Right before Great Lent begins, or at the beginning of Great Lent, all Orthodox Christians should read and meditate on Isaiah 58, especially verses :4-11. Great Lent, as God describes a fast, should be about the very things Christ teaches in the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) which we proclaim 8 days before Lent begins. As Isaiah recorded it, the Lord said:
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
God does not bless Great Lent to be a season of criticizing, condemning or accusing others of not keeping the fast, of not being rigorous enough, of being too rigorous. The fast that God blesses has to do with virtue, with justice and charity. Fasting as Jesus taught it is do be done secretly. It is not intended to be a public witness.
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
Unfortunately, this godly emphasis is not always obvious in the Orthodox fast as Lent gets turned into being about menus and diet and personal asceticism, rather than being about how we relate to and treat others. Great Lent is about loving God and neighbor. It is about us humans living as God created us to – as relational beings with a social and theological dimension. As the Lord Jesus taught:
“But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:41-42)
If we search enough we can find these themes in the hymns of Great Lent. Here are a few such hymns below reminding us that fasting is not mostly about changing our diets and our stomachs, but rather is about transforming and reforming our hearts and minds.
Now the season of virtues has come,
And the Judge is at the door.
Let us not hold back with a darkened face,
But offering tears, contrition and giving of alms
Let us keep the fast, and let us cry:
Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea,
But forgive each of us, that we may receive an incorruptible crown, Savior of all!
The goal of fasting is to overcome sins and all evil influence in our lives. The perfect fast does not consist of checking the labels on every food item to make sure it adheres to strict rules limiting which foods we eat. We can strictly keep the rules, but if our hearts remain unchanged, if we are not conformed to the image of Christ, then the fast is not going to be well-pleasing to God. We are not trying to torment the palates of family members, rather we are trying to transform our hearts so that we are virtuous, humble, loving, forgiving and asking forgiveness. Fasting that leaves us angry and judgmental does not form us in the image of our Savior.
Let us use fasting as our sword,
To cut away all evil from our heart.
If we do this, we shall receive the true crown
At the day of Judgment from Christ the King of all!
Cutting away evil from the heart, not cutting calories is the purpose of the fast. We fast from food in order to help train ourselves to adhere to the Gospel. Abstaining from food is not the goal, abstaining from evil is.
Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord!
A true fast is alienation from the evil one;
The holding of one’s tongue, the laying aside of all anger,
The removal of sensuality,
Of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing.
The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.
Indeed, we want a fast that is well-pleasing to God, not one that inflates our spiritual egos. We are to fast from evil thoughts, evil words, evil images, evil actions. Fasting from food is supposed to help us learn that we can in fact say no to our desires. We are not controlled by our genes, nor by nurture or nature. We have free wills and can refrain from some things we like and desire in order to do things which are desirable and pleasing to others and their salvation.
Restrain yourself, soul, from harmful passions,
From hate and envy and from every evil.
Be nourished in the Fast with the spiritual meat from heaven,
Which is the Word of God.
If we refrain from hate and envy, from sexual immorality and allurement, from pornography, from lying, drunkenness, impatience and greed, then we really would be doing a fast well-pleasing to God.