Thursday, February 04, 2021

The Nature of the Fast in the Liturgy of Cheese-fare Week

Our thanks to Subdeacon Philip Gilbert of the St Nicholas Eparchy (Chicago) of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church for sharing with us this reflection on some of the liturgical texts of the pre-Lenten season in the Byzantine Rite. We have previously featured an essay of his on the last day of the season, Forgiveness Sunday, and pictures of his subdiaconal ordination. All images here except the first are also by him.

One of the longest and most memorable seasons of the Church year is Lent, or, as it is called in the Byzantine tradition, the Great Fast. In the Catholic Church as a whole in the last half-century, the time-honored Christian practice of fasting—both abstinence from particular kinds of foods and not eating in general—has fallen into neglect, legally reduced to a merely nominal existence, and often misunderstood to be some sort of punishment, or simply a requirement of canon law. Furthermore, the fasting season is often conceived of as a mournful period of meditation on Christ’s crucifixion and death, a mentality that is reflected in the devotional (ie, non-liturgical) practices of serving Stations of the Cross and the singing of the beloved hymns Претерпівий (Having Suffered) and Страждальна Мати (Grieving Mother).
Yet, if we examine the liturgical texts the Church has handed on to us, in accordance with the principle of lex ordandi, lex credendi, we see at once that the true meaning of the Great Fast, though it does include some of those elements, is in many ways quite different. The liturgical texts of the fasting period are found in the Triodion, the book that governs the Great Fast and contains the special Lenten hymnography sung throughout the entirety of the fast and the weeks leading up to it. In order to more deeply understand the Church’s wisdom in prescribing such a fasting period, and how we are to understand and live it out, we will here examine the idiomela (samohlasni), stichera provided in the Triodion for Cheese Week, which immediately precedes the first week of the Great Fast. In examining these texts, we will see that: the Great Fast is not a mournful period focused on the suffering of Christ, but a joyful period; the Fast is a period of spiritual cleansing and purification; fasting is spiritual warfare against demons; and, fasting and abstinence is not an imposed punishment, but voluntary asceticism which makes us more like the Divine.
Adam and Eve take the forbidden fruit, and the expulsion from the garden, depicted on part of the door of an iconostasis painted in Novgorod, Russia, in the 16th century. (Public domain image from Wikipemia Commons.)
On the Sunday of the Last Judgement (eight days before the first day of the fast) in the evening at vespers, the Triodion provides a sticheron which summarizes the entire context of our need for the fast:
Through greed we underwent the first stripping, overcome by the bitter tasting of the fruit, and we became exiles from God. But let us turn back to repentance and, fasting from the food that gives us pleasure, let us cleanse our senses on which the enemy makes war. Let us strengthen our hearts with the hope of grace, and not with foods which brought no benefit to those who trusted in them. Our food shall be the Lamb of God, on the holy and radiant night of His Awakening (i.e. Resurrection): the Victim offered for us, given in communion to the disciples on the evening of the Mystery, who disperses the darkness of ignorance by the Light of His Resurrection.
From this sticheron, we can summarize a number of key points that set the tenor for beginning the fast. First, we have been exiled from God; there has been a break in the relationship between man and God, with Whom we have lost contact. Second, what caused us to be exiled is our own greed; we on earth have done something, and taken that which does not belong to us, or have otherwise set something lower over that which is higher. Third, the enemy makes war on us via our senses; therefore we should not rely on them, but cleanse them. It was through the fruit and man’s greed for that fruit that the first sin was committed, and since “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5, 12), each of us has joined Adam in his exile. Fourth, it is not earthly food that gives us spiritual strength, but rather, divine grace.
We must not place our hope in things from below that deceive, but in God. Fifth, and most importantly, we should be hopeful, because grace has been promised to us, and it has been made possible to participate in Christ’s glorious resurrection. Christ Himself will be our food, and we should place our hope in Him; through communion with Him, and through communing Him in the Eucharist, we will, on the glorious day of Pascha, enter into His resurrection. Thus, we enter the period of the fast with a road map: we know where we are going, we know why we have to go there, and we know how to prepare ourselves for arrival. We are embarking on a journey to the Resurrection because we have been exiled from Christ and His kingdom by our sin, and we are preparing to be reunited with Him by cleansing ourselves spiritually.
Fresco of the Resurrection in the sanctuary of the main chapel at the Seminary of the Holy Spirit in L’viv, Ukraine.
