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?

mercytoChrist

 

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:

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 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.

Fasting and the Virtue of Hospitality

Cassian JohnSt. John Cassian (d. 435AD) was a disciple of St. John Chrysostom and wrote extensively about the monastic life.  His comments on fasting and keeping Lenten periods are very instructive as the received Tradition which he taught was not as fixed and rule bound as are some current ideas in Orthodoxy.  He did not know of one set of ascetic rules which applied to all monks, let alone all lay people.  Fasting was to be kept by a common discipline known in the local community, but these rules were not to be applied to guests and visitors, and in fact were not to be discussed with those outside of the local community.  He writes:

“…They also declared that the common discipline of fasting should not casually be disclosed to anyone but should, as far as possible, be hidden and concealed. They were of the opinion, rather, that if some brothers paid a visit it was better to practice the virtue of hospitality and love than to display the strictness of our abstinence and the daily rigor of our chosen orientation […] And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian, fasting, as important and essential as it might be to monks, was voluntary offering, not to be done in fulfillment of some rule or duty.  On the other hand, practicing hospitality was clearly taught and commanded by the Lord Jesus Christ.  The virtue of hospitality and love outranked the virtue of strict fasting.   Christ commanded us to love, He gave no direct commandment to fast.  To practice hospitality and charity with others is what Christ demanded of us.  To share a meal with family, a visitor or a stranger is to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love one another.  His teachings are very much in line with the kind of fasting approved by God in Isaiah 58 and with Christ’s teaching about the Last Judgment Matthew 25.

A Fast Pleasing to God

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?

mercytoChrist

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.

The Nativity Fast and Charity

“Again we find a similar passage in Leviticus: And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.”   (Lev. 23:22).

What is striking about these passages is that, first, they are not mere suggestions, but commandments; second, the poor, the stranger, the widow and the fatherless were to receive help, not based on their character or how they may use what they receive, but because of their condition. In fact, by leaving the gleanings after harvest, the worker would not necessarily see who took what remained, making it difficult for any value judgement to be cast upon the person.  […]

Fasting and the giving of alms are closely tied together, as mentioned earlier. During periods of fasting, we should make time for good works, for almsgiving. The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, told the Israelites: Is this not the fast that I choose, to undo the thongs of the 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 him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)  When the two, almsgiving and fasting, are done together, the Lord promises that your light shall ‘break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily,’ and ‘the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard’ (Isa. 58:8). It is then that the Lord promises that He will hear our cry.” (David Beck, For They Shall See God, pp 88-90)

 

Great Lent: Keeping the Fast Real

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says about Lenten fasting:

“Let our every care be for the salvation of souls, and for ways of curbing the motions of the flesh and demonstrating a real fast. Abstinence from food after all, is undertaken for this purpose, to curb the exuberance of the flesh and bring the beast under control.

The person fasting ought most of all keep anger in check, learn the lesson of mildness and kindness, have a contrite heart, banish the flood of unworthy passions, keep before one’s eyes that unsleeping eye and that incorruptible tribunal, avoid becoming enthralled by money, be lavish in almsgiving, drive all ill-will to one’s neighbor from the soul. This is real fasting, as Isaiah says when speaking as God’s mouthpiece:

‘I did not choose this fast, says the Lord – not to bend your neck like a dog collar, nor to make your bed of dust and ashes, not to call a fast of this kind acceptable, says the Lord.’ So what kind, pray? ‘Loose the bonds of crippling contracts,’ he says, ‘share your bread with the hungry, welcome the homeless poor into your home.’ And if you do these things, he says, ‘then your Light will burst forth like the dawn, and your healing with quickly emerge.’

Do you see, dearly beloved, what true fasting really is? Let us perform this kind, and not entertain the facile notion held by many that the essence of fasting lies in going without food till evening. This is not the end in view, but that we should demonstrate, along with abstinence from food, abstinence from whatever is harmful, and should give close attention to spiritual duties. The person fasting ought to be reserved, peaceful, meek, humble, indifferent to the esteem of this world. You see, just as one has neglected the soul, so it is necessary to neglect empty esteem as well, and to have regard only for him who examines our inmost being, and with great care to direct prayers and confessions to God, and provide for oneself according to one’s ability the help that comes from almsgiving.”

(Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, edited by Anthony M. Coniaris, pp 55-56)

The First Fruits of Great Lent

porphyriosLooking at a few hymns from the Monday, the first day of Great Lent, we can learn some of the goals of the Great Fast.  First is compunction.

Saint Porphyrios points out that compunction is related to the word puncture – to be stabbed or wounded.   He writes, “‘to feel compunction’ means that I am wounded over and over again by the love of God.”  (WOUNDED BY LOVE, p 120).  The first-fruits of the first day of Lent is to be wounded by God’s love!  God’s love pierces our heart changing it from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26)

Let us acquire compunction of soul

As God-given first-fruits of the fast.

Let us cry: Accept our prayer as pure incense, O Christ our Master.

Deliver us, we entreat You, from the stench of corruption and from fearful torment.

For You alone are ready to forgive! 

Yesterday, at Forgiveness Vespers, we learned that the fastest way to obtain the forgiveness of our sins is not through repentance but through forgiving others.    Today we learn that the very first fruit of Great Lent is compunction – we are ‘punctured’, wounded by God’s love.  When we forgive others, we become God like, filled – pierced! – by God’s own love.  No wonder the hymns speak of the joy of the Lenten fasting season!

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 purity of holiness!

So, clothed in the garment of light,

Let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day,

That shines on the world with the glory of eternal life!  

While the fast involves a change of diet, the real goal is not to set aside food, but to set aside sin!  A number of ancient church fathers commented that they thought the real Sabbath was to take rest not from work but from sin, whose wages are death.    So too the main purpose of the fast is not to give up food, but to set aside sin so that we can love our Lord.  They hymns of Lent constantly remind us that unless we struggle against sin, against our passions, against our self-will, against alluring temptations, fasting will be of no value.   Those who obsess over dietary violations in Lent often miss the big picture, that fasting is done in the context of loving God and loving neighbor.

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.  

We are to use the time of the Fast to do those things that lead to peace – peace in our hearts but also peace with family, friends, neighbors, and ultimately even enemies.

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.

There is a good fast, a true fast which we can read about in Isaiah 58.  This implies that there is also a fast that is neither true nor good.   A true fast involves forgiving others and also asking them to forgive us.  A good fast involves being wounded by God’s love so that it is God’s love which pierces our hearts and come to guide our behavior.   When our heart is pierced by God’s love, we have no place in the heart for the work of the Evil One.  This is the first fruit of the Lenten season.   It comes right at the beginning of Great Lent!

St. John Chrysostom: Real Fasting

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says regarding fasting and abstinence:

“There are, after all, better ways than abstinence from food to open for us the doors of a confident approach to God. Accordingly, let the person who partakes of food and is unable to fast give evidence of more generous almsgiving, fervent prayers, and a heightened enthusiasm for listening to the divine sayings; let such a person be reconciled with enemies and eradicate from the soul all vindictiveness.  If that is the intention, then such a person has practiced real fasting, and the kind the Lord requires most of all.  . . .

Fasting, in other words, holds the body under restraint, checks its unruly movements, and, on the other hand, renders the soul transparent, gives it wings, and makes it light and raises it on high. But as for those of our brethren unable to fast on account of bodily weakness, urge them not to desist from this spiritual diet; teach them and show them, as they have had communicated to them from us also, that it is not the person who eats and drinks in moderation that is unworthy of this audience but the lax and dissolute. Address to them also the apostolic dictum, that ‘the one who eats eats in the Lord, and the one who abstains abstains in the Lord, and gives thanks to God.’

