TOMORROW IS THE FIRST DAY of the Great Fast, the forty days of preparation for the observances of Great Week and Pascha. On this, the eve of the Fast, our Church always reads these words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep… let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11, 12).
Appropriate as these words may be to this day, we know that they were not written with the Fast in mind; there was no Great Fast in St Paul’s day. To what was he referring? Commentators believe that St Paul’s sense of urgency derived from the portentous events in the Roman Empire of his day. The persecution of the Church had begun. Jewish unrest was intensifying and a full scale revolt would be mounted in a few short years, bringing about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many Jews believed that the Messiah would be coming soon; many Christians believed that He (Jesus) would be returning soon. The “Day of the Lord” was at hand.
For St Paul, this critical time in the history of the Church and the Jewish nation demanded that Christians focus their attention on the fundamental truth of their existence: they had a unique relationship to God in Christ. Everyone in the world was related to God as the work of His hands; Christians, however, were related to Him as His adopted children, God “having predestined us to adoption as sons” (Ephesians 1:5) in order to make present throughout the world the Gospel of salvation in Christ. It is this reality which should define a Christian’s way of life at this time.
Wakefulness and Sleep
St Paul uses a number of contrasting examples in his epistles to represent the difference between the ways of believers and those of non-believers. Christians are told to be awake rather than to sleep, for “the night is far spent, the day is at hand” (v. 12).
In the ancient world sleep was frequently an image of death. As a descent into unconsciousness sleep foreshadows the end of life. Because it is temporary, however, sleep is also an image pointing to the resurrection. At Christ’s resurrection, we are told in the Gospel, “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52). To be asleep is, in effect, to be dead.
Sleep is also an image of inattention when contrasted to watchfulness. The sentry is awake, alert to any danger. Thus St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober…” (1 Thessalonians 5:7, 8). Sleep and drunkenness are equally devastating to a sentry who is supposedly on watch.
The need for wakefulness was apparently well known to the Christians of St Paul’s day. Writing to the Ephesians he cites what seems to have been a popular saying, “Therefore it is said: ‘Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’ See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:14-16). Believers, like sentries, need to be awake to see the dangers to faith in a godless society and distance themselves from them.
Light and Darkness
The images of sleep and night are connected to another set of images, used even longer to contrast the way of God and the ways of this world. We find the image of light in the midst of darkness representing the coming of the Messiah in the Book of Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (Is 9:2). This passage is quoted in Matthew 4:16 as fulfilled when the Lord Jesus began His ministry. And, of course, Jesus is, in His own words, the Light of the world.
Surrounded as we are with artificial light all day and night, we find it difficult to fathom the importance of daylight to people living before the twentieth century. Throughout most of human history productive life all but stopped at the setting of the sun. As the Lord Himself said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). Immoral or treasonous activity is hidden under cover of night unless the “time is redeemed,” to use St Paul’s image. From its earliest days Christians devoted the night to prayer rather that to “revelry and drunkenness” (cf., [reference-pericope]Acts 20:7-9[/reference-pericope]). All-Night Vigils are still observed on some occasions, generally, but not exclusively, in monasteries.
Casting Off and Putting On
The final pair of contrasts St Paul uses here is that of old and new garments. We are to “cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). Armor, of course, suggests a soldier dressed for combat and St Paul develops that aspect of the image in Ephesians 6:11-18. “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11).
Putting-on and taking-off becomes an important rite in the mystery of baptism where the removal of one’s ordinary garments represents the catechumen’s willingness to die to sin. The new life in Christ is, of course, represented by the white baptismal garment, the “robe of light” which the newly baptized puts on.
During this Great Fast, then, we who have put on the robe of light at our baptism are called to put aside any form of physical or emotional self-gratification (what St Paul calls “revelry and drunkenness … lewdness and lust… strife and envy”) through fasting, almsgiving and forgiveness. Similarly by increased prayer and worship during these days we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Each person’s circumstances in life are different, but the Lord’s call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving is meant for everyone. If you have not already done so, discuss your Lenten program with your spiritual father. He can help you discern whether your plans are too little or too much, depending on your spiritual strength.
“Brethren, fasting is the renewal of the soul, for the Apostle says that, as the body weakens and withers from the ascetic labor of fasting, then so much is the soul renewed day by day and is made beauteous and shines in the beauty which God originally bestowed upon it. And when it is purified and adorned with fasting and repen-tance, then God loves it and will live in it as the Lord has said: “I and the Father will come and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). Thus, if there is such value and grace in fasting that it makes us into God’s dwelling, then we ought to greet it with joy and gladness, and not despond because of the meagerness of the food…
“At the same time, if we desire that the fast be true and acceptable to God, then along with abstaining from food, let us restrain ourselves from every sin of soul and body, as the sticheron instructs us: ‘Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all sinful passions.’ Let us guard ourselves… from vainglory and envious zeal, from malice out of spite, and from enmity, and secret passions such as these, which kill the soul. Let us guard against ill-temper and self-assertion, that is, let us not appropriate things for ourselves and indulge our self-will. For nothing is so loved of the devil as to find a person who has not forgiven another and has not taken advice from those able to instruct him in virtue; then the enemy easily deludes the self-assertive and traps him in all that he does and thinks to be good.”