Meatfare: Fasting is Communal

“Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my ‘god.’

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.”

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 21-22)

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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.

ADAM WAS DRIVEN OUT OF PARADISE FOR EATING FOOD IN DISOBEDIENCE BUT MOSES WHO CLEANSED THE EYES OF HIS SOUL BY FASTING WAS GRANTED THE VISION OF GOD.

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.

IF WE THEN LONG TO DWELL IN PARADISE, LET US ABSTAIN FROM ALL UNNECESSARY FOOD; IF WE DESIRE TO SEE GOD, LET US, LIKE MOSES, FAST FOR FORTY DAYS.

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.

LET US PERSEVERE WITH SINCERITY IN PRAYER AND INTERCESSION; LET US STILL THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL;
LET US STILL THE REBELLIOUS INSTINCTS OF THE FLESH.

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.

LET US SET OUT WITH A LIGHT STEP ON THE PATH TO HEAVEN, WHERE THE CHOIRS OF ANGELS WITH NEVER SILENT VOICES SING THE PRAISES OF THE UNDIVIDED TRINITY!  THERE WE SHALL BEHOLD THE GREAT BEAUTY OF THE MASTER!

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.

SON OF GOD, AND GIVER OF LIFE: WE SET OUR HOPE IN YOU!
COUNT US WORTHY THERE OF A PLACE WITH THE ANGELIC HOSTS, AT THE INTERCESSIONS OF THE MOTHER WHO BORE YOU, O CHRIST, AND OF THE APOSTLES, MARTYRS AND ALL THE SAINTS!

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.

10commadments

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.

Great Lent: Returning to Christian Morality

“It’s rare to hear a rip-roaring Sunday sermon about the temptations of the five-course meal and the all-you-can-eat buffet, or to hear a high profile pastor who addresses the sin of greed in the frank manner of, say, Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century A.D.:

The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you, belong to the bare-foot. The money you hide belongs to anyone in need. You wrong as many people as you can help.

Note that Basil isn’t arguing for a slightly higher marginal tax rate to fund modest improvements in public services. He’s passing judgment on individual sins and calling for individual repentance. There are conservative Christians today who seem terrified of even remotely criticizing Wall Street tycoons and high-finance buccaneers, lest such criticism be interpreted as an endorsement of the Democratic Party’s political agenda. But a Christianity that cannot use the language of Basil – and of Jesus – to attack the cult of Mammon will inevitably be less persuasive when the time comes to attack the cult of Dionysus. In much the same way, the Christian case for fidelity and chastity will inevitable seem partial and hypocritical if it trains most of its attention on the minority of cases – on homosexual wedlock and the slippery slope to polygamy beyond. It is the heterosexual divorce rate, the heterosexual retreat from marriage, and the heterosexual out-of-wedlock birthrate that should command the most attention from Christian moralists. The Christian perspective on gay sex only makes sense in light of the Christian perspective on straight sex, and in a culture that has made heterosexual desire the measure of all things, asking gays alone to conform their lives to a hard teaching will inevitably seem like a form of bigotry.” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, pp 289-290)

Self Denial as a Path to Spiritual Growth

“Without constraints we cannot flourish. As most parents know, it is only when children ‘know where they stand’ that they start to relax, even more so when they know the limits are set by someone who loves them.[…] The attempt to wrestle free from constraints altogether…  is ultimately self-defeating. We become imprisoned, not free.[…] Of course there are many constraints that do undermine human freedom – epilepsy, terminal cancer, solitary confinement. The point here, however, is to challenge the belief that we automatically increase freedom by reducing limits or multiplying the options open to us. (Does having thirty brands of yogurt to choose from actually make us any more free?) For the Christian, to be free is not fundamentally to enjoy some supposedly blank space before us, or to increase options, but to be at peace with God and one another and thus at home in a God-given world.”

(Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, pgs. 248-249)

Matins Hymn for Great Lent

Matins Hymn for the 6th Thursday of Great Lent

COME, BRETHREN, AND BEFORE THE END OF THE FAST,

LET US DRAW NEAR WITH PURE HEARTS TO THE COMPASSIONATE GOD,

LAYING ASIDE ALL EARTHLY CARES, CARING INSTEAD FOR OUR SOULS.

BY ABSTINENCE, LET US RENOUNCE OUR LOVE OF PLEASURE,

AND CONCERN OURSELVES INSTEAD WITH CHARITY,

FOR IN THIS WAY, AS IT IS WRITTEN,

SOME HAVE UNKNOWINGLY BEEN HOSTS TO ANGELS.

BY PROVIDING FOR THE NEEDY, LET US FEED HIM WHO HAS FED US WITH HIS OWN FLESH;

LET US CLOTHE OURSELVES IN HIM WHO CLOTHES HIMSELF IN LIGHT AS A GARMENT,

SO THAT BY THE INTERCESSIONS OF THE MOST PURE MOTHER AND VIRGIN THEOTOKOS,

WE MAY RECEIVE FORGIVENESS OF OUR SINS, AND CRY TO HIM WITH COMPUNCTION:

SAVE US, LORD, FROM THE CONDEMNATION OF THOSE ON YOUR LEFT HAND,

AND MAKE US WORTHY TO STAND AT YOUR RIGHT HAND,

FOR YOU ARE THE MERCIFUL LOVER OF MAN!