So the person fasting gives thanks to God for having the power to be able to withstand the rigors of fasting; and likewise the person who eats gives thanks to God that no harm can come from this for the soul’s salvation, if that is God’s will. The loving God, you see, has marked out for us such ways as it is impossible to mention, through which we can, if we wish, share in the utmost confidence.”  (Homilies on Genesis 1-17,  pp 129-130)

Chrysostom’s admonition on fasting is echoed in the teachings of the 12th Century writer, St. Peter of Damaskos:

“He who fasts likewise does so for love’s sake, so that others may eat what he would otherwise have eaten. In short, every work rightly done is done out of love for God or for one’s neighbor.”   (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 31466-68)

St. Peter understands fasting not as merely giving up some foods, or substituting a lenten diet for a normal diet, or eating less for ascetic reasons.  Rather for him fasting involves taking one’s normal  food intake and sharing it with the needy poor.  One could also say fasting could be spending less on food and then giving that portion of one’s food budget which one is not eating  to the poor.  It is about love for God and for one’s neighbor, not about earning one’s way into heaven.   St. Peter’s understanding of fasting is very much in line with what God the Lord commands us in Isaiah 58.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps 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 him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
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 pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness

Great Lent as Banquet

“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:9)

Both the Fathers of the Church in their writings and the lenten Hymns of the Orthodox Church speak of “other” themes and images of Great Lent than only that of abstaining from food.  Lent is not only about or even mainly about food and changing our diets.  We are endeavoring to change our hearts, to bring ourselves to true repentance.  Instead of focusing on what we must give up for Lent, one hymn from the 2nd week of the Great Fast places an entirely different image before us:

SETTING BEFORE US A MYSTICAL TABLE, THE FAST INVITES US ALL TO TAKE OUR FILL!  OUR FOOD SHALL BE THE ETERNAL GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT; OUR DRINK, DIVINELY FLOWING STREAMS OF TEARS. LET US REJOICE AND EVER GIVE PRAISE TO GOD!

The image is one of rejoicing and feasting!   We are invited to a Mystical Table whose delights are a banquet of eternal spiritual gifts and flowing streams of tears.  We are invited during Lent to eat the same kinds of foods which Adam was gifted by God in Paradise.    We are not to deny ourselves of this feast but to “take our fill”!   It is a very different image of the Fast and reminds us we are supposed to be looking for something in Great Lent and getting something out of Great Lent!  

It is a joyous banquet in which we can indulge ourselves, but it is a sumptuous feast of the Spirit.  Instead of focusing on physical food – whether Lenten or festal – we are to lift up our hearts and minds to the Mystical table of the Kingdom of God. As our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you”  (John 6:27)

Lent is a time to labor for the food which endures to eternal life.  We are to perform a fast that feeds our souls, hearts and minds.

LET US PERFORM A SPIRITUAL FAST! LET US LOOSE EVERY TIE! LET US FLEE FROM THE PITFALLS OF SIN! LET US FORGIVE OUR BROTHER’S DEBTS THAT OUR TRANSGRESSIONS MAY ALSO BE FORGIVEN! THEN WE WILL BE ABLE TO SING: LET MY PRAYER ARISE IN YOUR SIGHT AS INCENSE, LORD!

The spiritual fast is one that is not limited to food fasting, which would be just a physical fast.  We know that Satan fasts constantly as He never eats physical food.  We humans who have a physical nature can fast physically.  But the Christian fast is spiritual as well, and so must go beyond the abstinence from certain foods.  The above hymn like Isaiah 58 tells us the spiritual fast includes changing our relationships with others.  We are to forgive sins and loose those bonds which enslave people – and we do enslave others when we refuse to treat them as full human beings and rather treat them as if they owed us everything.  We often enslave ourselves and others when we refuse to forgive.  The loosing of ties and bondage comes when we forgive others their offenses and when we quit oppressing others by treating them like our servants, slaves or even worse like dirt.

THE TIME OF LENT IS A TIME OF GLADNESS!  WITH RADIANT PURITY AND PURE CHARITY  FILLED WITH RESPLENDENT PRAYER AND ALL GOOD DEEDS,  LET US SING WITH JOY:   MOST HOLY CROSS OF CHRIST THAT BLOSSOMED THE SWEETNESS OF LIFE, ENABLE US ALL TO BOW DOWN BEFORE YOU WITH PURE HEARTS, GRANTING US PURIFICATION AND GREAT MERCY!

