Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the Lord said, ‘Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father Who is in secret; and thy Father, Who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.’
No doubt on this Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from Paradise, otherwise called Cheesfare Sunday, our thoughts are on the Great and Holy Fast of Lent. Notice how I said that: “the Great and Holy Fast.” Of all the stipulated fasts of the Church, the next 40 days is remarkable. It is great, that is, most rigorous, and it is holy, that is, leading us to God, into His holy and sanctifying Presence.
On this Sunday, we eat our last morsels of non-fasting foods and our minds are doubtless on food. I recall when some of us were making our way into Holy Orthodoxy, fasting was challenging, but it was made more difficult by our imaginations filled with images of emaciated bodies and the like. Questions arose: Can we do this? Can we do this for 40 days – a veritable eternity by our accounts? Won’t this make us weak and negatively impact our health? How will we handle fasting when our friends and families won’t be fasting? In our early days as the Chapel, we did the stereotypical thing – we ate a lot of salads – which amused Fr. John and others who had been at this a lot longer. Yet, he was gracious and bore with us. We soon learned there were other fasting foods besides salads, and so together – that is a most crucial point that this is a communal experience and not an individual one – together we have grown up into this thing called fasting. In fact, it is still challenging – as it should be – but I’d warrant that some of us now look forward to these seasons of paring down on food and bulking up on God, if you will. There is something to be said about this very ancient spiritual and physical practice; something the world now acknowledges: that there are benefits from what it calls “intermittent fasting.”
Contrary to what many of us thought coming from non-Orthodox traditions, fasting is rarely spoken of in Sacred Scripture in negative ways. Consulting a Biblical concordance will adequately demonstrate that. Nor was it set aside by our Lord as though having been fulfilled by Him and so no longer incumbent upon souls under His New Covenant. That misinformation is quickly dispelled by today’s pericope extracted from His Sermon on the Mount. Here, in this chapter from St. Matthew, God Himself in the flesh expects His New Covenant Church to pray (Mt. 6:5-13), to give alms (Mt. 6:1-4), and, of course, as we have already heard, to fast. In each instance, Jesus clearly articulates “’when you give alms.’” “’when you pray,’” “’when you fast.’” God incarnate incorporated these spiritual practices into His own earthly life and taught His disciples to do the same. At no time does Jesus ever infer that prayer, almsgiving, or fasting were made obsolete and non-binding by His Death and Resurrection. On one occasion, the disciples of the Forerunner and Baptist John approached our Lord questioning why they and the Pharisees “’fast often, but Thy disciples do not fast.’” Jesus replied, it’s because so long as the Bridegroom is present, the friends of the Bridegroom are dispensed from fasting. However, “’the days will come,’” He says, “’when the Bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast’” (Mt. 9:14-17; Mk. 2:18-22; Lk. 8:40-56). The Church in the Book of Acts is found to fast and pray (Ac. 14:23) while St. Paul, the Apostle of grace and freedom, encourages married couples to periodically give themselves “to fasting and prayer” (1 Cr. 7:5).
The very thing God called His people to do in the Old Testament, He bids them continue in the New for the very same reasons: it is good for the soul and it demonstrates faith and obedience. Moreover, fasting is a sacrificial act of worship demonstrating humility and repentance. It prepares the soul to encounter the awesome true and living God Who is a consuming fire (Ex. 24:17; Hb. 12:29)! It is called upon specifically by the Prophets in times of repentance and mourning by the people of God. The Prophet Joel is used by both the Western and Eastern Church to introduce Lent by calling old and young, married and unmarried, clergy and laity, children and nursing infants to “sanctify a fast” in order to beseech the mercies of God (Jl. 1:1-3:21). Because, as Joel rightly notes, “’Who knows if [God] will return and change His mind, and leave a blessing behind Him . . . .?’” (Jl. 2:14). The penitent king of Nineveh wondered the same thing when he called his sinful people to prayer and fasting and sackcloth (Jh. 3:9). We know from Sacred Scripture that fasting done with a pure heart, not for showmanship but out of true humility, love, and penitence, God sees and God honors (Jh. 3:10; Ac. 10:30). Fasting characterizes the saints. Indeed, the old Prophetess Anna, the Evangelist notes, “did not depart from the Temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Lk. 2:36-38). Fasting serves God. It always has and always will though there is coming a day when fasting, like faith and hope, will be set aside. But, that day is not yet. For we await the coming of the Bridegroom to receive His spotless and most virginal Bride.
