Sunday, February 22, 2015

More Musings on Fasting

Keep in mind that many people have died for their beliefs; it's actually quite common. The real courage is in living and suffering for what you believe. 
~ Christopher Paolini in Eragon 

I read these words as I was re-reading a book that I'd pulled of the shelf just for fun. Eragon is not a deep, philosophical book, but it does offer lots of food for thought, and the above words really jumped out at me. Perhaps they gave me pause because I had the news of the recent martyrs of Libya fresh in my mind. At first I wasn't sure what to make of the above statement. Is it true that dying for one's beliefs is a common thing? Is it more courageous to live and suffer for one's beliefs than to die for them? 

I'm not convinced that Mr. Paolini got it quite right, but he did make one great point: it does take courage to live and suffer for what we believe in. I would amend his words by saying that those who are willing to die for their beliefs are the ones who have already lived and suffered for them. 

Tomorrow, on Clean Monday, begins the Great Fast. We spend the period of time between now and Pascha (Easter) abstaining from certain foods, and increasing our time spent in prayer and alms-giving. This is a time given by the Church for us to live the faith and suffer for it. We have the opportunity now to reject those things we cling to for comfort instead of God and to put our focus where it should be in the first place - on our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The life of repentance is a life of suffering. The way to Christ is the way of the Cross.

Fasting is a way to learn how to suffer. But we do not fast to punish ourselves for our sins, or to focus on how sinful we might be. The self-denial that comes with fasting is what forces us to turn toward our God and His mercy. It is painful to let go of those habits and indulgences that we hold dear, sometimes without our even being aware of it, but it is precisely in letting go of self that we become able to turn toward God and our brother.

To uproot the sins in our hearts we must step outside of self and learn to serve those around us. Fasting gives us the opportunity to practice putting God and our neighbor first, before self. The problem, though, is that pulling things up from the roots out of the soil of our hearts is not a pleasant task. It is hard, sweaty, dirty work. It requires the courage to face what we have allowed to grow in our hearts, and to see the weeds for what they really are.

But once we are able to see into our hearts more clearly, the work of true repentance can begin. The suffering we experience is not a morbid, debilitating or despondent suffering that leads to despair. Rather it is a joyful suffering, a "bright sadness" that leads us to joy instead of sorrow.

We say the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and we learn how to put our focus on the Lord and Master of our lives. This is where the focus of the 21 martyrs was: on Christ. Some of their last words were "O my Lord Jesus!" Their lives of faith in Christ led them to their deaths. And while the choice to take their lives was a truly tragic choice for those who made it, the martyrs' death was not a tragedy - for them the suffering led to Life.

As we begin the fast now, let us remember why we are fasting. Let us embrace the suffering that comes from turning away from sin so that we may keep our focus on Christ, in order that our suffering might lead us to joy!

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