Axios!

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Friends, we would like to announce the election of the Melkite Church’s new Patriarch: His Beatitude Joseph Absi of Damascus, Syria. May God Bless his mission on saving souls and guiding our holy Melkite Catholic Church. Axios!

This is the Day the LORD has Made

“In the beginning, God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness. And he called the light Day and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day.”

Genesis 1:1-5 (Douay-Rheims Version)

Today is Sunday, and today is the first day of the week. This is the day when creation began. The first day of creation. Some may ask, “I thought God rested on the last day, and that is why we rest today!” The fact is that Saturday is the seventh day on which God rested, and it is still the Sabbath, technically. This is why no matter what week of the year it is, whether it be a fasting season or Pascha, every Saturday is a day where fasting is relaxed and when divine liturgy may be celebrated.  However, Sunday also has another name: the 8th day of creation. It is on this day that Christ rose from the dead. By rising, He created new life for us.

Over time, we transferred all of the Sabbath resting requirements to Sunday, thus making every Sunday a day of feasting and a day of rest. So Sunday occupies a weird position. It is both the 1st day and the 8th day. If you consider it, that is very appropriate.

The Sunday liturgy is the climax and finale of our week. All of our prayers, all of our work, and anything we do that is good is offered to God on Sunday. I always picture myself as taking all my cares, worries, and troubles and laying them before the altar when I attend Saturday Vespers (since liturgically, the Sunday actually begins sundown on Saturday and ends sundown on Sunday). Through the course of the day, I trust God to take whatever I offer and transform them to what is good.

That transformation is what begins my week. There is no better way to both end and start the week by receiving the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is that Holy Communion that transforms me into someone who can go out into the world for the next few days to spread the Gospel by the way I live my life and to help in the avoidance of sin. And when the week ends, Holy Communion refreshes me, fatigued from a week of life. “Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you” (Matthew 11:28 DRV).

However, the mistake we can fall into is thinking of Sunday Liturgy solely in terms of receiving communion and what we get out of going. Yes, we receive grace (which, by the way, isn’t something that can be quantified – it is immaterial) by going, and yes, we are refreshed. We go to worship God and to rejoice in His Holy Resurrection. It is where heaven and earth meet and we worship Him in His Holy Place.

“Let us give thanks to the Lord”

“It is proper and just”

Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Ruthenian Translation)

It is proper and just to praise Him. This one part of the Liturgy fully depicts why we are there. To give thanks to the Lord. Thanksgiving. Eucharist. We give thanks to Him by commemorating His life, death, resurrection, ascension, the sitting at the right hand of the Father, and His Second Coming in Glory. While the Second Coming has yet to occur, we commemorate it since the Divine Liturgy transcends space and time.

Why is communion, then, a part of this thanksgiving? It doesn’t seem to make sense that we give thanks in order to receive more from God. The fact is, receiving the Holy Mysteries is an act of thanksgiving. We are showing our gratitude by fulfilling His Commandments: “Do this in memory (anamesis) of me.”

“For as often as we eat this Bread and drink this Chalice, we proclaim Your death O Lord, and profess Your Resurrection.”

Divine Liturgy of St. Basil

By receiving the Holy Mysteries, not only are we united to Christ, we offer Him the greatest thanksgiving and act of worship we can offer – we unite ourselves to His sacrifice, and we submit to His commands.

 

 

Fasting Rules or are they Guidelines?

Our Roman Catholic counterparts get their fasting regulations from the 1983 Code of Canon Law (regarding which days are fasting days and days of abstinence). The Code gives powers to the Episcopal Conferences in the regions to “more precisely determine” the rules of fasting in the area. Everything is regulated. And observance of these laws is mandated under pain of MORTAL SIN. If you break the law, you’ll find yourself in the confessional if you intend to make a Holy Communion.

Now, because of the Latin regulations, many people think that Eastern Catholics have the same sort of things going on. The fact of the matter is that we do not. The closest thing we have is the Eastern Code of Canon Law which says that our Church Sui Juris determines what the fasting disciplines will be. The thing is that our fasting guidelines aren’t something that we modify or make up as time goes on, but something that we’ve inherited from  the monastics. This is called the Typikon, and it contains every guideline for liturgy that one would need to know. But the think to keep in mind is that these are just that: guidelines. 

They aren’t the ideals, they aren’t the minimums, they are about where we should all aim to find ourselves. Every Byzantine Church, Sui Juris, bases its recommendations off of the Typikon. For instance, in the Ruthenian Catholic Church, there is no penalty of sin for breaking the fasting regulations outside of Lent. However, within Lent, if you break the fasting regulations, you are barred from receiving communion. (The law doesn’t state how long you are barred from the chalice). The Lenten fasting regulations are very simple: no meat or dairy on Clean Monday and Good Friday, no meat of Wednesdays and Fridays. However, we are strongly encouraged to abstain from meat and dairy from the start of Lent until we receive communion at Pascha.

