Two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent this year, I wrote a post which shared a number of links about fasting, so rather than repeat those comments and links, here, I’m just going to link to that post, “Rules vs. Guidelines: Semantics Matter.”
It’s been interesting to watch my friends on Facebook share about what they’ve chosen to give up for Lent. Before I was Orthodox, I never thought about Lent, but it seems that many Protestant Christians today do take it seriously. And of course the Roman Catholic Church has its own approach. [I just found this interesting article about the different ways these churches observe Lent.]
Some of my FB friends are fasting from chocolate. Others from sweets. Others
from alcohol. Others from caffeine. A common thread, it seems, is to give up something you love, or something that might have too strong of a hold on you. Not a bad idea.
But it’s not the Fast that’s prescribed by the Orthodox Church. Orthodox Christians don’t get to pick and choose. If we have special circumstances, like physical illness, pregnancy, or other specific “issues,” we can talk with our priest and ask for a blessing to do an abbreviated version of the Lenten Fast. I’ve done that several times in the past, due to my struggles with eating disorders and alcohol abuse, and it was helpful not to think, at the beginning of the Fast, “Oh, I can’t do this so I might as well not try.” But this year I’m not asking for a lower bar. I know I won’t always make it over, but I also know there is forgiveness when I fail.
Father Nicholas Meyer, our Assistant Pastor at St. John, gave a good homily about our approach to fasting recently. He was a pole-vaulter in his youth, so he used the analogy of sometimes making it over the bar, sometimes hitting the bar, and sometimes going under the bar. But the bar wasn’t lowered just so he could make it over.
God doesn’t lower the bar, but He gives us strength in proportion to our efforts. Especially when we approach the bar with humility. Humility attracts the grace of God.
Saint Isaac of Syria writes these words about fasting:
“The Saviour began the work of our salvation with fasting. In the same way, all those who follow in the footsteps of the Saviour build on this foundation the beginning of their endeavor, since fasting is a weapon established by God…. Our Lord was the leader and first example of this victory…. As soon as the devil sees someone possessed of this weapon, fear straightaway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Saviour in the wilderness…. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal.”
How is fasting such a weapon? I think it’s not just the act of not eating certain foods that gives us power, although obedience and self-control are surely powerful in themselves. I haven’t experienced much of this personally, but I’ve observed it in others who are stronger than I, and whose lives, as a result, are pillars of light and love to those around them. They are most often found combining their fasting with prayer and almsgiving.
So what is the Fast that God chooses for us?
“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 home 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,
And your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall be before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”