When I was a boy, I was always excited about my birthday party. My mom was a hard working lady, but there always seemed to be time enough to make my day special either with a cake or something else that let me mark this landmark in my young years. Nowadays, well let’s just say, birthdays aren’t nearly the times of celebration as when I was younger! But, you know, we humans do love to celebrate. And it seems we will take any opportunity to throw a party! But, all too often, our celebrations degenerate into shallow “cheerleading” emotional manipulations that seem to try to “create” the feelings of celebration rather than flowing from a heart filled with the desire to celebrate.
A wise man once told me that the reason for this is that we moderns have forgotten how to truly celebrate. We work hard at creating a party to “make” us happy that we’ve lost the ability to see a party as the end result of our joyous lives. And the reason for this sadness, this poverty stricken lack of joy, is because we’ve forgotten how to fast! What? How to fast? What has fasting got to do with feasting? Glad you asked!
The wisdom of God in creating His world with rhythm; the rhythm of the changing seasons, the rhythm of sunrise and sunset; the rhythm of a heartbeat, and so on, sets us up to see the wisdom of the rhythm of celebration times in the Church being preceded by times of fasting and preparation. It is because we humans will never be able to truly enter into the ability to celebrate while we stay asleep and disinterested in proper preparation for the celebration.
Of course, the greatest celebration in the Christian Faith (and rightly so) is the celebration of the Lord’s conquering of physical and spiritual death. It isn’t a mistake or an accident that the center of the Orthodox Christian year is Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything that happens in the Orthodox Church calendar happens either to bring us to Pascha or to help us understand just what Pascha has accomplished. The whole year revolves around Pascha. So, it isn’t amazing that the most significant portion of the year leading up to Pascha is marked by the most focused preparation for this celebration. The Great Fast, Lent, is absolutely essential to truly be able to celebrate Pascha. Without the Great Fast you WILL NOT truly have a Great Feast. You won’t. I’m telling you!
Look at our Lesson today. It’s another reading from the Old (First) Testament and it’s from the Prophet Zechariah in Zechariah 8:19-23:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore love truth and peace.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I am going.’ Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'”
The prophet declares that God wants His people to see their fasting as “joy and gladness.” Yep, “joy and gladness.” And the ONLY way to be able to do that is to peer beyond the moment of difficult discipline to the end result of this good work; this faithful preparation. If I see the Great Fast as making me able to truly embrace the joy and gladness of the Resurrection of Jesus on my behalf, I will have sufficient and proper motivation to keep the fast well! In fact, without the vision of the real reason, the WHY of fasting, we are always subject to the many temptations to fall into error. One such error is “legalism.” Without keeping the joy of the fast and the feast and the reason why we fast and feast in mind we can fall into the trap of reducing the fast to merely “keeping the rules” or, worse yet, keeping the fast so that God will be happy with us as if He wasn’t already! We can also fall off the narrow road on the other side by dismissing the importance of the fast because we really don’t embrace the deep power of the feast. So, “it doesn’t really matter” if we fast. And that attitude is just as wrong and just a spiritually deadly as the legalism we so often complain about.
Today, do you really grasp what happened at the Lord’s Resurrection? Are you really convinced that Pascha truly is the destruction of death and the new life for the whole cosmos? If not, no wonder you don’t fast during Lent. The work is too hard for too small a motivation. Have you missed the point of the fast by confusing it with mere rule keeping? So, you go down the grocery aisle reading all the labels to “make sure” you’re not “breaking the rules.” Perhaps it’s time to embrace the normal Orthodox understanding of fasting as enabling me to truly feast at Pascha. Perhaps it’s time for this Great Lent to be the time I’m Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Tomorrow Fr. Barnabas will be speaking at the Lenten retreat at St. George Cathedral in Charleston, WV. Father will be speaking about how to be “Orthodox on Purpose.” If you or a friend are in the area, please feel free to join us. Also, don’t forget to listen Sunday night at 8 PM to a New Faith Encouraged LIVE as Fr. Stephen Freeman is our special guest!