Fasting According to Jesus

“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)

“Now, the symbolic purpose of fasting in Second Temple Judaism was to express mourning. Religiously, if extended its significance to become a demonstrative way of adding force to prayer, to invoke the pitiful mercy of the Most High who would look upon the self-humbling lamentation of his servants in need. This was exactly why stress was placed in ancient Israel on the need for externally observable signs of distress when fasting. In simple terms, fasting was meant to force God’s hand, as it were, and was a fitting prelude if one expected a reconciliation with God…

In Jesus’ understanding of the covenant, fasting served the purpose of lamenting the absence of God and pleading for his return to his people in living experience. If God has returned (the dynamic force of the Kingdom preaching of Jesus), then fasting no longer has a place, and the wedding feast must surely be the more appropriate spiritual exercise to celebrate that belief.”om, pp. 284-285)

Asceticism: For the Love of God

Cassian John“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’”   (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)

Fasting to Weaken the Passions

[To a sick monk]: Concerning fasting, do not grieve, as I have said to you before: God does not demand of anyone labors beyond his strength. And indeed, what is fasting if not a punishment of the body in order to humble a healthy body and make it infirm for passions, according to the word of the Apostle: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (II Cor. 12:10). And disease, more than this, is a punishment and takes the place of fasting and even more – for one who bears it with patience, thanks God, and through patience receives the fruit of his salvation; for instead of weakening his body by fasting, he is already sick without that. Give thanks to God that you have been delivered from the labor of fasting.

Even if you will eat ten times in a day, do not grieve; you will not be judged for this, for you are doing this not at the demon’s instigation, and not from the weakening of your thought; but rather, this occurs to us for our testing and for profit to the soul. (Sts Barsanuphius and John, Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 62).

Lent is Half Over!

“I have observed many persons rejoicing, and saying one to another, ‘We have conquered; we have prevailed; the half of the fast is spent.’ But I exhort such persons not to rejoice on this account, that the half of the fast is gone, but to consider whether the half of their sins be gone; and if so, then to exult. For this is a fit subject of gratification. This is what is to be sought after, and for which all things are done, that we may correct our defects; and that we may not quit the fast the same persons as we entered upon it, but in a cleansed state; and that having laid aside all that belongs to evil habits, we may thus keep the sacred feast, since if the case be otherwise, we shall be so far from obtaining any advantage, that the completion of the fast will be the greatest injury to us. Let us, therefore, not rejoice that we have gone through the length of the fast, for this is nothing great; but let us rejoice, if we have got through it with fresh attainments, so that when this is over, the fruit of it may shine forth. For the gain of winter is more especially manifested after the season is gone by.

Then, the flourishing corn, and the trees teeming with leaves and fruit, proclaim, by their appearance, the benefit that has accrued to them from the winter! Let the same thing also take place with us. For during the winter, we have enjoyed divers and frequent showers, having been during the fast partakers of a continued course of instruction, and have received spiritual seeds, and cut away the thorns of luxury.”  (St. John Chrysostom, Rejoice in the Lord Always, p. 2)

Fasting and Humility

“Following the example of Christ, humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian life, and the foundation for our relation with God. The more humble we are, the more God will reveal Himself to us. And the more we know about God, the more humble we become. We need all the virtues, but without humility they achieve nothing. Even fasting, prayer, and love itself can do nothing without humility. But when prayer and fasting are joined with humility, we become the companion of God, and enter the divine environment in such a way that, as we’ve said, we become gods ourselves.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 313)

“When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that, I can do nothing against you.’”(Apoth., Macarius 11, p.130)

A Fast Start

Let us begin the all-holy season of fasting with joy; Let us shine with the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God:  with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, the strength of  good courage and the purity of holiness!  So, clothed in garments of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines on the world with the glory of eternal life!

This is the first day of the Fast.  For you, soul, let it be the setting aside of sin, the return to God; to life with Him.  Flee from the abyss of evil.  Love only those ways which lead to peace, resting before and within God.

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 all sensuality, of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing.  The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.

The hymns above are all from the beginning of Great Lent.  They remind us the fast is not just about changing diet or even mostly about food abstinence.  The hymns make it clear there are many things that are needed for a good fast;  joy, love, prayer. courage, holiness, light, peace, fleeing evil, being silent, controlling anger and swearing, ignoring sexual desire, not lying, not accusing others.  If one only controls one’s food appetite, one misses much of what Great Lent offers us.

Great Lent: Journeying into the Heart of the Desert

Image 1When I read John McGuckin’s chapter, “The Christian Sense of the Desert,” in his book Illumined by the Spirit, I immediately saw its connection to Great Lent and also how the desert experience is a description of Great Lent.  It helps contextualize what we are called to experience in our Lenten sojourn.   We come to realize one way to understand the fasting, abstinence and self-denial – it is our own spiritual walk into the desert, related to what Israel undertook when God called Israel out of Egypt and into the desert where they would see God’s face and glory as well as look into the face of death.

The article begins with a poem by Edward Dorn:

’The first law of the desert

to which animal life of every kind

pays allegiance

is endurance and abstinence.’

