Because the Orthodox Church was instituted by God to be the hospital for our souls, everything within it has been ordained through the Holy Spirit for our salvation. The upcoming season of Great Lent (the Great Fast) is no exception.
In her wisdom, the Church does not simply throw us straight into a difficult fast, but rather slowly steps us toward it: both theologically and practically. The Church readings on Sundays teach us important lessons about fasting, and on a practical level, the fasting begins slowly with Meatfare Sunday.
It is pertinent to ask why do we fast? Great Lent, and our spiritual lives in general, are both an inward and outward journey. The Orthodox Church always addresses the entire human being because we are not merely spirits trapped in material bodies as the ancient pagan Greeks believed (and some modern Christians). We are a unified composite of spirit and material.
Due to the Fall of mankind, our desires were corrupted and imbalanced. God, through His Church, seeks to purify our souls and bodies so that we may look upon all of creation in a renewed way, no longer desiring to exploit it for our own pleasure or gain. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Fasting is a means by which we purify ourselves of the sinful passions. But fasting itself is not the aim of Great Lent.
We eat less so that we learn in our hunger that our entire being is completely dependent upon God; we eat a more bland diet to seek our joy and comfort in spiritual matters that draw us closer to Christ; we refrain from engaging in vain entertainment so that our attention is not drawn away from God and eternal things; we even abstain as much as possible from marital relations to draw closer to God in prayer.
God has blessed and sanctified both food and marital relations. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these. However, it is our attitude toward the things in this world that is oftentimes sinful. During this period of abstinence, we seek to unify ourselves to Christ so that, when we turn back toward material things, we may do so with gratitude while communing with Him and seeing Him in all things.
Some people have been plagued by the dualism of this world and cannot understand why the body matters. For them, abstinence in any form is an unnecessary hardship. However, St. Paul writes, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…glorify God with your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We glorify God with our bodies by purifying them; we purify them through bodily hardships that draw us closer to God.
THE PUBLICAN AND THE PHARISEE
This coming Sunday marks the beginning of the Triodion. For those who own a copy of it, I highly recommend even reading a page or two a day of the services in it during the Great Fast.
The first Sunday is the Publican and Pharisee (Luke 18). It is interesting that the Church would begin preparations for the fasting season with a story in which the person who fasts and who appears to do everything correctly is condemned by God, while the person who did not fast is exalted by God.
Outwardly, the Pharisee did everything right. However, he had neither real faith, godly love, nor humility. His faith was in himself and his own impressive achievements; his love was for himself, which is egotism and not real love; and no humble thoughts crossed his mind.
There is no indication that the publican kept any sort of fast. He had no good works, his days were spent robbing and extorting people, and everyone hated him.
When the Pharisee walked into the temple, he seemed to think he could impress God with his achievements. The very works ordained by God to make the people holy became the Pharisee’s bane.
On the other hand, the Publican realizing his complete lack of virtue, fell to his knees and sought mercy from God.
Had the Pharisee walked into the temple with heart-felt thanksgiving, crediting God for the strength and means to fulfill the commandments, he too would have left justified.
I have heard a pastor attempt to twist the meaning of this parable, teaching that Christ disdained the mainstream religious people of his day. But here’s the catch: the moment we begin to judge the Pharisee, thinking, “At least I’m not like that guy,” we have become the Pharisee.
BATTLING THE LITTLE PHARISEE
All of us have this “little Pharisee” in our hearts that wants to criticize others, belittle our mistakes, and elevate our achievements. Without the grace of God and the teachings of the Church, it is nearly impossible to discern and silence, or at least ignore, the little Pharisee’s voice.
The more perfectly we keep the fast or perform good, charitable deeds, the more cautious we must be of ignoring the little Pharisee’s boasting within us. The more our prayers and vigils increase, the more rigorous we must become in fighting pride. There was an incident where St. Macarius the Great met a demon who was frustrated that it could not beat him. The demon complained, “You fast, I do not eat; you keep vigil, I do not sleep; in one thing only do you beat me…humility.”
Several saints have said that without humility we cannot be saved. Humility sees all achievements as rubbish; it scrutinizes the heart and discerns even the slightest ulterior motive (which is frequently present) for our good works or kind words; it hides the sins of others while bringing our own failings to the center of our vision; it makes us truly believe that all others are better than ourselves; and it brings us to our knees before God with nothing more to say than, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!”
It moves us to weep for our sins, yet does not leave us in despair. True humility will, while the tears are flowing, shower the grace of God upon us, fill us with the Holy Spirit, and lift us up into the heavenly realms.
Let us humble ourselves that we may be exalted by God.