Today is the beginning of Lent, which is more accurately called “The Great and Holy Fast.”
If I didn’t have a calendar, I would know this simply because the annual barrage of questions and anxieties come out at this time. It is almost as dependable as Punxsutawney Phil sticking his head up on February 2nd -- or, better, the crocuses poking their heads up out of the cold soil, announcing the Spring.
These questions fall into two groups. The first group is all about practical concerns:
Q: When is the Fast?
A: It starts from this afternoon at Forgiveness Vespers and lasts until Lazarus Saturday. And then in Holy Week, it gets even more demanding. The fasting rigor for tomorrow and this week is also more demanding.
Q: What should we fast from?
A: For over a thousand years, every Orthodox Christian is generally expected to fast from meat throughout the whole Fast. Many Orthodox also fast from dairy products through the whole period. It is also just as important to fast from worldly distractions like entertainment and parties. TV and movie viewing should go way down during Lent, as well as listening to non-church music. Internet surfing and facebooking should also decrease to an “only-what-is-necessary” basis.
Q: How should we fast?
A: I said “generally fasting from meat (and dairy)” because the Church gives a lot of leeway to various situations. If there are any health or medical issues, then we always relax the demands of the Fast. This is something you need to speak about with your priest. It is interesting that I always worry about the older, frailer people who might be fasting too much, and I have to remind them that they need to be good stewards of their health.
If a person is younger or new to the Faith, we generally make the Fast easier for them as well. However, we expect that the more mature one is in his faith, then he really needs to fast more rigorously. This is true especially of clergy and the leadership of the parish. The “older” you are in the Faith, the more dangerous it is not to fast (or fail to pray or confess or receive any of the sacraments).
But then I hear deeper questions -- and these questions are of the “why” variety, which requires a deeper, more spiritual look.
Question: Why do we fast?
Answer: Not to punish ourselves. There is no such thing as “criminal punishment” in the Orthodox Faith. Sin is seen (and feared) as a putrid disease in Orthodoxy, much more so than a crime that requires punishment.
Also, we fast not because meat and dairy and entertainment are evil things. These are all good things that the Lord has provided for us. They are not unhealthy if consumed moderately. They do not cause passions by themselves, unless they become an addiction -- in which case, it is not the fault of the kielbasa and the cheese -- it is the fault of the glutton who “can’t believe he ate the whole thing.” I say this because hundreds of years ago, people believed that meat helped cause anger -- that is simply not the case, and such a belief was never the Church’s doctrine.
No, we voluntarily give up meat and dairy and entertainment for another, far more important reason.
We fast simply because we are homesick for Paradise, and we just want to go back home.
Adam and Eve ate neither meat nor dairy -- just the fruit of the trees and herbs and vegetables from the earth. And they needed no entertainment. Every moment of their life in Paradise was filled with joy -- whether taking care of the garden and the animals … whether helping each other with their work … whether breathing in the bright and pure air or drinking the cool sparkling water or feeling the soft green grasses under their feet …
… and best of all, walking with Jesus Christ every evening, in the cool of the day, and talking with Him Face to Face.
The entire human race has been homesick ever since Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden because of their sin. Behind every beautiful scene, we perceive the original beauty of Paradise. Behind every beautiful voice and lovely phrase of music, we hear the rusting leaves of Eden, inviting us to come home again. Behind every wave at the ocean, and behind every waterfall in every stream, there is the sound of the waters of the River of Life, reminding us where we truly belong.
That is why we Fast -- so that we once again return to the diet and lifestyle of the Garden of Eden.
That is why we do works of charity and almsgiving in this month of sweet sorrow -- so that once again, we can feel and experience the fellowship that God originally intended for the human race in Paradise. That is why we forgive and give up cursing and yelling and backbiting and gossiping and denouncing and complaining: we know, in our hearts, that such talk has no place in the Garden of Eden.
That is why we Pray so much during Lent -- so that once again, we can walk with Jesus (the Second Adam and the Second Person of the Trinity) in the evening of the New Creation, and talk with Him Face to Face.
So for anyone who dreads or resists Fasting, or wants to know the “least” he can get away with, or what the “minimal” requirementss of Fasting are, I gently suggest that maybe you don’t remember, yet, the beauty of Eden, and how you and Eden were literally made for each other ...
… maybe you’re not nearly homesick enough.