Archive for March 10th, 2003

So a dash to Evanston and a visit to our cats–er, I mean, to the Young’s who now own our cats–to see, as Anna puts its, that our kitties are adjusting well to their new home. A quick stop on the way back home to get a pregnant woman a one-pound-bag of peanut M & M’s (as if I hadn’t gotten her Dunkin’ Donuts earlier!), and then I was rushing off to the service for Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong. I was prepared. I’d already discussed my Lenten disciplines with Fr. Patrick and gotten his blessing. Anna and I had talked about them, and she was fine with them. I scheduled in my calendar for the extra services this week. For Pete’s sake, I’d even purchased and read the first several pages of Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent. I mean, come on, now. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I’d been to a few Vespers services, so I had some inkling of what I would expect, but of course, I’d never done the “forgiveness thing” at the end. So I was curious and a bit apprehensive. Would I clink eyeglasses, or bonk noses? I’d never kissed a grown man before, even on the cheek, or at least not since I was a kid, so all those adolescent “don’t want to look unmanly” sweatinesses had to be laughed away. But despite the combination of familiarity and curiousity, I was in tune with the service. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

We were into the Vesperal Litany, when I felt a change deep in my gut. “Lord have mercy” had just changed tone. No upward lilt, even if in a minor key. This was Byzantine, minor key, with downward glide. It was almost like a physical blow. I wanted to sit down. Then another “Lord have mercy.” And another. We were half-way down the page when I noticed the rubric at the top: Lent begins during the Litany. Lent had begun, and I had missed it.

What now? I’d planned on having a small meal of fruit after Vespers, to prepare for the rigors of the first week. Should I eat it now, or not? I had poured a sherry tumbler of Ouzo, but had left it unfinished. Do I just dump it out? Why didn’t anyone tell me Lent began during the Litany? I mean, I knew it was this evening, but . . .

By the time the prostrations came, I was well-humbled. God would be in charge of this Lent. Not me. “O Lord and Master of my life. Take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust for power, and vain talking.” Prostration, forehead to floor. “But give to me, Thy servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.” Prostration. “Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not judge my brother. For blessed art Thou, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Prostration.

And so came the asking for and giving of forgiveness. Fr Patrick made a low bow to Eva’s young boy. “Forgive me,” he said. “God forgives,” was the response. And so it went, each alternately asking for or giving forgiveness. I spent the first half of the time, giving forgiveness to the congregation of worshippers. We were barely minutes into it, and already there were tears. I was unmoved. Well, at least until it came time for me to look the sister to my right in the eyes, to bow and to say, “Forgive me.” My eyes stayed dry. But not my heart.

Why should I ask the forgiveness of what were, really, little more than strangers to me, some of whose names I didn’t even know? It began to dawn on me that my sins may not have been so much ones of commission as ones of omission. Why didn’t I know their names? Why did I withhold Christian love and joy behind my introverted persona? What would it have hurt to have gone up to a total stranger and ask, “How are you doing? How may I pray for you?” Ah, see, it would have hurt my pride. See. There it was. I had sinned against these my brothers and sisters. And no, not just from withholding of Christian love. No, truth be known, I had judged them. That school teacher who’d made some harsh comments about an Orthodox bishop. Yes, it was me; I was the one that judged him as immature, and impatient. That young high school boy, the one I nicknamed in my own mind, “the loudmouth.” Yep. That one stings. This young man, after all, is not merely a creation of God, but a member of God’s Kingdom. He is one of the least of these. I began to keep a wary eye out for millstones.

I don’t know how long Forgiveness Vespers has been around. The quizzical shrugs (“Why is that important?”) seem to indicate centuries. That may well be. But it’s clear to me now the spiritual genius for starting Lent this way. We need it. Great Lent is hard enough without carting all this baggage around. And anyway, we’ll end where we begin: with the great mercy of God.


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Alexander Schmemann: On Fasting

It is important, therefore, to discern the uniquely Christian content of fasting. It is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible: one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other ar the beginning of the New Testament. The first event is the “breaking of the fast” by Adam in Paradise. He ate of the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the New Adam–and this is the second event–begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation; Christ was tempted and He overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise. . . .

In the Orthodox teaching, sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God. It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating. For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive. But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean? For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning: life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world. But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it. God, we are told, “created no death.” He is the Giver of Life. How then did life become mortal? Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists? The Church answers: because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on “bread alone.” Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world. . . .

Christ is the New Adam. He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2). Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else–when we urgently and essentially need food–showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? . . .

What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam, being part of it, we still depend on food. But just as our death–through which we still must pass–has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. . . .

All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. It not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science and existence on that lie. Fasting is a denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be covercome “but by fasting and prayer.” Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which makes him the “Prince of this world.” . . .

Ultimately to fast means only one thing: to be hungry–to go to the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry, to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself is first of all a spiritual state and that it is in its last reality hunger for God. In the early Church, fasting alway meant total abstinence, a state of hunger, pushing the body to the extreme. It is here, however, that we discover also that fasting as a physical effort is totally meaningless without its spiritual counterpart: “. . . by fasting and prayer.” This means that without the corresponding spiritual effort, without feeding ourselves with Divine Reality, without discovering our total dependence on God and God alone, physical fasting would indeed be suicide. If Christ Himself was tempted while fasting, we have not a single chance of avoiding that temptation. Physical fasting, essential as it is, is not only meaningliness, it is truly dangerous if it is disconnected from the spiritual effort–from prayer and concentration on God. . . .

It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast God-centered. We should fast for God’s sake.

[Great Lent, pp. 93, 94, 95, 96, 97.]

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