Fasting AND …. ? Not By Fasting Alone

…see, at any rate how many blessings spring from both fasting and prayer. For he that is praying as he should, and is fasting as he should has not many wants, and he that has not many wants cannot be covetous; he that is not covetous will be also more disposed for almsgiving. He that fasts is light and prays with wakefulness and quenches his wicked lusts and propitiates God and humbles his soul when lifted up. Therefore even the apostles were not always fasting for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food but in withdrawing from sinful practices.

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works!

By itself abstinence from food does not contribute to perfect purity of soul unless the other virtues are active as well. Humility, for example, practiced through obedience in our work and through bodily hardship, is a great help. Freedom from anger, from dejection, self-esteem and pride also contributes to purity of soul in general, while self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation.

Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting, but also through vigils, labors and spiritual reading,and through concentrating our heart on, and longing for the kingdom of heaven.”

(St. John Cassian, Philokalia Book One and St. John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew from Emily Harakas, Through the Year with the Church Fathers, pp. 96 & 97)


2017 Pre-Lenten Themes as a PDF

32505357554_0572c34ca5_nAll of the 2017 posts from my blog for the Pre-Lenten season are now gathered together into one PDF, for those who prefer to read one document rather than navigate through the blog.  You can find the document at 2017 Pre-Lent Posts.

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Lenten Images




The hymns above and below are taken from the Triodion from Thursday, 2nd Week of Great Lent.  Above, the hymn stays with a theme – vine, grape clusters and wine versus drunkenness which are metaphors for Christ, the apostles and salvation/sacrament versus sensual pleasures.  There is a beautiful and natural gift from God to us for our salvation, or we can choose like Adam to use God’s gifts for selfish pleasure rather than for communion with the Creator.

Below the hymn puts forth a theme not overly stressed during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church: repentance isn’t attained only by enumerating our sins in confession.  Rather we can apply ourselves to doing good deeds as a sign that we have repented of our self-centeredness.


The hymn has very strong words in it:   “nothing” does more for our soul than giving charity to the needy!  Rather than obsessing over food during Lent, we should be striving to give to those in need.  We should spend more time and energy on providing for the needy than merely denying ourselves food.  Alms-giving is to be inspired by fasting, but it is the charitable giving not the fasting which deliver us from death for this is true love and obedience to Christ’s commandments.  Giving to charity saves our souls by being the sign we really have turned away from spending money on selfish pleasure and wish rather to love the neighbor in need as the Lord teaches us in the Gospel.  This is the purpose of Great Lent!

Lenten fasting isn’t achieved by providing gourmet Lenten meals or buying more expensive organic foods.  It is rather achieved by spending less time and money on our selves and instead giving that money to the poor.  If you are spending more money on groceries during Lent or spending more time preparing meals, you might have missed the point of Lent:  Spend time and money on the needy.

Keeping Great Lent: Controlling the Tongue

“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”   (James 3:5-10)

While we often think of Great Lent as mostly being about what foods we put into our mouths, or the quantity of food, St. Basil the Great says there is an even more important aspect of Lent which involves the mouth – what comes out of it!  Just in the book of Proverbs we find these adjectives associated with the tongue:  lying (4 times), smooth, perverse (twice), mischievous, backbiting, flattering.  The tongues sins aren’t involved in the foods it tastes, but in the words it speaks! We are to control our tongues and how much we talk and what we say.  If you think you can’t really keep the food fast strictly in Lent, then practice fasting from the words your tongue speaks!  It would be a better Lenten discipline!   St. Basil describes the variety and numbers of sins which we commit through our tongues and our speech.

