We begin another time of fasting to prepare us for the Holy Pascha of our Lord. The guidelines of fasting are simple; we are to eat no meat or dairy products from the beginning of Great Lent on March 3rd until Great and Holy Pascha. There are other rules to the fast such as no alcohol, oil, and fish with backbone. But to be honest with you refraining from meat and dairy products is a challenge enough for us in this culture we live in today. Finally for those who are ill and have certain medical conditions that require that you not fast as strictly, then do what the doctor says. The purpose of fasting is not to make you sick and endanger your health. Most of you know this, so there is no need to dwell on the rules. However there are two things we do need to focus on as we fast that will make a difference as to whether this is a fruitful fast for us.
The goal of fasting is to do battle with enslavement to passions
Passions are not evil in themselves. Our emotional drives are given to us by God. But due to our self will (which rejected God’s will at the time of the fall) these passions in us become misdirected and we end up making idols of them, and then those passions rule us and we become enslaved to them. The most popular examples of passions gone amok would be alcohol, gambling, & substance abuse addictions, and sexual immorality (sexual relations out of wedlock whether they be homosexual or heterosexual). But there are others that seem to have more social acceptance. People can be addicted to power, money, pursuing the good life, the cosmetic industry, tobacco, addiction to modern technological gadgets, or living for the approval of men; even the drive to stay busy and active can become an addiction. So the goal of fasting is to master (by God’s help) the proper use of our passions in accordance with God’s will. Thus we eat to live, not live to eat. We drink moderately (if we are able to) out of a desire to be with friends we care about in fellowship and wish to celebrate an event in someone’s life; as opposed to hanging out with people that the only thing we have in common with them is to get high and plastered. We turn off the TV and limit our Facebook and texting to read spiritual things or pray. Instead of the Wednesday night school activity, we go to Presanctified Liturgy.
The other issue with fasting is we make excuses for not keeping the fast that have nothing to do with our health. For example, over the years, I have had many parents come to me asking; what about public school where meat is served during lunch? The answer is simple; why not pack a fasting meal? If that can’t be done for 40 days, at least try to do so on Wednesdays and Fridays during lent. The problem I see here is that this may separate one’s child from the rest of the student body that doesn’t fast. Does this make students or parents uncomfortable; what lies at the root of this?
As we give up certain items as food and entertainment during lent, (which is not meant to be easy or convenient for us), we begin to learn about sacrifice, going through times of want and need, and even a small degree of suffering. This then calls our attention to what our Lord Jesus Christ gave up for us when He went to the Cross to liberate us from enslavement. He suffered and died when He didn’t deserve it and committed no sin. With Him being God in essence he could have called upon His divine power to escape the Cross. But He knew the only way He could free us from our enslavement to sin and bondage to death was to die as a criminal on the scandalous cross (“Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.” Gal. 3:13). As we do battle with our passions and go through these periods of self denial, we then begin to learn that the essence of life is gratitude, and thanksgiving (eucharisitia). We come to learn that all things are given to us by God and we are called to be stewards of them and not to be mastered by them. We claim nothing as our own, because all is given to us by our Heavenly Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. So what are we to do as stewards? This brings me to the next thing to remember in the fast.
The goal of fasting is to teach us to love our neighbor whoever he or she maybe
During my sermon on Meatfare Sunday this year, I quoted a verse from the Praises at the Matins service:
“CONSIDER WELL, MY SOUL: DO YOU FAST? THEN DO NOT DESPISE YOUR NEIGHBOR! DO YOU ABSTAIN FROM FOOD? THEN DO NOT CONDEMN YOUR BROTHER, LEST YOU BE SENT TO BURN AS WAX IN THE FIRE.”
I went on to say that the standard we will be judged by (as mentioned in the Orthodox Study Bible) will be; “Did we show uncalculated mercy to those around us?” If you want to read a greater expansion of the matins verse, read all of Isaiah 58 for clarification. I am not just talking about sending checks to some charity. I am talking about person to person mercy that we extend to those in all of our relationships, whether be family, stranger, friend, or foe. We share what we have with others irrespective of whether they reciprocate or not.
I heard on the news today (2-25) that the state assembly in Arizona had a passed some type of law that would allow a businessman to refuse service to someone who was gay or lesbian on the basis of personal or religious convictions. Despite our teaching on same sex relations, this is not the context in which that teaching is to be applied. This is not the way to bear witness to our faith. This is not an example of loving our neighbor. It goes to the core of how we treat others who don’t live the same way as we do. We treat all people seeing the image of Christ in them, suffering in the needs of His brethren. We are all made in God’s image. That image cannot be eradicated despite our fallen nature. So we treat people with kindness and respect irrespective if we agree or don’t agree with how they live.
There is a big difference between uncalculated and calculated mercy. Those who practice uncalculated mercy grow in the faith; they break out of their comfort zones, and think outside of the box. They increase their talents from one to two, five or ten. Those who calculate mercy in their dealings with others end up burying their talent in the ground and according to the parable, end up losing the one they had.
These two things I am asking you to remember during lent go hand in hand. If we are fasting for the right reasons, it will continue to form in us the virtue of gratitude and to use what God has given us for the well being of others. By doing this we will become living icons of our Savior. As we embark on Great Lent please forgive me for failing to be an example to you of these two remembrances in the way I have lived. Please pray for me. Take care, Fr. Paul