Sunday, February 14, 2010

Repentance and joy

We are now at the threshold of the Great Lenten season where we are called to purify ourselves in preparation for our Lord's Great and Holy Pascha. Today, many Orthodox Christians inaugurated this holy season by asking for and receiving forgiveness from others, whether they wronged them or not. Though the asking of forgiveness is a somber moment where we are actually invited to see our own sins in our fellow man, one cannot escape the joy that accompanies it.

Forgiveness, both in offering and receiving, is an act of repentance. Repentance is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of who and what we are away from the sinfulness that has dominated our lives. But with that change of mind and heart away from worldly passions and lusts, we must also make sure not to do so in a manner that reflects a legalistic approach to the Christian life. Our repentance must be joyful, not somber. We would only be somber if we regretted such a change. If this change is not something you truly desire and wish for, then don't do it. What will it avail you, if you offer and/or receive forgiveness but do so with a frown on your face and with a spirit of despondency? What will it avail you to give alms to the poor if you can only think about how much more you have deprived yourself of something that you could have had? What will it avail you to go to the many extra church services only to complain about the length of them? What will it avail you if your prayers at home take up time which could be spent doing things around the house or watching TV? The answer is, of course, nothing. True repentance must be joyful.

Our Lord's Pascha, which is the source of all our joy, the holy day of holy days, is a joyful event. It is that historical happening that allows us to embark upon the life of repentance with actual results. If our Lord's Pascha is not a happy and joyous event, then we would be well to go about doing good works for the poor and our fellow man and worshiping Christ with reservation and questions about what else we could be doing.

Let us weep for our sins, yes. But let us be joyful that we have been vouchsafed by God to weep for our sins and to repent of them. Let us be joyful that our Lord has not given us over to perish in our iniquities but has given us not only His life and saving work, but also repentance (remember this is the word with which both He and St. John the Forerunner began their ministries).

Joy is the hallmark of Christian living. We are joyful because joy is not given by this world but only by Christ, our God. Without Him there can be no real or true joy. So, let us enter into the Great Fast with joy in our hearts and on our faces. Let us rejoice that our God has loved us so much to call us back from the pit of destruction which we have fashioned with our own sins.

Happy fast, everyone!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Fast from your sins not only from food

This is Cheese Week, so named because this is the last week, for those of us who are able and do follow the fasting discipline of the church, to eat dairy products. We have already given up meat and are now easing our ways into the gravity of the Great Lenten Fast.

The epistle from this past Sunday, Meatfare Sunday or also known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment comes from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, beginning at the eighth verse of Chapter 8. We are told by St. Paul that our freedom should not be a stumbling block for the weak. Now, those who oppose any sort of fasting since they regard it as merely legalistic proscriptions which are designed to gain favor with God and thus "merit" forgiveness of our sins, have really missed the point. We are given the freedom to do either. Now, I am not saying that fasting and not fasting are one in the same thing--they are clearly not. But I should not (and hopefully will not) notice my Orthodox brother not fasting and then condemn him for it. And I should not be condemned because I choose to observe strictly and faithfully the fast as it has been handed down by the church. Fasting is good spiritual discipline. If we don't deprive ourselves, both physically and spiritually, how then can we truly begin to know the compassions of God which are the reasons for our rejoicing and celebration at the Holiest of Days, our Lord's Pascha? I don't believe that someone can, but that's a matter of opinion.

But fasting from food without ceasing our sins is nothing more than dieting. If we continually show anger towards our neighbor, look lustfully at a man or woman, steal a dollar while someone isn't looking, curse under our breath at God or man, but still fast, then we have really missed the point. And many who do fast (including me) do miss the point. If we have not fasted from our pride, our greed, our envy, our lust, our gluttony, our laziness, yet we take care not to eat meat and not to eat dairy, we have not begun to prepare ourselves. Our preparation is empty and our journey to the empty tomb of our Lord will simply pass as an event in time which has no spiritual repurcussions for us and for our salvation.

At Hagia Sophia there was a sign which in Greek spelled out a palindrome. In English it reads, "Wash your sins, not only your face." Such, when it comes to fasting, our freeing ourselves from food is but a first step. It is a good first step, to be sure, but if it is not coupled with prayer (especially more prayer than what we are generally accustomed) and alms-giving, then our fasting will be in vain. We will not be judged for whether we kept the dietary restrictions of the fast; we will be judged for not purging ourselves from the thoughts and passions using fasting as the means.

God keep you all during the Great and Holy Fast.