The services, practices, and calendars of the Orthodox Church can be hard for people in our time and place to understand. Some will use their confusion as an excuse to disregard them and suffer spiritually as a result. So it is a good to get to the heart of the matter, to speak plainly and openly about what the rhythms of the Church mean for our lives. For the mission of the Body of Christ is not to preserve a set of esoteric rituals and rules, but to bring the entire world into the great salvation worked by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
As I hope everyone knows by now, we are currently in the Apostles Fast, one of the most ancient fasting periods in the Church that extends from the Monday after All Saints until the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. The Sunday of All Saints comes a week after Pentecost, which reminds us that we are all enabled to share in the holiness of God by the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Yes, the very purpose of our lives is to acquire the Holy Spirit. But in order to do that, we have to become like our Lord’s apostles, who left behind their nets in order to become fishers of men. Sts. Peter and Paul, along with all the disciples except John the evangelist, died as martyrs, making the ultimate witness for the Savior’s victory over death. They were prepared to do so by decades of self-denial in putting God first in their lives. They left all that was comfortable and familiar to obey the command of the Lord “Come follow Me.” And if we are to develop the spiritual strength and maturity necessary to respond faithfully to His will for us, we must also die to self and gain a measure of freedom from the nets in which we are entangled, whatever they may be.
The Apostles Fast fulfills what the Lord said in response to the question about why His disciples did not fast during His earthly ministry: “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” (Matt. 9:15) Christ ascended into heaven forty days after Hi s resurrection, but then sent the Holy Spirit to His followers at Pentecost. Now, after celebrating Pentecost, is when we fast in order to humble ourselves before God and to fight our passions so that we will gain the spiritual strength that we see so clearly in Sts. Peter and Paul, as well as in all the apostles. Like them, we want to hear and respond to Christ’s command to us, whatever it may be. We want to be able to turn aside from distractions, obsessions, and habits that hold us back from living the lives to which our Savior calls us.
For Orthodox Christians, fasting is not reserved only for special seasons of the year, for outside of a few celebratory exceptions, Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days on which those who are physically able abstain from meat, dairy products, fish, wine, and olive oil. We fast on Fridays in commemoration of our Lord’s crucifixion and on Wednesdays in commemoration of His betrayal. In the prayers and hymns of the Church, Wednesdays and Fridays are both associated with the cross, so it makes perfect sense that these are days on which we deny ourselves just a bit by taking up the cross of self-denial and humility in remembrance of the unbelievably profound sacrificial offering made by our Lord Himself for our salvation.
Just as we should not resist temptation only during Lent, we should not attempt to reserve fasting only for penitential periods, such as Lent, Advent (the Nativity Fast), the Dormition, or the Apostles Fast. If we do so, we may find it impossibly hard to fast then from anything at all for several days or weeks at a time. Likewise, may find it impossibly hard to reject any self-centered desire if we are used to making a god out of our taste buds, stomachs, and self-centered desires. If we want to be faithful disciples, we have to leave our nets behind every day. We have to take up our crosses all the time, often when we least expect to have to do so. So we must always be prepared. Two thousand years of experience has taught Orthodox Christians that regular fasting is a source of great strength for doing so. This is not, of course, because God is impressed by hunger or dietary changes. It is, however, because we all need to grow in humility and to turn aside from anything that weakens our ability to say “yes” to the Lord. Especially if we find fasting difficult and frustrating, we must persevere in it every fast day. It is precisely through struggles that reveal our weakness and spiritual sickness that we are able like all the repentant sinners who have become saints to open ourselves to the mercy and healing of Jesus Christ from the depths of our hearts and souls.
Too often in our culture, we think that we have done our religious duty simply by being present in a church service on Sunday. If the service lasts more than an hour, we may think that we have really impressed God. As Orthodox Christians, we know that we should attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and major feast days whenever possible. (Of course, it is also beneficial to pray with the Church at vespers and orthros.) Doing so is the very first step of Christian faithfulness, for corporate worship constitutes the Body of Christ and enables us to enter into heavenly worship even now. But coming to services is only the beginning of our journey. God calls us to participate fully in the heavenly liturgy every day, every moment, with every thought, word, and deed, regardless of where we are. That is why we must all devote time and energy each day of our lives to prayer in a regular, disciplined way if we want to become faithful Christians. It is why even a few minutes of Bible reading, studying the life of a saint, other spiritual reading, or listening to recordings of Orthodox chant is so important for us all. We are bombarded constantly by messages from our culture, as well as by our own thoughts and the words and actions of others, that are usually not spiritually beneficial. Unless we cultivate a regular habit of prayer and of focusing on the things of God in our daily lives, we will have little of hope of hearing, let alone responding faithfully to, our Lord’s calling.
Let us all take advantage of the remaining week of the Apostles Fast to humble ourselves before the Lord as we devote ourselves to prayer and fasting in ways appropriate to our health, age, and life circumstance. Let us all leave the nets of our spiritual laziness and other excuses behind in order to cultivate just a bit of that spiritual clarity and devotion that shines so brightly in Sts. Peter and Paul and all the other apostles, saints, and martyrs who heard and obeyed the calling of our Lord. He is surely calling each and every one of us to serve Him in some way. The only the question is whether we have the ears to hear and the spiritual strength to leave behind all that keeps us from following Him.