Endurance and abstinence – two very apt descriptions for what we experience on our Lenten sojourn.  Even if we only keep Great Lent minimally, we do experience its length and have to endure.  And if we keep any kind of fasting – whether from food, entertainment, sex, the internet – we are practicing abstinence from some things.  We come to realize that Great Lent takes us out into the desert and says, “your survival is dependent on your willingness to deny yourself.”  If you feel you have to indulge yourself, you won’t survive in the desert.  As modern people we may abandon the desert, the fast, but in doing that we learn how much we really love the world rather than God.  We find that we don’t even want to rely on God or to live on the Word of God, we really want to have the things of the world that we crave rather than the Creator of this world.  And we see this in the smallest of things – a piece of cheese, a hamburger, a little downtime in front of the TV or the computer.  “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

McGuckin goes on to write:

“The ancient world generally saw the desert as a cursed place.  Its barrenness, its stark and unremitting hostility to all life forms, especially human, was a primal symbol of the fearsome anger and power of God who seemed to have withdrawn the vitality of life from such a place even as he had withdrawn water, that deep symbol of the graciousness of the Holy Spirit.  Christians, reflecting on the Scriptures, saw the desert in a symbolically different way as the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land, and gave it a new significance: comparable to the reference to the wilderness in the prophet Hosea, who called to the Israelites of his time to return to the Lord God with love and zeal, citing the desert years of wandering as a time when Israel still felt like a lover in the presence of God, before faithlessness and tedium had turned the marital relationship sour.

Hosea’s text, though not often cited explicitly in the early Church, in many ways sums up the special Christian sensibility of what would develop as  ‘desert spirituality’ – characterized by an energy of repentance, a turning back (Heb: shub, Gk: metanoia), a return to simplicity which casts off distractions, in order to rediscover the heart of one’s relationship with God.  Hosea puts this call to repentance into the mouth of God himself musing about his love affair with Israel and his plans to revive it:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ (Hosea 2:14-16)

This movement towards the desert not so much as a holy place, but more as the symbol of a return to a holy state, especially took hold among Christians…” (pp 123-124)

The desert – that place where you have to practice self-denial, abstinence and endurance just to survive – became for us a symbol of the sojourn to the Kingdom.  However hard it may be, the journey is a blessed one because it does bring us to our destination – to Paradise, to the Kingdom of Heaven.  And as God called Israel to the desert out of slavery to the great civilization of Egypt, so God calls us to Great Lent out of the civilized world, to that spiritual desert where we are not distracted by all the alluring things of the world and can concentrate on seeing God.  In the desert we realize the need for God’s love and presence, we realize our survival depends upon God.  We embrace the God of love, we pry ourselves away from the things that God has made so that we can fully embrace the Giver of the gifts.  The absence of creaturely comforts reminds us there is a Creator of comforts and this God is far more important to us than all the things of the world.  In going to the spiritual desert we acknowledge that we really can live without all of the luxuries of life in the civilized world.

Great Lent like the desert is “the quintessential zone of pilgrimage to the promised land.”  The foods we eat during Great Lent remind us we are on a sojourn, and this world is a desert.  The Israelites did not have wine in the desert because they had no time or place to establish vineyards.  They were on the move, as we should be in our Lenten sojourn.  They had no olive oil because they had no groves of olive trees in the desert and no means to press the olives to extract the oil.  Wine and oil require the luxury of permanence, of being able to cultivate vineyards and orchards and of being able to process the produce from grapes to wine and from olives to oil.   The fast is a harsh reminder of our reality – we are sojourners on earth.  Yet, we come to realize how much we really love the things of this earth – meat, dairy, wine and oil – which we might desire more than we desire God the Giver of every good gift.  Denying ourselves these things is to remind us we should desire God even more than we desire the blessings of His earth.  We fast in order to experience the desire for these things so that we can then cultivate a desire for God even more than the things of the world that we so love.  Fasting isn’t done because the things of the world are evil, but rather because we become addicted to them, treating them as our gods, acting as if we can’t live without them.  Great Lent calls us to live for a time period on the Word of God.

Our own sojourn during Great Lent was foreshadowed by Israel’s sojourn through the desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt.  Their own willingness to leave Egypt and head into the desert was done in the context of knowing that the desert was not a friendly, welcoming, nurturing place.  The Israelites moved into the desert having learned from the Egyptians that the desert was the barren and lifeless wilderness controlled by the god Set.  Set is one of the gods of Egypt, an evil one, brother to the god Osiris.

“Egypt is in many ways a seminal matrix for the desert experience.  The desert of the Israelites is, of course, this desert, and the ways Egypt regarded it have some continuance in Israelite attitudes…    Set, Osiris’ brother, is a force of disorder.  He thus represents evil and hostility to humankind.  …  the evil Set, who is finally ousted from his sterile seizure of power, and exiled to the desert lands… Set, however, remains as a constant threat of disorder, destruction, and death; always prowling in the desert lands, never far away from the centers of civilized life which struggle to retain their fragile dominion over human existence.  If an ancient went out into the desert he or she would risk the fearful encounter with daimones, the mid-level spiritual forces, sublunary deities, which the ancient world saw as ubiquitous powers.  But in the desert these forces were habitually hostile and destructive: hungry servants of Set. … Set’s rule commenced when arid barrenness began and either killed all living things, or made them wild, murderously savage.

