Sermon delivered March 9, 2008.
In Minnesota we like to talk about the weather. How cold is it? What's the wind chill? This winter seems to be colder than normal. Some of us have been fortunate to escape the cold and travel south to warmer climates. Part of that vacation trip is spending time near warmer waters -- either the ocean, a lake or a pool. When we approach the water, we stick our toe or foot in to test the temperature. Is it warm enough? If it feels cool, we might wade in slowly up to our ankles, then our knees as our body gets used to the temperature. Eventually, we'll dive all the way in and either experience a cool, refreshing swim that wakes us up or experience a warm, relaxing immersion that is very soothing.
Many of us approach Great and Holy Lent, which often begins in the cold climate of the winter season, the same way. We stick our toe in to test the water and see what it's like, cautious that we may be shocked by some unexpected temperature change. What is the water of Lent like? It can be like the Pacific Ocean that is active and cool -- uncomfortably cool with it's radically different spirit. Last week was Meatfare, when we started fasting from meat products. Today is Cheesefare Sunday and tomorrow is Clean-Pure Monday (Kathare Deutera) when we add to the fast from meat by also abstaining from dairy products until Pascha, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection on April 27th. Is there any other church or organization that teaches fasting comparable to Orthodox Christianity? Perhaps, some of us are still standing or sitting next to the pool not having even touched the water of fasting yet. The Church understands this testing, gradual immersion process. That's why we did not start the strict fast all at once. She is easing us into it. The Church gives us opportunity for short stints of swimming in the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and Sunday mornings throughout most of the year.
Why even bother to fast? Is it really that important? Well, if we want to imitate Christ, one of the things He did was fast for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness (Mt.4:2). In today's Gospel reading, Christ instructs His disciples about how to fast. He begins by saying, "When you fast ... " (Mathew 6:16). He does not begin by saying, "If you fast ... " So, fasting is an example given by the Lord and a command of God--just like He commanded Adam and Eve to fast in the Garden of Eden. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (Genesis 1:16-17). "You shall not eat," is a command to fast. What does the tree of knowledge of good and evil represent? It symbolizes the direct experience of the passions and sin. The passions are normal, healthy appetites gone out-of-control. One of our most basic appetites is the hunger for food. We need to eat and drink to live.
With fasting, the Church is not asking us to emaciate or starve ourselves. She is offering us instruction on what foods to abstain from because they tend to arouse other passions like anger, lust and avarice within us. She is also offering guidelines to eat smaller amounts so that we can be hungry as Christ was hungry after He fasted. With the prevalence of obesity in American society, don't we all need the discipline of fasting? This feeling or sensation of hunger can then become a sentinel for us. It will awaken us first to our hunger for our Creator. It makes us aware of our need for God. Then, it awakens us to cunning deceptions of Satan. This is where Adam and Eve failed. They bought into the lie of Satan through the serpent. They thought they did not need God and so they violated His commandment to fast. This resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which the Church Fathers call Paradise because it represents communion with God. Today, on Cheesefare Sunday, we commemorate the expulsion, the casting out from Paradise. Why? Because, we too have cast ourselves out of God's presence through our willful disobedience of His commandments.
The casting out, the expulsion is not permanent. God is loving, merciful, compassionate and forgiving. He will accept us back into Paradise if we are sorrowful for our sins, if we want to return, if we are willing to change our sinful habits, and if we actually begin the hard work to live a different, more holy life. That's why Cheesefare Sunday is also called the Sunday of Forgiveness -- because God is forgiving. More importantly, it is called such because there is a major condition to God's forgiveness -- we must forgive each other. It says so in the first two verses of today's Gospel: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." This requires a great deal of humility. Regarding fasting, in the verses that follow, Jesus teaches that fasting must be done in secret. In other words, fasting must be done in humility, not to impress other people. It is done to draw us back to, closer to God the Father, who sees our humble efforts in secret and then rewards us openly.
In order to experience the warm, soothing Mediterranean bath of God's forgiveness, we must get in the water of Lent, past our knees and our waist, even past our neck. We must humiliate our bodies by diving in and immersing ourselves in the Fast. Going under the water also includes immersing ourselves in the prayer and worship of Great Lent. Jesus taught us in yesterday's Gospel how to pray (Matthew 6:5-13). One should add to their daily morning and evening prayers, the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim. The Jesus Prayer should be said repeatedly throughout the day, each day. One should endeavor to attend the Saturday and Sunday Vespers, the Monday Compline, the Wednesday Pre-Sanctified and the Friday Akathistos worship services. Believe me, there is plenty of room in the pool at these services. Finally, dive into your pocketbook and start splashing your money around to the poor and needy. This is called almsgiving. Jesus will teach us how to give alms in this Tuesday's Gospel (Matthew 6:1-4).
Let me share with you a few of the beautiful and poetic hymns from the Cheesefare Sunday Orthros to underline how we can swim in the waters of Great Lent:
Adam was driven out of Paradise, because in disobedience he had eaten food; but Moses was granted the vision of God, because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting. If then we long to dwell in Paradise, let us abstain from all needless food; and if we desire to see God, let us like Moses fast for forty days. With sincerity let us persevere in prayer and intercession; let us still the passions of our soul; let us subdue the rebellious instincts of the flesh. With light step let us set out upon the path to heaven, where the choirs of angels with never-silent voice sing the praises of the undivided Trinity; and there we shall behold the surpassing beauty of the Master. O Son of God, Giver of Life, in You we set our hope. Count us worthy of a place there with the angelic hosts at the intercessions of the Mother who bore You, O Christ, of the apostles and the martyrs and of all the saints (see Genesis 24:18).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.