This week, most observant Orthodox Christians will abstain from eating meat or fish, and this Sunday (“Cheesefare Sunday”) the Lenten Fast begins in earnest as dairy products and alcohol are excluded from the diet, which we have discussed before here, here, here and here.
Father Joseph Fester, whose mission to Tbilisi’s Anglophone population is based at the Blue Monastery in Tbilisi, has written a very concise and authoritative guide to the Lenten Fast. It is provided below.
HOW WE CAN PROFIT FROM THE GREAT FAST by Protopresbyter Joseph Fester
One of the great beauties and strengths of the Orthodox Christian Faith is our invitation to take full spiritual advantage of her Lenten Seasons. The Great Fast in preparation for the Feast of Feasts, the Pascha of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ is the model for all fasting periods in the Church’s liturgical cycles.
Sustained Fasting Is Important
The length of the Great Fast is important for a believer. It invites us to reshape our daily lives, to live differently, act in a higher and better way and offer the time of the Fast up to God as a sacrifice of praise. It challenges us to live our daily lives at work, with family and friends with a first-offering of good to others. It can move us to hold our tongue, practice patience and being non-judgemental to those we know and those we don’t. It presents to us the opportunity to become more of the person that God created us to be.
Fasting without Prayer is Dangerous
As important as fasting is, it cannot reap spiritual benefit unless we couple it with an increase prayer. Prayer is not easy, in fact it can be very difficult. The Evil One hates when we pray and will do whatever he can to distract us from being in communication with God for he knows that when we devote time in our day toward God, he is given less room to work in our lives and actions. The Church recognizes this in the very shape of her Lenten liturgical structure. The first week of the Great Fast is full of services, the centre being the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. The first three days of Lent are called to be intense days of prayer and fasting which anticipates our reception of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesday of the first week of Lent. Then we quickly again hear the Great Canon of St. Andrew on the Thursday of the first week and again we are invited to partake of the Presanctified Gifts on the Friday of the first week.
These corporate chances to gather as Church to worship the Lord must be coupled with increased personal prayer by believers. Whatever our private prayer life is during the rest of the year, we are called to increase it during the Great Fast. This invitation is the fuel that keeps us close to God. Our rule of prayer must be realistic. It should not be so rigid that we will give up, yet it should be more than we do already. If do we little now, then add to it. If we do more, build upon that foundation. The goal should be to carve out more time to be in the presence of God in prayer. If we stumble, get back up and begin again. If we fall, don’t stay down but climb to our feet and stand before the Lord.
The Spirit of Fasting Comes First
Often we can be tempted to take the easy path when fasting. We may say we will “give up meat” for the Fast or meat and dairy. Certainly that is a profitable spiritual exercise. It is time-tested and the monastic experience of such strict fasting is well documented. The monastic life, especially in community, lends itself to mutual support for this order of fasting but it is sometimes not possible for those who “live in the world,” most of us. Thus our fasting must take this into consideration. This does not mean that we should simply reject the monastic fasting model but we should also look to the spirit of that model. The spirit reveals that we can do with less physically so that we can make more room for the spiritual. As elevated as the parish model is when it comes to the liturgical life, the monastic model is even more intense. This is so because it compliments the rigours of the monastic fast – prayer and fasting going hand in hand, one sustaining the other. This also can be and should be done by non-monastics. Whatever our increased prayer and fasting rule is during the Great Fast, it is called to be a done with a spirit of grace and joy. Increased prayer and fasting is NOT a burden but rather a liberation for the believer. Such efforts can show us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, which is Spirit-filled and Life-Giving.
Preparing For The Fast
Orthodox do nothing without preparation; even the Great Fast does not start all at once. In the preparatory Sundays before the Great Fast we are given essential spiritual themes to begin our reorientation back to God. The desire of Zaccheaus to see Christ, the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal Son, and the unconditional love of the Father upon his return. We are commanded by God to care for the least of the brethren on the Sunday of the Last Judgement and then finally, on the very eve of the Great Fast, we are commanded again to forgive. In many parts of the Orthodox Church the service of Forgiveness Vespers is served on the night before the Great Fast and then the clergy and faithful embrace one another, one-by-one and ask each other for forgiveness so that nothing stands between us as we journey to the Pascha of our Lord.
In the same way, the Church offers us a fast-free week during the week of Publican and Pharisee, then She, step by step, reduces our physical attachment to the world with a week of normal fasting on Wednesday and Friday, then relieves us of attachment to the physical by inviting us to abstain from meat on Meatfare Sunday and then on the last Sunday before the Fast to abstain from dairy products on Cheesefare Sunday. This gradual preparation affords us to get ready and prepare for the sustained spiritual effort of the Great Fast.
Make A Plan
Each, according to their ability should make a Lenten Plan. We should decide after much prayer what we will try and accomplish during the Great Fast. This must include both how we will fast and how we will pray. Whatever our personal plan, it should be achievable. No athlete just starts running a marathon, rather she starts out with a plan to reach the goal. Too often, in our spiritual enthusiasm we set a goal that will be easily defeated by our first stumble and then the Evil One will step in and distract us from continuing. Make a plan that you can keep. You can always increase your fasting and prayer routine as you gain spiritual strength, but try not to set an unrealistic plan from the start that you wont’ be able to keep.
Some Things to Consider
These suggestions are not perfect for everyone but may contain some ideas that one can apply to their Lenten Plan.
1. Make a maximum effort during first week of the Fast. Getting off to a good start is important. Fast as much as you can. Pray as much as you can. Don’t give up if you fall. Start over again.
2. During the Week of the Cross, again try and ramp up your prayer and fasting like you did during the first week of Lent. The Cross is given to us at the mid-point of the Fast to encourage us to press forward to the Empty Tomb of our Lord.
3. Then, during Holy Week, take all the spiritual growth you have gained and apply it to these most holy days.
Consider the Great Fast as a spiritual athlete. Mark out this time as a special time in your spiritual training. See how, with God’s grace, you can be a better Orthodox Christian going forward, building upon the gains you have made during Lent and then living them forward.
There are so many other things that I have not touched on that are equally important, but I am sure you know what they are, going to Confession early and often during the Great Fast; receiving the Holy Eucharist as often as possible during the Great Fast; and reordering our daily routine so that you can be given strength by these two pillars of Orthodox Life.
Above all, be joyful during the Fast. Seek the freedom that comes from being less attached to this world and more a citizen of the Kingdom of God. We are His children and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. A family with Him as Our Father, who loves us and desires more than anything that we will live with Him Forever.
May our efforts bring us closer to God and each other and by our Love may the Kingdom of God be revealed to others seeking the Hope that is in us.