I know that many of you reading this are not Orthodox Christians, and so, when I speak for the first time of something that is unique to the Orthodox tradition, I will try to remember to take a minute to briefly explain it, so that it will make sense to all readers.
Orthodox Christians fast for the 6 weeks prior to Palm Sunday, in the period known as the Great Lent. We also fast during Holy Week, the week in between Palm Sunday and Pascha (Easter). Normally Pascha does not fall on the same day as western Easter, but this year it does. As a result, Great Lent began this year on Monday, February 19. During Lent, Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat (including fish), dairy products, olive oil, and wine (most broaden this to include all alcohol), except for a few days when wine and/or fish are allowed. We also make a concerted effort to not completely fill our bellies, but rather to eat only what is necessary to function.
Now for my post “proper”:
Let us, O brethren, begin the second week of the Fast, fulfilling it day by day with rejoicing, making unto ourselves, like Elijah the Tishbite, a fiery chariot of the great cardinal virtues, elevating our minds by subduing our passions, arming ourselves with purity, to chase away and vanquish the enemy. (Sticharion 3 from the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers)
We have now begun the period when Lent really gets tough. Actually, we are past the beginning of that period, but I have had other things talk about, so it has taken me a little longer than I had planned to reflect on Lent and fasting. This is why I quoted from the Triumph of Orthodoxy Vespers service, which occurred a week and a half ago.
Like many other Orthodox Christians, I own one of the tear-off calendars that has each fasting day colored red (really, more of a crimson; hence the title of today’s entry). The first couple of weeks of Lent went by pretty quickly and easily for me this year. Every year I begin Lent eagerly, ready and willing to make a sacrifice for my Lord and to free myself from the control that certain foods always seem to exercise over me. I always actually find it a relief to eat a lighter diet, without all the fat and grease, and this year was no exception.
But then, March 1 came. I tore off the “February” page of my calendar, and what did I see? An entire month decked out in crimson. A long month, with 31 days, after which there will remain still seven more days of fasting. As I stared at that crimson calendar, I was once again reminded that Great Lent is not a 100-yard dash, but a marathon.
I am often asked by my Protestant friends, most of whom either do not observe Lent, or observe it by giving up a single item of their choice (such as cheese, French fries, etc), “Why do you Orthodox put yourselves through this? What is the purpose?” Many times Orthodox Christians cannot answer this question, except to say, “Because the Church says to.” This is actually not a bad reason at all, but it is hardly satisfactory for most Protestants.
So, why do we participate in this grueling “marathon?” Entire chapters and indeed, complete books, have been written on this subject, and I will not pretend that I am going to be able to give an eloquent, profound, or even a complete answer to this question. Instead, I will just briefly summarize some answers that I have read.
First, we abstain from meat because when we eat meat, we eat death. When we sit down at our (non-Lenten) table, we seldom think about the fact that in order for us to enjoy the meal that is before us, one of God’s creatures had to die. This was not how God originally set things up. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve did not eat meat. God only gave His blessing to the eating of meat after the Flood, and this only as a concession to our weakness. But what about cheese, wine, and olive oil, you ask? Nothing has to die to produce these. This is true. We give these up mainly out of a desire to make a sacrifice to God.
There are other reasons why we fast, but for me, one is most significant: We fast as a desire to control the passions, to dedicate our bodies to God above all else, and to not allow ourselves to be under the control of anyone or anything else, including food. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12). In other words, there is nothing inherently wrong with any type of food or drink, as long as we do not allow ourselves to be addicted to them. And all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are addicted to some type of food. If you don’t believe me, try doing the Orthodox Lenten fast for 6 weeks! It isn’t easy.
To conclude, fasting is not an effort to try to earn our way into Heaven, for no good deed(s) could do this. Rather, it helps us to gain mastery over our own bodies and our passions, which in turn does prepare us for eternal life. Giving up meat and dairy products, and eating less in general, gets us in better shape for prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. It also frees up money to be given to the poor. Finally, it is a way for our souls to reaffirm the fact that they are in control of the body (yea, even the stomach), rather than vice versa.
May God grant us all the strength to not only endure, but to thrive, during the fast, growing ever closer to Him as we prepare for His glorious Resurrection!