16 February / 1 March 2009
Tomorrow we begin Great Lent—with prayer and self-examination, with vigils and fasting, with the reading of the Great Canon and preparation for Holy Communion. The most common question that is asked during these days is “From what foods should we abstain?” Here is the answer to this question from Lenten church services: we can reject evil, hold our tongue, suppress our hatred, and banish our lust, evil words, lying, and betrayal of vows (from the 2nd vespers’ sticheron during the first week of Great Lent). The Church teaches that such is the true fast and pleasing to God. For several weeks now, the Church has been preparing us for Lent, and we have not heard anything about food, except once when the Apostle Paul wrote that he would never eat meat if it caused his brother to fall into sin (1 Cor. 8:13). On the contrary, the Gospel readings of the last four Sundays taught us about the foolishness of the Pharisee and the humility of the Publican, about the true condition of the fallen man and about the joy with which each returning prodigal son is received by the heavenly Father, about the acts of love which, rendered unto God’s icon—“the least of these,” ascend to the Prototype, Whose image and likeness we are, and about forgiveness. Furthermore, the Church has us allowed two fast-free weeks immediately before Lent to show that food is not the ultimate goal of spiritual life, but only the first small step on the way to self-control. Not every man wearing a grey beard and a black robe is a miracle worker, and not everyone who is on a diet is a saint. True sanctity is not in the outward costume or contents of one’s supper, but in the “inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight” (1 Pet. 3:4).
So, why do we fast? It is because we are not spirits only, but are made up of body, soul and spirit, and because everything in us is interconnected. Christ came to heal the whole man (John 7:23); He raised from the dead our physical nature, cleansed the soul that had been enslaved to sinful passions, and drove away evil spirits, filling us with His Spirit of truth. And following the divine hierarchy, the complexity of our person must also be ordered: the soul speaks the word of the spirit, and the body does the will of the spirit. Yet, all are equally important, and none can be ignored.
Every athlete, whose spirit yearns for the winner’s crown, knows how important it is to train the body and that it is impossible to win without devoting his whole life to the task: spirit, soul and body. How much more diligent must those who yearn for heavenly crowns be!
Foolish is the man who fasts from meat during Lent but judges his brother, abstains from milk but his heart is full of lust, will not touch eggs but is consumed with vain glory—such a one is not fasting but dieting. But equally foolish is he who aspires to reach spiritual heights but cannot control his own gut, who is hoping to conquer demons but cannot win over his own belly—his spirit wants to ascend to heaven but his stomach weighs it down like a millstone around his neck.
When training for a marathon, an athlete begins by running just a few miles, slowly building up strength, speed and endurance. When preparing to conquer our sins and passions, let us begin by gaining control over our stomachs first. Fasting from food is not the ultimate goal of Lent, but neither is the first step the ultimate goal of a marathon. But without this first step, the finish line will never become anything more than a daydream of a “couch athlete.” So, let us begin our Lent, our spiritual journey, with the first step, knowing that it will take many more steps to reach the Heavenly Jerusalem, but without this first step we cannot hope to ever enter into the Holy City.
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov