Saturday, March 24, 2012

Fr Nicholas Stavropoulos talks about Lent

I was asked to talk today about Lent, but I think that in this talk we have to take a different angle to what we usually do because I see that none of you are strangers to fasting. The Lenten period is one of the most historical fasting periods in the Church - the only fasting period which precedes it is the fasting before Communion. In the early Church people would have Communion and a communal meal together – called the Agape Feast. But it quickly became abused, so the early saints decided to separate the meal from fasting.

As the Church slackened off over the years the early fathers felt the need to discipline the church, and so instigated new rules to do with fasting. The first rule was that you couldn't just go to Holy Communion. You had to not eat or drink for 6 - 8 hours before Communion. Next was the forty day fast for Pascha, called Lent. Then Wednesday and Friday fasting was created, because it was felt that fasting was of great benefit.

So I want to share some fasting concepts with you. I’ll start, and then we can go around. When I was about your age I found Lent extremely difficult; I needed to eat a lot of food a day. I would eat all my money. Every break I had at uni I would be buying something to eat. It was especially hard in Lent to find foods that were filling enough. Now, I fast more strictly, but fasting doesn't bother me anymore. I can survive on a handful of nuts and water for hours. When I was even younger than you guys, fasting was pure torture for me. However, it added to the excitement of Easter in a purely physical sense.

Thoughts from group:

- As you get older you mature to a certain extent where you don't look at the food as much, but at the other aspects of Easter. You live more simply, it’s a better atmosphere than it is outside Lent.

- Excitement about eating food again on Easter has died down for me. The difficulty of cutting out foods is also lessened because I've been doing it so long. Actually this is a problem for me: because the food aspect is less challenging for me, I get lazy about other aspects of simplifying my life.

Sometimes we see Lent in a negative way, as restrictions, as what I can't do. But if you read the holy fathers who were much stricter in their fasting than we are, they didn't see it that way. Their writings boil down to this - simply, you humble the body or the mind by removing one thing, which leaves a vacuum. That vacuum is quickly filled by God, by a desire to pray and a spiritual connection to God. So, fasting physically but feasting spiritually. In Lent there are more church services, prayers, a focus on repentance, on changing yourself, i.e. spiritual food that you don't usually have access to.

You can’t have both, I should say. You can’t feed your face and have a rich spiritual life as well. Our Bishop once told me to test this theory by having a nice big breakfast one day – bacon, eggs, sausages, everything. Then, he said, go to Church and tell me what sort of prayer you'll have that day.

The relationship between soul and body is deeply rooted in Christianity. We connect the smell of incense with prayer, being hungry on Sunday mornings with Communion and Church. These connections are very real, something you can't undo easily. So too the fathers say, when I fast, my mind is freed for God. My soul takes wings, joy comes into my heart. The joy of doing something really hard is a really great joy: I did it, I made it to Easter.

Practically speaking, what can you do to survive the day during Lent? What do you eat?

Group answers:

- A lot of carbs.

- More fruit than usual.

- Nuts.

On a practical note, nuts are a survival food, your form of protein and fat when you can’t eat meat. This is the same of certain fruits and vegetables like avocado.

In terms of your experience in Church, how does it change in Lent?

- There are more services, and a longer Sunday liturgy. The prayers on Sundays are simpler and longer.

- Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts - not really a sacramental service, but a vesper service. The readings are all psalms. There's a little bit of chanting. The priest takes out the Communion from Sunday and serves that. During the week he has dried out the bread which had been in the Communion wine and leaves it covered all week , then puts it back in wine for the Presanctified Liturgy.
The reason we have the Presanctified Liturgy is because in the first centuries of the Church, they decided that they were going to fast from everything including the joy of Christ. So, they would only have liturgies on Sundays. Then they thought it wasn’t right to not commune every day, so the Presanctified Gifts was the solution. As a vesper service, aka evening service, they also wouldn't eat all day – which was an addition to their Lenten practise.

- Salutations to the Theotokos - not strictly Lenten practice, only the Greek Church has these during Lent. These services are specifically attached to thanksgiving to the Theotokos, because it was felt that Panagia had specifically helped the Byzantine church in the 7th century from attack by barbarians.

- Apotheipna (evening prayer service) – another of those things the Australian Orthodox church has decided to do. One of these services every night except for Wednesday, which has the Presanctified Liturgy.

All of that however is a vehicle. A channel, something that carries us, not an end in itself. They are a vehicle, they do not serve a purpose in their own right but only to take us somewhere. They are a vehicle for further repentance, a time to kill your old self off and change to your new self. Where do they take us, if we choose to adopt them? And I have to say this because many people deal with fasting as its own entity, in its own right.

It takes us to Paradise, to Christ. Everything in the church, the incense, the music, all of this is a vehicle to take us to Christ. And if they're not taking us to Christ then we are wasting our energies and our efforts.

How do they take us to Christ? All this stuff, we'll add it together.

- When we do these things, we deprive ourselves, Christ comes to us.

What does going to Christ even mean?

- Reaching likeness of God, having Christ inside us.

Have you ever loved anything do much that it absorbed you completely? A game, maybe, when you were a kid, a sport? If you're not doing it then you're thinking about it, if you're not thinking about it then you're watching it, if you’re not watching it then you’re reading about it ... Same with being in love with someone. They're in your pores, you breathe them. It is the same with Christ. He is all you think about. Same thing - except, it's God. Our Creator.

The way of connecting our soul to God is to use the body. But the body is only a trigger. Fasting is a trigger. It’s the starting point, not the end point. But you have to maximise that trigger in order to feast on the joy of Christ, to allow that mystical thing to happen that no one really understands where Christ allows us that joy.

Sometimes God does what our loved ones do - comes and gives us a big hug out of nowhere. But most if the time we have to work for that sensation of love.

Fr Stephanos (the Abbott of Pantanassa Monastery) once said, “You know, you can never leave God. He's always there. You just become unreceptive to Him. You go from being a sponge to a rock. Did God change? No, you did.” And what does Lent have to say; okay, let's take those rock qualities and turn them back into sponge qualities. That's why the fathers say: let's fast, let's confess in order to soften our hearts. So when God does come, we are ready to receive Him. So if we are mechanically fasting, give it some purpose through prayer.

One thing the Australian church especially has forgotten is charity during Lent. Acts of love. It doesn't work to fast and not give charity. The Church in Greece connects Lent with fundraising for charity. And charity can be as simple as putting your arm around someone. Connect that to fasting and you begin to be like Christ. Then Easter becomes your resurrection. The old you has died and the new is born.

There is a speech we all love by St Chrysostom at the end of the Pascal Liturgy, where he says even if you've come at the last hour and you haven't fasted, the table is still full. The feast of joy you partake in after Lent is not only symbolised by the meat, the eggs. The food is a symbol only, not the goal of Lent.

Thank you for having me.

No comments: