On the unfortunate decline of fasting among many Orthodox Christians today

“. . . Another reason for the decline in fasting among Orthodox is the argument, commonly advanced in our times, that the traditional rules are no longer possible today. These rules presuppose, so it is urged, a closely organized, non-pluralistic Christian society, following an agricultural way of life that is now increasingly a thing of the past. There is a measure of truth in this. But it needs also to be said that fasting, as traditionally practiced in the Church, has always been difficult and has always involved hardship. Many of our contemporaries are willing to fast for reasons of health or beauty, in order to lose weight; cannot we Christians do as much for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom? Why should the self-denial gladly accepted by previous generations of Orthodox prove such an intolerable burden to their successors today? Once St. Seraphim of Sarov was asked why the miracles of grace, so abundantly manifest in the past, were no longer apparent in his own day, and to this he replied: ‘Only one thing is lacking – a firm resolve’. . .”

The full article, edited in 1977 by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and the late Mother Mary, which is so excellent that I can offer no reflection or analysis to in any way improve upon it, may be found here in its entirety.

I wish all who are celebrating it a joyous Maslenitsa or Cheesefare Week! May you enjoy many blini, cookies, cakes and other buttery sweets before Clean Monday and the full advent of the Lenten fast!

This week before the start of the Orthodox Lenten fast is comparable to Mardi Gras, but people feast for a whole week rather than just the day before the start of Lent, as in Western Christianity which marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. Great Lent for Orthodox Christians starts on Clean Monday, which directly follows the Sunday of Forgiveness.

Maslenitsa marks the first meat-free week of the fast, easing into the stricter fast of Great Lent during which faithful Orthodox Christians abstain from all meat and dairy products, and devote themselves to charitable works and increased prayer focus.

During this week, most Orthodox Christians prepare to go without dairy products (starting the following week) by using all their butter, eggs, milk, shortening, etc. to make delicious pancakes, cakes, etc. I just made homemade Belgian waffles for a ‘contrary’ dinner!

Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!

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Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!

“Enjoy ye all the feast of faith; receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.”
(From the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom, read at Paschal Matins)

Orthodox Easter, called Pascha (The Greek term for the Hebrew ‘Pesach’, meaning Passover) is the Feast of Feasts, since it is by far the most liturgically and theologically important Orthodox celebration of the year. For all Christians, the Lord’s Resurrection is the most sacred of days, but among Eastern Christians the feast is observed with a special solemnity and then great rejoicing.

In part, our rejoicing is due to the fact that Pascha is also uniquely a culinary delight for us. While many Protestants and Roman Catholics may choose to fast, prolonged periods of fasting are no longer the norm in the praxis, or normative and guiding practice, in these Western Christian traditions. All Orthodox Christians in good medical health are expected to adhere to an ancient fasting discipline throughout the year, handed down for centuries in the inner discipline of the Church. This includes abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and His crucifixion, although following the Lord’s Resurrection we do not fast at all for a set period, and so the Paschal season for us is one of spiritual, and literal, feasting and rejoicing!

This is because Orthodox Christians keep an especially rigorous fast during the lengthy ascetic period of Great Lent, the 47 days preceding Pascha. During this time, we abstain from all meat, fish, olive oil and dairy products as a means to help us grow spiritually. We essentially go vegan for this time period. Not intended to serve as legalistic rules, the fasting guidelines for each person will differ slightly depending on the advice of one’s spiritual mentor, but among those Orthodox Christians who are not in grave or terminal illness or pregnancy (under these conditions any fasting is strictly forbidden) generally most observant Orthodox Christians will follow the fasting guidelines closely. Thus, Pascha is doubly joyous for us because our strict fasting gives way to a culinary feast without any restrictions in diet!

In the Russian tradition, decorated kulich – tall, cylindrical loaves of sweet bread baked with raisins and poppy seeds – are rich in taste and theological symbolism. Marked with ‘XB’, the Cyrillic initials for ‘Christ is Risen’, along with Orthodox crosses, their very decoration and height call to mind the Resurrection.