‘Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.’ If you wish to live in the good days, if you love life, fulfill the precept of life. ‘He who loves me,’ He says, ‘will keep my commands.’ The first command is, ‘Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.’ The most common and varied sin is that committed through the tongue. Were you provoked to anger? The tongue is already running on. Are you possessed by concupiscence? Before all things you have a tongue, a sort of pimp and promotore, as it were assistant to the sin, subduing your neighbors by histrionic arts. Your tongue is also a weapon for your injustice, not uttering the words from the heart, but bringing forth those inspired by deceit. But, what need is there to put in words all the sins committed through the tongue? Our life is filled with faults due to the tongue. Obscenity, scurrility, foolish talk, unbecoming words, slanders, idle conversation, perjuries, false testimony, all these evils and even more than these, are the work of the tongue.  adolf_hitlerBut, they who open their mouth against the glory of God and talk of injustice on high, do they perform their act of impiety by some other instrument and not through the instrumentality of the tongue? Since, then, ‘by thy words thou wilt be justified, and by thy words thou wilt be condemned,’ check your tongue from evil and do not fabricate empty treasures with a deceitful tongue. Stop also your lips from speaking guile; instead, let the whole organ, which was given to you for the service of speech, have nothing to do with wicked deeds. Guile is hidden wrongdoing brought to bear against the neighbor under a pretense of better things.

‘Turn away from evil and do good, seek after peace and pursue it.’ These counsels are elementary and are channels to piety; they describe accurately how to prevail over the tongue, how to refrain from deceitful schemes, how to turn away from evil. Mere abstinence from evil is not a characteristic of a perfect man; but, for one recently instructed in basic principals it is fitting to turn aside from the impulse to evil and, being delivered from the habits of a depraved life as from a bad road, to pursue the performance of good. In fact, it is impossible to cleave to the good unless one has withdrawn entirely and turned away from the evil, just as it is impossible to repair one’s health unless one rids himself of the disease, or for one who has not completely checked a chill to be in a state of warmth; for, these are inadmissible to each other. So also, it is proper for him who intends to live a good life to depart from all connection with evil.”   (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, Homily 16, pp. 265-266).

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. (Psalm 34:13)

A Fast Well Pleasing to the Lord

Every year the Orthodox Church proclaims a Great Fast before the Feast of PASCHA.  We also are well aware that there is a right way and a wrong way to fast, just as there is a right and wrong way to pray or give to charity (Matthew 6:1-18).  God tells us through the Prophet Isaiah that He rejects a fast that is just about ritually humbling oneself – bowing and scraping, putting on sackcloth, doing prostrations.  God wants a fast that changes our hearts and yields righteousness, justice and mercy.  God does not bless a fast that is about changing diet or leads to self flagellation.  If self-abasement does not lead to mercy and justice for the oppressed, it is not part of a godly fast.

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?



Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness 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, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;

You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

(Isaiah 58:6-11)

While the Orthodox do not read this Isaiah passage at the beginning of Great Lent, we will read it on the  sixth and final Wednesday of Great Lent.  On the first Monday of Great Lent we do sing this hymn which echoes the concerns which the Lord God spoke to us through His Prophet Isaiah:


The good fast is not focused on what foods we eat or don’t eat but rather is focused on pleasing God.  When we fast we are to alienate Satan – his ways are not to be part of our lives.  We are to purify our hearts – stop swearing and cursing, curb your anger, control your lust and greed,  giving in neither to  your sexual desires nor to your desire to control others.  Eliminate lying to yourself and to others.   If we can even weaken these sins – even if we cannot completely stop them – we will have a true fast which is well pleasing to God.

One other hymn calls to mind the Gospel Parable of Lazarus and the rich man:

Spitting out the food of the rich, come, let us fast with Lazarus, that we also may be comforted in the bosom of Abraham.  (1st Tuesday of Great Lent, Matins Canon)

The hymn creates a rather vivid image of us not avoiding certain foods but particularly spitting out in projectile fashion the food of the rich.  This means not particularly gourmet foods, but any food which is excessive – beyond what is needed – and is thus prepared and eaten at the expense of the poor who have nothing.  We are to use the time of Great Lent to simplify our menus and then give to the poor the extra money we would normally spend on food for ourselves.  We will find ourselves comforted in the bosom of Abraham only when we take the poor into our own pantries.

Walking the Lenten Path

The hymns from the Lenten Triodion do give us some ideas about how the Church in tradition understands the reasons for fasting and its purpose in the spiritual life.  So we find the hymn below, from the Praises in Matins of Cheesefare Sunday things for us to consider as we make our way through the Great Fast.


