Servant of Jesus Christ,
by the Grace of God
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem,
to the Bishops, members of our Holy Synod,
to our sons the priests, to monks, nuns and all the faithful
“called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name
of Jesus Christ our Lord…Grace be unto you, and peace,
from God our Father,
and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1: 2, 3)
On the Occasion of
Great and Holy Lent, 2014
The grace of fasting
“The grace of the Holy Fast is most glorious.”
When I began thinking about the topic of Lent for this year, I opened at random the Triodion (the book of services and prayers proper to the Lenten period), and happened upon a kathisma which begins by underlining the glory of the “grace of the Holy Fast.” I took that as a sign from the Holy Spirit. I heeded it and decided that the topic of my meditation and letter would be on the beautiful meanings of holy Lent.
Indeed, this time of the year in our Christian life is one of the holiest of the year. It holds a privileged place among the faithful of our Church, despite the many dispensations that have lightened the load of the corporal aspect of the rule of holy Lent.
Bodily and spiritual fasting, inseparable
Fasting has two aspects: the bodily or physical aspect and the spiritual aspect. It is not allowed to separate corporal fasting from spiritual fasting. Likewise, it is not allowed to prefer or favour corporal over spiritual fasting, or spiritual over corporal. Holy Scripture, Christian tradition, church custom, natural reason and wisdom show the importance of both kinds of fasting. Both are an obligation for devotion and evidence of our faith in God, besides being an act of love for God and neighbour, especially our poor neighbour, who is needy or weak.
Unfortunately, some say: I’m giving to charity, so I’m dispensed from fasting. Or again: I’m stopping smoking for Lent, so I don’t have to fast. Or again: I’m giving up chocolate for Lent, so I don’t need to fast.
All those things are fine, virtuous works, but don’t dispense anyone from traditional bodily fasting, which they rather complement and express, because they are part of the fast.
Fasting has a familial, social and pastoral aspect, since not just single persons, but families (parents and children) fast together, as do districts (where there are Christian communities) and parishes. Thus fasting, through its spirituality, aim and all its aspects, enters a person’s heart, soul, body, thought, imagination and every feeling and sense. Mouth, tongue, eyesight, hearing, hands and feet are involved in fasting, for one fasts with all one’s physical and spiritual constitution, with one’s whole being and might.
That is shown in our prayers, which are concerned with soul and body. This can be seen in the beautiful prayer from the Liturgy of the Presanctified (Proaghiasmena), as follows:
“O God, great and worthy to be praised, who through the life-giving death of thy Christ hast translated us from corruption to incorruption: deliver thou all our senses from deadly passions; setting over them as a good ruler the understanding that is in us. Let our eye have no part in any evil sight; let our hearing be inaccessible to all idle words; and let our tongue be purged from unseemly speech. Purify our lips which praise thee, O Lord. Make our hands to abstain from evil deeds and to work only such things as are acceptable unto thee, establishing all our members and our minds by thy grace… For unto Thee is due all glory, honour and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
Our liturgical prayers abound in this sense. So, at the end of the hours, we say this beautiful prayer: “Thou who at all times and at every hour, in heaven and on earth, art worshipped and glorified, Christ God … Sanctify our souls, make our bodies chaste. Recover our rightful mind, purify our thoughts and deliver us from every tribulation, sickness and pain …”
Similarly, we anoint the sick, praying for the “healing of [their] soul and body.”
In its prayers, the Church invites us to stand, sit, kneel and bow our head or whole body, kneel, weep, cry out, cry aloud … Similarly, we anoint with holy chrism for all the senses and limbs of our whole body: forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, breast, hands and feet. Likewise, children are anointed with oil before being immersed in the water of baptism.
So it is with fasting in both its spiritual and corporal aspects. The practice of the virtue of fasting and the obligation of corporal fasting consists in abstaining from food from midnight to midday, as well as abstaining from certain types of food (meat and dairy products), but also in carrying out good works, such as helping the poor and showing solidarity with others. All these aspects are linked, complement each other and make up the practice and rule of Lent and fasting.
Moral distress and God’s presence in our life
I should like to set forth one of the aspects of the grace of Lent by quoting extracts from the letter for this Lent of the Holy Father Pope Francis:
“How much pain is caused in families because one of their members – often a young person – is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope! And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide. This type of destitution, which also causes financial ruin, is invariably linked to the spiritual destitution which we experience when we turn away from God and reject his love. If we think we don’t need God who reaches out to us through Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall. God alone can truly save and free us….
“Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
“May the Holy Spirit, through whom we are ‘as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ (2 Corinthians 6:10), sustain us in our resolutions and increase our concern and responsibility for human destitution, so that we can become merciful and act with mercy.”
