The Church Fathers have much to say about how we should approach Great Lent and Holy Week in all its aspects – fasting, prayer, our actions. They recognise that simply going through the motions of abstaining from certain kinds of foods while not paying attention to how we live our lives amounts to following the letter of the law, not its spirit. We use this period to re-examine our total selves.
The following samples from the writings of the Church Fathers illustrate the Orthodox Christian approach to the Lenten and Holy Week period:
St John Chrysostom on true fasting: “It is folly to abstain all day long from food, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness. The fast of Lent has no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal. It is necessary while fasting to change our whole life and practice virtue.
Turning away from all wickedness means keeping our mouth in check, restraining our anger, avoiding all gossip, lying and swearing. To abstain from these things – herein is the true value of the fast. Accept the fast as an experienced educator by whom the Church teaches us privately.
It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting. How? When indeed we abstain from foods, but do not abstain from iniquities; when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor; when we do not become drunkards with wine, but we become drunkards with evil pleasures; when we abstain all the day, but all the night we spend in unchastened shows. Then what is the benefit of abstaining from foods, when on the one hand you deprive your body of selected food, but on the other offer yourself unlawful food?”
St Augustine on sin: “I acknowledge me transgressions”, says David, If I admit my fault then you will pardon it. Let us never assume that if we live good lives we will be without sin; our lives should be praised only when we continue to beg for pardon. But humans are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticise, not correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others”.
St Basil of Caesaria on charity and mercy: “The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own; but when you give to the poor you are bearing fruit which you will gather in for yourself, since the reward for good deeds goes to those who perform them. Give to a hungry man, and what you give becomes yours, and indeed it returns to you with interest. As a sower profits from the seed that falls to the ground, so will you profit greatly in the world to come from the bread that you place before a hungry man. You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish to or not. On the other hand, you will take with you to the Lord the honour that you have won through good works”.
St Gregory Nazianzus on prayer during the fast: “Recognise to whom you owe the fact that you exist, that you breathe, that you understand, that you are wise and, above all, that you know God and hope for the Kingdom of Heaven. What benefactor has enabled you to look out on the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order which are theirs like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a line of humanity and culture, with friendship and with the easy familiarity of kinship?…Is it not God who asks you now in turn to show yourself generous above all other creatures and for the sake of other creatures? Because we have received from him so many wonderful gifts, will we not be ashamed to refuse Him this one thing only, our generosity?”
St Leo (d. 461AD) once wrote: “Any time is right for works of charity, but these days of Lent provide a special encouragement. Those who want to be present at the Lord’s Passover in holiness of mind and body should seek above all to win this grace, for charity contains all other virtues and covers a multitude of sins.
As we prepare to celebrate the greatest of all mysteries, but which the blood of Jesus did away with all our sins, let us first of all make ready the sacrificial offering of works of mercy. In this way we shall give to those who have sinned against us what God in His goodness has already given to us.
Let us now extend to the poor and those afflicted in different ways a more open-handed generosity, so that God may be thanked through many voices and the relief of the needy supported by our fasting. No act of devotion on the part of the faithful gives God more pleasure than that which is lavished on His poor”.
PRACTICAL COUNSELS FOR THE FAST
*1. Turn off the television, radio, stereo or CD player for the entire period, unless only for serious or spiritually uplifting content…this is not time for mere recreation or mindless entertainment.
*2. Do not visit or move about just for the sake of it. Keep useless/idle talk to a minimum. Do only necessary business, good works and Christian actions.
*3. Examine your life in all aspects: Family, work, society, politics, economics, values, desires…in terms of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
*4. Question yourself with respect to love, truth, honesty, purity, humility, peace, forgiveness, justice, mercy, hungering and thirsting for God, wisdom and knowledge.
*5. In the name of Christ, forgive all who have offended you, and ask forgiveness of others. If it will not be embarrassing to others, or misinterpreted as a “holier-than-thou” act, make this forgiveness and asking of forgiveness as concrete as possible. Visit, make a phone call, write a letter.
*6. Give a good donation of money to others; to the Church, to the poor, to some social or educational work. Tell no one what you have done. Ask no gratitude. Do not advertise it.
*7. Fast strictly all the time. Eat no meat, as the basic absolute minimum. Keep the fast as prescribed by the Church (no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products – oil or wine except on Saturday and Sunday and a few feast days) unless you have a blessing from your spiritual father or confessor to mitigate the fast on account of the difficulty of your work or medical problems. Even then, avoid any luxury…there are “fasting” meals which should make anyone blush for his self-indulgence! Again, tell no one; do not advertise; do not judge others who may not be fasting as you are.
*8. Pray at home at least one fixed time each day. Choose a brief rule of prayer, but keep it faithfully.
*9. Read the Gospel in a similar, brief but regular way. Follow the Church’s calendar of teachings; or perhaps read one complete Gospel through, plus the following readings: the First Letter of St John, St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (chapters 12-14); the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5-7); and the Gospel of St John (chapters 14-17).
*10. Be faithful to the Gospel of Christ in every word, act and through – even the smallest.
Source: “What the Fathers Say About…” – Light and Life Publishing, Mineapolis, 1996.
(Some editing by Mode of Life Weblog)