[Our Sunday Visitor, March 23, 2003]
Well, not hot dog, exactly. Not hamburger either, or fried chicken, or filet-o-fish; not even a milkshake. And that’s no baloney.
What’s left? Grains, vegetables, and fruits: oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, spaghetti marinara for dinner. You get to know the mysteries of soy. (My friend Juli sings: “You made me tofu; I didn’t wanna try it, I thought I’d rather diet.”) You use Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cookbooks. Of course, ingenious food manufacturers offer many alternatives that are acceptable, if not natural. One Lent I searched among the items at a gas station. After reading dozens of labels, I came up with this: a Moon Pie.
For Orthodox Christians, it’s different. We believe that the “wages of sin” make us captives of Death, and Jesus rescued us by his blood. We would say that it was a sacrifice to the Father, as a brave soldier might offer a risky mission to his beloved general. But the soldier isn’t *paying* the general; Orthodox don’t think Jesus *paid* the Father, because the Father wasn’t holding us captive. The Evil One was holding us captive, and was overcome when Jesus invaded his realm and rescued us, at the cost of his own blood.
So for Orthodox Christians, this fast is akin to training for a triathlon. It’s a workout. St. Paul, of course, frequently used such metaphors, saying we should “strive like athletes for the prize.” The Greek word for athletic training is “ascesis.”
So we repent. We pray to be given deeper repentance, and confess our sins to Christ in the presence of the priest. The priest pronounces sacramental forgiveness, and can also give guidance about growing stronger to resist sin in the future. He is like a trainer giving an athlete exercises geared to his personal strengths and weaknesses. Fasting is one of the classic exercises, but they also include reading Scripture and other Christian works, attendance at services throughout the week, and constant interior prayer with mental vigilance to evaluate thoughts before embracing them.
Though this is the standard Orthodox Lenten fast, if you ask your friends you’ll likely find variation. An individual in consultation with his or her priest may be following an amended “exercise routine.” Perhaps the person has medical or personal reasons for mitigating the fast; perhaps they are just not spiritually strong enough, and the long weeks of Lent drag them down. Exercise should bend, not break, the athlete, and a weaker athlete must start with a smaller weight.
Not just individuals but whole parishes may observe the fast differently. From earliest years fasting followed community rather than universal guidelines. When St. Monica visited Rome she was surprised that they did not fast on Saturday before the Sunday Eucharist. She asked her pastor, St. Ambrose, about this. He famously replied not to be concerned about it, but “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
We begin the pre-Lenten season with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, noting that the prideful one who boasts “I fast twice a week” gains nothing by it. On Pascha, when the long fast is over, we hear St. John Chrysostom’s sermon reminding us that those who came to the vineyard at the eleventh hour received the same reward. Everyone is welcome to the Paschal feast, no matter how they kept the fast.
We have fasted all together, and at the end we feast all together, a bit stronger than when we started. No wonder we feel like celebrating. Pass the fatted calf!