The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 20 ‘On Forgiveness & Fasting’

Even when I fast I have plenty.

This realization comes to me half way through my first week of Great Lent. When you live in a country that has more to eat during a time of fasting then much of the world does during times of feasting, you know you are a person of privilege.

Great Lent in the Orthodox Church begins with an evening Vespers and Forgiveness Sunday. I first experienced Forgiveness Sunday a year ago. In all my years of faith I have never taken part in a service like this. The principal is simple: before we can embark on the journey of Lent toward the sorrow of the cross, and on to the glory of the resurrection, it is important to reconcile with those who are walking the journey along with us. We cannot move on this path without love and forgiveness, personified in the person of Christ.

This year as I knelt before every man, woman and child in our church to ask their forgiveness and then proclaim the two powerful words “God Forgives” it was harder than last year. This year people knew me better and I knew them. There was more to annoy, more to gossip about, more to forgive, mostly more to be forgiven. This service is hard to describe. The act of bowing in humility, physically posturing yourself in an attitude of repentance is more powerful than words can articulate.

And your legs – oh how your legs hurt! The repetitive bowing is a work out of the soul to be sure, but it is also a work out of the body.

Monday dawned and with it a 6-week discipline of going without any meat or dairy products, essentially a Vegan diet. Along with this, during week days we don’t have olive oil or wine. On weekends this is relaxed and olive oil and wine are both allowed.

It has helped me to read about this. The last thing I want to do is create a legalistic behavior around the grace that is given in abundance so it helps to look at what those in the past have said about this time of fasting.  As I read I find these principles about the fast:

  1. It is to be done in community. This is huge. The fast before Lent was never designed to be a single decision and a single act. That is the westernization of the faith. Instead it was designed to be observed within a community of believers. The paradox of course is that it is also a time where we journey alone. No one else can do this for us. But they can do it with us.
  2. It must be combined with prayer. There is no way this fast can be kept without the communion and communication that prayer allows.
  3. Should not be about the ego but about obedience.
  4. It’s a time of joyful sadness – not gloom.
  5. It in no way implies a rejection of God’s creation. God’s creation is Good. All of it. The Apostle Paul tells us that nothing is unclean in itself. So we’re not to do this in rejection of creation, but rather in preparation of the great celebration of Pascha (Orthodox Easter).

True Fasting is to be converted in heart and will. To return to God. To come home like the prodigal.” From the Lenten Triodion

Above all this is not a time of legalism, but a time of grace. I love the words of Wesley J. Smith in First Things “If we see someone we know to be Orthodox eating a hamburger, it is none of our business. We have our own vegetables to fry.”

I learned a few things about myself during this first week. Things that humble me and cause me to cry out to God. I’m learning that I despise authority. I hate being told what to do. If I’m told I have to do something, even if I want to do it I’ll argue. Is that why I’m so stubborn when I hear the voice of God? I’m also learning that I love to be comfortable. And saying no to food I like, or food I want, being hungry occasionally makes me uncomfortable. Lastly, I’ve learned that I am far weaker than I think I am.


In the Metropolitan Museum of art there is a sculpture called “The Struggle of the Two Natures in Man”. It sits in a large atrium and shows two men wrestling, one clearly more powerful than the other, as he stands over the other his foot firmly placed on the other man’s arm. This powerful and beautiful sculpture resonates with me at this time. The part of me that loves God and moves forward gladly in obedience wrestling with the part of me that whines for comfort and basks in my own will.

This is the picture I will carry with me during this time of Great Lent, knowing that God reaches out to my wrestling soul, beckoning me with a love beyond understanding. And as he persistently beckons, I slowly come. 


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