Thursday, February 26, 2009

Preparing for Great Lent Pt 3: Fasting

Dear Parish Faithful,

Yesterday evening we held the third and final talk in our "Preparing for Great Lent" series. As I did for our two previous sessions, I am sharing, in outline form, some of the main points discussed concerning the practice of fasting. Our discussion was for the most part based upon a reading of Archbishop Kallistos Ware's excellent article, printed in booklet form, "When You Fast."

FASTING - An Outline

Fasting completes the "sacred trilogy" of essential Christian practices: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as taught to us directly by the Lord in MATT. 6:1-18. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness (MT. 4:1-11).

Thus, fasting is a practice that goes back to the very origins of the Church. Practice of all major religions, actually. In both the Old and New Testaments, fasting is related to theophanies or visions:
- Moses on Mt. Sinai (EX. 34:28)
- Elijah on Mt. Horeb (I KINGS 19:8-12)
- St. Peter (ACTS 10:9-17)

To fast is to be ascetical - spiritual vigilance based upon discipline and restraint. Ultimately liberating. Freedom from binding attachments of a "worldly nature," beginning with the most basic: food and drink.

At the same time, we do not want to reduce Great Lent to the prescribed food restrictions. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving can be empty - even demonic. Fasting is one tool in the over-all lenten effort of "fasting from sin." (St. John Chrysostom)

"The fast should be kept not only by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands, and all the members of the body." (St. John Chrysostom)

"You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother." (St. Basil the Great)

• Understood within the wider context of Orthodox Christian anthropology: human persons are a psychosomatic unity of soul and body (or spirit, soul and body - see this file for Glossary of Terms). We are our bodies. The body is integral to our personhood and participates in the process of theosis. Reject all forms of dualism.

• In a fallen world, the demands and appetites of the body can easily dominate: passion of gluttony.

Fasting restores the proper hierarchy between the spiritual and the material: "Man does not live by bread alone."

• According to Arch. Kallistos Ware: "The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God." What are we really hungry for? Hunger and tiredness strip away "sinful complacency."

• According to The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd c.), money saved from fasting (not just food but entertainment, excessive shopping, etc.) can be given to the widow, orphan and the poor.

In his booklet "When You Fast," Archbishop Kallistos Ware points out "five misconceptions" about fasting:

1) "In the first place, the Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people."

2) "In the second place, the Lenten fast should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense." Meaning any "achievements" are not simply a matter of our will, but a gift of the grace of God.

3) "In the third place, our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient." We follow the pattern of fasting prescribed by the Church. Do not make up our own rules. Speak with spiritual father about intensification or relaxation of the fast.

4) "In the fourth place, paradoxical though it may seem, the period of Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness."
With joy let us enter upon the beginning of
the Fast.
Let us not be of sad countenance ...

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season
of abstinence;
And let us shine with the bright radiance of
the holy commandments ...

"Lent" is derived from the English word "springtime."

5) "Fifthly and finally, our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God's creation." All foods are good. None are impure. Excessive bodily impulses lead to misusing the gift of food. Fasting restores that awareness of food as gift.

"When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make all eating spiritual, sacramental, and eucharistic - no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.... Only those who have learnt to control their appetites through abstinence can appreciate the full glory and beauty of what God has given to us." (Arch. Kallistos)

What is the ascetical fast? To abstain from meat, fish and dairy products for Great Lent and Holy Week. Also alcoholic beverages.

What can we do? Set some realizable - yet challenging - goals based on the above. A need to "feel" the fast. Again, Arch. Kallistos:

The tendency to overemphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy.

Create a lenten atmosphere in the home. Regular in prayer and spiritual reading. Less stimulation through television, radio, CD players, etc. Avoidance of "worldly entertainment." Seeking stillness: urban hesychasm.

• Make time to participate in lenten liturgical services.

• Prepare well for the Mystery of Repentance (Confession).

Great Lent teaches discipline, obedience, restraint. Essential virtues within a culture that scorns such virtues.

• Ultimately, a blessed season of the year that leads us to the Death and Resurrection of Christ.

Fr. Steven

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