usually in the form of crepes (blini) and other cheese or cream-filled treats. Such events, however, notably the Carnivals in Europe and America, quickly became occa-sions of excess, as people give feasting a rousing send-off.

“Let Us Put On the Armor of Light”

Besides distancing ourselves from what is harmful, the committed Christian sees the Great Fast as an opportunity to evaluate the strength of his or her commitment to Christ. When the Lord was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He answered by quoting the Book of Deuteronomy: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

In order to keep this first great command-ment, the Christian must evaluate his or her way of life: Do I have a heart fully devoted to God or do I have other “loves” which distract me from loving Him? Am I so attached to things like my comforts (food, drink, etc.) or entertainment (TV, movies, sporting events) that I cannot put them aside, even for a brief time? Is my mind chiefly devoted to the pursuit of possessions – luxury cars, jewelry, clothing, etc. – that I have no mental energy to consider the things of God? The things to which we are attached may not be sinful in themselves, but they can prevent us from keeping the Lord’s commandment to “love the Lord your

God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

It is only by putting aside for a time the good things with which we have been bles-sed that we can determine how attached to them we may be. Would it be easier for me to do without the Eucharist for forty days than to do without cream in my coffee for the same period? One of the benefits of the Fast is that it teaches us what we love, on what we rely, and how much we love the Lord in comparison.

What Is the “Armor of Light?”

From time to time, the Church is criticized as being too negative: of focusing on the “shalt nots.” The first passage from Scrip-ture read during the Great Fast helps set the record straight. In the opening passage from the Prophecy of Isaiah we read, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16,17).

Refocusing our attention away from our own comforts on to the needs of God’s people is one way to “put on the armor of light,” to become the light for the world as Christ intended us to be. As we sing on the Mon-day of Cheese-fare Week “Let us hasten to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions. Through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy, let us enter into the bridal chamber of Christ the Bride-groom, who grants us His great mercy” (from vespers).

Triodion Hymns for the Start of the Fast

The gateway to divine repentance has been opened. Let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ, who has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of All a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.

O faithful, let us joyfully accept the proclama-tion of God that announces the coming of the Fast, as once did the people of Niniveh, and the prostitutes and publicans who heard John preach repentance. Through abstinence, let us prepare for communion at the Liturgy of the Master on Sion. With tears, let us wash ourselves clean before the washing of the feet. Let us pray that we may behold the fulfillment of the old Pas-sover and the revealing of the new. Let us prepare ourselves to worship the Cross and Resurrection of Christ our God, and let us cry aloud to Him: “Lover of Mankind, put us not to shame, nor deprive us of our hopes!”

If you fast from food, my soul, but do not cleanse yourself from passions, you will rejoice in vain over your abstinence. If your intention is not turned to amendment of life, you will be as hateful as a liar in the sight of God, and you will resemble the evil demons who never eat at all. Do not make the Fast worthless by sinning, but firmly resist all evil impulses. Imagine that you are standing by the crucified Savior, or rather, that you are crucified with Him who was cruci-fied for you. Cry out to Him: “Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom!” From the Triodion
TOMORROW IS THE FIRST DAY of the Great Fast. As a reminder we hear once more these words of St Paul: “You know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). Each year the Church calls to four fasting periods – four wake-up calls to focus more intently on the spiritual life in connection with one of its most important feasts. Since the Great Fast prepares us for Pascha, the “Feast of Feasts,” it is naturally more intense than the other fasting periods. Accordingly the Church sees St Paul’s admonition as especially appropriate today. How do we observe this Fast? Again we take our cue from St Paul: “Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:12-14). In calling the people of his time to take up the challenges of the Gospel the apostle also gives us an outline of how to keep the Fast that is upon us. We are first of all to cast off the Works of Darkness, specifically the two examples which St Paul mentions.