Liturgical prayers: a spiritual school
The liturgical prayers are a spiritual school: they are our guide towards the grace of spiritual and corporal fasting. The kathisma that I cited at the beginning of this letter (Orthros of Tuesday of the fifth week of Lent) begins with the corporal aspect and moves on to its spiritual aspects. Here is the text:
“The grace of the Holy Fast is most glorious: through it Prophet Elijah found the fiery chariot and Moses received the Tables of the Law; Daniel was magnified and Elisha raised the dead, the Children quenched the fire, and all became reconciled to God; rejoicing in the Fast, let us cry aloud: blessed art thou, O Christ our God who hast so ordained! Glory to thee!”
So we see clearly that fasting is not merely an outward practice but rather a grace, which has spiritual effects on several levels.
- Fasting aids spiritual elevation. Its symbol is the chariot of Elijah, who had fasted for forty days before being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot.
- The grace of fasting enables one to enter more deeply into the meaning of Divine Law, the Ten Commandments, which are the practical expression of the ethics and values of the Holy Gospel. The great prophet Moses received them on Mount Horeb in Sinai after having spent forty days in prayer and fasting.
- The grace of fasting strengthened Prophet Daniel and inspired his visions.
- The grace of fasting works miracles, as when Prophet Elisha raised the dead.
- The grace of fasting strengthened the three youths who remained unharmed in the burning fiery furnace of the Babylonians.
- The great grace gained by observing the fast is that we become specialists in Divinity! Just as if, throughout Lent, we were taking our bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in divinity, since the topic to which we devote ourselves is God himself!
Our liturgical services invite us to this during the weeks of Great Lent, with their repeated and varied phrases.
These prayers are the expression of a deep, spiritual experience lived by our Fathers during the period of Great Lent which they formulated in prayers. I invite you to the spiritual experience expressed in these prayers.
I am calling for communal fasting, and encouraging families and young people to fast. I hope that fasting, joined with prayer and reading Holy Scripture, will be able to create in every home an atmosphere of family spirituality thanks to the participation of all family members, and so reinforce and deepen family and social spiritual bonds, and be a factor for their unity. Such unity is the basis of family happiness and enables it to avoid the dangers that threaten it today more than ever.
Christian families are called to a special, important mission, namely to carry out new evangelisation both within and beyond the family. The preparatory paper, entitled “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of Evangelisation,” of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which will take place in Rome next October invites us to that.
We hope that the time of Lent will provide a good opportunity for families to gather around the icons of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Mother of God, to pray and read Holy Scripture, especially the Holy Gospel. May Lent be a communal and family programme and a road to Christian holiness!
Lent and the current situation
We call upon everyone to intensify the practice of fasting, in both its spiritual and corporal aspects, due to the current, tragic, bloody situation in our Arab countries in general, and more especially in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and the Holy Land. Our fellow-citizens’ suffering is considerable.
More than ever, we need to be armed with fasting and prayer. That is what our Lord, Jesus Christ teaches us when he says, (Mark 9: 29): “This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting.”
We invite you to resort to the weapon of the spirit, the weapon of faith, the weapon of hope, when you are in front of your television set or you catch up on the news through other means of communication. Don’t let yourself be carried away by feelings of despair, depression, disillusion, or the temptation to blaspheme by losing trust in God, his providence, love and mercy.
The Holy Father Francis has called us to that in his Christmas Urbi et orbi message 2013:
“Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance. Let us continue to ask the Lord to spare the beloved Syrian people further suffering, and to enable the parties in conflict to put an end to all violence and guarantee access to humanitarian aid. We have seen how powerful prayer is! And I am happy today too, that the followers of different religious confessions are joining us in our prayer for peace in Syria. Let us never lose the courage of prayer! The courage to say: Lord, grant your peace to Syria and to the whole world. And I also invite non-believers to desire peace with that yearning that makes the heart grow: all united, either by prayer or by desire. But all of us, for peace …Dear brothers and sisters, today, in this world, in this humanity, is born the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. Let us pause before the Child of Bethlehem. Let us allow our hearts to be touched, let us not fear this. Let us not fear that our hearts be moved. We need this! Let us allow ourselves to be warmed by the tenderness of God; we need his caress. God’s caresses do not harm us. They give us peace and strength. We need his caresses. God is full of love: to him be praise and glory forever! God is peace: let us ask him to help us to be peace-makers each day, in our life, in our families, in our cities and nations, in the whole world. Let us allow ourselves to be moved by God’s goodness.”
In our turn, we should like to tell you frankly: we are assailed by the same feelings as you. Your bishops and I are also exposed to discouragement, despair and inner revolt. You and we are made of the same stuff: our suffering is the same as yours, as are our griefs and our hopes. We must encourage each other through feelings and appeals. Let us not be overcome by feelings that destroy soul and body. This is also part of the practice of Lent: it must stimulate hope and trust in us.
We pray with the Church (Vespers of Monday, fifth week of Lent):
“The divinely radiant grace of abstinence
Shines on us today more than the sun,
Enlightening our souls, dispelling the clouds of sinful passions.
Let us all hasten to embrace it with joy,
And with good courage persevere in the course of the Fast!
Let us cry out with gladness to Christ:
Gracious one, sanctify those who faithfully fulfill the Fast!”
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East,
Of Alexandria and of Jerusalem