Soon is the beginning of Great and Holy Lent. The Sunday preceding to the Great Lent is the day of forgiveness. It is an old Orthodox custom to meet and greet one another on this day, to forgive all offenses and make peace, in order that we may begin the fast cleansed and lightened.
Our Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of this meaningful custom by saying that if we forgive others their transgressions, our Father who is in heaven will also forgive ours. (Matthew 6:14)
Forgiveness should be on our minds each time we ask the merciful Lord to forgive us our debts “as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) But all this ill-will among us Christians is proof that we mouth our words mechanically. It is difficult to believe that what we are actually doing is consciously asking God to be as severe and unmerciful towards us as we are towards others. There are only a precious few among us, brothers and sisters, who have the courage for that most difficult virtue – forgiveness.
The fast is, first and foremost, a spiritual feat, the strenuous task of making one’s way up the thorny and narrow paths of virtue. This is why the Church calls upon us to shake off the burden of hatred and condemnation, of all our difficult relationships to others, that we may begin our feat of fasting freed from these burdens to meet the ineffable joy of the Resurrection.
With our diluted values and our drive to simplify and level out our spiritual tasks, we have also simplified fasting beyond recognition. In a nutshell, we have reduced it to a diet.
I must stress that the question of food is almost not even an issue here. It is implied, of course, that during Lent we abstain from heavy foods and inebriating drinks. This abstinence should not be our goal per se, but rather a starting point, a regular means by which we tackle higher, spiritual challenges and the achievement of higher virtues. The Fast is a time of radical changes. It constitutes our efforts to deny all of our everyday distractions and temptations, all that alienates us from ourselves, our purpose in life and all that interferes with our journey towards God. If we are heavy with burdens, Lent encourages us to lay them down, it invites us to look into our souls, settle all personal accounts and, in a spiritual interaction with God, endeavor to cleanse and heal our wounds. Let us remember how the Lord Himself, emaciated and hunger-ridden by fasting and temptations, cried out at the Tempter who attempted to entice Him with promises of power and indulgence: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve! Then the devil left Him. (Matthew 4:10-11)
This provides us with the clearest example. With His answer, Christ gives us the most concise formula for spiritual warfare. He tells each one of us to take a good, sober look within ourselves and decide what is of primary and what is of secondary importance, what is temporary and what is eternal. Then each one of us must face his or her demon or tempter and tell him as well as ourselves what is important; that no food or fashion, power or passion are as important as serving the Lord and worshipping Him alone.
Christ our Lord is our ideal when it comes to giving an answer to challenges and overcoming temptation. For us, the fast must be a time of struggling against all temptations, most especially against those most frequent sins into which we fall headfirst when our stomachs are full and our minds inebriated with wine. During the fast we must practice a more rigorous control over our thoughts, words and actions and we must direct all of our attention to our spiritual life and the person of our Savior to Whose victorious resurrection the fast takes us.
As I said, Lent presents a radical change, a change in respect to ourselves and who we are as well as to others. An individual is not saved alone. He or she is saved as part of a community and by selfless giving to others. A standard for fasting was set in the Old Testament through the prophet Isaiah, but we have not been able to reach it to this day, let alone surpass it with the ultimate commandments of co-suffering love given in the New Testament. The prophet brings before us the upset and rebellious faces of his fellow men in their anger towards God. “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?” The impatient and pragmatic Old Testament man demands an immediate reward for his labors and sacrifices. Then the Lord answers them, explaining why their labors are fruitless and their sacrifices wasted: “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labors. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:3-4)
God has no need of our fasting. We need the Fast; not just formal fasting as when someone says, “Well, I’ll just refrain from eating greasy food for a while, besides, there are health benefits for me there, too.” That kind of abstinence is useless and senseless. The Lord speaks to us through prophet Isaiah: “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday. (Isaiah 58:5-10)
“Increase our faith,” (Luke 17:5) cried the apostles, fearful before the difficulty of the challenge they were about to face. Let us cry out to God in the same way and say, Increase our faith, too, O Lord, that we may on the journey of Lent and persevering in it, that we may become stronger spiritually and eventually see the ineffable glory and joy of the Resurrection of Christ.