Fasting


I’m afraid that this blog has been very neglected of late (I do intend continuing the series I launched in the last post and then promptly abandoned, but…) and I had meant to do this book review much earlier. But let me at least get it up before Lent actually starts!

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Great Lent: Reflections on the Triodion, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

In November, I reviewed Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s Meditations for Advent; Preparing for Christ’s Birth, which had just been published and I wrote about his very welcome entrance into the world of contemporary Orthodox literature. Apart from Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which came out in 2012, he has just published Thirty Steps to Heaven on the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and another book on Holy Week is due out soon. While some of us struggle to write single blog posts, he has been churning out books at an incredible rate. And they are, moreover, very good. As I said previously, they are accessible to a wide readership and yet they also contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Meditations for Great Lent was published in 2012 and is somewhat shorter than Meditations for Advent. In fact, it is very much a “to the point” book. By this I mean that there is a fair bit that it doesn’t include, such as a discussion of most of the Sundays of Great Lent. But I suspect that that was a conscious decision so as not to distract us from the central thrust of the book, which is to open up for us the true meaning of our Lenten repentance as we journey towards Pascha.

As the subtitle indicates, Father Vassilios draws heavily on the liturgical texts of the Church and this is one of the great strengths of these books. I seem to never tire of quoting Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The Church choir is the school of theology,” yet the reality is that for many people these great riches are virtually unknown. And, to be honest, they are probably also not that accessible to many people. But these books provide an entrance point, providing the great riches of the Church in a truly accessible way.

Interestingly, about half of the book deals with the period before Great Lent actually starts. Most of The Sundays that Father Vassilios focuses on are actually the first four Sundays of the Triodion and I suspect that the reason for this is that it is these Sundays that really teach us what the Fast is about and how we are to approach it. Here we find reflections on humility, repentance, ascetic love, fasting, not judging and forgiveness. There are stern warning against self-righteousness, the dangers of piety and an with obsession outward rules. We are reminded that “pride renders fasting useless” and are told in no uncertain terms that:

If the fast is not a means to improving our spiritual lives, if we fast from food but not from sin, then we are no better than devils! The demons do not eat, but they are no closer to God for it. (Kindle location 196)

Central to the purpose of the Fast is that it is there to teach us the true meaning of repentance. Such repentance

… looks forward and not back; it looks upward and not down. It is, ultimately, something that leads us to joy and liberation. God calls us to true joy and true freedom, and we cannot attain that until we have rejected the false joy and freedom of sin. (Kindle location 271)

This positive destination is seen in the chapter on the Return to Paradise in which we see the role of food both in the loss of Paradise by Adam and Eve, and also in our journey back to God.

The purpose of our fasting is spiritual. Spirituality must not be viewed as something that does not concern the body, but as something that is made possible through and within the body. We all too often find within ourselves a conflict between body and soul. The desires and needs of the flesh can all too often overpower the spirit. Fasting is a means of restoring the balance between soul and body, a means of bringing the flesh under the control and will of the mind and spirit. In restoring this balance, we turn back to Paradise, to the life of Eden. Then we can have hope that, like Moses, we too may see God. (Kindle location 329)

Of crucial importance on this journey is the struggle against the passions and the cultivating of the virtues, and there is an exceptionally good chapter on this which is based on the prayer of Saint Ephrem, and which really deserves a separate discussion. There is also an important chapter on the joy of Lent. Consider this:

Those who think of Lent purely in terms of fasting and obligations can never fully experience the joy of Lent. The joy of Lent is offered to us in the Lenten worship, through the services of Great Compline and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. These solemn services help us gradually to change our hearts and lives by entering into the bright sadness of Lent, through which we are able to make our own the joy of repentance, the joy of returning to God. (Kindle Location 476)

This positive orientation is continued in the chapters on the Sunday of the Cross and the Canon of Saint Andrew, and it ends by reminding us of our true destination.

Lent is a journey to Pascha. It is thus a season of joyful expectation. If we take Lent seriously, the journey is arduous, but this only makes Pascha all the more radiant and joyful. But throughout Lent, we are never allowed to forget the Resurrection, which fills all things, all ascetic labors, all solemnity, sorrow, and contrition, with gladness and brightness. (Kindle location 552)

And,

Lent is the rediscovery of that which is most essential in our lives. In this rediscovery, we return to God and to the very meaning of life. (Kindle location 557)

As I said of Meditations for Advent, this is a book to be read and then re-read slowly a prayerfully as we enter this holy season.

Vassilios Papavassiliou. Meditations for Advent: Preparing for Christ’s Birth, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Amazon Paperback & Kindle.

I had meant to do a review of this recently published book before the Nativity Fast started, but didn’t get to it. But I have just finished reading it – although it is certainly worth another reading and a slow, prayerful pondering – and want to say something about it, for it is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.

