Archpastoral Letter at the Beginning of Great Lent 2007
Prot. N. 181
To the Venerable Priesthood and Diaconate in Christ, Clergy and Seminarians of this God-Saved Diocese, and especially to our Beloved Faithful, our Devoted Children in Grace,
Christ is among us! He is and always shall be!
Dear Clergy and Faithful:
I write to you on the threshold of the Great Fast, our annual forty-day journey to the great and happy Day of the Paschal Victory of Jesus Christ.
I write to you out of my profound desire that you and I, in the Paschal Celebration, may enter into the joy of the Angels on that day.
And so I take this opportunity to meditate on the way of joy, and the path to the Paschal sunshine. I offer you my dearest invitation to walk with me in the only narrow way through the wilderness and the mountains, through the valley of shadows, and finally to the Rising of the Sun.
As your Archpastor, who fervently intercedes for your soul and the salvation of your family, I beckon and beseech you, come with me and all of us, into the Desert of Forty Days and Nights, the Great Fast.
We fast from food and pleasure because our Lord required this of us. He expected us to fast. In speaking to His Apostles on the character of the Christian fast, He said “When you fast, do not put on a long face like the hypocrites do” (Matthew 6:16). We must pay attention to the first phrase: “When you fast” – not “If ever you fast”. The understanding is that during the long period of time between the Ascension and the Second Coming of the Lord, Christians will and must fast: “But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days” ( Mark 2:20).
The wisdom of fasting springs up from human nature itself. All of mankind understands that fasting is necessary in religion, whether the true religion of the Church, or the shadowy forms of religion outside Holy Tradition. Even primitive societies and pre-Christian pagans understood that fasting was a necessary part of one’s approach to divinity in worship and prayer.
In Christianity, all religion is fulfilled and answered, just as the Law and the Prophets are completely fulfilled by the New Covenant of the Lord. All the basic notions of fasting are clarified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Councils of the Church.
Our Lord Himself fasted forty days in the wilderness immediately after He was baptized by the Forerunner in the Jordan River, and immediately before the beginning of His public preaching and ministry. For forty days He fasted in an empty place, in an arid place of desolation and haunt of jackals.
Now remember that Jesus Christ was fully divine, as we easily believe, but He was also fully human. While He never sinned, nor was He afflicted by any lust, nevertheless He suffered the pains of this life. Thus He was hungry, thirsty and exhausted from His sojourn in the desert.
He also fully suffered as a human the onslaught of the Devil’s three temptations. It is important to remember that the perfect surrender of our Lord’s human will to His Divine Will was never easy, but was as difficult as any obedience made by you or me. And so Jesus Christ, fully aware that He is the Son of God, rejected the philosophical counsels of the Evil One.
The human obedience of Jesus Christ was strengthened by His fast. The temptation was not part of the fast. The fast, rather, was a preparation for the temptation that Jesus knew was about to come.
Fasting, for the Christian, is necessary to overcome temptation, as our Lord revealed to us in His Own triumph in the wilderness. Fasting, for the Christian, is necessary to overcome evil, as our Lord revealed to us in His rebuke of the Apostles in Mark 9:29: “This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting”.
Fasting is the amplification of prayer. It clears our perception from the confusion of worldliness. It reminds us that our souls utterly depend on the Word of God: not just Scripture, but the whole ministry of the Holy Spirit.
And so we happily fast, because fasting is the way to live abundantly and in liberty. We fast from sinful provocations as a lifestyle, and there is no end to this type of fast. We fast from replaying memories of past hurts and grudges. We fast from watching inhumane entertainment, and looking at lustful images. We fast from social, career and sports commitments so that we might attend Divine Services.
But through the year, the Holy Church calls us, during certain seasons, to fast from perfectly good things. During the forty days of Lent before Holy Week and Pascha, the Church has traditionally required her faithful to abstain from meat and dairy products. No one denies that these foods are good things. Since the days of Noah, the Lord has graciously granted meat to the table of His children. Because of this grace, fasting from meat is a sacrifice of our rich privilege, and it is a temporary return to the simpler days before Noah. We do this so that we may feel hungry and thus “spiritually poor”. It is during the experience of this self-imposed poverty that we draw nearer to God, and beg Him for the Bread from His Own Table, that is the Life of the world.
The Season of the Great Fast is a season of forgiveness, of acceptance, of mutual encouragement and peace. The Fathers are wont to call the time of Lent as a season of “sweet sorrow”. And in this sweet sorrow, our hearts are softened by God, and our frozen hearts are melted by the Spirit’s fire, and we may thus pour ourselves out in love for the Body of Christ. We cherish each other as bearers of the Image of Christ. We visit the sick, the poor and the desperate with friendship, and gifts of food, comfort and wealth. We pray to our loving Father, and our physical hunger reminds us that we need to hunger for the Bread of Life that is Christ, the Word of God and the Life of the world.
Pray with me, in this Season of Pilgrimage to the Great Day of Pascha. Fast with me, and let us hunger for the presence of God. Concentrate on Christ with me, and listen to His voice. Look for His Image. Savor the sweetness of His joy. Enter into the poignant, healing sorrow of repentance: yearn for the gift of tears, the second baptism of contrition that is like the latter rains – a healing summer rain that restores the desert to blossom once again.
Pray with me. Fast with me. Live again and live above with me. Become one with Christ, with me. Let us journey on this Pilgrimage arm in arm, and together let us meet the Risen Christ Who fasted and prayed before His Day of Victory, on the Pascha of the Son that is always rising and will never set.
Most sincerely yours in Christ,
Metropolitan Nicholas (Smishko) is the Bishop of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of Johnstown.