It is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that Adam was given only one commandment in Paradise – abstain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  It was a fasting rule, and the only commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Eve and Adam disobeyed that fast which led to human mortality, a life of separation from God.  Sometimes in Orthodox hymns it seems as if it was the particular act – eating the forbidden fruit – which is as significant as the fact that it was an act of disobedience.   Fasting from food reminds us that eating got Adam and humanity into trouble with God.  Fasting is our effort to show God that we really do want to undo that original act of disobedience and all of its consequences.  Our fasting cannot save us, but it is our way of showing God we recognize how such sin cuts us off from the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox hymns note how frequently humans are willing to choose the wrong for the sake of food.  The hymns also note how frequently fasting in the Scriptures are associated with individuals experiencing a revelation from God.   So Moses saw God face to face, in Orthodox thinking it was fasting and the resulting purity of heart which made this possible for him.


double-cheeseburgerThe hymn gets to the heart of fasting – it is to eliminate unnecessary food.  Fasting never forbids us to eat what is necessary for life.  Strict practitioners of fasting can push the limits to discover what is really needed, but fasting is not meant to make us sick.  Rather it acknowledges that eating is what made us humans sick to begin with!  In some ways for us modern Americans, fasting is a call back to sanity in terms of eating – eat the quantity necessary to sustain life.  Our huge portions of food are not necessary, and often are harmful to our health.  We can show God we really do want to return to Paradise – and we can do it by abstaining from over eating in this world.  We remind ourselves that it was such eating which got us expelled from Paradise.

The hymn takes the theme to the next step – Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments, so too we can fast like him (for forty days, not necessarily how he kept the fast).  Perhaps God will bless us with a clear vision of the Holy Trinity.


The important things to do during Lent – prayer for others, self control over our own passions and desires.  It is not foods themselves which are so important.  It is learning to control our desires and wants, so that we can serve God rather than ourselves.


The return to Paradise is the path forward to God’s Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a joyous journey and so we should find Lent, the beginning of our sojourn to be joyous.  The restored life of God’s redeemed people means we will reside with the angels and join them in worshiping the Holy Trinity.  We will be given the beatific vision – seeing Christ our Lord and Savior.


It is Jesus Christ who will give a place in heaven to His redeemed people.  We hope to be able to join His Mother, the angels and all the saints, whose prayers have guided us as well as interceded for us before the Lord.



Entering Into Great Lent

[Sermon Notes for 26 February 2017    The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise]

The spiritual life is a sojourn, that is not just a metaphor.  In the Church we have opportunities to experience the spiritual life as a sojourn.  A sojourn requires time and movement – we move from one place to another over time.  Things around us change, and we change in this process as well.  This is what makes repentance and forgiveness possible.   We are journeying to the Kingdom of God, to the eschaton, to heaven, to God’s Paradise.

Great Lent is a journey to Pascha – to the celebration of the Resurrection.  But it is movement not to the past, but forward to the eschaton.  The past  – the events of the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – are part of this sojourn, but only because they are eternal events.  We are not trying to get back to the empty tomb of Christ, for there the women who discovered it did not know what sense to make of it, even when the angel explained it, and the disciples didn’t believe the women.  [We sing “Christ IS risen…”  not “Christ was risen…”]   Going back to that time and moment cannot help us.  It is only in light of Pentecost – God’s sending His Holy Spirit upon the Church and the world – that we make sense of the empty tomb and resurrection of Christ.

Tradition is not a backwards looking frame of reference – it is always geared to move ahead to the eschaton.  We are not going to find Christ in the past.  The entire New Testament is geared toward the Risen Lord, toward His Kingdom, His glory, His triumph.

Blessed is the kingdom.…”  That is how we start the Divine Liturgy and Matins – it is declaring the blessedness of that Kingdom which is to come, which is breaking into this world, and yet not fully realized here.  We start our services by declaring the blessedness of our destination.

In the Epistle, St. Paul speakings about “knowing the time”.  He is not talking about clock time, but rather a much broader sense of era the world is in.  The fulfillment of Christ in His Kingdom is arriving.  We need to use the time to prepare ourselves, to be ready for its arrival.  Great Lent is that season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ in His Kingdom.

Romans 13:11-14:4
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.