For those who haven’t heard of him, Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain and has recently emerged as a popular but very worthwhile Orthodox author. I have been wanting to do a review of his Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and will try and do that before long although Father Deacon Aaron also has a short reference to it here. There is also Meditations For Great Lent. Reflections on the Triodion which I’ll come back to again.* I’m not sure if it’s because he’s British rather than American, or because he’s Greek but living in Britain, or because he’s a “cradle” Orthodox who is obviously used to interacting with the non-Orthodox world, but his books strike me as refreshingly free from the sort of triumphalistic self-absorption that sometimes characterizes some contemporary popular Orthodox writing. They are accessible to a wide readership, but they contain a theological depth that really gets to the heart of the matter.

Advent, as Father Vassilios points out in the introduction, is not a word that is often used in historically Orthodox countries and the Orthodox Nativity Fast differs from the western Advent not only in the details of its celebration, but also in its dominant symbolism. Instead of being focused on the First and Second comings of the Lord, the Orthodox Advent focuses primarily on the Mystery of His Incarnation. It is a forty day fast that precedes the celebration of the Nativity, just as Great Lent is a fast that precedes Pascha – indeed it is sometimes referred to as a “Lent,” just as the Nativity has been referred to as a “Winter Pascha,” – for the meaning of the Incarnation is inseparable from that of the Crucifixion and Resurrection as we see in many of the liturgical texts.

Father Vassilios explores the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ in the four major sections of this book, which help to elucidate the depth of the Church’s faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

The first section is entitled “Prepare, O Bethlehem” and focuses on the underlying themes of the feasts in this period, as well as in the two Sundays before the Nativity. By looking at the feasts of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple, Saint Andrew and the Conception of the Mother of God by the barren Anna, and the imagery associated with the Ancestors of Christ and the Saints of the Old Testament, the book shows how the longing for the Saviour that is found in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the New. It helps us to identify ourselves with this longing as the Church’s hymnography helps us to encounter something of the depths of its meaning as we too are brought to the Forefeast of Christmas and are confronted with the astounding truth that the God of all has come to us as a child and can only be encountered with the childlike qualities of wonder, joy, faith and humility. And it is the learning of such attitudes that is surely the point of the repentance that is at the heart of our fasting.

The second section is entitled “Search the Scriptures” and is a reflection on the Scriptural imagery found in the hymnography for Advent, and especially in the Katavasias. This section could do with an extended discussion on its own, and I may come back to it again, but it helps to illuminate the author’s statement in the introduction that “Advent is one great Bible study that sheds light on the meaning of the Old Testament as a preparation for the New.” The hymns for this season are full of references and allusions to Old Testament theophanies, prophecies and types of the birth of Christ. This section provides enough background information for us to understand these references and provides an entry into the Orthodox approach to understanding Scripture.

The third section is entitled “The Icon of the Nativity” and illustrates how the Church’s theology is passed on not only through her hymnography, but also through her iconography. As in the hymnography, the icon of the Nativity makes a clear link between Christ’s birth and His burial. It also illuminates the Scriptural basis for the oxen and donkeys found in Nativity plays – far from being about sentimentality, the presence of the animals in the icon (which was taken up by later western imagery) comes from the prophet Isaiah (1:3) and challenge us as to whether we truly recognize Christ’s presence. “Heathens [the Magi] and animals are seen worshiping the one true God. It is a humbling image. Are we Christians worse than heathens and animals? Will we deny God while they accept Him?” Finally, the discussion of the star in the icon provides a link to the icon of the Transfiguration, showing that this was no ordinary star, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The fourth and final section is entitled “The Incarnation” and – using again the liturgical texts and their understanding of Scripture – it opens up some of the depths of the Church’s faith and what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human. At the heart of the Nativity is the understanding of Jesus Christ as the New Adam who has come to restore Adam to paradise, restoring the Image of God in us that had become tarnished by sin. This reminds us of the purpose of the fast: “A simple choice has been laid before us: to die to Adam— that is to sin, passion, and self— and live to Christ; or to go on living as though the Incarnation never happened.” The Incarnation does not remove us from the reality of the world. Christ is the true Light who has come into the world, but no sooner have we celebrated the coming of this Light, than we are plunged into darkness with King Herod’s killing of the children.

Many think of Christmas as something sweet and sentimental. But this grim event in the midst of the Nativity narrative reminds us that there is nothing sentimental about it. Instead we are shown the harsh reality of evil, of the kind of violent world that Christ enters as a newborn baby. In becoming one of us, in taking on human existence in everything but sin, He subjects Himself to human tragedy, to suffering and death. Already, from the moment of His birth, we see Christ offering Himself to the reality of our own pain and mortality, with no power, no authority, no means of defense. Yet in spite of this, the Light of the world was not extinguished by the darkness.

As I said before, this is a book that needs to be read slowly and prayerfully. I would see its strength as threefold. Firstly, it provides an entry into the way the Church reads Scripture. Secondly, and through this, it leads us ever-deeper into the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ which we can only really grasp in a liturgical context (once again, I am reminded of Father Cyprian Kern’s statement that “the Church choir is the school of theology”). And thirdly, and related to these, it focuses us on what really matters. As he did in his book on the Liturgy, Father Vassilios has produced a book that, by focusing on Advent, introduces people to the fundamental faith of the Church.

