THE MEANING OF THE GREAT FAST (Part VI)
By Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware
The season of Lent, it should be noted, falls not in midwinter when the countryside is frozen and dead, but in spring when all things are returning to life. The English word ‘Lent’ originally had the meaning ‘springtime’; and in a text of fundamental importance the Triodion likewise describes the Great Fast as ‘springtime’:
The springtime of the Fast has dawned,
The flower of repentance has begun to open.
O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity
And sing to the Giver of Light:
Glory be to Thee, who alone lovest mankind. 22
Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality. Certainly it has its somber aspect, with the repeated prostrations at the weekday services, with the dark vestments of the priest, with the hymns sung to a subdued chant, full of compunction. In the Christian Empire of Byzantium theatres were closed and public spectacles forbidden during Lent; 23 and even today weddings are forbidden in the seven weeks of the fast. 24 Yet these elements of austerity should not blind us to the fact that the fast is not a burden, not a punishment, but a gift of God’s grace:
Come,O ye people, and today let us accept
The grace of the Fast as a gift from God. 25
Finally, our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God’s creation. As St. Paul insists, ‘Nothing is unclean in itself’ (Rom. 14: 14). All that God has made is ‘very good’ (Gen. I: 31): to fast is not to deny this intrinsic goodness but to reaffirm it. ‘To the pure all things are pure’ (Titus I: I S), and so at the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom of heaven there will be no need for fasting and ascetic self-denial. But, living as we do in a fallen world, and suffering as we do from the consequences of sin, both original and personal, we are not pure; and so we have need of fasting. Evil resides not in created things as such but in our attitude towards them, that is, in our will. The purpose of fasting, then, is not to repudiate the divine creation but to cleanse our will. During the fast we deny our bodily impulses – for example, our spontaneous appetite for food and drink – not because these impulses are in themselves evil, but because they have been disordered by sin and require to be purified through self-discipline. In this way, asceticism is a fight not against but for the body; the aim of fasting is to purge the body from alien defilement and to render it spiritual. By rejecting what is sinful in our will, we do not destroy the God-created body but restore it to its true balance and freedom. In Father Sergei Bulgakov’s phrase, we kill the flesh in order to acquire a body.
But in rendering the body spiritual, we do not thereby dematerialize it, depriving it of its character as a physical entity. The ‘spiritual’ is not to be equated with the non-material, neither is the ‘fleshly’ or carnal to be equated with the bodily. In St. Paul’s usage, ‘flesh’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is fallen and separated from God; and in the same way ‘spirit’ denotes the totality of man, soul and body together, in so far as he is redeemed and divinized by grace. 26 Thus the soul as well as the body can become carnal and fleshly, and the body as well as the soul can become spiritual. When St. Paul enumerates the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5: 19-21), he includes such things as sedition, heresy and envy, which involve the soul much more than the body. In making our body spiritual, then, the Lenten fast does not suppress the physical aspect of our human nature, but makes our materiality once more as God intended it to be.
Such is the way in which we interpret our abstinence from food. Bread and wine and the other fruits of the earth are gifts from God, of which we partake with reverence and thanksgiving. If Orthodox Christians abstain from eating meat at certain times, or in some cases continually, this does not mean that the Orthodox Church is on principle vegetarian and considers meat-eating to be a sin; and if we abstain sometimes from wine, this does not mean that we uphold teetotalism. When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make an our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic – no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver. So far from making us look on food as a defilement, fasting has exactly the opposite effect. Only those who have learnt to control their appetites through abstinence can appreciate the full glory and beauty of what God has given to us. To one who has eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, an olive can seem full of nourishment. A slice of plain cheese or a hard-boiled egg never taste so good as on Easter morning, after seven weeks of fasting.
~Mother Mary & Kallistos Ware, THE MEANING OF THE GREAT FAST: The True Nature of Fasting, Website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA), http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith9199.
22 Vespers for Wednesday in the week before Lent.
23 Photius, Nomocanon, Tit. vii, c. I. Might not this rule be applied by contemporary Orthodox to television?
24 Council of Laodicea (c. A.D. 364), Canon 52. Dispensations from this rule require episcopal permission, which should not be granted except for grave reasons.
25 Matins for Monday in the first week.
26 The liturgical texts, however, do not always conform to this Biblical usage, but sometimes employ the word ‘flesh’ as a synonym for ‘body’.