Orthodox America

   Pastoral Homily - Feasting and Fasting: A Disciplined Balance

Every year, the Wednesday following the Sunday of Saint Thomas - the day after Bright Tuesday, the 11th day of Pascha - is a day of fasting, on which, even as the Feast of feasts of the Resurrection unfolds, the discipline of the twice-weekly fast renews. For some, this renewal is odd. They protest, privately, and refuse it, and at least superficially, their argument, though unsupportable by the canons or by the teachings of the Fathers, is not totally blockheaded. Instead of by more fasting reminders, they reason, after all the grave challenges to forty-plus days of lenten austerity, the festal season should be marked by repeated, joy-inspired calls - to "you sober and you heedless" alike, to "both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast" (Saint John Chrysostom) - to correspondingly, complementarily forty-plus days of Paschal abundance. The Bridegroom is come after all! And He Himself declares: Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the Bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the Bridegroom with them, they cannot fast (Mark 2:19). Whose ears have failed to hear? "Let the heavens be glad , and let the earth rejoice. Let the whole world, visible and invisible, keep the feast..." (Paschal Canon, Ode 1) But keeping the feast, with all its attendant emotions, buoying along on the waves of its gladness in expectation of "that great day" of Pentecost on which the Holy Spirit is to descend - how can this preoccupation be distracted by the renewed effort of fasting?

The Elder Gabriel of Pskov and Kazan was once asked: "Why is it that, as the years go by, the joy always diminishes, while in childhood and in one's youth the sensing of the approach of Pascha is felt with all one's being and one's entire soul overflows with the radiance of the Feast. Why isn't this so now?"

And he answered: "Because now one's conscience is no longer pure. Joy comes of itself to the pure in heart and one can't help but be joyful. .. With the passage of time, the mind, the hearing, the sight and the imagination are all soiled by sin. Understandably, spiritual joy doesn't even manage to get to the heart before it becomes all disfigured and trampled upon. And can we bring it back again? Of course we can! We have to! Unless you become like little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of God. What are the means of doing this? The means are repentance, cleansing oneself from sins, and self-discipline." (One of the Ancients, p. 144)

"In the final analysis, however," as Archbishop Theophan of Poltava stressed, "the responsibility for making this bliss last lies not with us, but with the Creator of this joy - the Lord Himself. He raises us up and also humbles us, always doing what is necessary and good for us. He raises us up when we are humble and humbles us when we raise ourselves up (Selected Letters, p. 79).

So Sergei Fudel, apparently recalling a period of exile, wrote that, "One year I was living in a small village, lost in the wilds. It was Holy Saturday, even of the Resurrection of our Lord, but there was no church and no services that I could attend. I decided I would spend the night reading the Easter compline. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door, a lonely traveler was asking me to give him shelter for the night. I was quite upset, really indignant. 'Can't I have even this one night for prayer,' I thought. Possessed by my irritations, I bundled him off to my neighbors and naturally, with him, off went my night of prayer and meditation. There are some sins we can never forgive ourselves. ... That Easter night, when I read the prescribed prayers, I was obviously outside of the communion of the Church." (Light in the Darkness, p. 58-59)

In exile as well, so very unexceptionally for his "class" that not even his identity could be determined, the priest Father Sergius also spent a Pascha night in sorrow. He wrote:

Now I am celebrating Easter another way, on my own like a great sinner..., and in this fashion I rediscover the Easter service. Till now it was the Divine service of Paradise, but in it I now see the possibility of repentance and remorse. My childhood and youth and also the first years of my priesthood were spent with our dear departed Father, and it was through him that I first learned to understand Easter. ... Even as a child I was impressed by the way he sang the Easter Oikos. ... He sang this Oikos in such a way that its meaning was revealed, and the sense of one or other of the expressions underlined. Then, amidst the delight and rejoicing of this night, he would suddenly retreat into himself, so to speak, and as he came to the words, 'O Master, arise, that those who have fallen may rise again,' I could sense that he was inwardly weeping and sobbing. Who was he grieving for? For our Saviour? No, now I know, it was for himself, the fallen. /.../ The triumphal climax of the yearly calendar ... merges into the climax of repentance..., so that the light of repentance pours down from Zion over the whole of the remainder of the Church calendar. A cry of repentance breaks into the Easter hymns, a cry which penetrates into the depths of the penitent heart so that paradise is revealed. ... Tears, tears of repentance overwhelm me, but in my soul I can feel that joy is growing, joy that He has risen, and not only He but I also, I the fallen. (Cry of the Spirit, pp. 69-73)

Whenever speaking or writing about Great Lent, Father Alexander Schmemann everywhere termed its prevailing attitude that of "bright sadness." The same seeming paradox appears in the treatises of the Fathers. To cite only The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John of Sinai, having declared that "we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned," wrote of active mourning as of "the cheerful deprival of every bodily comfort," of "the blessed, gladdening sorrow of holy compunction" (emphasis added). And he explained, "When I consider the actual nature of compunction, I am amazed at how that which is called mourning and grief should contain joy and gladness interwoven with it, like honey in a comb. What then are we to learn from this? That such compunction is, in a special sense, a gift of the Lord. There is, then, in the soul no pleasureless pleasure, for God consoles those who are contrite in heart in a secret way..." (Step 7:70, 3,9,49, The Ladder)

For anyone who would seek then, in order actually to live, correspondence, complementarity between Great Lent and Pascha - because spiritual life surely must be balanced - the superficial level of primarily dietary fasting-feasting, or nutritional austerity-abundance has to be abandoned, together with all its attendant emotions. Meats, the belly: God will destroy them and, as Saint Paul yearly reminds the Church, on Meatfare Sunday, neither if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse (I Cor. 6:13, 8:8). Complementarity is elsewhere and otherwise, and so it is to be sought, and lived, on the level of the "bright sadness" of Great Lent with which truly, there, Pascha corresponds in the fullness of its sober - penitent - joy.

Yes, spiritual life must be balanced. And the canonically prescribed discipline of the twice-weekly fast by which, when rightly assumed, Lenten-Paschal correspondence can be lived: consistent, on its real level, not for just a season but throughout "the whole of the remainder of the Church calendar," is a fundamental element in its balance. Never did the Fathers teach otherwise.

Archpriest David Lesko
Duquesne, Pennsylvania