Who Says I Must Fast?
by Fr. James C. Meena
"Who says I must fast? Just because the Fathers of the Church say that alms giving is a good thing, must I give alms? And just because the Fathers of the Church specify that on Cheese Fare Sunday, the last day before the beginning of Lent, we are supposed to make an extra effort to forgive one another our trespasses, does that mean that I'm supposed to do that?"
Well, let me clarify something for you. It is not the Fathers of the Church who teach us these things and it is not the Church that requires these disciplines of us. Rather it is Christ Himself who has laid down these criteria for us to follow. Those of you who were in Church on Cheese Fare Saturday heard the Gospel lesson from St. Matthew (6:1-15). If you are familiar with that gospel you would realize that Sunday's Gospel lesson is a continuation of it. (6:14-21) Now, let me give you an idea of what Jesus lays down for us. First of all He says, in Saturday's Gospel, "When you give Alms, do not have it trumpeted before you. This is what the hypocrites do in the Synagogues and in the streets to win men's admiration. Your alms giving must be in secret and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you." (6:2)
There are some people who, when they give alms, want to ring the bells of the Church and Jesus warns us that our almsgiving should be in secret especially when we give for the help of the poor. It is not NAC-SOYO that has started the alms boxes for the Food for Hungry People. It is Christ who urges us to do these things. He urges more. In the fifth chapter of this gospel, the fifth verse, He says, "When you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites. They love to say their prayers standing up in synagogues and on street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly they have their reward; but when you pray, go to your private room, and when you have shut your door pray to your Father who is in that secret place and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you." Now you notice that He's talking in this instance about private prayer, not corporate prayer and He didn't say "if " you pray or "when you get around to praying." He simply took it for granted that He was talking to people who prayed and that it was His function only to correct their attitudes about prayer.
Now had He been addressing a community of people that were not in the habit of praying, I think He might have said "if" you pray, or "you had better get around to praying," but He simply said, "when you pray," assuming that prayer was a natural part of the lifestyle of the people to whom He was speaking. And so the Church assumes when She speaks to you, because we assume that you are a prayerful people, that in addition to this corporate worship of ours which makes us the Family of God, each of us enters figuratively into that private place, that secret closet where we offer up our prayers in secret so that God will reward openly. (6:9-13) Now He comes to the statement that sets this day apart from all other days because Cheese Fare Sunday is our day of atonement, our day of forgiveness, not that every day isn't but on this day we especially mark the importance of forgiving. The beginning of the Gospel lesson for Cheese Fare Sunday is a conditional statement by Jesus who says, "If you forgive you will be forgiven." So we have alms giving, prayer and forgiveness and finally He sums it all up when He says, "Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth but store up treasures for yourself in heaven . . . Where your treasure is there your heart will be also." (v. 19-21)
Now I hope that settles in your thinking the source of authority that the Church has for laying down the spiritual disciplines of the Fast. It comes from the word of Christ Himself and no Archbishop, Patriarch, Priest, Deacon, Pope has the right to change that which was laid down by Jesus. He says alms giving! He says prayer! He says fasting! These things lay up for us treasures in heaven but if we are so concerned about our houses, our TV sets and our cars and our monetary future that we forget that the only real treasure is that which is stored up in heaven then we're in trouble because all these things are corruptible, all these things turn to dust. All these things can be lost in an instant. But our good deeds, our prayers, our acts of love and mercy and the spiritual disciplines that we impose upon ourselves in order to affect a spiritual growth, those are incorruptible. Those can never be lost.
Where will the Church bells ring for us, in our pocketbooks or in the kingdom of heaven? That's a question that can be answered affirmatively by you in the style in which you live. So as we begin this Great Lent, let us remember that it all rests with us. We pray for God's help and that help is always forthcoming. We pray that He will strengthen us and that strength is always forthcoming. We pray that He will make us better than we are and somehow or other when we come out the other end of Lent, if we have obeyed the conditions of Christ, we do come out better than we were when we started.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America