Celebrating the Great Fast
Now, therefore, says the Lord, be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in
weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts. .. and turn to the Lord your God
Joel 2: 12, 13.
We are now in the celebration and living of the Great Fast. Note we say celebration of this most sacred season. And we say this because as believers we should be able to understand and see the compelling beauty and positive aspects of penance and metanoia which is the all-descriptive Greek word which expresses change, a turn-around of our activity in directing ourselves to God as our God. That is what we celebrate during these forty days. And when we truly do this, truly turn all around and direct ourselves to God as our God, we naturally celebrate the victory of regaining our once-lost treasure.
Our holy Mother Church desires we smash through the veneer of righteousness, the smug respectability, the coddling sentimentalism that we have of this season to see it for what it really is: a time of concentration on the goodness and eager forgiveness of our God, a time when we attempt seriously to approach the holiness, the sanctity of the Blessed Trinity in our daily living. To the man and woman, who like the rich man of the gospel story, is totally absorbed in self and in worldly existence, who wrongly thinks he is enjoying this physical life without a serious thought for the soul's great reality, the message of the Bride of Christ during this serious and sincere season drops like a thunderbolt from heaven, "You fool, this night I will require your soul" Luke 12: 10. It is precisely thinking and praying about circumstances such as this that the Birthgiver of God preoccupied herself in God's enriching grace to be visited by the messenger and good news-bearer from heaven to become the Mother of God in the flesh.
During this sacred time, the Church desires we recognize we have sinned in the very face of the God who created us, who shares with us all we have. As the days pass on and merge into each other, we learn our God is not mocked. Repentance is the continuing refrain of all these days which have as their goal removing from us the sickness and separation of rebellion and revolt. We are to remove all the guilt and effects of sin and return to our God. "For what a man sows, so shall he reap" Galatians 6: 7.
Just as Old Testament believers waited some forty centuries for the coming of the Messiah and the reality of salvation, so is the message of that holy time a stern reminder, "...the soul that sins shall die" Ezekiel 18: 20; "He shall be punished for all he did" Job 20: 18; "And which of you," asks Isaiah the Prophet, "can dwell with devouring fire? Which of you shall dwell with ever-lasting burning?" Isaiah 23: 14.
Thus the eager believer desires greatly to avert the catastrophes foretold about those who do not recognize in these holydays a time for change, for transformation, for returning to holiness and sanctified dignity in which man is created.
The worldly soul immediately responds: "Why be so direct about these things? Why refer to matters which are disconcerting? Why talk about and stress subjects which are disturbing? Why not dwell instead on the happiness of heaven or the beauty of virtue in friendship with Christ? Why talk about repentance and a change in our lives? But when we who are serious and sincere about salvation of our souls come to realize the enormity of our sinfulness and how much we have fallen short of the glory of our God, we want to change first and then realize we have a right to expect the inheritance our
Creator prepared for us. No one was more impartial, tactful and refined than our Saviour himself. No human being draws us nearer to Christ than the examole of the Mother of God who today is recognized for aligning her will, her life with that of God.
To the generality of people, Christ speaks, not to please their ears, but to pierce their hearts. And if what St. John echoes for us in his gospel, "if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" 1 John 1: 8, it is precisely because of the depth of our sinfulness that we have be been gifted with this season of seasons. It is time to do something about our condition and return to the status we once held in the eyes of our Creator, destined to be like God. There is an urgency stressed by the Church because we are approaching the glorious feast of all feasts. God speaks directly to each of us individually just as He did in the Old Covenant: "Now therefore says the Lord, be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting and weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and turn to the Lord your God" Joel 2: 12, 13.
The Church repeats this simple message during this time, `Unless you do penance, you shall likewise perish" Luke 13: 13. If we admit the folly, the ingratitude, the danger of sin, are we not defying our God by remaining in a state of obdurate sin by refusing to seek his freely offered forgiveness? He has made available the tribunal of penance and reconciliation. It is our sin that has brought death to our Saviour as realistically as it has condemned our own soul. Let us remember what the Saviour said to his contemporaries: "Woe to you, Corozin, woe to you Bethsaida, for if in Tyre and Sidon had been worked such signs and miracles that were worked in you, they would have done penance in sack cloth and ashes" Matthew 11: 21.
So, for us, if the Great Fast is to mean anything at all, it must be a turning away from our sinful impulses. We cannot be converted to God if we remain in a state of sinfulness. If we truly desire change, we must seek the helpful and invigorating grace of our God. Sanctity cannot be achieved by ourselves, only through God's sharing of himself with us. Reconciliation, a return to God, a union with our Creator is the explicit reason for this sacred time. St. John Chrysostom explains our responsibility to ourselves to pursue holiness. He says, referring to a bodily wound, that it is not enough that the arrow has been extracted and removed from the body; the wound that inflicts must also be healed. So with regard to the soul, not enough that sin is pardoned, the remaining wound must be healed by our voluntary acceptance of penance and pursuing virtue.
King David, who sinned, repented and was forgiven by the Lord prayed, "Wash me yet more from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin" So we must pray for and finally assume a penitential character during this holy season that we may be found worthy on the day of the Resurrection which we will celebrate in but a few short days.
The athlete, the lawyer, the physician, the politician, anyone at all who seeks a worthwhile goal is perfectly willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order to succeed and achieve. How, then, do we reasonably expect to achieve an everlasting, an eternal goal effortlessly, indifferently, easily, comfortably, with absolutely no self-sacrifice? Do we seriously believe we have a soul to save? Then more prayer, more penance, more repentance, more almsgiving is the necessary answer. St. Paul does not fail to remind us, "Do not despise the riches of his goodness and patient long-suffering. Do you not know that the goodness of God leads you to penance" Romans 2: 4?
The Great Fast for genuine believers is a time to increase our strength spiritually to combat our own weaknesses which lead to sin. It means that we thereby avert the justice of our God in judgment. It means we assure our everlasting happiness. We recognize amazing strength in heavenly grace is being provided. We literally scoop it up and apply its strength to our soul, to our heavenly cause so sin is removed through the sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation. There is no sincere observance of this sacred season unless we assume seriously the admonition of the Prophet Joel: "Now therefore says the Lord; be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning. And rend your hearts and turn to the Lord your God" Joel 2: 12, 13.