“To everything there is a season’ – a time to feast and a time to fast.”
This is the cycle of the Church’s life. This year, because Great Lent begins so early, we feel that cycle perhaps more intensely than at other times. Having just finished the great twin feasts of our Lord’s Nativity and Baptism (Christmas and Theophany) we enter almost immediately it seems on the preparation for Great Lent. And so we swing from one of the greatest festal seasons of the year, directly into the greatest fasting season of the year. A time to feast, a time to fast.
Contemplating this cycle of life which we live in the Church, it is immediately apparent that there is a beneficial purpose for us in this. If we were to feast all the time, soon we would grow lazy and inattentive; we would begin to concentrate only on the pleasures of the world and to seek after these rather than after the Kingdom of God. However if we were fast continually, then we would grow weak and weary. We would lose sight of the joy of the Kingdom of God and see only the drudgery and weariness of the world. We would lose heart and soon fall into despair. Thanks be to our wise and merciful God Who knows the innermost secrets of our souls better than we ourselves, for He has ordained for us and given to us a life which is neither one extreme nor the other, but rather a middle way, reaping the benefits of both and avoiding their pitfalls.
A Preparation for Pascha
When a person trains for some athletic contest, there is a rhythm to the training. The body is worked to its limits and then allowed to rest and recover. Then again there is a period of intense work. This is similar to the regular routine of our Wednesday and Friday fasts. For a day we work the soul and body with fasting and increased ascetic labour, and then we allow it to rest and recover.
When our fasting seasons come these are times when we increase the intensity and duration of our labour in preparation for the great event of the feast. In this we see how athletes, when the season of their sport approaches, will attend ‘training camp’ and will work out with increased intensity and duration. This is all to prepare for the season when they will compete in their games. If there were no games, however, only training camp and practices, then these athletes would soon lose interest in working so hard for no reason. In the Church we too have our ‘games’ that is the feasts. When these great feasts approach, we work hard to prepare ourselves – but without the feast, soon fasting would lose its purpose and appeal. Thus we see that the prolonged fasts are always paired with a some kind of feast and Great Lent, the strictest and most difficult of all the fasts, is paired with Paschal, the greatest and most joyful of all the feasts. The Queen of Feasts deserves, even demands, the most intense preparation of all. The great joy and rejoicing of Pascha is made even greater when we have prepared for it.
The Intrinsic Merits of the Fast
Beyond simply the preparation for the feast of the Resurrection, Great Lent offers us many other benefits as well. Throughout the year, the focus of our lives tends to drift. While we are moved in our spiritual life by the love for God, there are many little variations that creep in and distract us, a little here and a little there, until the little variations finally add up to produce a drift from the true and central path to the Kingdom of God. When a spacecraft is sent towards a far off destination, even the smallest variation in its path can result in a huge error and missing the target by the end of the journey, unless that drift is corrected and the craft is brought back on course. This ‘drift’ in our spiritual life may seem small at the present, but over the whole course of life – and indeed the whole course of eternity – it may well lead us astray if it is not corrected.
Great Lent gives us the opportunity and tools to correct that ‘drift’ and set our soul again firmly in the centre of the path of salvation. All of the little passions for pleasure that have somehow found their ways into our lives are revealed by the discipline of Great Lent and their hold on us broken. Perhaps there is a new delicacy or food which we have learned to love or some new drink that we crave or a television program that we ‘can’t miss’ or some other little distraction that pulls at our heart, tugging it away from its pure and true drive toward Christ. During Great Lent, when we set all these things aside, the inordinate hold that such things begin to develop on the soul is broken by our ascetic labour and they can be returned to a place in our lives that is balanced and proper. We are reoriented and recentered on the path of salvation.
Approaching Union with God
In the cycle of feast and fast, we now find ourselves on the doorstep of preparation for Great Lent. This should not be a time of despair or a time when we focus only on the hardship, but rather, as the Apostle says, we should keep our eyes on the prize, on the goal of entering into the Kingdom of God. Great Lent is only part of our progress toward that goal. Great Lent affords us the opportunity to prepare for Pascha, the Queen of Feasts so that we might experience the joy of the Resurrection to the fullest. Great Lent also has its own intrinsic merit in that we now have the opportunity and the tools to see the course and direction of our spiritual life, and to break free of the pulls and pressures of this world that have found their way into our hearts. Great Lent gives us the chance to correct the ‘drift’ in our spiritual life, centering us again on the path of salvation so that we will not miss our goal, but rather that we will safely reach our destination – the Kingdom of God – and there find the final culmination of all of our struggles, of all of our joys and of all our rejoicing in this life. This is but one small step towards our final union and communion with our God Whom we love and Who draws us to Himself.