Fasting in Lent is a Tool, Not an End in Itself: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meat Fare) in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46

            On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church calls us to see ourselves clearly in light of our ultimate calling to share in the life of Christ.  As we begin the last week before Great Lent, the Savior reminds us in today’s gospel reading that the path to life eternal through personal union with Him runs through our neighbors, especially those we are inclined to overlook, disregard, and even despise.  How we treat the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner reveals the true state of our souls.  How we serve our suffering and inconvenient neighbors is how we serve our Lord.

That is the case because whether we truly share in His life is shown by whether His love and mercy are evident in us.  If we truly participate in Him, the Lord’s virtues will become characteristic of us, for He has united humanity and divinity in Himself.  And what is more characteristic of Christ than His self-emptying love for all of us who suffer the degrading consequences of our sins, both personally and collectively?  By offering Himself fully on the Cross, the God-Man has set us free from bondage to corruption and has united us to Himself as members of His Body, the Church.  He makes it possible for us to enter by grace into the eternal communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity.  The ultimate test of our souls is whether we will embrace this sublime vocation or refuse it.

The point is not whether we can somehow impress God or earn a reward by doing enough good deeds for others.  It is not that we figure out in our minds that by serving our neighbors we are serving Him.  It is, instead, that we embrace His healing to the point that we become radiant with His selfless love.  The more our character conforms to His, the more we will spontaneously offer ourselves to our neighbors in a common life of love. That is what it means to be able to say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)

St. Paul wrote that the key issue in the question of whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols in first-century Corinth was how doing so impacted others.  He writes that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  To cause another to fall would be to “sin against Christ.”  We read this passage on the last day when, according to the fasting discipline of the Church, we eat meat before Pascha.  His words remind us that what is truly at stake in fasting is not a legalistic change in diet, but a calling to relate to food in a way that enables us to grow in the selfless love of our Lord.  When we abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, we have an opportunity to gain strength to redirect our desires for self-centered pleasure to blessing our neighbors.  Eating a humble diet frees up resources to give to the needy. It should not take long to prepare and the leftovers will keep for future meals, freeing up time and energy that we may direct toward the good of others in many ways. Fasting will also teach us that we can live without getting exactly what we want, for it will not kill us to say “no” to our own preferences about what we eat as we reorient ourselves to God and neighbor.

The spiritual discipline of fasting is not an end in itself focused primarily on our diets.  It is simply a tool for shifting the focus away from ourselves and toward our Lord and our brothers and sisters in whom we encounter Him each day.  If we distort fasting into a private religious accomplishment that we use to show ourselves, others, and even God how holy we are, we would do better not to fast at all.  This spiritual discipline helps us to share more fully in the self-emptying love of Christ as we turn from addiction to satisfying ourselves to freely serving others.  That kind of love is essential for growing in union with our neighbors and with the Lord.  It is a crucial dimension of what it means to participate in the deified humanity of the Savior Who offered up Himself in order to draw all people into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the world is full of false substitutes for uniting ourselves to Christ as we serve others as He has served us.  It is possible to distort the fasting guidelines and other disciplines of Lent into legalistic acts we think will somehow satisfy God or make us look religious in the eyes of others. Doing so is simply a distraction, however, from fulfilling the true purpose of the coming season.  It is a vain effort of trying to serve ourselves instead of God.  Our focus must be set squarely on Christ and His living icons, not on us.  The fundamental calling of the Christian life is to become like our Lord, Who offered Himself up for the salvation of the world.  If we want to approach Lent in a spiritually healthy way that will enable us to participate already in life eternal, we too must offer up ourselves.

The particular form of that self-offering will vary according to the needs of the people we encounter and our particular gifts and callings.  Discerning how to live faithfully is not a matter of cold-blooded rational calculation, but of being so conformed to Christ that we become a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) such that the Savior’s healing of fallen humanity becomes characteristic of us.  Instead of living as isolated individuals who define themselves over against one another, we will then become persons in communion with Christ and all those who bear His image and likeness.  His life will truly become ours as we serve Him in one another.

According to today’s gospel reading, this alone is the true path to the eternal life of the Kingdom.  Whether we pursue it will determine whether we have the spiritual clarity to behold the glory of the Lord as joyful, brilliant light or instead become so blind that we perceive only the burning torment of our own refusal to be transformed by His love.  The difference will not be in our Lord, but in how we have responded to Him.

During the coming season of Great Lent, we will all have the opportunity to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance.  We must not view these practices as our own individual religious accomplishments, but instead as humble steps to open ourselves to the gracious transformation necessary to become the kind of people who share so fully in the life of Christ that we spontaneously convey His merciful love to all His living icons, especially those we are most inclined to disregard.   Since we are all so far from fulfilling this high calling, we all need the coming blessed weeks to grow closer to the Savior Who emptied Himself for our salvation on the Cross in order to rise up in glory on the third day.  If we want to know the joy of His resurrection, we must offer ourselves to Him in the neighbors through whom we encounter Him each day.  There is no way around this truth:  How we serve them shows how we serve Him.

Given our current state of spiritual health, we all fall short of treating everyone as a living icon of Christ.  That is because we tend to relate to others in light of our own self-centered desires, which lead us to see people as threats or obstacles who keep us from getting what we want.  Regardless of how right we may be about any point of disagreement with anyone, spiritual blindness arising from self-centeredness corrupts even our best glimpses of the truth.  In order to grow in our ability to serve Christ in others, we must go to the root of the matter by exposing the corruption of our souls to the healing brought by the God-Man.  We need more than a renewed commitment to obey a set of religious and moral laws, for they lack the power to liberate us from slavery to our passions. We need to participate in the restoration of the human person worked by our Savior in His victory over death.  That is the only way for us to gain the strength to serve Him in our neighbors and to participate already in the joy of the heavenly kingdom.

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