This notion of the fearfulness of the wilderness places forms an important backdrop to the classical appearance of the desert in Israel’s account of the escape from Egypt.”  (p 125-126)

Israel walked out of civilized Egypt into Set’s desert.  This helps us understand why Pharaoh was incredulous when Aaron and Moses requested permission from him to travel into the desert to worship their God.  But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go. (Exodus 5:2)   Pharaoh knew the desert to be Set’s haunting place, why his slaves would want to leave civilization to honor an evil god was beyond his understanding.  What Moses brings into Egypt in the plagues, Pharaoh will understand to be the destructive powers of Set.  In the end Pharaoh expels the Israelites from Egypt realizing some divine power is present that he does not understand.  Pharaoh sees himself as a god of the civilized world, but his kingdom is in chaos when in the presence of the God of Israel.  Pharaoh never understood the Lord God as anything more than some manifestation of Set.  And for the Israelites, the Lord God led them right into the haunts of Set, but in that very place the Egyptians did not want to go, God promised to reveal Himself.

Next: Great Lent: Journeying into the Desert of Our Heart

 

The Spirituality of the Body


While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.   (Luke 24:36-43)

in the The Lenten Triodion  we read:

But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way, ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace.

Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended to be. (p. 24)

Christmas for Christians: Eat, Drink & Be Merry?

It is undoubtedly true that there has always existed a temptation, even among Christians, to make food and clothing something much more than a simple response to the need to eat and be covered.

In modern society, the public is bombarded with advertising designed to create an obsession with elaborate clothing and fancy foods. The average Christian accepts almost without question the standards (our “high standard of living”) with which such advertising indoctrinates him. (The advertising industry excuses itself by claiming that it merely reflects the demands of society.) Many Christians see no conflict between their excessive anxiety about food and clothing and their Christian principles.

Some point out defensively that only the cults require simplicity and modesty, a radical change of lifestyle in response to their faith. (While it is true that many cults do demand denial or sacrifice of certain things, it is because, for them, those things are evil in themselves. In the Christian faith, it is the use to which things may be put that makes them evil.)

In the early Church, a certain simplicity in all aspects of life was generally accepted by all Christians. It was only after the establishment of the Church as the state religion and the entry of whole populations into the Church that expectations and standards were lowered, and it became fairly common (and acceptable?) for Christians to indulge themselves in luxury and high living. The ideals taught by Christ and the Apostles, however, always remained in the Church’s conscience and manifested themselves in two notable ways: monasticism and the Great Fast (Lent).

In both, the call to the simple life is of primary importance. In monasticism, men and women bore witness to the fact that it was possible, quite literally, to follow the teachings of Christ, no matter what society approved of. In Lent, all Christians were called back to the simple life, simple food and clothing, elimination of entertainments, and increased concentration on their relationship with God.

(Bishop Dimitri, The Kingdom of God: The Sermon on the Mount, pp. 93-95)

Christmas Lent

The American road to Christmas winds through mountains of parties, friends and family, festal foods and drink, baking and buying, social gatherings and gift exchanges (and also giving to charity – more money is given in America to charity in December than in any other month – 1/3 of the annual charity given in America occurs in December).  On the other hand, the Orthodox Church 1000 years before America was even conceived had carved a path through the desert to Christmas.  The pre-Christmas season was meant to be quiet, prayerful, ascetical, preparatory, anticipatory and devoted to alms giving (these two ways at least have charitable giving in common!).

Living in America, we really have to stop and intentionally choose the Orthodox way to Christmas.  For the hubbub of the season will certainly capture our attention with all its sparkling lights and joyful music, while the quietness of Orthodoxy will be lost beneath the mounds of gifts, food  and seasonal dress.  Fr. John Behr comments on the Nativity Fast which is the Orthodox road to Christmas and preparation for the Feast: 

Lent is an intense period provided for us to focus again on what should be the content of every moment of our life – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lent because he is the Alpha and the Omega of all creation – the first word and the last word of life itself – who, again, for the joy set before him accepted the Cross so that we might live, so that we might taste this joy as we also begin living, not for ourselves, but for God and others.

The transforming power offered to us in Lent doesn’t originate here below in the human realm where we muddle along with our eyes on the ground or closed in slothfulness or sleep. Lent is our chance to look up, to wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. As the first Christians said: Maranatha! Our Lord is coming!  (The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p. 32)

The Feast we are preparing to celebrate is the birth of a man who was born in a cave because his family was too poor to afford other accommodations.  His family was forced to flee even their inadequate lodgings because of the threat of persecution and to become refugees in a foreign land.   So, St Photius the Great, writing in the 9th Century reminds us what Lent consists of – 

Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast that is agreeable to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. (The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 227)

Theotokos Enrollment for the Roman Taxes

The Lenten practices of self-denial, humility, hunger, sojourning and feeling like exiles bring us much closer to the Holy Family and their condition at the first Christmas than do all of our parties and abundance.