Not in Reveling and Drunkenness

Abstaining from entertainment is the first of St Paul’s examples which has become part of the Church’s Lenten fast. There is a hold on Church parties and celebrations (including marriages) for these forty days. Instead many parishes hold Lenten Dinners with proceeds devoted to charity. In second-millennium Europe it was customary that theaters and all places of entertainment would be shuttered during the Fast. Religious plays and music on Biblical themes would be offered instead. Perhaps the most famous composition of this type, Handel’s Messiah, was premiered at a charity concert in Holy Week, April 1742. In the past entertainment was, for most people, a relatively rare respite from work. Today it often seems that work is a respite from entertainment, which is available to us day and night at the click of a button. Many people cannot imagine doing without their TV or computer for forty days. Are we called to fast from these devices at least for part of the time during the Fast? Abstinence from rich food and drink is the signature exercise of spiritual discipline during this period. The specific way this activity is practiced varies from eparchy to eparchy and even from individual to individual. These general principles are universal: Fasting, the abstinence from all food and drink, is observed prior to receiving the Eucharist and on every weekday (Monday through Friday) during the Great Fast, usually until noon. Abstinence is the avoidance of specific foods. During the Great Fast abstinence from “meat” (i.e. all animal products, including poultry, fish, eggs, dairy) as well as wine and, in some traditions, oil is practiced daily for the forty days in most Eastern Churches. This is also the root of the Western practice of “giving up something for Lent.” The Fast is a time for simplifying our physical life, but should it be seen as a time of “giving-up”? The Prodigal did not feel that he was giving something up when he set out for his father because he saw the reality of the life he was living. If we see fasting as “giving-up,” we may have forgotten the first lesson we learned in Sunday school: that the real aim of our life is communion with God.

Not in Quarreling and Jealousy

As long as there has been a Great Fast there have been voices warning against misusing the experience. When we simply equate food fasting as the purpose of the season, St John Chrysostom tells us, we belittle the very season we seek to observe: “Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: ‘If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves … “You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrust bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading dishonor, causing inestimable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.’” The Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian (“O Lord and Master of my life…”), which we recite so often during this season, leads us to see the purpose of the season as the acquisition of virtue, particularly in relation to others. We pray to avoid sloth, ambition, inquisitiveness, and vain talking as well the habit of judging others. We ask that we attain patience, love, and humility – virtues that define our relations with others as being in Christ. Another Lenten experience which seeks to put relationships at the center of our focus during the Fast is the rite of forgiveness held at the end of vespers or the Liturgy on this day. We are enjoined to ask forgiveness and prayers from every other person in the community. In some Churches it is the custom to sing the Paschalia during this rite, pointing toward the kiss we will exchange with everyone in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.

Put On the Lord Jesus Christ

St Paul’s admonition – and the spirit of the Great Fast – does not exalt deprivation, or giving something up for its own sake. Both see abstinence as a way of making room for something greater: living a life of Christian love. Again, Paul is echoed by Chrysostom who writes, “Whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.” Thus almsgiving is as integral a part of this season as is fasting from food and drink. St John Chrysostom offers us other helps in understanding the true purpose of this season when he writes: “If you cannot go without eating all day because of an ailment of the body, beloved one, no logical man will be able to criticize you for that. Besides, we have a Lord who is meek and loving (philanthropic) and who does not ask for anything beyond our power. Because he neither requires the abstinence from foods, neither that the Fast take place for the simple sake of fasting, neither is its aim that we remain with empty stomachs, but that we fast to offer our entire selves to the dedication of spiritual things, having distanced ourselves from secular things. “If we regulated our life with a sober mind and directed all of our interest toward spiritual things, and if we ate as much as we needed to satisfy our necessary needs and offered our entire lives to good works, we would not have any need of the help rendered by the fast. But because human nature is indifferent and gives itself over mostly to comforts and gratifications, for this reason the philanthropic Lord, like a loving and caring father, devised the therapy of the fast for us, so that our gratifications would be completely stopped and that our worldly cares be transferred to spiritual works.”
TOMORROW IS THE FIRST DAY of the Great Fast, the forty days of preparation for the observances of Great Week and Pascha. On this, the eve of the Fast, our Church always reads these words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep... let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11, 12). Appropriate as these words may be to this day, we know that they were not written with the Fast in mind; there was no Great Fast in St Paul’s day. To what was he referring? Commentators believe that St Paul’s sense of urgency derived from the portentous events in the Roman Empire of his day. The persecution of the Church had begun. Jewish unrest was intensifying and a full scale revolt would be mounted in a few short years, bringing about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would be coming soon; many Christians believed that He (Jesus) would be returning soon. The “Day of the Lord” was at hand. For St Paul, this critical time in the history of the Church and the Jewish nation demanded that Christians focus their attention on the fundamental truth of their existence: they had a unique relationship to God in Christ. Everyone in the world was related to God as the work of His hands; Christians, however, were related to Him as His adopted children, God “having predestined us to adoption as sons” (Ephesians 1:5) in order to make present throughout the world the Gospel of salvation in Christ. It is this reality which should define a Christian’s way of life at this time.

