Focus on the Faith: The Holy Forty Day Fast
The most ancient Christian writers unanimously testify that the Holy Forty Day Fast was established by the apostles in imitation of the forty-day fast of Moses (Exodus 34), Elijah (3 Kings 19), and mainly by the example of Jesus Christ fasting for forty days (Mt. 4: 2). Ancient Christians have observed the time of the Holy Forty Days as the season of the commemoration of the Suffering of the Savior on the Cross, anticipating the days of this commemoration, so that, strongly imitating His self-renunciation and His self-denial, these ascetical feats would show the living participation and love on the part of the Savior, who suffers for the world, and that before all this to be morally cleansed for the time of the solemn commemoration of the passion of Christ and His glorious resurrection. The very name of the Holy Forty Days is met rather frequently in the most ancient written monuments with the indication of the purpose of its establishment. “Do not neglect the Forty Days,” wrote St. Ignatius the God-bearer in his epistle to Philippians: “for it establishes the imitation of the life in Christ”. St. Ambrose of Milan spoke even more clearly: “The Lord has blessed us with the Forty Day Fast. He created it for our salvation to teach us to fast not in words only, but also by example”. Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa assert that the Holy Forty Day Fast existed everywhere during their time. According to the Apostolic Canons (Canon 69) the Holy Forty Day Fast is considered obligatory and its observance is protected by strict punishment. St. Hippolytus (3 century) serves as the indisputable witness of the antiquity of this fast and the paschal cycle traced to his See, containing the instruction from antiquity of the custom to stop the Holy Forty Days Fast on Sundays. On the basis of all traditions of the Holy Apostles, our Holy Church, through her holy fathers and teachers, always considered the Holy Forty Day Fast an apostolic establishment. As the Blessed Jerome, on behalf of all Christians of his time said: “we fast for the Forty Days according to the apostolic tradition.” St. Cyril of Alexandria repeatedly reminds us in his writings, that it is necessary to piously observe the Holy Forty Day Fast, according to the apostolic and gospel traditions…
“The more days of the fast,” teaches the blessed Augustine, “the better the healing. The longer the abstention, the more bountiful is the salvation. God, the Physician of our souls, established the proper time for the pious to give praise, for the sinners to pray; for some to seek rest, for others to ask forgiveness. The time of the Holy Forty Days is proper, neither too short for giving praise, nor too long for seeking mercy. Holy and saving is the course of the Holy Forty Days by which the sinner is led through repentance to charity, and through piety to rest. During its days God is supremely propitious, needs are met, piety is rewarded”. “The holy fathers”, teaches St. John Chrysostom, “appointed forty days of fast in order that during these days the people, having been carefully cleansed through prayer, fasting and confession of sins, will approach Holy Communion with a pure conscience “.
According to the teaching of the Venerable Dorotheos of Gaza, “God has given these holy days (the Forty Holy Days) so that those who struggle, with attention and wise humility, who tend to themselves and repent, will be cleansed of the sins which were committed during the whole year. Then their souls will be released from that burden, and being cleansed, will attain the holy day of the Resurrection and without condemnation, receive the Holy Mysteries, having become a new person through repentance in this holy fast”.
Sergius V. Bulgakov: “ Handbook for Church Servers,” Kharkov, 1900
Orthopraxis: Traditions Concerning the First Week of the Fast
Clean Monday -Καθαρή Δευτέρα in Greek- refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Church Services every day during this week, and also to clean one’s house thoroughly.
Strictly observant Orthodox hold this day (and also Clean Tuesday and Wednesday) as a strict fast day, on which no solid food at all is eaten. Others will eat only in the evening, and then only xerophagy (lit. “dry eating”; i.e. eating uncooked foodstuffs such as fruit, nuts, halva, fasting bread and honey, etc.).
The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament readings appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day. Isaiah 1:1-20 says in part: “Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool. If then ye be willing, and obedient unto Me, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye desire not, nor will obey Me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 16-20). Genesis 1:1-13 is also read to imply that this is a time of renewal and new beginnings. The reading from Proverbs 1:1-20 instructs us towards clean and sober living through the use of wisdom, the beginning of which is “the fear of the Lord.” The clearest piece of advice given says: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”
The Three Day Fast
For those who are able and willing, it is encouraged by the Church to keep a three day strict fast where neither food or water (if possible) is consumed until Clean Wednesday when one partakes of Holy Communion at the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. This is an excellent way to mark the beginning of a holy struggle against one’s passions and weaknesses.