We are to use this time, this season of Great Lent to for our sojourn.  Walk properly.  Sojourn correctly – in an Orthodox manner!   St Paul sets up some pairing that we are to reject:

revelry and drunkenness,

lewdness and lust,

strife and envy.

We put on Christ is baptism – how are we to live clothed in Christ?

Lent is to help learn the proper moderation in living.  Drunkenness is not OK.  Pornography is not OK.  Anger and Antagonism are not OK.  If these things are present in our life, we need to repent!  As St. Paul exhorts:  “Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).  The sins for which we need to repent are not all found in the Ten Commandments.


We are to practice a sobriety in Lent – but not just for the duration of the 40 days of Lent.  We are practicing in Lent in order to live this lifestyle always.  It is not OK to get drunk on Pascha night!

We are not aiming to get through Lent so that we can return to drunkenness and revelry, lewdness and lust, strife and envy come Pascha.

Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

Lenten fasting is not the time to pay attention to what others are eating or not eating.  We are not to criticize anyone based upon what they eat.  That is no basis for any evaluation of anybody.

Lenten foods are a return to the foods God provided in the delightful luxuries of  Paradise.  We claim we want to reach this Paradise.  Our Lenten journey is taking us there.  So, what did they eat in Paradise?

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  (Genesis 1:29)

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden…”  (Genesis 2:16)

Fruits, greens, vegetables are the foods of Paradise.

So what do we love more?  – God’s Paradise and its leaves and fruits and nuts or this fallen world and its steaks, lamb, ham and salmon?  Do we really long for the Kingdom of God or are we hoping Lent we pass by quickly so that we can return to things of this world which we love so much?

Are we willing to trade the things of this world which we love and lust after for the things of Paradise?   If so, we need to show it in our lives and to live for paradise rather than for this world.

Lent is a testing.  It is sifting us to see which of us loves God more than the things of this world.  It turns out we love the things of this world – the food, the sex, the entertainment, our money, wealth, shopping, drinking, prosperity and our possessions.  We want to sit with the rich man not dream about crumbs like Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), no matter what the consequences of eating from the rich man’s table might be.

Pascha night is not mostly about ham, lamb and fine cheeses.

It is about the Kingdom of God, and the fact that this world is passing away.  Are we headed toward that Kingdom, or are we in pursuit of receding worldliness?  Do we live for this world or for the Kingdom?  Are we willing to abandon the good things of earth which is passing away for life in Paradise?

Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21
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. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The spirit of the fast is not found in what we eat or don’t eat.  But where our treasure is.

Sunday of the Last Judgment (2017)

Sermon notes for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Epistle:  1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2

But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.


But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.


1]  In many ways the Epistle readings before Lent certainly frame fasting in a very particular way which seems to go against many of the popular ideas about fasting, especially among those who want to keep the food fast strictly.  Paul seems to argue eating or not eating is all indifferent for the Christian.  It doesn’t commend us to God one way or another.  But there is an issue of love, this is maybe the Paul Principle for how to deal with disagreements in the local community.  One needs to pay attention to the scruples of those around us.  Those who are really concerned about food and fasting:  these are the “weak” in Paul’s framework.  They worry about what others are doing, they suffer a loss of faith and fervor if they see others aren’t keep the fast strictly.  They worry over ever little detail about fasting rules and regulations.  They read the labels on every product.  St. Paul would consider them weak in faith.  Those who are not so fastidious have an obligation to love those who are overly scrupulous and respect their concerns by following their fasting rules when with them.  This is what love requires.  Some of us are Marthas and some are Marys, but both can be blessed and loved by Christ.  I may not be so bothered by all the minutiae of fasting regulations, but if I’m with someone who is I should in love follow their rules.  Love tells me don’t wound their conscience.  I end up laying aside my thoughts, beliefs and practices in love so that I don’t offend my fastidious neighbor.  Yes, I surrender my freedom in Christ, but I do it voluntarily in love.

