IF YOU WERE TO ASK a fitness devotee to describe Clean Week, you would hear about a seven-day nutrition and exercise program involving eating and lifestyle changes designed to “create the healthy habits you need for lifelong health and fitness.”
If you were to ask a committed Eastern Christian to describe Clean Week, you would hear about the first week of the Great Fast with its eating and lifestyle changes, its workouts (prostrations), and its programs for accountability (confession) and support (daily services).
Both approaches invite participants to put aside self-indulgence for a higher goal. The bodybuilder seeks health and fitness; the Christian seeks another kind of transform-ation, one described in the Scriptures as leading to something far greater: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3: 1-4).
“Cast Off the Works of Darkness”
Because our human nature has been scarred by the fall, pursuing the spiritual life does not come easily to us. It is necessary that we take pains to pursue it. We must make a concerted effort to change our focus from earthly things and to set our minds “on things above.” In the Great Fast, the Church provides us with an opportunity to make such an effort.
The first step in this program for spiritual health is to distance ourselves from that which is harmful: what St Paul calls “the works of darkness.” In the Epistle to the Romans, he offers a catalogue – by no means an exhaustive one – of such works: “Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy” (Romans 13:13). These things were recognized as destructive long before Christ or even before Moses. They are the stuff of the “shalt nots” in the Ten Commandments, and yet they appeal to people of all ages and places. Their appeal is proof of the brokenness of our nature.
Traditionally the days immediately preceding the Great Fast are devoted to separating ourselves from earthly pleasures. Most such attempts should be personal, de-termined by the believer and his or her elder. Some practices are communal, meant to remind us of our need to enter fully into the spirit of the Fast.
One such practice in Greece and the Middle East takes place on the Thursday before Meat-fare Sunday when any meat remaining in the house is eaten. In Lebanon this day is called khamis al-sakara (Drunkard’s Thurs-day), because not only meat but also alcohol must be consumed as well. A similar observance is the Slavic custom known as Maslenitsa. In the week before the Fast, all the dairy products in the house are con-sumed, usually in the form of crepes (blini) and other cheese or cream-filled treats. Such events, however, notably the Carnivals in Europe and America, quickly became occa-sions of excess, as people give feasting a rousing send-off.
“Let Us Put On the Armor of Light”
Besides distancing ourselves from what is harmful, the committed Christian sees the Great Fast as an opportunity to evaluate the strength of his or her commitment to Christ. When the Lord was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He answered by quoting the Book of Deuteronomy: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
In order to keep this first great command-ment, the Christian must evaluate his or her way of life: Do I have a heart fully devoted to God or do I have other “loves” which distract me from loving Him? Am I so attached to things like my comforts (food, drink, etc.) or entertainment (TV, movies, sporting events) that I cannot put them aside, even for a brief time? Is my mind chiefly devoted to the pursuit of possessions – luxury cars, jewelry, clothing, etc. – that I have no mental energy to consider the things of God? The things to which we are attached may not be sinful in themselves, but they can prevent us from keeping the Lord’s commandment to “love the Lord your
God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
It is only by putting aside for a time the good things with which we have been bles-sed that we can determine how attached to them we may be. Would it be easier for me to do without the Eucharist for forty days than to do without cream in my coffee for the same period? One of the benefits of the Fast is that it teaches us what we love, on what we rely, and how much we love the Lord in comparison.
What Is the “Armor of Light?”
From time to time, the Church is criticized as being too negative: of focusing on the “shalt nots.” The first passage from Scrip-ture read during the Great Fast helps set the record straight. In the opening passage from the Prophecy of Isaiah we read, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16,17).
Refocusing our attention away from our own comforts on to the needs of God’s people is one way to “put on the armor of light,” to become the light for the world as Christ intended us to be. As we sing on the Mon-day of Cheese-fare Week “Let us hasten to wash away through fasting the filth of our transgressions. Through acts of mercy and compassion to the needy, let us enter into the bridal chamber of Christ the Bride-groom, who grants us His great mercy” (from vespers).
Triodion Hymns for the Start of the Fast
The gateway to divine repentance has been opened. Let us enter eagerly, purified in our bodies and observing abstinence from food and passions, as obedient servants of Christ, who
has called the world into the heavenly Kingdom. Let us offer to the King of All a tenth part of the whole year, that we may look with love upon His Resurrection.
O faithful, let us joyfully accept the proclama-tion of God that announces the coming of the Fast, as once did the people of Niniveh, and the prostitutes and publicans who heard John preach repentance. Through abstinence, let us prepare for communion at the Liturgy of the Master on Sion. With tears, let us wash ourselves clean before the washing of the feet. Let us pray that we may behold the fulfillment of the old Pas-sover and the revealing of the new. Let us prepare ourselves to worship the Cross and Resurrection of Christ our God, and let us cry aloud to Him: “Lover of Mankind, put us not to shame, nor deprive us of our hopes!”
If you fast from food, my soul, but do not cleanse yourself from passions, you will rejoice in vain over your abstinence. If your intention is not turned to amendment of life, you will be as hateful as a liar in the sight of God, and you will resemble the evil demons who never eat at all. Do not make the Fast worthless by sinning, but firmly resist all evil impulses. Imagine that you are standing by the crucified Savior, or rather, that you are crucified with Him who was cruci-fied for you. Cry out to Him: “Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom!”
From the Triodion