Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The First Sunday of Great Lent

Posted in Fasting, Sermons, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 16 March 2019

Glory to God! We have completed the First Week of Great Lent. For many people, the First Week of Lent is when they try to fast or pray more than they are used to, but the rest of Lent until the Passion Week is somewhat less strict. Psychologically, this is quite understandable: there is still almost a month and a half until Passion Week–a period of time that is too long for most people to continue to maintain the same intensity of asceticism. And so, many of us revert back to DEFCON 4 or even 4.5–maintaining some notion of the fact that we are still in the middle of Great Lent, but otherwise re-entering our normal everyday routines. For most lay people (and I have no business writing to or about monastics, since I myself have never been one) this is very much normal and to be expected.

If you do not fast or do not pray–these words are not directed at you. You are free not to participate in Christian asceticism or prayer life just as a “couch-potato” is free not to exercise his body or a prodigal son has the freedom to cut himself off from the presence of his father. To be sure, there are consequences. There are always consequences. But all of us are certainly fee to make our choices.

But if you want to partake of the rich ascetic heritage of the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is a good time to do so. By the end of the First Week, one of two things may have happened. Perhaps, you tried fasting and you really liked it–everything seemed renewed, bright, focused, your body felt light, your mind clear, and you looked at the approaching weekend with a bit of sadness, wishing that you could continue to fast a little longer. Or, perhaps, you hated fasting, it was very difficult, you were hungry, irritable, and by Tuesday you were beginning to self-diagnose various imaginary ailments that could provide you with an excuse for a dispensation–primarily, in your own mind. (This is not to say that real ailments do not affect fasting. But real ailments are best discussed with one’s physician and parish priest, not in an internet blog post.) Whichever experience of the First Week of Lent you may have had, you have many choices as we enter the Second Week.

If something went well for you, consider repeating it in the Second Week. Of course, if you do not think that you can, do not feel discouraged or guilty–just do the best that you can in the circumstances that you are. For example, if you followed the no-oil rule or even a strict fast for the first five days of the First Week, but do not think that repeating this will be possible in the Second Week, try doing it for only three days, or two, or even just one–as long as you do your best and give it an honest try. The goal of this exercise is not hurt yourself, but to gain control over the desires of you body, to become its master–no longer its slave.

If, on the other hand, fasting was exceedingly difficult for you, perhaps, you must relax your fast a little bit and follow a more gradual path.  To be sure, ascetic exercises must be somewhat difficult and uncomfortable. Just as with physical exercise or exercise in solving maths problems, if one does not put in hard work and effort, one has no hope of achieving anything at all and is merely wasting time. But just as with physical exercise, if you repeatedly keep hurting yourself or others, either something is seriously wrong, or you are trying to lift more weight than your should be handling at this stage in your training.

Many have correctly pointed out that Great Lent cannot be about food or the absence thereof. Fasting cannot be for the sake of fasting. This is true. It is as true as the fact that teaching a baby to walk of to talk is not actually about moving feet or making noises with the mouth. Once proficient in these tasks, the child no longer thinks about them, but instead walks to school or to a friend’s house and recites his lessons or tells stories. It is the same with our life in Christ. We have to become proficient at fasting–at least, to such a degree that we no longer have to be preoccupied with trying to learn it or struggle with it–and then move on to loftier matters. But if we lack the discipline of the body, stumble over fasting, give up, and decide that our efforts are better spent on trying to become highly spiritual beings, then we may be putting our proverbial cart before the equally-proverbial horse. What makes us think that we can be successful in the maters of the spirit or the soul, if the simple mattes of the flesh, the basic desires of the body presented us with an insurmountable challenge? What makes us think that we can master the impulses of the will and the cravings of the mind, if we could not master the impulses and cravings of the flesh? I do not think that these are idle questions.

Two fallacies flourish as persistent parasites on fasting. On the one hand, it is the obsession with “Lenten” ingredients to the detriment of the very meaning of fasting. As one man asked, what is the point of eating ten bowls of Lenten pasta at one sitting, even if without meat or butter? Indeed, what is the point? The second fallacy is the idea that fasting is altogether unnecessary–eat what you will, just do not devour your neighbor! Both fallacies miss the meaning of fasting and rob their adherents of the benefits of achieving the proper order of our human nature. I must become the master of my body, my mind, and my will in order that I may use them to serve God, that I may submit myself fully to God, that I and “all that is within me” may praise the Lord. But if I struggle to submit my belly to my will and instead bow myself to its wishes and desires, if my belly is my master, if I am my belly’s slave, how can I serve God and call Him “Lord and Master of my life”?

As the Second Week of Great Lent begins, let us continue the work of putting ourselves in the proper order. What better thing do we have to do? “What profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matt 16:26)

See also: Great Lent: An Instruction Manual 

See also: The First Sunday of Great Lent: The Triumph of Orthodoxy

See also: The First Sunday of Great Lent: What is Orthodoxy?

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