Monday (tomorrow) marks the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church (which liturgically begins at Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday). Though Great Lent is kept with rigor in Orthodox Tradition, there is nothing unusual asked of believers – nothing that we do not do on many days throughout the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do these with greater intensity and frequency during the Great Fast (the more universal name of the season). As preparation for the feast of Pascha, the “feast of feasts,” all of these disciplines drive the point of the Christian faith further and deeper.
Much of modern Christianity lives as a stranger to ascetical discipline. Few Christians fast, and the fasting of many others has forgotten the traditions of earlier generations. Various historical factors have turned the Christian life into a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. Monasticism seems exotic to many.
There is nothing exotic about asceticism. The New Testament assumes fasting and similar activities as normative for the Christian life. The Pharisees observed that the disciples of Jesus did not fast. When Christ was asked about this omission (something that seemed entirely unusual in the Judaism of the time), He responded:
Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt. 9:15).
The days in which “the bridegroom is taken away” are the days in which we live. Fasting is normative. Fasting is part of the practice of continual repentance – the proper attitude of the Christian heart. Repentance is not a single action taken in response to having done something wrong – repentance is a state of the heart – the state of brokenness and contrition:
A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Psalm 51).
To a large extent – this is the goal of the Christian way of life – to cultivate a heart of repentance. King David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” not because he was without sin (he was an adulterer and a murderer). He was a man after God’s own heart because when confronted with his sin – his heart is broken. He makes no defense and offers no excuse.
St. Paul offers this admonition:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him (Romans 12:1-3).
No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up in what St. Paul calls our “spiritual worship” logike latrein.
To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our logike worship (“spiritual” is perhaps a more accurate translation than “reasonable” as some render it – though it would also be quite accurate to translate it as “natural” or “the worship that is proper to us as human beings”). It is a struggle to fast, to present our bodies as a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering: it stretches through the days and nights of this great season.
St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in the perception of our selves and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”
I find it of great importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he does as well in Philippians 2). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found and that our minds are renewed. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather the true self is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. We find ourselves by losing ourselves in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.
The Fast, like all things in the gospel, is ultimately an act of love. It is an act of love for it is a training in the sacrifice of self. Having denied ourselves in such small things (such as abstaining from various foods and drink), we learn to deny ourselves in much larger things – such as pride and anger, self-love and envy. By God’s grace such efforts are molded into the image of Christ – who Himself began His ministry with a fast of 40 days – and this for love.