8271152404_c41179af30_n2]  The Paul principle – let all you do be done in love, be concerned about your neighbor, put your neighbor’s needs and scruples ahead of your own.  This is to be in the heart of everyone in the parish.  So if people become concerned about what others are wearing, or how they make the sign of the cross, or how their children are behaving, then one has to think what is the need of this person, and put that ahead of my own concerns.  This doesn’t mean we can’t express differing and disagreeing opinions.  We can do that, but then we are supposed to think, “what is best for my neighbor?”  If my child is disturbing my neighbor, then I should think about what is helpful to my neighbor.  If the child  in front of me is misbehaving, what is helpful to the parents of that child?   If I think the person in the next pew is dressed inappropriately, what should I do that is best for my neighbor?  When I’m getting dressed to go to church, I should consider whether my clothes might offend or be too alluring to my neighbor.  I should always be thinking about the other.

3]  This is very hard to live in real life.  It is an ideal that is very had to live up to.  So often we fail, then what?  Back to figuring out how to love the neighbor and do what is best for them, not for me.

Gospel:  Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.


 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’  


Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1]  Note the righteous in the Gospel lesson were also not aware of having done what they did for Christ.  They are surprised that He judges them this way.  “When did we do that?” they ask.  They are being kind and charitable to the poor and needy.  They didn’t know in treating others with mercy that Christ was being blessed.  Every truly merciful act of kindness and charity that we do for others is being done for Christ.     Even when we care for an aging parent or grandparent, or care for someone that no one else cares for, we are doing it for Christ, even if we aren’t aware of that or feel we have no other choice then to do the kind thing.  When we care for that bothersome or negligent neighbor, we are ministering to Christ whether we know it or not.   It isn’t the case that the righteous have to consciously be aware of doing good for Christ.  If they are merciful to others, they are doing it to Christ, even when Christ isn’t in their mind or on their radar or part of their belief system.

2]  The Gospel of the Last Judgment is a Gospel of hope, it is good news.  Whether or not you have sinned, even if you are burdened with sin, even if you fail to overcome your habitual or pernicious sins, you are still capable of loving others – and so you can still receive a favorable judgment from Christ.  Even if you don’t have proper faith, you can still unwittingly show mercy to Christ by showing mercy to others, and thus receive a favorable judgment on the last day.  This Gospel lesson if full of hope!  I may be addicted to sin and not able to overcome my weaknesses, but I can still love some of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

5399225597_15118792c0_n3]  The fathers talk about 3 levels of justice –  First, there are those who aren’t interested in justice and don’t even attempt to be just.  Second, there are those interested in human justice, this is about being fair (but humanly speaking we are often interested in fairness only when it is to our advantage).  This can also be an eye for an eye thinking, or retributive justice, or revenge.  Human justice is imperfect as we see sometimes in the court system when some criminals are set free unjustly and some innocent are punished unjustly.   We often use our ideas of human justice to understand the Last Judgment.  The third level is divine justice.  Because God is love, divine justice is the same thing as Divine love or divine mercy.  God can find ways to have a judgment in which even sinners are forgiven and blessed.  As in the Gospel of the last judgment, the terms of the judgment are changed – it is not about sins/breaking the commandments.  The question is ” have we loved those whom we could have loved?  In these terms, even sinners and unbelievers might find God’s mercy!

Why a Fast Free Week Before Lent?

In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11).  The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline.  It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track.  It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly.  We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God.  It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins.  Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality.    But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them.    Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice.  If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic!  To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom.  Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives.  The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.

“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)

Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…

So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”

Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds  us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him.  We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride.  The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.

Fasting Before Christmas

“’When a man begins to fast, he straightaway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.’  (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 171)

‘Fasting was the commandment that was given to our nature in the beginning to protect it with respect to the tasting of food, and in this point the progenitor of our substance fell. There, however, where the first defeat was suffered, the ascetic strugglers make their beginning in the fear of God as they start to keep his laws. And the Savior also, when he manifested himself to the world in the Jordan, began at this point. For after his baptism the Spirit led him into the wilderness and he fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set to follow in his footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?’ (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)

Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness
Christ tempted by Satan after fasting 40 days in the wilderness

‘What weapon is more powerful and gives more boldness to the heart in the time of battle against the spirits of wickedness, than hunger endured for Christ’s sake?…He who has armed himself with the weapon of fasting is afire with zeal at all time.’ (St. Isaach the Syrian, Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, p 172)”

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p 231)