The Great Lent has arrived. We are going to spend its seven weeks in anticipation of the great feast of Christ's glorious resurrection. The Holy Fathers of the Church have likened it to a ladder that we as Christians must ascend to seek spiritual accomplishments. All who succeed in climbing the ladder with a steady gait will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the vision of the great mystery of Christ's resurrection.
So what kind of fasting should we aim for if we want to please God and benefit our spirits? There is no need to muse too much over these questions - today's Gospel readings give us the idea.
The first prerequisite of a good Christian fast is our forbearance. The proud, the hostile and the irritable will not know the rewards of a good fast. We cannot fast well when we are captive to our bad memories or wicked intentions or when wrath, vengefulness and hate besiege our hearts. Even with prayers on our lips and church hymns in our ears, we would not be busy asking for forgiveness; instead, we would only multiply our sins and continue to be slaves to our passions. Conversely, a good fast instils in our souls the purest desires and noblest feelings of love. Wisely and soberly, we would stay mindful of the lofty goals that give direction to our souls and that revolve entirely around the virtues of pure love. If we wish to conduct ourselves with dignity throughout the Great Lent, we must always be mindful of our duty to be gentle. Gentleness and conciliation are the raiments of a Christian fast. The ability to resist our rash impulses, our readiness to restrain our envy and competitive urge, and the willingness to give up our rights generously are our first steps towards pleasing the Lord during a Christian fast.
As we proceed, we must cultivate within ourselves another treasured Christian virtue, condescension. Forgetful of our weaknesses, we are often too quick to judge other people harshly and severely for their errors and misdeeds. By our wrathful and demeaning talk, we trample on the personality of our neighbour. The sin that we thus commit destroys the love in our hearts. Glory be to those who will overcome and defeat this sin and who will replace it with benevolence, helpfulness and other pure and honest properties of God's love. The first foundation a Christian fast is for one human to learn to love another. It s importance cannot be underlined enough. A loving heart will glow in the light of God's grace and revel in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The second prerequisite to a Christian fast is found in these words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. (Matthew 6: 16). Hypocrites follow the fasting rules only to show off to others; they do not fast in the name of the Lord. They want others to see how they fast but, but do not care to engage in the good works to please the Lord. A hypocritical fast is an affront to the Lord; it turns His just and loving eye away from the man who fasts.
A good fast is dedicated to the Lord; our ascetic exploits of the body and spirit should bring greater purity to our soul and dispose us towards His goodness. Clearly, such effort demands of us a lot more than the bodily abstinence of a hypocrite. In a genuine fast, we subject ourselves to the judgement of our conscience every minute. Our conscience reminds us all the time that we must have humility and a contrite heart. Continuously, it exposes to our minds the most unseemly states of our souls. A sick man will grieve deeply at the sight of the sores on his body. He will go to every length to hide the sores from sight. He will not show them off to others to bolster his self-esteem. Likewise, realising our imperfections is our first step to addressing them.
The third essential property of a good Christian fast is that we continually remind ourselves of the heavenly glory that Jesus Christ had acquired for us. As the Gospel and the Holy Church teach us, we should remain in constant prayer and anticipation of the Kingdom in Heaven. As infants, we took baptism in water for its very sake. For its sake, our parents were bringing us to the Cup as children. Consequently, all our prayers - public, private or solitary are - our pleas for the Kingdom.
More often than not, our life clearly negates it. When this happens, a strange and intractable inner conflict arises in a man. The reason is simple - many have a very vague, uncertain and sketchy understanding of heavenly riches and spiritual delights. However, even the contemplation of these pure and divine gifts gives us a foretaste of His eternal grace and becomes to us like the spring of living water of which Jesus spoke in His conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4). By basing one's expectations only on the present, one acts like madmen who would drink ill-smelling moody water to get immediate relief from their thirst. Unbeknownst to themselves, they waste and destroy their life energies. They give preference for the finite and sensuous rewards of the present moment; a grace that lasts for some time but not forever. But true love is love in eternity, not in the moment. It is not of benefit to us to possess goodness that is not everlasting; when we wish to do so, we act selfishly - we seek little else than pleasures for the flesh.
We look up to the deep blue sky, observe the slow flow of the full rivers in spring and listen to the wind in the trees more with a vexed spirit than with joy. Likewise, we perceive the howling of the storm, the roaring of the thunder, and beautiful singing and music with a mixture of grief of the heart and celebration. One will find many people who would cry from the most beautiful singing. What does all this tell us? Attached to sensuous flesh and surrounded by chaos, disorder and ugliness, our soul also hears the calling of its homeland in heaven. It still sees - however vaguely - its unfathomable beauty and grace and recalls its paradise, eternal and indestructible. The most glorious and sublime reward for our senses is a clear prospect of its delight in heaven. We should view all our sensuous delights from this perspective, as being reminiscent of eternal goodness and joy, as being directly or indirectly suggestive of these and as reminders of our homeland in heaven that awaits us. May we all pursue the ultimate spiritual rewards as a necessity. In them alone we will find heaven, eternity and paradise, and see angels in people. They are pure and sacred; they are our beacons of reassurance in the shadow of death; they are our coveted; they bring within our reach our covered homeland, making us, time and again, the dwellers of paradise.
Accordingly, the Lord admonishes us in today's Gospel readings: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6: 19). Behold the lesson of our mother church. Let us not be its lazy and distracted pupils, for this is a key lesson for all those who wish to begin and to adhere to the fast. Amen.
Archpriest Valentin Amfiteatrov
Excerpted from: Archpriest Valentin Amfiteatrov The Great Lent.
Spiritual advice. — М.: Orthodox Sisterhood in Honour of the Holy Venerable Martyr Elisabeth Romanov,1997. 16.03.2021
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