Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Great Fast

As a Presbyterian, I experienced the changing seasons of the church calendar as primarily an opportunity to change the color of the cloths on the communion table and the pulpit and our stoles, in the case of Lent to a rich purple.  It made me feel edgy to join our Episcopalian friends down the road in ‘giving up’ something for Lent, usually something innocuous or banal like chocolate, which was intended to help us enter into something of the sacrifice of Christ.  Imagine that.  Maybe there was a Maunday Thursday service, depending on the toleration of the particular local church to such multiplication of services outside the usual.  Maybe a Good Friday service.  But more often than not, we Presbyterians sailed effortlessly from Christmas to Easter, marking both with special music, interrupting our normal sermon series with a special message to mark the day, and then picking up the following week right where we left off as if nothing happened.  I realize there are exceptions to this amongst the thousands of Protestant variables that shape the American Christian landscape, but this is how I remember it growing up as a good Presbyterian boy, and later as a Presbyterian pastor when it was my turn to give leadership in keeping our local traditions.

Now that I am Orthodox, I am making the fascinating discovery that, though we Presbyterians may use the same words as our Orthodox friends, we really are pointing in different directions.  Take the issue of fasting during Lent.  The Orthodox don’t just ‘fast’ from some token bit of food or some symbolic activity.  We fast from all meat and dairy products for the entire 50 days.  Which means we eat essentially a vegan diet.  And no alcohol.  We do this, not because we are mindlessly trying to satisfy some sort of legal requirement in order to somehow please God.  Rather we do this because it helps us focus attention on those aspects of our lives and character that would benefit from repentance, forgiveness and transformation.  Choosing to do without certain kinds of food also highlights our over-reliance on material things and underscores that our lives are too often ruled by an ideology of materialism rather than a theology of stewardship.  Moreover, our fasting is meant to be an icon of the real fast we are to be about – a fast from sin.

All of this is expressed, not in laws, but in prayer.  The very heart of Orthodox spirituality could be summed up in what we pray repeatedly as Orthodox Christians and what we call ‘the Jesus prayer’:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

During Lent, Orthodox Christians add another prayer to our devotions and to our services, the 4th century Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian:

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather to Thy servant the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.

Yes, Lord and King!  Grant me to see my own errors, and not to judge my brother or sister.

For you are blessed unto ages of ages.


Lent is a time for us to give serious attention to those issues, attitudes and defects that hinder our relationship with God and harm our relationships with others.  It is a time when we engage with the consequences of our choices, of what we’ve done and said and thought.  It is a time of repentance.  This is why we fast.  This is why we pray.  This is why we go to services. This is why we go to confession.

Our fifty days of Lent (longer if you include the several weeks of pre-Lent preparation and the ramp up of Meatfare and Cheesefare Sundays) are not intended to be a long hard and pointless slog against the besetting personal defects that seem to have a permanent grip on our souls.  Instead, Lent’s beginning assumes the end, where we gather together as the Lord’s people on that last Saturday night, with Christ the Messiah and Savior having been crucified and his body sealed in the tomb, and we hear the joyful gospel, literally the ‘good news’ that ‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!’

Lent is a reality check, reminding me that I am among the dead, among those needing a savior.  There is no one among us Orthodox under any illusion that we can somehow save ourselves.  Rather we are astonished when Christ’s mercy comes even to us.  Because Lent further acquaints us with our need for a savior, the miracle, the joy of Easter hits us full force.  In many respects Lent is like that story in Luke’s gospel of the two disciples on their way to Emmaus on the Sunday after the Lord’s death on Friday.  They meet a stranger along the way who opens up the Scriptures to them and shows them just what God has been up to.  And when they invite the stranger to stay the night with him, he joins them for their evening meal, gives thanks for the bread and breaks it and disappears.  And the two realize that they had been walking and talking with Jesus all along, and that he was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread.

Lyndel Littleton's The Road to Emmaus

This Lent, which begins for us with tomorrow (Sunday) night’s powerful vespers of forgiveness service, comes at a particular point of need for me.  I feel strongly the battle within me between my desire to live for myself and my desire to follow Christ.  There are certain things that I am feeling a need to give up, not just our normal meat and dairy, but things like social media, which have been a conduit for behaviors that take me far from God.  But mostly, I long to be free from sin.  Because every time I part from God’s way and God’s will, I choose to participate in death.  And my life is already way too scarred by sin and death and their cognates.  What I really need is Pascha – Easter.  And for us Orthodox, the only way to arrive at the Feast of Feasts is to walk the way of the Fast.

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