* Father Vassilios Papavassiliou also has a blog entitled orthodoxymoron here and is on Twitter here.

While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo  the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.

No, that’s not Occupy Wall Street, or striking miners, far left radicals, or even Dorothy Day. It is the first sticheron for Vespers on the first Wednesday in the first week of Great Lent – taken from my new Lenten Triodion that arrived on the first day of Lent.

Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality. Certainly it has its sombre aspect, with the repeated prostrations at the weekday services, with the dark vestments of the priest, with the hymns sung to a subdued chant, full of compunction. In the Christian Empire of Byzantium theatres were closed and public spectacles forbidden during Lent; and even today weddings are forbidden in the seven weeks of the fast. Yet these elements of austerity should not blind us to the fact that the fast is not a burden, not a punishment, but a gift of God’s grace:

Come, O ye people, and today let us accept
The grace of the Fast as a gift from God. [Mattins for Monday in the first week]

Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, “The Meaning of the Great Fast” in Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, The Lenten Triodion (Faber & Faber, 1978), 23.

After noting the loss of consciousness of fasting in the modern West – or its transformation into a secularized “dieting” – Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times” by noting that prayer and fasting have been seen as intimately connected from time immemorial, as is attested to by numerous passages of Scripture.

At first glance the Christian practice of fasting might seem difficult to reconcile with Christ’s word and example. Despite fasting for forty days and nights in the desert, Jesus had a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19) and his disciples’ lack of fasting was contrasted to the practice of John’s disciples (Lk 5:53).

However,

Christ did not reject fasting any more than he rejected prayer. In both cases, nevertheless, he was concerned with guarding his disciples against every sort of hypocrisy and vain display of their own “piety”.

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is with fasting just as it is with prayer: The disciples of Jesus also fast, naturally, but they do it solely for God’s sake, not in order to be seen and praised. The same goes for almsgiving and ultimately for the practice of all the virtues. The Fathers, who were noted for the severity of their fasts, took that very much to heart. It is especially true of fasting that one should “seal up the good odor of one’s [ascetical] efforts with silence.” (89)

Moreover, Christ had a particular reason for disregarding the customary fasts of His day, namely, the presence of the “Bridegroom” (Mt 9:15). He also used the symbolism of the common meal as a way to indicate the presence of the Kingdom and announce the good news of reconciliation. This privileging of the common meal was something that the Desert Fathers took to heart teaching that the commandment of hospitality overrides the rules of fasting. In addition, because fasting belonged to the penitential practices of the Church, it was not to be observed on those days “on which Christians call to mind the return of Christ the ‘Bridegroom’”.

From Saturday evening, the vigil of the Lord’s day, until the following evening, one does not bend the knee among the Egyptians, and it is the same during the entire time of Pentecost [between Easter and Pentecost], and in this season the rule of fasting is not observed, either.[Cassian] (92)

Fasting has a relative value, but its importance lies in humbling the soul.

Hence the spiritual meaning of fasting is, first of all, to make the soul humble. “Indeed, nothing humbles the soul as does fasting,” [Evagrius] since it causes the soul to experience in a fundamental way its complete dependence on God.

The obstacles to this humility of heart are our manifold “passions”, those “sicknesses of the soul” that do not allow it to behave “naturally”, that is, according to the purpose for which it was created. Now fasting is an excellent means of “covering over” these passions, as Evagrius says in an allegorical interpretation of a psalm verse.

Fasting is a covering for the soul, which conceals its passions, that is, shameful desires and irrational anger. Therefore he who does not fast exposes himself indecently,

like Noah when he was drunk, to whom Evagrius is alluding here. This means that the purpose of bodily fasting is to cleanse the soul of its shameful vices and to instil a humble attitude. Without this “purity of heart”, even the thought of “true prayer” would be sacrilege.

Whoever is [still] caught up in sins and outbursts of anger and dares to reach out shamelessly after the knowledge of divine things or even to enter [the place] of immaterial prayer, let him expect to hear the Apostle’s reproach, according to which it is not safe for him “to pray with head uncovered”. Indeed, such a soul, he says, “should have an ‘authority’ on her head, because of the angels,” by wrapping herself fittingly in shame and humility. (93)

In addition to this, fasting has a practical significance in that it enables one to watch in prayer, as opposed to a full stomach which is inclined to sleep. Fasting prepares the mind for the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Father Gabriel concludes:

Although fasting is therefore just as indispensable as watching to anyone who wants to “pray in truth”, still, like everything in the spiritual life, it must take place “at the appropriate times and in moderation”. In this respect each person will have his own suitable measure, according to his strength, his age, the circumstances of his life, and so on.

For what is immoderate and untimely is of short duration. Something that lasts only a short time, though, is more likely harmful than useful. [Evagrius] (94-95)