Wakefulness and Sleep

St Paul uses a number of contrasting examples in his epistles to represent the difference between the ways of believers and those of non-believers. Christians are told to be awake rather than to sleep, for “the night is far spent, the day is at hand” (v. 12). In the ancient world sleep was frequently an image of death. As a descent into unconsciousness sleep foreshadows the end of life. Because it is temporary, however, sleep is also an image pointing to the resurrection. At Christ’s resurrection, we are told in the Gospel, “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52). To be asleep is, in effect, to be dead. Sleep is also an image of inattention when contrasted to watchfulness. The sentry is awake, alert to any danger. Thus St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober…” (1 Thessalonians 5:7, 8). Sleep and drunkenness are equally devastating to a sentry who is supposedly on watch. The need for wakefulness was apparently well known to the Christians of St Paul’s day. Writing to the Ephesians he cites what seems to have been a popular saying, “Therefore it is said: ‘Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’  See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16). Believers, like sentries, need to be awake to see the dangers to faith in a godless society and distance themselves from them.

Light and Darkness

The images of sleep and night are connected to another set of images, used even longer to contrast the way of God and the ways of this world. We find the image of light in the midst of darkness representing the coming of the Messiah in the Book of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (Is 9:2). This passage is quoted in Matthew 4:16 as fulfilled when the Lord Jesus began His ministry. And, of course, Jesus is, in His own words, the Light of the world. Surrounded as we are with artificial light all day and night, we find it difficult to fathom the importance of daylight to people living before the twentieth century. Throughout most of human history productive life all but stopped at the setting of the sun. As the Lord Himself said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). Immoral or treasonous activity is hidden under cover of night unless the “time is redeemed,” to use St Paul’s image. From its earliest days Christians devoted the night to prayer rather that to “revelry and drunkenness” (cf., Acts 20:7-9). All-Night Vigils are still observed on some occasions, generally, but not exclusively, in monasteries.

Casting Off and Putting On

The final pair of contrasts St Paul uses here is that of old and new garments. We are to “cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Armor, of course, suggests a soldier dressed for combat and St Paul develops that aspect of the image in Ephesians 6:11-18. “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11). Putting-on and taking-off becomes an important rite in the mystery of baptism where the removal of one’s ordinary garments represents the catechumen’s willingness to die to sin. The new life in Christ is, of course, represented by the white baptismal garment, the “robe of light” which the newly baptized puts on. During this Great Fast, then, we who have put on the robe of light at our baptism are called to put aside any form of physical or emotional self-gratification (what St Paul calls “revelry and drunkenness … lewdness and lust… strife and envy”) through fasting, almsgiving and forgiveness. Similarly by increased prayer and worship during these days we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Each person’s circumstances in life are different, but the Lord’s call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving is meant for everyone. If you have not already done so, discuss your Lenten program with your spiritual father. He can help you discern whether your plans are too little or too much, depending on your spiritual strength.
St Theodore the Studite on the Fast
“Brethren, fasting is the renewal of the soul, for the Apostle says that, as the body weakens and withers from the ascetic labor of fasting, then so much is the soul renewed day by day and is made beauteous and shines in the beauty which God originally bestowed upon it. And when it is purified and adorned with fasting and repen-tance, then God loves it and will live in it as the Lord has said: "I and the Father will come and make our abode with him" (John 14:23). Thus, if there is such value and grace in fasting that it makes us into God’s dwelling, then we ought to greet it with joy and gladness, and not despond because of the meagerness of the food… “At the same time, if we desire that the fast be true and acceptable to God, then along with abstaining from food, let us restrain ourselves from every sin of soul and body, as the sticheron instructs us: ‘Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all sinful passions.’ Let us guard ourselves… from vainglory and envious zeal, from malice out of spite, and from enmity, and secret passions such as these, which kill the soul. Let us guard against ill-temper and self-assertion, that is, let us not appropriate things for ourselves and indulge our self-will. For nothing is so loved of the devil as to find a person who has not forgiven another and has not taken advice from those able to instruct him in virtue; then the enemy easily deludes the self-assertive and traps him in all that he does and thinks to be good.”
SAD TO SAY, there are sincere believers who come to confession because they feel it is easier to repent before God than it is to apologize to people they have hurt! After all, God always forgives and the priest doesn’t try to make you feel embarrassed. On the contrary, a sincerely repentant encounter with Christ, whether in confession or in the Eucharist, assumes that penitents have already repented to those whom they have offended. There is no greater sign of the authenticity of a person’s repentance than the willingness to do something concrete about it. Similarly there is no greater sign that a “penitent” is deceiving himself when he tries to apologize to God while avoiding the person he offended. Back in the 1970s teenager Michael Goodman mugged another youth, Claude Soffel, on a New York City street and stole his bus pass. Memory of the incident never left Goodman’s conscience. Thirty-five years later he recognized his victim’s name on a Facebook posting and expressed his repentance online. “You may not remember this (about 1976 or '77),” Goodman wrote, “but a long, long time ago... trying to look like a tough guy... I walked up to you and mugged you for your bus pass. I have never forgotten the incident or your name. Finally I can say I'm very sorry.” Some time later the victim, Mr Soffel, replied: “Clearly you're a bigger man today. I recognize your name now as well. So, apology accepted. So let us now, jointly put this in its proper place, behind us.” We do not know whether either of these men are believers, but since their story went viral they have become role models for repentance and forgiveness in the cyber world.

