*Below is an excerpt from an interview with Rastko Jovic, Docent at the Theological Faculty in Belgrade, from the April 1, 2017 issue of the Patriarchate magazine Pravoslavlje:
It would be customary for us, in the beginning, to hear of the appearance of the fast and its Biblical foundation?
-In the Old Testament they fasted for various reasons, for the forgiveness of sins, or when they needed to communicate with the spirits of the dead, or it was a petition to God to remove a misfortune that fell on the people, or it was a preparation for dialogue with God. Therefore, in the Old Testament there were a multitude of reasons for fasting. However, the fast is not something special and unique to the Jewish people, other nations had it as well, for instance the Phoenicians, but also ancient Greeks. Early Christianity, therefore, moved between various different interpretations of the fast, but it also made radical changes. Unlike the Jews of the Old Testament, Christianity didn’t have a division between clean and unclean foods. This created a great change which allowed for a social interaction between Christians who converted from Judaism and those who who had pagan backgrounds. Also, this allowed the mission of the Church to be more successful and penetrating. And the fast which was taken from Judaism, now received a new meaning of which we have evidence early on. And so The Shepard of Hermas speaks of the fast the saving of money which later need to be given to the poor, while Aristides from the II century writes to Emperor Hadrian that the Christians fast two or three days a week in order to secure food for the needy. Already here we see great changes and the reshaping of the meaning of the fast, the fast becomes Christologically based. Christ is the God-man, and as our Savior He, in His person, unites God and man, so that love for Christ is at the same time love God and man. And it is particularly out of this reason early Christianity strives to express this newness and through the newly conceiving of the fast. No longer do we fast in order to reduce the relationship between God and man, but now the fast gets a dimension of help and love for our neighbors, which was a living witness of the relationship with God. Of course, it is necessary to avoid idealizing and historical period, since the understanding of the fast was interpreted differently at different times in history in relation to the dominant theological views and energies within Christianity.
“This is a time for ascetic struggle (podvig), prayer and crucifying oneself for God and neighbor. The holy fathers compared the beginning of the fast with the exodus of the Old Testament people, led by Moses out of Egypt. This means leaving the bodily, sinful nature so that man would be able to enter the promised land of grace. On this journey there are three temptations which the Lord revealed to us in the desert – the temptation of bread or the body, vanity or conceit and finally the love of money and love of power.
These temptations act out of our bodily nature – these are the methods that the devil will use to get man to serve him and not the Lord.
The fasting period serves that we recognize these temptations with which we will do battle our entire lives and to push them away from ourselves through asceticsm and prayer. This is why during Great Lent we grow stronger through more frequent church services and communion, for we cannot battle on our own but we need Christ to be the victor within us. If we are in Christ – we will welcome Pascha in joy, but also the the general Resurrection in the eternal and the unending joy.”
Bishop Fotije of Dalmatia
The question has been asked many times before: If God knew that man would abuse his freedom in the Garden of Eden why did He put Him through such temptation? While we know the answer and that freedom is the greatest expression of love God gave to man – what about man? Did he really know he had freedom? Of course, Adam knew that God told him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that it was up to him to follow his orders, but did he have a true concept of freedom?
For that matter, do we know the freedom we have? Do we know the faith we have? Do we know the happiness we have? Or is it only after it’s taken away from us that we realize its value? As the old adage goes, You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
During the first weeks of Lent we include in our daily readings the Book of Genesis and we begin from the beginning. We begin from that first story of freedom lost; paradise lost. We liken ourselves to the Prodigal Son who had to leave his father’s house, squander his possessions to finally “come to himself” and realize all that he had.
This is our journey, let’s embark on it.
We’re getting ready. Lent comes overnight. Every year I have a feeling that I have to eat as much meat and then as much dairy before the first day of the Fast. Yesterday for instance, I was running around all day I ate nothing until having two slices of pizza for dinner. A late dinner. A wasted day of sorts. I could have indulged….but I didn’t.
That’s always been one of the biggest advantages of the fast. You have the same diet all month long and then some. There is no rushing to indulge in one food one day because you can’t have the next. All the days are the same. One would think this would work towards our spirituality. Now that we’ve simplified our daily meals into a small group of things we can have we can focus on other matters.
And the first thing to work on is slowing down. In today’s day in age this is near impossible. How can I slow down when I’m trying to catch with things I was supposed to do yesterday? But this is the real treasure of the Great Fast. Focus on the little stuff. Little by little. After all, that’s why the Church gives us Meatfare week. Stop eating meat. Then stop dairy. Little by little. Read the Bible every day. Just a little, a few pages, a few verses. Go to the services. Take communion.
It’s a beautiful journey the Church gives us every year. Go on it.
Of all the Sundays of preparation for Great Lent, Meatfare Sunday is the most confusing.
The message of the Publican and the Pharisee is quite clear and very practical. The image of repentance in the story of the Prodigal Son is very vivid and beautiful. The need to ask for forgiveness before beginning the fasting period is obvious. But why the gospel of the Last Judgment on Meatfare Sunday? One would think there would at least be mention of fasting in that gospel reading. What’s more, the Epistle reading at liturgy begins: “…food commends us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.…”.
Nonetheless, I think there is a point and direct connection with fasting. The fast was a little different in the life of Christians in the early church than today. While the dietary rules were the same, stress wasn’t put so much on what you eat but rather how much you eat. According to the instruction of the Church Fathers we are called to eat less and to use the money we’ve saved to feed the poor.
In this light the Gospel of the Last Judgment of Christ calling us to feed the poor, give drink to the thirsty, and so on, makes perfect sense to be read exactly here before we start the Fast.
This is what Great Lent is about. Will it be about that or not eating certain foods is another story and for another post.