It is clear from the texts of the Triodion that the period of the fast is a joyful one. The first sticheron of the aposticha of Tuesday matins says, “O people, let us greet the Fast with joy for the beginning of the spiritual contest is at hand.” The joy involved with the spiritual contest is that mentioned in the sticheron quoted above: the hope of spiritual victory over the enemy, the “hope of grace.” On the same day, a sticheron at the aposticha of vespers instructs us “With great joy let us accept, ye faithful, God’s tidings that proclaim the coming of the Fast, as did the Ninevites of old, and the harlots and the publicans who listened to John’s preaching of repentance.” It may be strange that this hymn proposes that we rejoice at the prospect of repentance, which we do not usually think of as a joyful affair, but the sticheron goes on to provide a reason to rejoice:
with tears let us cleanse ourselves before the Washing of the Feet; and let us pray that we may there behold the fulfillment of the Old Passover and the revealing of the New. Let us make ready to adore the cross and the Awakening of Christ our God, and let us cry aloud to Him: O Thou who lovest mankind, put us not to shame, deprive us not of our expectation.
Holy Transfiguration (“Mount Tabor”) Monastery in Redwood Valley, California
We are to rejoice in the fast, for by repentance a door is opened to us by which we may re-enter paradise. At vespers on Wednesday of Cheese Week we hear the following: “The springtime of the Fast has dawned, the flower of repentance has begun to open. O brethren, let us cleanse ourselves from all impurity and sing to the Giver of Light: Glory be to Thee who alone lovest mankind.” The liturgical season of the Great Fast always occurs in the season of spring. (As a side note, the modern English word “lent” comes from older English, simply meaning “springtime,” and this is quite fitting. ) As the natural world shakes off the signs of cold, dark, and deathly winter and is filled with new life—trees bud, flowers bloom, daylight increases—so we are filled with new spiritual life as we repent and are cleansed, ridding ourselves of dark and deathly passions. Thus, just as the spring season is bright and joyful, so is the Lenten fasting season is joyful, bright, and grace-filled.
The Zvirynetsky Monastery in Kyiv.
The next major element of the fasting season found in the stichera of this pre-lenten week is cleansing and purification from sin and sinful passions. On Friday morning, the Triodion tells us that,
Before Christ’s death upon the saving Cross, sin ruled supreme and ungodliness prevailed. Men were counted blessed because of sensual pleasures, and only a few despised the appetites of the flesh. But once the mystery of the Cross was brought to pass, the tyranny of the demons was quenched by the knowledge of God, and heavenly virtue came to dwell upon the earth. So fasting now is held in honour, abstinence is glorified, and prayer is offered up. As a testimony to these things, the present season has been given to us by the crucified Christ our God, for the salvation of our souls.
Through Christ’s incarnation and death on the Cross, we are able to enter into the saving mystery, and rid ourselves of sinful corruption. This is done by entering into the crucifixion and resurrection, which will be expounded upon below.
Frequently people stress that a true fast is prayer and almsgiving, in addition to abstinence from food. The necessity of righteousness as an essential part of fasting is stressed at length in Isaiah 58 and throughout the Triodion. At vespers on the first day of Cheese Week we hear, “Let us make haste to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions, and through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy let us enter into the bridal chamber of the Bridegroom Christ, who grants us great mercy.” Mere abstinence from food is not enough to reunite us with our Savior: we must learn to love others before we meet the Bridegroom at His resurrection.
Though there are many references to Christ as the Bridegroom throughout the Gospel, perhaps most relevant here is the parable in Matthew 22, in which a man at the wedding feast is cast out into the outer darkness because he was not wearing a wedding garment. We are, perhaps, to understand that having been cleansed by fasting, we are to clothe ourselves by acts of mercy and compassion in garments in which we may meet the bridegroom. Saint Gregory the Great expounds on this: “[Christ,] Whom love brought among men, showeth that the same love is His wedding-garment. Each one therefore of you who is in the Church and believeth in God, hath already come in unto the marriage-feast, but if he keep not the grace of charity, he is come in thither not having a wedding garment.” (St Gregory the Great, Hom. 38 on the Gospels; PL 76, 1287 C-D). This is further explained in the sticheron sung at Wednesday matins:
If thou dost fast from food, my soul, yet dost not cleanse thyself from passions, thou dost rejoice in vain over thine abstinence. For if thy purpose is not turned towards amendment of life, as a liar thou art hateful in God’s sight, and thou dost resemble the evil demons who never eat at all. Do not by sinning make the fast worthless, but firmly resist all wicked impulses.
Abstinence from food, while an essential part of the fasting season, must be accompanied by abstinence from sinful passions. In this special season we are to cleanse ourselves above all from sin. When our purpose for fasting “is turned towards amendment of life,” then our physical abstinence will be beneficial, and will aid us in spiritual cleansing.
When we have, with right purpose, embarked on a true fast, we are engaging in spiritual warfare against demons and the powers of darkness. On Monday morning of Cheese Week, we hear that “when we choose to observe the Fast, we always profit from it. For the devils dare not attack us when we fast, and the guardian angels that protect our life stand at our side with greater eagerness when we are cleansed by fasting.” The fast strengthens us against the evil forces that war against us, and employs divine aid in our fight against them. By physically abstaining from food, we train ourselves to not be ruled by the passions, by the desires for pleasure and comfort, and to be ruled by right reason and by the law of God. Rather than placing our hope in the passing things of this world, we place our hope in our Savior, allowing Him and His angels to aid us in the pursuit of holiness and reunion with our Creator.