Repenting in Our Liturgy

Repenting to one another has an important place in our liturgical tradition, based on the injunction of Christ that wrongs should be righted before coming to worship God: “Therefore if you are bringing your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24). In the Divine Liturgy, having brought our gift before the altar, we are reminded, “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess the Father, the Son…” At this point the greeting of peace would be exchanged: priests with priests, deacons with deacons and laypeople with one another. These days, the greeting is generally exchanged only among the clergy. In some churches you may still see people moving without ostentation through the congregation, asking forgiveness before approaching the holy mysteries! In other churches the greeting “Christ is in our midst – He is and ever shall be!” is exchanged without any accompanying gesture. A moving response to Christ’s injunction is observed as we begin the Great Fast every year. The first service of the season climaxes with the rite of forgiveness. People approach the priest one at a time and each asks the other’s forgiveness for any way they may have offended each other during the year. The worshippers then ask one another’s forgiveness, forming a large a circle around the church until all the members have expressed their repentance to one another. Not surprisingly, this service has come to be known as “Forgiveness Vespers.”

Repentance Calls for Forgiveness

As difficult as directly expressing our repentance might be, extending forgiveness to others may be even more demanding for even committed church members. Offenses, whether real or imagined, can prey on one’s mind for years; grudges nursed for decades. Yet the words of Christ in the Gospel could not be clearer, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14, 15). “Yes,” you may say, “but you don’t know what she did to me!” Other people’s sins may seem unforgivable, but once we take a step toward forgiving them, well who knows what might happen. In 1944, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were among those who witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German war prisoners marching through the streets of Moscow: “The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear. “At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors. “‘They smell of perfume, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back. “All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent -- the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches. “Then I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.” A Precocious Autobiography, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Collins, London)
Let us enter the season of the radiant Fast with joy, giving ourselves to the spiritual combat. Let us purify our spirit and cleanse our flesh. As we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love, so as to be worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Resurrection. O Lord, the light of Your grace has risen and shines upon our souls. Behold, now is the acceptable time: the season of repentance is here. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, that we may pass through the Great Fast as through a great sea, and reach the goal of the third-day Resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and the Savior of our souls!
Stichera from Forgiveness Vespers
CHEESEFARE SUNDAY IS TRADITIONALLY the last day for eating dairy products until Pascha, as the Great Fast begins tomorrow. This poses a problem in our society where meat and dairy are the substance of every meal. Some people say that they cannot do without meat and so they only fast sporadically. By this they may mean they need protein and are not aware of other sources of protein, such as beans, peas, soy products (tofu), as well as seeds and nuts. But it is perhaps more likely that people miss the taste of meat, fish or dairy products more than their protein content. As a result many people replace these foods, not with vegetables and grains, but with meat and dairy substitutes made to taste like meat and dairy products. Technically these foods are not meat or dairy – they only taste like them – so they don’t break the Fast. Or do they? Christian fasting is not based on an avoidance of any foods because they are unclean or taboo in any way. Neither do we abstain from meat or dairy during the Fast for health reasons, out of respect for the creatures that produce them or for environmental concerns, legitimate as they may be. We do not even fast during this season to lament Christ’s suffering and death. As St John Chrysostom wrote, “The Passion is not a reason for fasting or mourning but one for joy and exultation” (Sixteenth Homily on Matthew). Fasting in the Eastern Churches is a tool for retraining the ego. It is a way of curbing the “I crave” in each of us and doing it together as a community. Fasting is a type of self-denial, an imitation of Christ’s own emptying Himself in order to share our human condition. The liturgy expresses this poetically: “The flower of abstinence grows for the entire world from the tree of the Cross. Let us then accept the Fast with love and take pleasure in the fruit of Christ’s divine commandments” (Orthros, First Wednesday of the Fast). The self-emptying of the cross bears fruit in us when we strive to empty ourselves through fasting. People with real health issues will always receive a blessing to eat meat or dairy during the Fast but for most people, their reluctance to avoid these foods – and for forty days, at that – is because they don’t want to give up the taste. If we look to the Fast in the way that the Church does, as an exercise in curbing our ego, we may well decide to avoid meat and dairy “look-alikes” as well. The teaching on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount, read at today’s Liturgy, concludes with the admonition, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). Fasting is a school in which we try to live by this precept. In our affluent society most of us have some “treasures on earth” which we are reluctant to give up. Fasting helps us learn that we can in fact live without some of the things on which we base our way of life.

