Monday, March 12, 2012

As We Enter the Third Week of the Fast

Dear Parish Faithful,

O holy and honored Trinity, as we now enter upon the third week of the Fast, keep us safe from harm and condemnation. Enable us rightly to pass through the time that remains, and to fulfill all Thy commandments; that so, offering up our hymns of praise, with a pure conscience we may attain the glorious Resurrection.
(Matins, Monday of the Third Week)

As the hymn above reminds us, we are now entering the third week of the Fast. The two weeks that we have gone through now belong to our irretrievable past. They may have been fruitful; or they may have been wasted. So we may be building on an already solid foundation; or we may just be getting started. Either way, from this point on we press on toward the goal of the “glorious Resurrection.” If we follow the commandments of Christ, and if we keep our conscience pure, the Resurrection will be far more than a “colorful” tradition that lasts about as long as Easter Sunday.

Great Lent is forty days long. This is based on our Lord’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness, an event understood both as a temptation and a testing. This forty days was a concentrated microcosm of Israel wandering in the desert – and “fasting” – for forty years. The point is the continuity of the effort, modest though our efforts may be in comparison to Israel or Christ. While in the wilderness, Israel was allowed no time off. There were no hotels or spas along the way! The wandering Israelites could not “take a break” and break their fast, and then, well-rested, resume their journey through the harsh Sinai desert. The same was true for Christ. There was no such relief. It was an arduous forty days that tested His human nature to the fullest extent. When it was over, Jesus truly hungered. Times are far different now, and as we belong to a class of people that generally lives in comfort – or perhaps succumbs to dreams of entitlement – our limitations probably appear a good deal sooner when we are called upon to practice restraint and discipline. In this regard, we are probably “weaker” than our spiritual ancestors. Yet, hopefully we do have some reserves of patience and perseverance to carry us through the season of abstinence.

At the same time, we know that Great Lent is not only about bodily abstinence. With a bit of the perseverance mentioned above, we just may be able to pull that one off. Great Lent is also about our relationships with others and how we both view and act within the world around us. This is nicely-addressed by St. Dorotheos of Gaza in the following passage, typical of our saintly guides in the deeper aspects of our spiritual lives:

… in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not looking at vain things … not looking shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action. When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great. A person who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility … and proves himself a skillful builder.

Helpful words as we begin the third week of Great Lent, a point when the novelty or initial enthusiasm behind our efforts begin to evaporate.

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