Melkite Greek Catholic Church
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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