Fasting and Compassion

In the Gospel Christ admonishes us to avoid making a show of our fasting. In ancient Israel people often manifested their sorrow or repentance by tearing their garments or wearing sackcloth and smearing their faces with ashes. Christ taught the opposite: “But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting” (Matthew 6:17-18). The Church encourages us to do the same, and specifies the ointment we should use: “Let us anoint the head of our soul with the oil of loving compassion” (Canon, First Monday of the Fast). In Greek the words for oil and mercy are virtually identical, giving rise to the idea that the joy of the season is to be found in extending compassion to the needy. “When you give, give generously, your face lit up with joy. And give more than you were asked for…” (Isaac the Syrian, Ascetic Treatises, 23). The frequency of Lenten charity suppers or alms boxes in our churches are expressions of this sentiment. Compassion has been defined as “the deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the desire to relieve it.” It is much more personal than writing a check or dropping off a donation to the local thrift store. Compassion is what motivates the coming of Christ in the flesh. “If He came down to earth, it was out of compassion for the human race. He suffered our sufferings before suffering the cross, even before taking our flesh. If He had not suffered, He would not have come down to share our life with us” (Origen, Sixth Homily on Ezekiel 6,6). Imitating the compassion of Christ, then, means becoming personally involved with those you seek to help, even to the extent of sharing their condition. For most of us, learning to do so might take a lifetime of Lents. It has long been the custom to speak of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, ways of showing compassion that are within the reach of every believer. They are: Corporal (physical) Works of Mercy:
  • Feeding the hungry
  • Giving drink to the thirsty
  • Sheltering the homeless
  • Clothing the naked
  • Visiting the sick
  • Visiting the imprisoned, and
  • Burying the dead
Spiritual Works of Mercy:
  • Admonishing the sinner
  • Instructing the ignorant
  • Counseling the unsettled
  • Comforting the sorrowful
  • Bearing wrongs patiently
  • Forgiving all injuries, and
  • Praying for the living and the dead.
Can at least one of these form part of your exercise of the Great Fast?
St Theodore the Studite on Fasting
“Fasting then is a renewal of the soul, for the holy Apostle says, Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward is being renewed day by day. And if it is being renewed, clearly it is being made beautiful according to its original beauty; made beautiful in itself it is being drawn lovingly to the one who said, I and the Father will come and make our dwelling with him. If then such is the grace of fasting, that it makes us into a dwelling place of God, we must welcome it, brethren, gladly, not grieving at the plainness of the diet, for we know that the Lord, though he is able to nourish lavishly, made a banquet for thousands in the wilderness from bread and water. Also because what is unusual, with enthusiasm becomes acceptable and painless. Fasting is not defined by foods alone, but by every abstinence from evil, as our godly fathers have explained. “And so, I beg you, let us abstain from despondency, idleness, sluggishness, jealousy, strife, maliciousness, self-indulgence, self-reliance; let us abstain from destructive desire which the many-shaped serpent lays before us when we are fasting. Let us listen to the one who says, ‘The fruit which slew me was beautiful to behold and fair to eat’. ..This is what our forefather Adam suffered when he was tricked by the serpent; for when he touched the forbidden food, he found death instead of life.” (Catechesis 54)
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.

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