The hymns of the Orthodox Church during the week days of Great Lent continually remind us that we are engaged in a spiritual fast, not just a physical one. This is a theme I’ve mentioned in previous blogs this year during Lent (see for example Fasting: The Rules and the Individual, Fasting: It’s Not About the Food, Perfect Image of Fasting or Great Lent as Banquet). Here are some hymns from the 2nd Week of Great Lent to help shape our idea of what the Great Fast is and should be.
HAVING UNDERTAKEN THE SPIRITUAL FAST, BRETHREN, LET US SPEAK NO LIES WITH OUR TONGUES, NOR GIVE EACH OTHER A CAUSE FOR SCANDAL. BUT ILLUMINING THE LIGHT OF OUR SOULS THROUGH REPENTANCE, LET US CRY TO CHRIST WITH TEARS: REMIT OUR FALLS IN SIN, LOVER OF MANKIND.
IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED. ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!
Spiritual fasting, so the hymn tells us, includes speaking no lies and also not scandalizing other Christians by what we do or say or fail to do. Not giving scandal is a behavior based in love – it requires us to be ever attentive to how our behavior – what we do or say or fail to do or say – affects those around us. Attentiveness to the spiritual health of others is a main part of Lent: we are to abstain from sin and even from scandalizing others! We are to do good – not just abstain from certain foods – but actually do acts of goodness and beauty as signs that we truly repent of our sins. We change our lives and show the change by the good we do. Among the most important acts of Great Lent is giving charitably to those in need. As the hymn emphasizes: “NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED. ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH.” Nothing saves as much as giving in charity – not even fasting from foods! We should consider this in our Lenten effort. More important than changing diet is giving to the poor. Giving alms saves us from death! How can the hymns make the purpose of Lent more clear?
Perhaps the best fast we could do is not spending hours coming up with “lenten” recipes (especially the oxymoronish “gourmet lenten” recipes!) but rather so simplifying our diets that we actually reduce our food budgets and give that extra money to the poor. We take the money we normally spend on ourselves and give it to the hungry poor.
Allow Lent to be the time when you spend less time and money on food and rather give your time and money in charity to others less fortunate than yourself or your family. That would be a fast well-pleasing to God (Isaiah 58!)
OF OLD, OUR PARENTS DID NOT FAST ACCORDING TO THE CREATOR’S COMMAND AND RECEIVED DEATH AS A FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. THEY WERE BANISHED FROM THE TREE OF LIFE, AND FROM THE SWEETNESS OF PARADISE! THEREFORE, FAITHFUL, LET US FAST FROM CORRUPTING SNARES, FROM HARMFUL PASSIONS, SO THAT WE MAY ACQUIRE LIFE FROM THE DIVINE CROSS, AND RETURN WITH THE GOOD THIEF TO OUR INITIAL HOME, RECEIVING GREAT MERCY FROM CHRIST OUR GOD!
The two hymns from the 2nd week of Great Lent present an interesting contrast. Adam and Eve did not obey God’s command in Paradise, the only commandment which was a fasting rule: do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve did not fast according to God’s commandment.
Compare that with the thought in the first hymn that charitable giving inspired by fasting delivers us from death. And we know Christ’s Gospel commandments are that we love God and love neighbor and love others as He has loved us. The commandment of the Gospel is that of love. To fast according to God’s commandment in the New Testament is to love – this is the spiritual fast we keep singing about in the Lenten hymns. It is what makes for a joyful fast as the fast is not so much about inflicting suffering on ourselves as it is about loving others. Adam and Eve did not fast according to God’s commandment and neither will we if our fasting is nothing but obsessing over what foods we eat. We are not trying to change our intestinal tracts but rather we are trying to convert our hearts to conform to the Gospel commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The fasting from food is minor compared to the far more important fasting from our passions. We fast in order to receive mercy from Christ – and the way to God’s mercy is by our own being merciful (Matthew 18:23-35). We are to fast from passions, selfishness, self-centeredness and self-love; that is how we are to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ (Mark 8:34-38). AND we are to replace these behaviors with mercy, love, kindness and charity.
“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.'” (Matthew 25:23)