“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites.” St. Matthew 6:16
When I was a junior in college, I spent my spring semester studying Greek and Byzantine history in Athens. One of things about my time that I remember most vividly was the way that the Greeks celebrated this particular season, the days right around the beginning of Lent. A time of feasting and celebration led up to the beginning of Lent, which comes on a Monday for the Orthodox. I went to a costume ball, and spent two days in an island village where the natives dressed in goatskins and danced in the streets to celebrate the Carnival. The wine flowed. Meat was grilled out in the streets, as the butchers worked to empty their shops before the fast began.
And then, on Clean Monday, as they call the first day of Lent there, everything changed. The simple café where we took most of our meals switched over to Lenten fare: fish roe salad, bean soup and big blocks of sesame-seed cake. On the afternoon of Clean Monday, in the big park by the ruins of the ancient temple of Olympian Zeus, the skies were filled with color. The Greeks fly kites on the first day of Lent, kites of all shapes and colors, kites shaped like birds and flowers and dragons, some with streamers blazing.
The beginning of Lent is a kind of celebration for them, because with its disciplines comes an opportunity for the renewal of the soul. In Lent, one of my Greek friends told me, the fasting helps our souls rise up like the kites, we can soar, free from our sins. An antiphon from the Orthodox liturgy of the week before Lent expresses the kind of joy in the fast that the kite flying shows so boldly: “The springtime of the Fast has dawned,” it says, “the flower of repentance has begun to open.”
When we hear Jesus telling his disciples to anoint their heads, and put a smile on their face as they fast, I think that we usually assume that he’s only warning us against the dangers of hypocrisy. “Don’t be like the spiritual show-offs, who won’t let anyone miss how much their devotions are hurting them.” But what if He also was talking about the genuine joy that can come to those who accept the disciplines of the spiritual life? What if prayer and fasting and almsgiving aren’t just good because they are pleasing to God or because they cost you something? What if they are actually good for us in themselves, what if becoming people who fast and pray and give to others makes us more truly happy, draws us closer to the one source of eternal joy and fulfillment? What if the yoke of Christ really is easy and His burden light? What if Lent’s demands were meant to make us free?
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “nothing enslaves more than that which we think we cannot live without.” Let me read that again: “nothing enslaves more than that which we think we cannot live without.” Why would God ask us to fast, except to help us learn to be free from the burden of eating? Why would he urge us to give, except to help us get out from under money’s grip? Why would he ask us to set aside time to pray, except to show us that the relentless drive of our schedules should not rule our lives? The disciples of Lent force us to set aside food, money and time, and surely these are the things the world tells us we cannot live without. But serving God is more important than eating, or accumulating money, or doing all those other things we think we simply must do. And His service alone is perfect freedom.
The danger of course, is that we won’t really give Lent a try. If you want to hear inventive excuses, ask a table full of Episcopalians why they can’t live on just one meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, why they can’t give up meat on Fridays, why giving some money bless the poor simply can’t be managed this year. We prefer the tamer, half-hearted sort of disciplines. “I’m planning to knit more this Lent,” someone once told me, or “I won’t eat the chocolate my doctor tells me I should avoid anyway.” I want to read a comfortable book on a spiritual topic or write a letter to my lonely cousin in the Marines. I had a parishioner at my first parish who told me that she gave up watermelon for Lent every year. This is, of course, during the six weeks when you couldn’t buy one of the things in three counties.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those kinds of resolutions, I guess, but they don’t really force us to come to grips with the real spiritual hold that gluttony, greed and sloth have over our lives. Giving up watermelon doesn’t promise to make us into new kinds of people. I certainly don’t think more knitting or an absence of Kitkats will help anyone soar like a kite.
I think that when Jesus calls us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we ought at least to give the practices an honest try. I know that some of you simply can’t fast (though you usually manage it when the doctor wants to give you a test). I know that some of you simply can’t spare any money for the poor, that some of you simply can’t carve out ten minutes to meditate or twenty to read Morning Prayer. But you might at least give it an honest try. Throw yourself into Lent’s call with a roar and a shove. After all, the worst thing you can do is fail.
Unless failing isn’t the worst thing after all. Jesus gives us hard disciplines, because He knows how difficult it is to break sin’s hold over our lives. But the demanding parts of the spiritual life are also meant to show us how weak we really are, how incomplete and weary and poor. When you’re fasting, three o’clock in the afternoon is hard, and if you’re trying to meditate at the same time, it surely won’t be any easier. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember that you too are a great sinner, that you must depend on God, that without Him, you are nothing.
“Man does not live by bread alone,” Moses told the Israelites, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” When we persevere in our fasting and our prayers and almsgiving, but perhaps even more when we fail, we fall back upon the mercy of God. We learn to trust His word, to lean on His help, to be lifted up by His grace. Sometimes, I think my Greek friend was right, that when we fast, we rise above our sins. But sometimes, I think when we fast, we learn how much we need to hang on to God who does the soaring.
May He bless and keep you in the holy disciplines of Lent this year, and give you the joy of fasting. May He raise you up to know His strength and love.