Russian Orthodox Church of Three Saints
Patriarchal Parish in the USA
Those people who belong to the Church merely out of habit or out of obedience to tradition usually view Great Lent only as a time of self-restriction. Theoretically, such an attitude toward Great Lent could be called negative. One must refrain from meat and dairy products, from dances and other forms of entertainment, and at some point during Great Lent one must go to Confession and Communion. 
We encounter a different attitude toward Great Lent in those who belong to the Church not through pious inertia, but who seek a faith that is conscious and aware. Such people cannot but notice that during Great Lent, first and foremost, the very style of the Church's liturgical self-expression changes. It would be a mistake to see in this style merely an appeal addressed to us for repentance and correction, although without a doubt this enters into the thematic of the divine services during the time of Great Lent. 
But the mission of the Church in the world does not consist of convicting people and calling them to correction. In principle, any one of the numerous systems of moral philosophy would be equal to such a task. Rather, the Church again and again reveals to us the fundamental truth of the New Testament revelation, which is contained in the following: To be a Christian means to experience the miracle of birth into a new life, and already here on earth to feel oneself to be a citizen of God's Kingdom, revealed to us by Christ. In accordance with this, Great Lent is for the Orthodox Christian, on the one hand, a time of radiant sorrow, and simultaneously with this, it is a difficult journey, marked by struggle, to the shining and beautiful goal of the feast of the Resurrection of Christ--Holy Pascha. 

Why have we called the time of Great Lent a time of radiant sorrow? We experience sorrow because we are conscious that we have departed from the Father's house into a far country, that in our vain and distracted life we have not preserved the purity of our baptismal garment, in which we were clothed when we entered the Church. It is necessary to shake off that condition of numbness, those cobwebs of everyday life which suggest to us that the life of this world--which is in us and around us--is the only possible way of life. To yearn for another form of existence--the one revealed to us in the Gospel and in the experience of the saints and ascetics-means to commune with that radiant sorrow which is the beginning of spiritual renewal. 

This sorrow is radiant because we know that God accepts us who return to Him with the very same love and readiness to forgive with which the father accepted and forgave the prodigal son of the Gospel parable. Therefore, this mystical union of sorrow and hope, darkness and light, becomes the central theme of the whole period of Great Lent. God made me His temple; but the temple needs cleansing and renewal, and I believe and hope that God will help me in this. 

In the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday, with which Great Lent begins, we hear the words of the Great Prokeimenon--words simultaneously of sorrow and hope. "Turn not Thy countenance away from Thy servant, for I am afflicted. Quickly hearken unto me, attend unto my soul and deliver it." Great Lent lasts for forty days. The journey of the chosen people from Egyptian slavery to the promised land lasted for forty years. Christ fasted in the wilderness for forty days before he went out to His service of the Word and Sacrifice. Being sinless Himself, he gave us an example of renewal through fasting. And for us this is a forty-day journey to the light of Holy Pascha, for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ is not simply a great feast or even the greatest of all the feasts of the Church year, but is the very essence and core of our faith. Without immutable faith that in Christ we are victors, not only over sin but also over the imaginary all-powerfulness of death, the preaching of the Gospel loses its meaning--for why bother to renew and regenerate that which is in any case doomed to death, disintegration and oblivion. It is for this reason, namely, the Apostle Paul says that "if Christ be not risen, then our faith is in vain" (see I Cor. 15:14). Each word of the Christian Good Tidings lives and breathes by the miracle of the Resurrection which is revealed to us through the exercise of faith, and the light of the approaching Pascha illumines the days of Great Lent. 

Parish Life, March, 1991

The meaning of fasting consists, In the first place, in abstinence (in theology it is called self-denial,) in forcing oneself to do not only what is pleasing to "my little soul," as the Russians would say. The meaning of fasting lies in controlling one's egoistic desires, In submission to something other than the continuous dictates of the self-loving ego. Why Is this necessary? Why is it good for us periodically to tame and humble ourselves? Because our nature Is a part of the world which is wallowing in sin In the words of John the Evangelist; man carries In himself the fruits of the original sin, and his voluntary renunciation of the ties to this natural world elevates him -above that world and frees him from It thus beginning the process of freeing him from the shackles which keep him in bondage to sin. 
It would be wrong to think that fasting is in some way similar to suicide. Atheists and materialists try to force this Idea upon us arguing that religion Is a renunciation of life, a disregard for life In the name of a non-scientific and abstract Idea of the Spirit-GOD. Any religion, they aver, is the opium of the masses, and fasting blunts man's physical activity. This assertion is entirely unsubstantiated. The practice of fasting was Instituted In order to revitalize, not destroy, our nature. Fasting Is the hygiene of the soul, the means of Its cleansing and healing. In the physical sensealone fasting Is good for one, and one can speak about the necessity to fast from the medical point of view.

Fasting gives us back our lost equilibrium and brings into harmony our mind, our soul and our body. Abstaining from excessive food results in the lightening of the capabilities of the mind and the soul. Food is conducive to sleep rather than activity, be It physical -or mental. incidentally, St. Seraphim of Sarov used to say that It is not meet to speak of things Divine having "stuffed one's gut." 