Made with the rich dairy from which we abstain during Great Lent, these are baked during Holy Week and blessed and consumed immediately after the midnight Paschal liturgy. They are cut horizontally, and paskha (a rich, sweet cream formed into a pyramid, made with cottage and ricotta cheese) spread on them.

I took the above image around 5am this morning in the parish hall after the Paschal Divine Liturgy at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist, the parish I attend here in Washington.

Metropolitan Jonah’s 2011 Pastoral Letter at the start of Great Lent

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Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

      The beginning of another Lenten season is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for us to cast aside those things which have distanced us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Like a wise mother, the Church provides this period of time as a means for us to prepare for receiving the joy of Pascha and Christ’s holy resurrection.

      This same joy and blessing was granted to us at our baptism, when the following prayer was read:

      “Grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from himself the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

       Our baptism in the waters of regeneration enabled us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use the upcoming season of Great Lent to return to those baptismal waters. For this transformation to take place, we must first have a desire for a change of heart. Do we want to turn aside from the passions of our flesh? Carnal thoughts or deeds, idle chatter, gossip, lying, selfish acts, greed, and gluttony are all things which separate us from Christ. Isn’t it time to stop these destructive habits? Simply put, we know our passions stand in our way of entering into the heavenly kingdom. Now is the time to cast them into oblivion. Instead of tearing each other down, let us build each other up, as the Gospel commands. Instead of slander and accusation, judgment and condemnation, let us encourage and love our neighbors.

      If we truly desire to return to God, then let us do so in a spirit of humility. Let God transform our minds and hearts through true repentance, the fruit of that humility. We live in a society which encourages us to have an opinion or comment worthy of posting or tweeting about everyone and everything, but as Orthodox Christians it is time for us to stop thinking we have all of the answers. Let us turn off the rhetoric and excuses while rejecting our arrogance and pride. Denial of self is not easy. Yet we can echo the example of our Savior, who silently, and with meekness and humility approached the cross. When we take up our cross and follow Him, He will make our burden light.

      When we have reacquired a sense of humility, it is possible to more clearly recognize our sins and repent of them. Admission of our sins through repentance will not only help us as individuals, but also as communities of Orthodox Christian throughout North America. The effects of a broken and contrite heart can have a great impact on every relationship in our lives. True repentance replaces discord with harmony, and frustration with love. Individually and collectively, our lives should and need to reflect the love found in Jesus Christ.

      Great Lent is an excellent time for us to rediscover the importance of loving one’s neighbors. If, as Orthodox Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we have a responsibility to ask forgiveness for our failings, while banishing our grudges and egos. It means sharing the love of Christ with those in need, whether they are in our parishes or on the street. Putting an extra ten dollars in the basket is an excellent start. Or try to actually tithe your income (10%) to the Church during Lent. Taking it one step further to make a connection with someone by providing them with a meal or charity can make Christ present in their lives and so fulfill the law of God.

      The joy and radiant light of Pascha will quickly be here, and it is imperative that we make use of the time available for us during Great Lent to work on our spiritual health. It is time for us to cast off the works of darkness, as the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Romans. The services, prayers, fasting, and acts of charity we do during Lent are merely tools to help us return to God. Be careful, my beloved ones, that these tools do not become stumbling blocks for us, or that we use them to cause others to sin.

      I believe it is possible for each of us to turn from our sins and draw closer to our God the Father by redirecting our lives through Christ. What a joy it will be if each of us begins taking those first steps in love on the narrow path leading back to God. Our collective journey through Great Lent will bring us closer together as a community of love, and as the baptismal prayer says, may we become partakers of the Resurrection. Let us keep a sober mind to properly prepare for that moment on Pascha when we boldly and confidently may proclaim: Christ is Risen!

      In the many ways while serving as your archpastor, if I have failed or wronged you, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. May the Lord forgive us all!

      With my prayers for a holy season of Great Lent,

       With love in Christ,

      +Jonah