Rather than a judicial punishment imposed upon us as commonly though, fasting is voluntary asceticism which makes us like the Divine. The ultimate goal of fasting, and of asceticism in general, is to return from our sinful exile, that is, reunion with God, that our whole soul, will, and mind may be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8, 29), that we may be in all ways holy. This holiness, union with God, is referred to as theosis, or deification, and, as Saint Athansius says, this is possible “For He was made man that we might be made God.” (On the Incarnation of the Word, 54, 3) Sometimes, those who are holy are so conformed to the Divine Image, aided by asceticism, that they themselves work divine miracles. The Triodion provides examples of this at matins of Thusday: “The solemn time of abstinence has come, bringing with it healing for the passions of our soul. Protected by it, Daniel shut the mouths of lions, and the Children in Babylon quenched the flame of the furnace. Through fasting save us also with them Christ our God, in Thy love for mankind.” It is clear that the Church looks on fasting not as the juridical carrying out of some minimal requirement, but as striving to perfection.
(The funeral of a monk of the Holy Dormition Lavra in Univ, Ukraine, in August, 2018...
and the burial of one of his confreres in January, 2020)
One way in which asceticism aids in our sanctification is that it enables us to enter into Our Lord’s crucifixion and death. On Wednesday morning of Cheese Week, the Triodion tells us: “My soul… picture to thyself that thou art standing beside the crucified Saviour, or rather, that thou art thyself crucified with Him who was crucified for thee; and cry out to Him: Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.” While one might be tempted to say that this sticheron justifies seeing Lent as a period of mournful meditation on the Passion, one must take it in its context, for the emphasis is very different. This quotation is the second half of the sticheron quoted above, which speaks of restraining the passions, and not vainly rejoicing in one’s abstinence. Thus, this sentence, in which the speaker places himself on the Cross, shows us that our asceticism is intimately tied to the Cross. On Thursday morning this theme is further explained:
To those who venerate the Cross of Christ with all their heart, it is a bridle and restraint on every lust and a law of abstinence. Looking ever upon Him who on the Cross was crucified, they crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. Let us also flee from sinful lust; fasting in purity, let us become one with Him, who out of love for mankind made Himself one with us by suffering the Passion, and so enabled us to share in His own freedom from the passions; for He has great mercy.
As Christ died for our sins, so we are to die to this world, and to crucify our passions, so that we may be raised with Him and made new. Without His death and resurrection, our asceticism would be fruitless, but now, through the incarnation, we are able to practice asceticism and enter into Christ’s suffering and resurrection for the salvation of our souls. To encourage us in this pursuit, the Triodion presents to us on Saturday of Cheese Week “all our holy and God-bearing Fathers who shone forth in the ascetic life.” The doxastikon at vespers (on Friday evening) addresses the holy ascetics, saying “withstanding by ascetic effort the destructive passions, ye preserved in purity the spiritual powers of the mind, created in God’s image; and, so far as man is able, ye attained the divine likeness… And now in heaven, all-holy saints… ye gaze with clear vision upon the Holy Trinity.” This is the goal of our Lenten asceticism: to “gaze with clear vision upon the Holy Trinity.”
It would be amiss here to not mention the holy martyrs, at least briefly, for each of the stichera quoted above has an accompanying sticheron to the martyrs. Without citing these at length, it is sufficient to say that the holy martyrs are hymned and commemorated so especially in this pre-lenten period and throughout the entire fast because they, similar to the holy ascetics, are to us shining examples of what we are striving to be. While we struggle to rid ourselves of dependence upon the petty pleasures of milk and meat, the martyrs gave their very lives for the faith. At vespers on Thursday, the sticheron to the martyrs speaks about them with the language of asceticism: “Not desiring earthly pleasure, the victorious martyrs were granted heavenly blessings…” We can, through fasting, endure an ascetical martyrdom to strengthen us in the spiritual life, and, should it come to that, prepare ourselves to offer our entire life to Christ in martyrdom.
The nature and purpose of the Great Fast is clearly set before us in the hymns of Cheese Week. The Church presents us with a joyful period of ascetical cleansing and purification from sins and the passions of this world. This joy of this period comes from our hope in and knowledge of the Resurrection, for we know that we may enter into it if we are prepared. Through the fast we are encouraged and enabled to crucify these sins and passions on Christ’s Cross, combatting the demons that attack our senses. Through this asceticism, we are conformed to the Divine Image, striving to become one with Christ and return from our sinful exile and enter into His most glorious and triumphant Resurrection.

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