Man must eat In orderto survive. Eating is certainly not sinful from the spiritualpoint of view. Heaviness and obesity are harmful for spiritual life: the Bible tells us that God warned Israel on Its wayto the Land of Canaan: "Israel, Israel! Thou goest to the landthat floweth with milk and honey. Beware, Israel, lest thou become heavy and forget thy God!" 

It pains us to see hunger In this world. Yet It not less painful to see what the poet Marina Tsvetaeva called the "satiety of the sated." 

Fasting leads to the total equilibrium and harmony of our mental, spiritual and physical selves. if our physical self becomes dominant, it is good to reduce physical activity so as to liberate the spirit and establish the equilibrium of spiritual purity. Even the stoics taught that spiritual purity leads to the harmony of man's entire being. 

Why does the Church prescribe the choice of foods for fasting periods? 

Our physiological activity Is a function of the food we eat. The more we eat foods which are located higher up on the ladder of organic and animal world, the more active we become In the physical sense. Vladimir the following gradation of physical activity. Physical activity Is the least pronounced in the plant world. For this reason, the most "fasting" food consists of vegetables, fruits and cereals. Fish are more highly developed than plants, and birds are more highly developed than fish. That Is why the physical energy derived from birds Is proportionately stronger than that derived from either fish or plants. The most highly developed animals are mammals which Is why they are Justly considered the most "un-lenten" food. 

Apart from its physiological aspect, fasting Is Important for spiritual development and the training of will. 

The Lord gave man the freedom of will so that he may do good deeds, seek the Truth and create beautiful things. But the freedom of will does not mean the absence of will, lack of volition, weakness of willor apathy. If man is given his freedom of will, than he must know what he wants, towards what end his will should be directed. The freedom of will must never lead man to immorality, lack of concern, indecency, licentiousness. Having decided what is good and what evil, man Is under an obligation to use his will to do good which would lead him to God. Man Is called to the doing of good deeds, to spiritual activity, the building of the City of God. For this reason, fasting, as every form of self-denial, Is a marvelous instrument in the education of man's will and the taming of his licentiousness. 

The discipline of the Church fast, as every discipline makes man more compatible with others, less solipsistic, less self-willed. Man must make his willconform with the will of the Church. It Is good for each of us to know what the will of the entire Church is. it is good for us to fast at times and in the manner prescribed by the Church. It is good for us, for our salvation, to be subject to the discipline of the Church, to be together with all others, to have the personal ego conform with the general desire of the Church. It Is Imperative for a man to be active not only in his own cause but also in the 'Common Cause" and to submit to the discipline of the Church. Incidentally, the word 'liturgy" means "common cause." According to the Church's definition, Christians are "Christ's soldiers". Together, they make up "Christ's Army." The earthly church is the "Church militant", the church fighting for the salvation of Its children. Discipline in the army of the Church, In the army of Christ, is just as necessary as It Is In the ordinary army. This is In part the essence of Christian catholicity. 

Fasting, of course, is not merely an exercise In abstinence. It also consists In performing good deeds. The Church insists on this aspect of fasting in Lenten hymns. it is evident, for instance, in the following liturgical text: "While fasting, brethren, In our bodies let us also fast in our spirits, let us destroy every alliance of deceit, let us give bread to the hungry and let us bring the poor and the homeless into our homes." 

On the eve of the Lenten Fast, during the liturgy on the Sunday of Repentance the gospel reading speaks of conditions on which is predicated our liberation from the slavery to sin , to 'this world." The first condition for our liberation from the dictatorial will of the flesh, the matter, is fasting. But for the fast to be real, authentic, the Gospel indicates, we must not fast hypocritically, ostentatiously. In the words of Christ, when we fast must not appear to fast unto men but unto our Father which Is In secret. The second condition Is forgiveness. "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you." The triumph of sin and the principal sign of Its dominion over the world are quarrels, discord, dissension, hatred. The first breach in the fortress of sin is forgiveness, that Is the return to unity, concord, love. 

At the-end of the vespers on the Sunday of Forgiveness, the worshippers come up to the celebrant and ask for forgiveness after which they turn to each other asking each other for forgiveness. It Is precisely this act of love, this act of becoming one, that marks the beginning of the Fast. 

To-day, there are not many who stop to think about the meaning of fasting. This is a result of the overall spiritual weakening, of the lack of spiritual vigor and responsibility. 

O, If only we remembered what we were called for, what feats of spirit the Lord expects of us! If only we remembered more often that we were appointed laborers in the vineyard of the Lord and that we shall be called by the Master to account for our labors and for the fruits brought forth by our labors In His vineyard! Perhaps It is to us that the terrible words of the Master in the parable refer: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof!" (Matt. 21, 33-43.) 

Archpriest Victor Potapov 

The Lenten Fast, 1988 

Parish Life 

March, 1988

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