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Πέμπτη, 13 Μαρτίου 2014

"WHY DO WE FAST?"

    
ROMANS 13:11-14:4 
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 
source: Orthodox Cleveland

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