Matthew VI: 1-18
Religious fasts are not so popular these days, although there is considerable interest in diets for keeping fit and healthy. Anyone embarking on a diet or fast knows that it requires strict discipline or it is just a pointless exercise. Indeed, there are certain parallels with training for athletic or sport’s events, and St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians describes his commitment to his vocation by using imagery associated with athletics. In order to compete successfully in races, it is necessary for someone to exercise intense self-discipline which requires a strict and rigorous training code of all participants. If competitors would go to such lengths in order to compete and win in a race, the Apostle argues that the believer should “exercise self- control in everything;” as unlike the secular athlete who applies self- discipline and dedication just to win a perishable crown, the Christian believer looks forward to an “imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians IX: 25).
Tomorrow, for the Orthodox churches the great Lenten fast begins, whereas in the Western churches Lent commences with Ash Wednesday, following Shrove Tuesday – more commonly known as Pancake Day or Mardi Gras (literally, ‘Fat Tuesday’) – the last day when rich and fatty foods can be eaten before giving them up. Although Lent is seen as a preparatory period to the coming Paschal feast, in the Orthodox Church it is regarded not merely as a preliminary but rather as a sacred time in its own right, so we also have pre-Lenten preparations. In the Oriental Orthodox tradition we have the three-day Fast of Nineveh, where we meditate on the message of the Book of Jonah; and in the Byzantine tradition there is the three-week Triodion with Meat & Cheese Fare Sundays where the fast is begun gradually, by giving up meat, then dairy produce, before entering upon a vegan Lent.
However, there is a danger in focussing rather too strongly on what we eat and drink. Although Lent is a time of abstinence, it is not just food from which we abstain. Indeed, underpinning all our Lenten observance there needs to be a total change of emphasis and inner reflection about how we conduct our lives.
Today’s Gospel comprises just a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, which in total covers some three chapters of St Matthew’s Gospel. It was obviously chosen for this pre-Lenten Sunday because it sets the tone for how we should conduct ourselves during Lent, if we are to gain spiritual benefit.
The passage opens with a warning about practising our piety before men as a proof of our spirituality in order to be seen by them in a favourable light. It is true that human nature is susceptible to being praised, admired and respected by others, but the Lord Himself warns us of its dangers. Equally sadly, religious people have a tendency to be judgemental when we fail to live up to our high aspirations and this can lead us to be too conscious of what others think about us and make us anxious to receive their approval and approbation. If we do this our Lord tells us we have received our reward already, because it is only the approval of God that matters, not of our fellow men. By trying to impress others we fall into the danger of pride and hypocrisy, the very attributes which we should reject, especially in undertaking a discipline for our spiritual benefit.
We have the expression in English: “blowing one’s own trumpet”, which perhaps derives from our Lord’s saying that “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.”
Whilst there is a clear belief that fasting is spiritually beneficial to the individual, it may appear to be little more than self-absorbed naval-gazing (omphaloskepsis) and of little benefit to the wider community. However, inextricably linked to fasting is almsgiving, wherein our gratitude to God, our love for our fellow man and our desire to share what we have with those less fortunate, is manifested. The Lord also counsels us to give with the same secrecy as we should show in our fasting. In our current prosperous society there is often great wastage, so we can give away things we don’t ourselves need, either to people directly or through charitable organisations. We can also support others by volunteering to do things with a more “hands-on” approach, such as running errands for the old and infirm.
There is a good old expression, “worshipful giving”, which links the act of giving to worship and prayer – “laying your gifts upon the altar” (Matthew V:24), where you invoke God’s blessing on your offering and the church community itself distributes your gifts as a collective act of charity. The same passage, however, makes it clear that if there is enmity between you and anyone else – especially within the church community – the blessing will be denied you. How can you expect God to show mercy to you, if you cannot show mercy to those who have offended or wronged you ? In the Byzantine tradition this last Sunday before Great Lent is called “Forgiveness Sunday” and there is a simple ceremony when the clergy ask forgiveness of the people and the people beg forgiveness from the clergy. Our Lenten journey is not a solitary one, but something we do collectively, because it is with and through others that we can redeem or lose our blessings.
Human ingenuity has also found subtle ways of pious boasting, as our Lord speaks of those who declare their asceticism by feigning haggard faces or even wearing sackcloth and ashes and wailing and sighing whilst praying. The same discretion as giving alms in secret is counselled here, even to the extent of assuming the appearance of being healthy and well-fed, so as to not to draw attention to our ascetic practices.
The truth is that how we heed Lent is up to each one of us and if we start wondering whether someone is keeping the fast, we have already fallen into a judgmental frame of mind, which our Lord abhors. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” God is the judge – we are not – and we should look to ourselves and our own compliance rather than concern ourselves about the actions and motives of others.
It can also happen that we make the Lenten Fast a burden, rather than a blessing. If we fret and worry about observing the minutiae of the traditional fast rather than embracing its spirit; or we burden ourselves with guilt for our laxity, we can easily become discouraged. I would not wish to diminish the traditional Lenten observance by any means, but if we end up merely keeping the fast as a legalistic and oppressive obligation, we diminish what should be a joy and a privilege given to us as a time of refreshment and spiritual renewal
In his Catechetical Address for Easter St. John Chrysostom shows us the spirit in which we should keep the Fast,
“If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.”
As at all times, the Lord is merciful and wants us to receive the plenitude of His blessing. If we observe the fast in the right spirit and for the right reason – of bringing us closer to God – He will not turn us away empty-handed; but we will receive all the good things God promises us and our joy at the Resurrection Feast will be so much greater. There is, however, an unattractive tendency for a spirit of resentment to be manifested towards those who receive the goodness and mercy of God but whom we judge not to have earned it by their strict obedience. The Prophet Jonah sulked over God’s forgiveness of the Ninevites, just as the brother of the Prodigal son had no joy in their father’s welcome at the prodigal’s return. St. John Chrysostom addresses this attitude by emphasising the goodness and mercy of God and, if we have confronted our own slackness and indifference to the outpouring of God’s love, then how much more should we rejoice in that mercy:
“And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honour the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.”
May the blessings of this Lenten season be with us all. Amen.