Real Fasting

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:10-14)

St John Chrysostom comments:

“I speak not of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely abstinence from meats, but from sins as well.  For the nature of a fast is such that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it unless it  is done according to a suitable law.  So that when we have gone through the labor of fasting we do not lose the crown of fasting, we must understand how and in what manner it is necessary to conduct the business since the Pharisee also fasted, but afterward went away empty and destitute of the fruit of fasting.  The Publican did not fast, and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted in order that you may learn that fasting is unprofitably  unless all other duties accompany it.

Fasting is a medicine.  But like all medicines, though it be very profitable to the person who knows how to use it, it frequently becomes useless (and even harmful) in the hands of him who is unskilled in its use.

I have said these things not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting.  For the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to abstinence from meats is one who especially disparages fasting.” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, pp 3-4)



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.

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)

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)

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.

Passions, Peace and Anger

“If therefore we are to follow the divine laws, we must struggle with all our strength against the demon of anger and against the sickness which lies hidden within us. When we are angry with others we should not seek solitude on the grounds that there, at least, no one will provoke us to anger, and that in the solitude the virtue of long-suffering can easily be acquired.

Our desire to leave our brethren is because of our pride, and because we do not wish to blame ourselves and ascribe to our own laxity the cause of our unruliness. So long as we assign the causes for our weaknesses to others, we cannot attain perfection in long-suffering. Self-reform and peace are not achieved through the patience which others show us, but through our own long-suffering towards our neighbor.

When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us. On the contrary, they impose on us an illusion of virtue and persuade us to believe that we have achieved long-suffering and humility, because there is no one present to provoke and test us.

But as soon as something happens which does arouse and challenge us, our hidden and previously unnoticed passions immediately break out like uncontrolled horses that have long been kept and idle, dragging their driver all the more violently and wildly to destruction. Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people. Even that shadow of patience and long-suffering which we thought we possessed while we mixed with our brethren is lost in our isolation through not being exercised.

Poisonous creatures that live quietly in their lairs in the desert display their fury only when they detect someone approaching; and likewise passion-filled men, who live quietly not because of their virtuous disposition but because of their solitude, spit forth their venom whenever someone approaches and provokes them. This is why those seeking perfect gentleness must make every effort to avoid not only anger towards men, but also towards animals and even inanimate objects.” (St. John Cassian in The Philokalia: Vol 1, p 85)

Drunkenness: A Demon of Our Own Choosing

“Wine has caused us the loss of these souls; though wine is the gift God gave to the sober as a comfort for infirmity, it has now become an instrument of licentiousness for the lascivious.

Drunkenness is the demon of our own choosing, entering souls through pleasure.

Drunkenness is the mother of wickedness, the antithesis of virtue. It turns the brave man into a coward, the chaste man into a lecher. Righteousness it knows not; prudence it destroys. For as water counters fire, so too does an excessive amount of wine extinguish rationality.

And so, I was reluctant to say something against drunkenness, not because it is an insignificant vice or worth overlooking, but because whatever I say would produce no benefit at all. For if the drunkard is out of his mind and in a stupor, whoever rebukes him goes through this rigmarole in vain since he does not hear a thing!”  (Saint Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, pp 84-85)

Overeating Our Way Out of Paradise

Adam Eve TemptationFew of us would disagree that Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise, is a spiritual story.  Interestingly enough it is focused on eating, which is for us a most physical activity.  That eating explains the spiritual malaise of humankind will surprise some.  But today as the myriad ways in which food and health are related become central to mainstream medicine, as well as alternative medical practices and popular culture too, we realize just how food is related to our health, spiritual, mental and physical.  The Genesis 3 narrative connecting eating and spirituality becomes far more realistic.

There is little doubt that our culture has problems with over eating:  diet plans and places abound, obesity is said to be an epidemic, there are food addictions and food allergies, we have no sense of proper food portions, junk food is a normal part of our diets, endless and competing ideas are presented as to how to eat our way to better health.

So one of the hymns from Meatfare Sunday, though written hundreds of years ago, has some modern eating themes in it:



Overeating is habitual for many of us – fasting, if it brought us to the level of eating only the amount necessary for our survival, would accomplish for many of us a great thing. It would help restore our humanity to us as it would return food to serving its purpose to nurture us, rather than to control us.   The goal of fasting is not to reduce fat , alcohol and cholesterol, nor is it to reduce the risk of diabetes, but if it also did those things, that would be a good thing.   Fasting is to confront our habitual pattern of over-indulgence, starting with overeating.   The delight of food has become bitter for us – it is killing us with obesity, diabetes, heart and cancer problems, not to mention allergies, auto-immune problems and a host of other diseases as well as attempting to anesthetize our emotional discomforts.  Fasting is to learn to say “no” to the habits which control us and to the desires which are polluting our stomachs and arteries as well as our souls and minds.  Fasting can be a means of restoring sanity to our lives when it comes to food.    Fasting is to help prepare us to be fed by Christ, the Paschal Lamb of God.

And, we are to remember fasting is not only or even mostly about food – for there is the real fast which is pleasing to God.  As another hymn from Meatfare says:







See also my blog  Fasting: The Rules and the Individual

When Talking is Not the Cure

Everyone may be familiar with the old joke of the man telling his doctor, “Doctor, what should I do if it hurts when I do this…”   The doctor replies, “Don’t do that.”

There is similar wisdom in the sayings of the desert fathers.  In this story adapted from the original, a monk asks a wise father a question about his inability to control his own tongue.  Perhaps he simply talked too much, or gossiped, cursed, used foul language, told inappropriate stories, assassinated the characters of others, lied, or any of a number of other sins we commit when we fail to control our thoughts and out mouth.

Abba Joseph said to Abba Nestir, “What shall I do with my tongue, for I cannot conquer it?”

Abba Nestir said unto him, ” If you talk about it will you get relief from this trouble?”

Joseph replied, “No.”  

The old man said unto him, ” If then you find no relief when you talk about it, why do you keep talking?”

Abba Joseph said unto him, “What shall I do? For I cannot resist it.” 

The old man said unto him, ” If you can not gain relief by talking, then hold your peace.”  

(The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Volume 2, Loc. 76-80)

There are some faults we have to overcome within ourselves.  Talking about them will not do the job of bringing about change.  Sometimes we simply need to do the hard work of resisting our selves, our desires, our natural inclinations in order to overcome our temptations.

Jesus called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Jesus taught: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”  (Mark 9:43-48)

Self-control“Nor does the Christian practice self-control simply for the healthful benefits to the body. Furthermore, an uncultured  man who has never tasted pleasures is not necessarily practicing self-control. Many who have led such lives lose all self-control when they finally taste pleasures for the first time. These are the ones who are only restrained by law and fear. But upon finding a favorable opportunity, they abandon good. But true self control, desirable for its own sake, is perfected through knowledge. It is ever enduring, making the man the lord and master of himself. So the one who knows God is moderate and free from fleshly desires. He is incapable of being dissolved by pleasures and pains. The source of these virtues is love. (Col. 3:14)”   (Clement of Alexandria – d. ca 215AD, The One who Knows God, pg. 97)