Daily Meditations

The Twenty-Third Day of Great Lent. “. . . BUT BY PRAYER AND FASTING” (Part I)

April 2nd, 2019

In the Orthodox teaching, sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God. It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating. For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive. But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean? For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning: life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world. But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it. God, we are told, “created no death.” He is the Giver of Life. How then did life become mortal? Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists?

The Church answers: because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on “bread alone.” Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world. To be sure, the world was given to him by God as “food”— as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end but its full content in Him. “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man.”

The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life. In itself food has no life and cannot give life. Only God has Life and is Life. In food itself God—and not calories—was the principle of life. Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing. The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake. More than that, he ate “apart” from God, in order to be independent of Him. And if he did it, it is because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God, i.e., have life in himself.

To put it very simply: he believed in food, whereas the only object of belief, of faith, of dependence is God and God alone. World, food, became his gods, the sources and principles of his life. He became their slave. Adam-—in Hebrew—means “man.” It is my name, our common name. Man is still Adam, still the slave of “food.” He may claim that he believes in God but God is not his life, his food, the all-embracing content of his existence. He may claim that he receives his life from God but he doesn’t live in God and for God. His science, his experience, his self-consciousness, are all built on that same principle: “by bread alone.” We eat in order to be alive but we are not alive in God. This is the sin of all sins. This is the verdict of death pronounced on our life.

Christ is the New Adam. He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2). Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food-—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive.

It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? And, since the question is not an academic one but is felt with my entire body, it is also the time of temptation. Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone but by God. He refused to accept that cosmic lie which Satan imposed on the world, making that lie a self-evident truth not even debated any more, the foundation of our entire world view, of science, medicine, and perhaps even of religion. By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.

~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent