Πέμπτη, 13 Μαρτίου 2014
"WHY DO WE FAST?"
MATTHEW 6: 14-21
Historians say that the southern Italians, in the Naples area, were eating something similar to modern pizza around the time of Christ. The word "pizza" didn't yet exist but it was similar even if different in some ways. It was a piece of flat bread with various toppings on it. No tomato sauce as back then there were tomatoes only in the western hemisphere. But different types of sauce were used and different types of topping. One kind of "pizza" was pretty popular----mouse pizza. Yes, pizza with mice meat on top. Sounds good, doesn't it? The mice used weren't the type you might catch in a trap or that your cat might drag alive into the house.
No, the Italians used especially bred mice --they were very small, pink, and hairless. Yum, yum. (Ghosts of Vesuvius, Charles Pelligrino, Harper, 2005,p. 278) Maybe someone would like to bring that kind of pizza to one of our church's many potluck meals? Oh, but that's right----Lent starts tomorrow, so no mouse meat for now. Well, maybe after Lent in a couple of months....... Yes, Lent does start tomorrow, Clean Monday. There are several spiritual disciplines that our Orthodox tradition calls us to work on during Lent---more prayer, giving of alms, the sacrament of Confession, forgiving others, more church services, etc. But it seems most people first think of fasting when it comes to Lenten disciplines. It's just one of the disciplines but it's the one that gets most noticed, most discussed, and most questions get asked about. So because of all the questions that come up, today's homily for the day before Lent is entitled, "Why Do We Fast?"
Simply, I will tell you some reasons we fast and also share some cautions about fasting. First, five reasons that we Orthodox Christians fast during Lent-----
1. Because Jesus Christ says in the scriptures that He expects us to fast. In today's gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6, He gives instructions about fasting. He begins by saying in verse 16---"And when you fast....". Notice that the Lord didn't say "if you fast". He said, "when you fast," clearly assuming that His followers will fast. So, if for no other reason (although I am going to give you 4 more reasons!), we fast out of obedience to Christ.
2. Fasting helps us remember Christ's suffering in Holy Week for us. Now no matter how strictly we fast, the minor sufferings of fasting can never in any way compare to the sufferings of Christ. But the discomforts of fasting (if we fast strictly enough to have discomfort!) do remind how us how much worse were the suffering of Christ for our sakes.
3. When we fast, we show sorrow for our sins. It is our sins that made Christ's death on the cross necessary to save us. People sometimes debate who is most responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Was it the Jews or the Romans? Was it Pontius Pilate or the Jewish religious leaders? On and on such arguments go but it really essentially a false issue not worth debating. Do you know who is really responsible for Christ's death? I am. It is my fault because of my sins. And do you know who else is really responsible for Christ's death? You are. It is your fault because of your sins. Fasting is a way to show, perhaps mostly to ourselves, that we are sorry for our sins which made it necessary for Christ to die to bring us forgiveness.
4. Fasting saves money on our grocery budget, unless we violate the spirit of the fast and find the most expensive fasting type foods we can. What should we do with the dollars we save each week by fasting? Buy a new pair of shoes? No, we should use it to feed the hungry. Fasting saves money as we eat less and simpler food. Then we can give more alms to the poor. Father Anthony Coniaris, in one of his many, many books, tell the story of an overweight woman who decided to get serious about losing weight. Just as she was about to start her diet she happened to see an appeal ad in a magazine for a charity that fed the hungry in other countries. It had a picture of a little starving child, emaciated and near death. As she looked at the picture of that poor child, she thought to herself, "Doctors now successfully do heart transplants, liver transplants, and kidney transplants. Why can't I do a fat transplant?" And so she did. She decided she would "transplant" her excess pounds to hungry children. She put the photo on her refrigerator to remind her of this transplant project when she got hungry. She took the money she saved by buying less food and gave it to the charity to be used for food for hungry children. This helped motivate her dieting and she did well-- she lost quite a bit of weight and was able to donate quite a bit of money to the hungry. It was a very successful fat transplant! (Father Anthony Coniaris, The Message of the Sunday Gospel Readings, Vol. I, Light & Life Press, p. 150) This type of thing was standard practice in the early centuries of Christianity. When our Orthodox spiritual ancestors observed Lent they would regularly take the money they saved and give alms to the poor with it. If we're not doing what they did, let's start tomorrow!
5. Fasting, if done properly, can help us to grow spiritually, to get closer to the Lord. Fasting helps us remember that there is something more important in life than food---there is God. If we fast strictly enough that it's hard, it can really shake up our lives quite a bit. Especially if you're a person like me who has a tendency to focus too much of my life on food----for someone like me, the fast shakes me pretty hard. And getting shook up sometimes can be good---because sometimes it takes a good shaking for us to reexamine our priorities. Fasting can help us to gain more self-control, to learn to say "no"---a very valuable thing. Fasting helps us to take our focus off the physical pleasures of life (very good in themselves) and to focus more on the spiritual pleasures of life, such as communing more with God. St. Symeon the New Theologian put it this way hundreds and hundreds of years ago-----"We cannot both stuff ourselves with food and enjoy spiritual blessings." (in Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 29) So we have seen 5 reasons to fast----
1. To obey Jesus Christ because He expects us to fast.
2. To help us remember Christ's sufferings.
3. To show sorrow for our sins.
4. To enable us to save money on food and thus give more help to the poor.
5. To draw closer to God.
But our Orthodox Faith also gives us some warnings about fasting. It is possible to fast for the wrong reasons and actually do ourselves spiritual harm by fasting. Three warnings in particular---
1. We should not fast as a way of seeking glory or recognition, as a way of showing off how religious and good we are. Christ firmly warned us against that in today's gospel lesson, in Matthew 6: 16-18--"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 received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so 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." We should not fast to impress others. Then it becomes a matter of pride and actually a sinful thing to do. So we shouldn't be busy telling other people about how we fast or about how hard it is or about how we go about fasting. A simple guideline---fast as strictly as you possibly can and say as little about it as you can possibly can. St. Thalassios wrote in the Philokalia many centuries ago----"To fast well is to eat simple foods in small amounts and to avoid other people's admiration." (Philokalia, Vol. 2, p. 327)
2. We shouldn't think that we can earn salvation by fasting. No one will go to heaven because he is a good faster! We are saved by the mercy of God, not by what we eat or don't eat.
3. We should pay no attention to what other people eat during the fasting period. (An exception would be parents needing to guide their children to learn how to fast....) Another simple guideline- --fast as strictly as you can possibly can and never notice what other people eat. For it is not up to us to judge others. We heard about this in today's epistle reading, in Romans 14:3-4. Lent didn't exist yet in St. Paul's time and he is talking about a different kind of food issue for the early Christians (food that might have been offered previously to idols) but the principal of what he says applies to Lent, too----"Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand." So don't judge others by what they eat. In our Orthodox Church, there is an unusual category of Saints called either Holy Fools or Fools for Christ. These Saints did very strange and bizarre things in order to wake people up and make a point about something. Probably the most famous Fool for Christ was St. Andrew the Fool who lived in Constantinople in the Middle Ages. A very holy person, Andrew lived as a homeless man, with almost no clothing and very, very little food. He looked as if he might collapse due to starvation at any moment! One year on Great and Holy Friday (Good Friday), St. Andrew set up a simple barbeque grill on the front porch of the huge St. Sophia Cathedral. There as people filed in and out for the many worship services that day, Andrew had a cookout! On the strictest fast day of the year, he publicly, on the church steps, cooked and ate succulent filets! Why? To make a point to the people. The crowd was horrified and scandalized---the very idea! To have a cookout at the church on Holy Friday! Some yelled at him, others laughed at him. But many got the point he was making. They knew how good and holy Andrew was and how he ever ate anything at all!
They knew he was a Saint. And so their thinking was all shaken up by him that day. This shaking helped them to realize Andrew's lesson that he was teaching---that they should not judge other people by what they ate. (Fr. David Barr, "Forest or Trees", "Again" magazine, Vol. 22, no. 2) So warning #3 is the one St. Andrew delivered via his grill that day-----only be concerned about how you fast, not about what others eat. That is between them and God. So how strictly should we fast? As strictly as we can, for we have seen today its benefits. And all the details of the Church's Lenten fast are in today's bulletin for you to read....... And how much attention should we pay to how others fast? None. For judging others is a worst sin than not fasting.
Great Lent and the Great Fast begin tomorrow, Clean Monday. May God bless each of us as we offer up to Him this fast as a way of thanking our Lord Jesus Christ for all He has done, and continues to do, for us. And may God give us all a blessed and spiritually profitable Lent as we journey together to the great joy of the Resurrection at Pascha on April 20.
MARCH 2, 2014 HOMILY
AT ST. MATTHEW ORTHODOX CHURCH