The Prophet Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the mountain when he received the divine Law (Ex. 34:28). Likewise, the Prophet Elijah fasted as he made his way to “the mount of God” (3 Kg. [1 Kg.] 19:8), as did Ezra call for a fast to seek the way of God (Ez. 8:21-23). And, of course, we cannot forget our Lord’s own 40 day fast that has inspired and set the tone for the Church’s Fast of Great and Holy Lent when she enters into the intense spiritual combat with the demons in the wilderness, some of which, our Lord once pointed out, do not come out without prayer and fasting (Mt. 17:21; Mk. 9:29). Fasting gets God’s attention. Fasting attracts the grace of God. Fasting, coupled with prayer – otherwise it is a demonic fast, according to the Fathers, devoid of any true value and benefit – fasting coupled with prayer and repentance serves God and is truly a sacrifice rendered unto God, a true act of worship as we offer up the bloodless sacrifice (Rm. 12:1-2). Fasting is a real sacrifice of our very selves – our appetites, our desires, our wants, our passions – to God. Such sacrifice is at the heart of worship. Fasting, beloved, opens up spaces in our hearts and lives for God to fill with Himself by way of prayer, the Eucharist, the reading of Sacred Scripture, and the giving of alms, to name but a few. As our Lord once cautioned us about casting demons out, sweeping the room, cleaning it up, and then leaving it empty. The demon cast out returns, bringing with him seven others far more wicked than himself, and our condition is made worse than before (Mt. 12:43-45; Lk. 11:24-26)! So, beloved, when we fast, we must fill the renovated space created in our souls with God’s abiding Presence, that is, with His holiness and true righteousness and peace; with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness; with the Holy Spirit (Rm. 13:11-14:4; Ep. 4:24; 5:18; Co. 3:10; Hb. 12:14).
Of course, the danger ever lurking nearby is all of this piety is for show. Hence, what does our Lord say? He says, do it in secret. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Be content that your Father Who sees in secret will one day bless and reward your devotion. When you fast, don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t make it an issue if you happen to go to someone’s home and they’re not fasting. Eat with glad and thankful hearts that which is set before you. Everything we do is for the love of God. Fasting helps us to do just that – to love God – by emptying ourselves out of self-love, self-righteousness, self-infatuation, self-exaltation, and any other self-centeredness left in us. Only then can we truly receive Jesus into ourselves so that it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me (Ga. 2:20; Pp. 2:5-11).
Beloved, this is the whole purpose of the Fast of Great and Holy Lent: to be filled with our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ! The focus of this holy season is on Him and our ongoing response to Him in faith, hope, and love. Fasting, as the Prophet declares, is absolutely worthless and utterly devoid, if prayer and almsgiving is absent. Indeed, God lampoons Israel’s fasting when it is done for all the wrong reasons. Why doesn’t God see their fasting? Isaiah says, “’Because in the days of your fasts, you seek your own wills, and mistreat those under your authority. If you fast for condemnations and quarrels, and strike a humble man with your fists, why do you fast to Me . . .?,’” asks God. “’I did not choose such a fast,” says the Lord:
‘rather, loose every bond of wrongdoing; untie the knots of violent dealings; cancel the debts of the oppressed [with mercy, compassion, and forgiveness]; and tear apart every unjust contract. Break your bread for the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. If you see a naked man, clothe him, nor shall you disregard your offspring in your own household. Then your light shall break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth quickly. Your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. Then you shall cry out, and God will hear you. . . . . (Is. 58:1-14).
This year’s fast is even more poignant. This year we fast in solidarity with our brethren of the Ukraine who are being made to fast in ways we have not experienced. They are fasting from the normalcy of life. They are fasting from loved ones, homes, jobs, church – all because of the ravages of war. Theirs is an imposed fast whereas ours is voluntary. We unite ourselves with them in these days and we pray for them.
This, beloved, is the fast that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 117 :24)!
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!