Lent is meant to be a joyous time wherein we free ourselves and others from bondage – from the traps we set for one another, from the prisons and hells we create for ourselves and others, from slavery to hopelessness, despondency and despair, from abuse, and from selfishness and self-centered thinking.      And we are reminded in the Fast of the words of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ who

“called the people to him and said to them,

Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man. . . . Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man…”   (Matthew 15:10-20)

The true aim of the fast is not what goes into the mouth but rather it is focused on the evil which comes from our hearts. When we fast  from sin, we perform a true spiritual fast and prepare ourselves for the banquet in God’s kingdom. When our fast includes lifting others out of their poverty, suffering and emotional prisons then it is a fast blessed by God.

“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) 

Fasting: It is Not About the Food

Some reminders for the beginning of Great Lent from the hymns of the first week of Lent.   Note the words: joy, radiance, love, prayer, courage, light, holiness, purity.   If we think Lent is only about self-denial, suffering and sacrifice, we miss the spirit of the season.   Lent is not only about fasting from food.  We are trying to change our hearts and minds to be more Christ-like.

LET US BEGIN THE ALL‑HOLY SEASON OF FASTING WITH JOYLET 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!

The commandments of Christ are eternal life and to love God and love neighbor.   Here are the only three times Christ speaks about commandments in John’s Gospel (in the RSV):

“For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me.”  (John 12:49-50)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”  (John 15:10-15)

In his letter to “the elect lady and her children”, St. John states the same teaching again:

“And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love.”  (2 John 1:5-6)

mercytoChristThe rules and regulations of Lent must be practiced in the spirit of love for them to be a Christian fast.  If our focus on food fasting rules detracts from our love for God and others if becomes self centered or even causes us to engage in self-love which is the exact opposite intent of the fast.  If our focus becomes food itself, than we are not doing the fast right even if we are following every Lenten regulation perfectly. Remember, in the pre-Lenten Gospel lesson of the Last Judgment from Matthew 25:31-46, no one is judged or condemned for having failed to fast, nor is anyone praised or rewarded for strict fasting!.  True fasting leads to our becoming merciful toward others, especially toward the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The Pharisee who could truthfully boast that he kept the fasts perfectly is not justified by 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.

 A fast from anger – there is a fast pleasing to the Lord!  Abstinence from lying, fault-finding, cursing and swearing – these are the things we truly must abstain from!  A fast which changes our hearts and our moral practices and stops us from sinning, this is the Lent which God wishes for us.  Let us please God and not make the fast something cursed in His eyes – and the Holy Prophet Isaiah warns us about such a cursed fast.

Hear what the Lord God says to us through the Prophet Isaiah:

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen?

Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’

“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure,

And exploit all your laborers.

Indeed you fast for strife and debate,

And to strike with the fist of wickedness.

You will not fast as you do this day,

To make your voice heard on high.

Is it a fast that I have chosen,

A day for a man to afflict his soul?

Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,

And to spread out sackcloth and ashes?

Would you call this a fast,

And an acceptable day to the LORD?

“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 58:3-11)

 

See also my blog The Perfect Image of Fasting

The Spirit of the Fast

Some of the hymns from the first week of Lent teach us about the nature of fasting and the Spirit of Great Lent.   As we begin the Lenten sojourn, we are reminded of some important aspects of fasting as disciples of Christ.   Joy and love are two key ingredients for keeping the fast faithfully. Fasting is not making ourselves burdensome to others, but rather in love helping to carry one another’s burdens.

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!

(Monday of the First Week)

 

We are reminded in the following hymn that whatever physical fast we keep, fasting is a spiritual endeavor and so must also be kept spiritually.  The following hymn calls to our minds both Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25

WHILE FASTING PHYSICALLY, BRETHREN, LET US ALSO FAST SPIRITUALLY. LET US LOOSE EVERY KNOT OF INIQUITY;LET US TEAR UP EVERY UNRIGHTEOUS BOND;LET US DISTRIBUTE BREAD TO THE HUNGRY,AND WELCOME INTO OUR HOMES THOSE WHO HAVE NO ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS SO THAT WE MAY RECEIVE GREAT MERCY FROM CHRIST OUR GOD! 

(Wednesday of the First Week)

If you are moved by the spirit of Great Lent and want to help those in need you can donate to Project Mexico and Saint Innocent Orphanage.