The Holy Apostles established and committed to us as a help and benefaction for our souls something yet greater and more exalted--that we should set apart a tenth portion of the very days of our lives and devote them to God. Thereby might we also receive a blessing for all our deeds, and yearly cleanse the sins we have committed over the course of the whole year.
How did the Church arrive at such a season and structure of services? And whether you've been through Lent before or this is going to be your first season, you will see that this is a rather complicated season; there is a lot going on, a number of services you haven't seen. There are new names and phrases for things. Certain spiritual disciplines are highlighted that you may not be aware of, or at least you don't typically them see during the rest of the season.
Notice that Christ mentions the discipline of fasting as a foregone conclusion for his followers. We also see that fasting is pointless if it is not done with the right spirit. Those who fast “publicly” and with great “fanfare” have received their reward, and it is both temporal and fleeting. True fasting is a relational and Spiritual discipline that affects one’s whole person and transforms one into the likeness of Christ.
The fast is not a diet or temporary vegetarianism. The fast is first of all a spiritual activity by which we attempt to bring our soul and flesh into submission. Fasting teaches us to control our nature, rule over desires that arise, and through this, to achieve the most difficult victory—victory over our own selves.
In the three weeks that have led us to this great and solemn first day of the Fast, the Church has set before our spiritual eyes themes of exile. When our ancestors in the faith were led to captivity in Babylon, they wept; they hung up their lyres and said, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither”
When the children grow and their personality and inclinations become clearer, parents should show tact with respect to the norms of fasting. They must not, for example, forbid them sweets against their will, or make the fast days so strict with regard to food quality and quantity as to exceed the norms of the Church’s rule of fasting. Ailing or frail children can naturally be given dispensations, or even be freed from fasting.
During the time of gastronomically austere yet spiritually joyous Great Lent, there is room for holidays as well—sitting quietly, joyfully, and warmly around the table with close friends and family. Different family members may be fasting to varying degrees—healthy adults, children, the elderly, the ailing—but the holiday table should be set with Lenten foods for all. In this case, it is time for tea, with all the attending sweets.
We are just outside of Eden, but on this side of Pascha. Bishop Kallistos observes, “Lent is a time when we weep with Adam and Eve before the closed gates of Eden, repenting with them for the sins that have deprived us our free communion with God. But Lent is also a time when we are preparing to celebrate the saving event of Christ’s death and rising, which has reopened Paradise to us once more (Luke 23:43).”
The word “fasting” is usually associated with liquid only diets or other strict ways of eating. This type of fasting however is a bit more lenient and tasty; The Christian Greek Orthodox fasting practice is unique in that you can actually eat real food; they only need to avoid animal products.
The great multitude and the disciples who followed Jesus in today’s gospel, the 8th Sunday of Matthew 14:14-22, certainly knew the story of the Israelites and the Manna in the wilderness. So when Christ takes the five loaves and two fish and feeds 5000 men, not counting women and children (vv.17,21) the people must have begun to understand that He was indeed the Son of God, the same God who fed the Israelites hundreds of years before.
Perhaps, beloved ones, some of you might suppose that St. John composed his Ladder exclusively for monks, and not for laypeople, inasmuch as there is nothing in common between your own lives—that is, of fathers and mothers of families and secular young people—and the lives of monks, recluses, desert dwellers and hesychasts?
This great ascetic and desert dweller, St. Ephraim the Syrian, prayed that the Lord give him the spirit of chastity. Could it really be that he had need of that prayer? He considered that he needed to pray for this, and all the saints prayed for this. Why?
To not give in to the enemy—that is the main rule for those who are fighting a war. An army commander warns every soldier ahead of time about the threat of enemy subterfuge, so that they would not be deceived and taken captive. A soldier left alone, hungry, shivering and without warm clothing undergoes a strong temptation to give himself up to the enemy. The cunning adversary will take advantage of his situation with all possible means.
To those on the new style calendar who are celebrating the Nativity of Christ, we wish all a joyous feast. Please keep this delightful article on fasting in mind for Wednesdays and Fridays, and the other three extended fast periods. But for those who are still observing the Nativity fast, may these instructions encourage you during this final stretch.
Fasting is a time of purification, repentance; a time that helps us leave this vain world in which we live from day to day without often thinking about what is most important. Time goes by and we are in the same place; the soul has not changed. So it would be good for us to make friends with fasting. After all, it gives us the most important thing—spiritual transformation.
The Fast is always the possibility to become better, to conquer ourselves, to conquer our bad habits, organize ourselves for spiritual life. If the time of the fast did not come, we would just go on spinning like hamster in its wheel in our earthly affairs and rarely remember any kind of repentance.
A curious phenomenon can be observed in the interactions between pastors and their parishioners at the beginning of each major fast of the Church. Pastors attempt to call their parishioners’ pious attention to the spiritual heights of fasting: the fighting against sin, the conquering of passions, the taming of the tongue, the cultivation of virtues. In turn, parishioners pester their pastors with purely dietary questions...
So why is it that some would see a need for Great and Holy Lent? We said we were going to talk about the themes and the reasons; I think some of the reasons for Great Lent are in the calendar of events that proceed and mark our time through Great Lent. So let’s step back and take a look.
The word “fast” means not eating all or certain foods. As Orthodox Faithful, we can fast completely at certain times of great importance, and especially each time before receiving Holy Communion. Usually, fasting means limiting the number of meals and/or the type of food eaten. The purpose of fasting is to remind us of the Scriptural teaching, “Man does not live by bread alone.” The needs of the body are nothing compared to the needs of the soul. Above all else, we need God, Who provides everything for both the body and the soul. Fasting teaches us to depend on God more fully.
This rule of fasting, to be sure, is not intended to be a "straight-jacket" for Orthodox believers, nor a source of pharisaical pride for anyone who keeps the letter of the Church's law. It is rather the rule, the standard, against which each is to measure his own practice, and towards which one must always strive, according to one's strength and circumstances.