Abstaining from all food and drink for three days will help us approach the Lord on a deeper level than ever before. It will also help us to see and know ourselves on a deeper level. During these three days one will observe that they will be able to more clearly see their weaknesses, their passions, their spiritual poverty, and their nakedness of all the virtues, the dark abyss within, and the inner ugliness. Physically one will recognize how truly weak the flesh is even when the spirit is willing. This humbling attitude is a prerequisite to a successful fast. It is also a motivating factor for the rest of Great Lent as well as the entire spiritual life in general.
From the Fathers
ST. BASIL THE GREAT ON THE BENEFITS OF FASTING
We know that Moses fasted while he climbed the mountain; otherwise, without having been fortified by fasting, he would not have dared to draw near to the smoking summit and enter into the cloud. It is through fasting that he received the commandments written on tablets by the finger of God. Likewise, while on the mountain, fasting obtained the gift of the law; while below, gluttony led the people to idolatry and defilement. Scripture tells us that the people sat down to eat, and drink, and they rose up to play. The effort of the servant of God, persevering for 40 days in the continual practice of fasting and prayer, was made pointless and unnecessary by one single day of drunkenness by the people. Fasting received the tablets written by the finger of God; drunkenness broke them. The holy prophet judged that a people drunk with wine was not worthy to receive the law of God. Because of gluttony, in one moment, these people formed in the worship of God by the greatest miracles, plunged headlong into Egyptian idolatry.
In comparing these two events, we can see that fasting leads to God, but pleasure to the loss of salvation. What dishonored Esau and made him the servant of his brother? Was it not for one dish of lentils that he sold his birthright? But was it not through fasting that Samuel’s mother conceived him? What made the very strong Samson invincible, if not fasting, through which he was conceived in the womb of his mother? Fasting conceived him; fasting nourished him; fasting made him a man. The angel prescribed fasting to his mother, telling her to abstain from all that came from the vine, and to drink neither wine, nor any other fermented drink. Fasting thus engendered the prophets; it strengthened and fortified heroes.
Fasting makes wise legislators; it is the best guardian of the soul, a sure companion of the body, a weapon for brave men, exercise for athletes and wrestlers. Furthermore, fasting takes away temptations. It reinforces piety, a companion of sobriety, and the architect of temperance. It gives courage in times of war and teaches tranquility in times of peace. It sanctifies the Nazirite [a form of consecration to God in the Old Testament] and perfects the priest, since it is not permissible to approach the sacrifice without fasting, not only now for the true and sacramental adoration of God, but even for that other worship that was the figurative sacrifice offered according to the law. It was fasting that brought Elias his great vision; because it was after having purified his soul through a 40-day fast that, in a cave, he merited to see God as much as a man may be permitted. Moses, in order to receive the law a second time, observed a fast a second time. If the Ninevites, and their animals as well, had not fasted, they would never have escaped the threat of ruin. [As told in the book of Jonas.] While in the wilderness, who was it who fell, except those who greedily desired meat? (See Numbers 11.)”
Choir Director’s Corner: Do WHAT to the infants?
You may have noticed that we have added a hymn during clergy communion, and at the end of Vespers, based on psalm 136:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.
For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.
And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one
of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord?s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not,
If I set not Jerusalem above all other, as at the head of my joy.
Remember, O Lord, the sons of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem,
Who said: Lay waste, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall
reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.
The psalm is one written in captivity, and speaks to us about our captivity – to the passions. Some folks are jarred (especially if we don’t know the reason why the Church gives us these things) by the rather violent imagery of the last verse. This psalm can be read on an historical as well as an allegorical level.
On the historical level, the last verse is discussing a grim reality of pre-technological and tribal warfare. If your tribe went and attacked a town, presumably killing the men, and taking spoils, the infants were the ones that were going to grow up and take revenge on you if you left them alive. So killing them with the adults was a way to stop that. Lest you think that such imagery is unthinkable in our day, consider little Vito Corleone in “Godfather II.” The Sicillian gangster tried to kill him as a child for the same reason. He failed, and little Vito grew up and came back to revenge his family.
But the Church gives us these verses, not to train us in warfare that is physical, but warfare that is spiritual. According to commentary by various Holy Fathers, the infants in question, are our passionate thoughts and the rock is Christ. We dash our thoughts on the Rock, in order that they may not grow up to be passions that will come back and take us captive. These verses remind us of the real battle in our lives and remind us to refocus and redouble our efforts during the opportunity of the great fast. Many other psalms are read during lenten services, and similar allegories may be found throughout Lent. As we hear the psalms, we are invited to a strategy meeting where we are instructed how to guard the walled city of our hearts and preserve there the treasures we receive from the King.
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