Why do we keep the Great Fast?

Everything we do in the Church (and by ‘in the Church’, I don’t just mean the building but in communion with one another) is predicated on the goal of our salvation and what we understand by that. The keeping of the Great Fast is no different: it’s part of our journey, not an end in itself but a means towards our common goal.
Fr.Chrysostom MacDonnell | 04 March 2010

What exactly are we trying to accomplish during Great Lent? Is it simply to attend services and change our diet? Or are these a means to an end? If so, what is that end?

In fact, Lent is no different from the end of all our endeavours in Orthodox Christianity: it is our salvation. Everything we do in the Church (and by ‘in the Church’, I don’t just mean the building but in communion with one another) is predicated on the goal of our salvation and what we understand by that. The keeping of the Great Fast is no different: it’s part of our journey, not an end in itself but a means towards our common goal. Lent, of course, is an annual observance for us; it is as if we are on two journeys at once: one linear, as we progress towards the kingdom of God, the other cyclical as we revolve around the course of the year’s feasts and fasts.

If we were to ask why we observe this season among others, it is actually instructive to discover the historical reasons. It appears to have grown out of the way Christians in the early centuries fasted in solidarity with the catechumens who were to be received into the Church at the Paschal Vigil. As such, Lent grew as an annual reminder of their own conversion to Christ and how they prepared for it. In as much as conversion is not just a once and for all event in our life, the observance of the Great Fast becomes a season of grace, calling us back again and again to rededication and to the purity of soul we had when first baptized. The cycle of earthly year not only brings fasts and feasts, it also means temptations, trials and falls for us; we have a continuous need for conversion to Christ, whether we came to him first through a dramatic epiphany or through our upbringing in a loving, Christian family.

Interestingly, like all Christian ascetic practice, in part Lent comes from the tradition received via Judaism and the Old Testament but also as a response to the ending of persecutions in the old Roman Empire when St. Constantine the Great became Emperor. In the lives of the Desert Fathers we see how martyrdom changed in character. Instead of the red martyrdom of dying for ones faith in Christ, the ascetic monastic life itself became the extreme form of witness: a way of total commitment, freed from the bonds of worldly life. We have to bear in mind here that the Lenten rules are, in the first place, made for monastics. It is entirely appropriate that we seek the advice of our spiritual father in order that our observance of the rules does not, in fact, prove more of a hindrance than a help upon the way. A rule that is impossible to fulfil becomes pointless. On the other hand, the Orthodox Church sets before us an ideal, it does not lay down a bare minimum to be observed absolutely by all. We should aim for the ideal, knowing we shall probably fail rather than just fulfilling some minimum requirement with a sense of self-satisfaction. Indeed, think of the spiritual dangers if you were to keep everything perfectly whether from pride or a pharisaic obsession with the minutiae of the rule.

Turning now to the spiritual purpose of the Fast, I think it is really about liberation, of being unshackled from all that normally hinders our spiritual ascent. Just as the ceasing from work on the Mosaic Sabbath was the mark of a free people, (only slaves have no right to a day off) so the seeming restrictions of the Lenten rule actually demonstrate our freedom. If this seems perverse, remember that the addict is free to indulge his habit; the problem is that he is not free to refrain from his habit. It is a universal spiritual truth that even the good, the beautiful and worthy creations of God in this world which normally we receive with thanksgiving, can be twisted into the form of false idols as soon as they encroach upon the territory of that which we must render unto God. It might be obvious with things that we have invented like money or fine cuisine but this still applies to music, art, socialising, forms of escapism and entertainments. Even sexual relations between husband and wife, expressing the communion of two souls in a union blessed by the Church, we teach as not appropriate for the Great Fast. What, in other words, is a blessing within marriage is put aside for a season in order to attain a higher goal.

In short, of course, the higher goal is attained through our spiritual warfare against the passions. Even in marriage, where is the line between lust and love, or at table between hunger and gluttony? Whether power, food, sex, pleasure, influence, ambition, wealth, whatever we become dependent on (in order to find some imagined self-fulfilment), we are its slave. Adam in Paradise fell because he imagined that his freedom lay in independence from God; the exercise of his will against the divine command. In fact, he found the opposite when he becomes enslaved to the things created in the world rather than finding fulfilment in communion with the Creator.

It might be argued that this is a highly individual and self-centred exercise. In fact, salvation in the Orthodox understanding is not a mere solitary pursuit. Salvation is the saving of persons in communion. We know through revelation that God Himself is not the solitary monad; as a being, God is a community of three persons of one divine essence. Our encounter with God cannot be just I and Thou but also We and You. In working out our own salvation we draw others in. As St. Seraphim of Sarov reminds us, in acquiring the Holy Spirit we save thousands around us! If God’s grace perfects our individual struggles towards holiness, then the likeness of God (Gen 1:26ff) is being restored in us. This is the way, in the holiness of a pure way of life, that we evangelise, that we attract others to the life in Christ. This is all we need to ask ourselves by the time we reach Pascha: have we moved forward with God’s grace? Will we progress from glory to glory in the time left to us?

I realise that I have not mentioned the other Lenten disciplines of prayer and almsgiving. Together with fasting, all three are means towards the end of shifting from our self-centredness through sacrifice. Our desires, our time, our charity are all offered to God. More might be said of these but there isn’t space at the moment. I should like to end, however, by reflecting on the spiritual progress we can make. Naturally, after Lent we turn our mind to feasting and any Orthodox Christian who has at least endeavoured in the struggle will know that joy of tasting the Paschal foods. It is like the joy of the mountaineer who has attained a summit and, having admired the view, makes his way down. Yet the Feast of the Resurrection cannot be fifty days of indulgence, for that would turn our practice into a mere spiritual bulimia nervosa. The question I would like to leave with our readers is whether, having kept a good Fast, you also have the capacity for spiritual joy that is the mark of the Paschal season?

Fr.Chrysostom MacDonnell,a parish priest of Antiochian Orthodox church of St.Dunstan in Bournemouth, Dorset, UK.

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