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Monday, January 14, 2008

The First Rock: Feasting, Fasting and other church year observances: Part 1

The following is a from a series of posts about my new year's resolutions or my "Big Rocks". These posts (2 so far) can be found here, or by selecting the "Rhythm, Reverence and Time" label.

Are you interested in being more intentional about observing the feasts, fasts, and other observances of the Church Year? I am! Occassionaly, I manage to get my plans together, but not as regularly as I'd like. This is one of my Big Rocks for 2008. But as I'm learning, having the Big Rock in mind (or in hand) doesn't mean it is actually put into the jar of accomplishment. That takes forethought and planning. These posts are my way of getting my thoughts and plans together for 2008 - making sure I get that big rock into the jar.

Those who are Catholic or Eastern Orthodox are blessed to have excellent guidance from their churches on when and how to observe the church year, but Protestants are often left to fend for themselves a bit in this area. And yet, for many Protestants, I'd bet this would be something they'd find very valuable to themselves personally and to their families. If more Protestants plumbed the excellent depths of Catholic and Orthodox tradition, they'd see the beauty and truth in many of their practices.

I've asked two of my online friends, Deb and Nissa, if they would share with me (and you) a little about their own fasting practices. Deb is Eastern Orthodox and Nissa is Roman Catholic. Deb has agreed to be a guest blogger here. And Nissa has a whole blog devoted to Lent with lots of good fasting information. I'd like to start with Deb, call it alphabetical order.

So, with no further ado... May I present to you my friend, Deb - from Deb on the Run.


"Mom? How much longer until Lent starts?" My daughter asked me one day. This is not the first time I've heard this question. Several times a month one child or another will ask me when Lent starts and how much longer until Easter (called Pascha in the Orthodox church). Usually,
they end with "Mom I can't wait until Pascha!" In fact, my 16 yr old has been telling me she can't wait until Lent & Pascha since before summer even started.

I never thought that my children would look forward to Easter more than Christmas. This has been one of the unknown joys of becoming Orthodox almost 2 years ago. Some of it is due to the 6 weeks preparation for Pascha called Great Lent. Within the Eastern Orthodox tradition we fast every Wednesday and Friday and have 4 fasting periods: Dormition Fast (Aug), Apostles Fast (July), Nativity Fast (Nov-Dec) and the most important: Great Lent which preceeds Pascha. During this time, Orthodox faithful prepare for the Death and Resurrection of our Lord by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. We also have extra services during the week to encourage the faithful during our Lenten Journey to Pascha. Of course, the most daunting for a convert is
fasting. Traditionally, on fast days we are expected to fast from animal products (except shrimp/clams/Lobster, etc.), wine, and oil. However, Orthodox Christianity is not about following a set of rules, it is about the salvation and sanctification of our souls.

No one expects a newbie like me to be fasting like someone who grew up in the church or a monk. When I began my first Lenten Fast I went to my priest and asked him what the heck was I supposed to do. Because my husband and teenage son were not Orthodox he advised me to talk with the whole family and come up with a workable plan using the traditional guidelines as a goal. There are also food allergies in the family that needed consideration too. Since my husband is a die-hard meat and potatoes man, we decided that those who were Orthodox would abstain from meat products and reduce (or eliminate if possible) - treat type foods - cake, cookies, chocolates- etc. Hubby and son would continue with their meats during meals, and we all would eat the rest.

But, the fasting is about so much more than food. It is about reflection on our own lives in relationship to Christ and our brother's and sisters. This is what John Chrysostom said about fasting:

"The value of fasting consists not only in avoiding certain foods, but in giving up of sinful practices. The person who limits his fast only to abstaining from meat is the one who especially lowers the value of it.

Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don't get jealous of him or her. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eyes, your ears, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body."

And a priest once told me: "fasting without prayer is dieting."

This is central to the Orthodox understanding of fasting = its not just about the food. Even though it looks like its about food, its not. However, I could say fasting is the spotlight that shines in all the dark spaces. It was amazing (and frightening even) that what I didn't put in my mouth effected how much I noticed I wasn't all that "together" as I might have otherwise convinced myself. Suddenly, I noticed how easy it was to get annoyed or short tempered. My thoughts weren't as Christian and loving as I would have liked them to be either. I became aware of my own spiritual shortcomings and laziness.

The Lenten journey was long but a good learning experience. I fell many times and clung to God. When I reached that Paschal night it really was the Feast of all Feasts. When we got home from the services before dawn, I wanted to turn on all the lights and wake up the rest of the house and all the neighbors, shouting "Haven't your heard? Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!"


Thank you, Deb.

If you are interested in learning more about the Eastern Orthodox church, Deb has links on her blog, not to mention her great posts!

In my next post on this subject, Nissa will share her experience with fasting from a Roman Catholic perspective.


Bob said...

hey kerry!

nice post here - there are so many misconceptions about fasting and lent - especially amongst protestants. lent was never intended to be a "give up something bad/something you really like for 40 days" - which is kinda what it has morphed into.

the 40 days is the first clue - lent actually lasts for longer than 40 days! this is because the things you do for lent are not intended to be a 7 day a week activity - there are built in "days off". why would they build in "days off" if it's intended for you to give up chocolate, or smoking, or whatever? lent is NOT intended for those things.

the deprivations of lent, as you stated, are intended to be replaced by devotional time. the idea that when you eat something different, something limiting, for an extended period of time, AND use that time to focus on god, then you are able to clear away the clutter and approach god with a cleansed mind, body, and spirit.

in fact, the word "fasting" has taken on a very different meaning over the centuries. when jesus went into the desert for 40 days (which, by the way, may have not been 40 actual days - in biblical times the number 40 was often used to denote "many" - like we often use "a million" in modern times), he fasted. but most likely that did NOT mean he went totally without food and water for more than a month. there was a strong ascetic tradition of fasting - it was well known in that time (in fact, john the baptist was a big faster). fasting didn't mean starving yourself, but instead it meant going out into the desert alone, into highly isolated conditions, and eating a highly limited diet - thus allowing you to put your focus entirely on god.

all that said, in my opinion a person who gives up eating out just once a week, donates that money to charity, and spends that one night in devotion and prayer is far closer to the true spirit of lent than someone who completely gives up a laundry list of items, but otherwise lives their regular lives....

Kerry - A Ten O'Clock Scholar said...

Thanks, Bob. (Everyone say, "Hi" to Bob - he's an old friend from college!) Some excellent and thoughtful words, here.

In all things, He wants us to no longer "otherwise live (our) regular lives". Keeping rules is always easier than real heart change!