If you look at the fasting regulations throughout the remainder of the year, as far as the Ruthenians go, when it comes to fasting seasons, nothing is imposed. Only for Lent is there extra dietary and penal restrictions enforced. So for the Apostles Fast, the only change you will note is that Tuesday, Thursday, and Fridays are aliturgical – meaning that liturgy is not permitted to be celebrated on these days. The faithful are informed that we are in a fasting season, but we aren’t told what the fast entails. The reason being is that fasting is something voluntary that we should want to take on. And we should try to abide by the norms set forth in the Typikon.

Penance, or rather fasting discipline, varies from person to person. The point is not to become so rigid that the discipline overtakes the spirit. The point is to push ourselves to where it is uncomfortable but not unbearable. We are encouraged to seek the counsel of a spiritual father for a reason.

Fasting vs Fasting Discipline

In Byzantine spirituality, abstaining from meat and dairy becomes very easy after you get used to it. Even with that, the restriction from oil, wine, and fish begin to come easier and easier as the Christian gets used to giving up those items on a regular basis. Because of that, some will abstain from eating totally (or at least until the 9th hour – 3pm) on the strict fast days. With all that said and done, our bodies are very adaptable. People can live as vegans with no problem, some people can survive for years eating junk food. Sure they get sick after a while, but the body gets by for the time being. Our bodies are able to adapt, making it feel easier and easier the more we do it. Thus, the people who think that the benefit to fasting comes from overcoming difficulty and enduring pain are missing the point.

At the same time, it isn’t about giving up a certain type of food either. We see all of these restrictions in the Typikon varying from fish to no fish to no oil and wine. And, of course, the tendency is to become extremely legalistic. I can’t tell you the number of times I found myself combing through the ingredient lists at the store to make sure that the thing I was about to buy wouldn’t break the fast. Or worse, grabbing a Lenten cookbook to make these extravagant desserts and meals that, while fulfilling the letter of the law certainly went against its spirit!

I think the aspect we forget the most when fasting on these strict fast days is not that the Fathers wanted us to become so worried about what to eat and what not to eat that it becomes the primary focus of our fast. It is actually the opposite. When we eat simply, yes we will endure some cravings and hunger pangs, but we can take our minds off of what to eat and how to cook it. Most of the food we fast from takes time to season, prepare, and cook. Fasting foods are very simple and require little preparation.

Still, all that mentioned above is fasting discipline. In reality, fasting is a spirituality. The prophet Isaiah writes in Chapter 58 of what true fasting is:

3‘Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.

“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your desire with good things,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters fail not.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

Here we see the instructions to accompany our fast. Notice how the prophet never says to replace fasting with these things but rather to include them with the discipline. I wrote earlier that fasting in itself is medicinal rather than a punishment and that fasting existed before the fall. Thus, to not fast at all is wrong. But I’ve also noticed another tendency as well. People either want to do the works of mercy listed here and only fast somewhat, or they want to fast legalistically and not pour themselves out for others. According to this passage, that kind of fasting will bear no spiritual fruit.

Are we seeking our own pleasures by fasting? Has it become a game to see if we can make it or has it any meaning at all? Has it become just something that we do out of habit now? The purpose behind our fasting is to soften our hearts so that when we do turn from sin, we have chosen God over materials even in our weakness – a reinforcement that our need for God is superior to any other need we may have. When we fast, are we trying harder to avoid sin? Or do we toot our own horns about our fasting, thus fueling our own pride.

Notice how it is written that he wouldn’t choose a fast of sackcloth and ashes. Why? I thought fasting was about repentance. Well, it is. It is very much about repentance. Isaiah warns us against a “fast as a rush.” That is a fast that is over and done with, no real change occurring. Is it any coincidence that Jesus says to anoint our heads and fast secretly so that no one knows we are fasting? These guys in scripture were fasting for public recognition, and the interesting thing about the Bible is that no matter when it was written, and no matter who the original audience was, human nature never changes and many of the criticisms of humanity are just as valid today as they were in those days.

How many people do we see posting on Instagram on Ash Wednesday their “AshTag” or do we see posting on Facebook about how much their fast sucks and how hard it is. Or when Friday rolls around and people show off their vegan/vegetarian meals? That’s all the fast is to them – something they do. If you combine the messages of Isaiah and Jesus (because really it’s all meant to be one message, after all) we are supposed to do the hard stuff, the stuff everyone wants to brag about, secretly. We should give to the poor in our fasting, and yes, we should fast. But we shouldn’t do it for attention.

But most of all, it should become spiritual as well as physical. We should use our fasts as an opportunity to turn away from sins and to grow closer to not only our neighbors but to God as well. Then we will be participating in a fast that doesn’t end “in a rush.”

Adam, Eve, a Snake, and an Apple

Ok, I know that we don’t know what kind of fruit was on that tree… but it is irrelevant. But what if I told you that Adam and Eve weren’t perfect when God created them? Impeccable? Yes. Flawed? No. Evil? Absolutely not. But they weren’t perfect. Perfect means that there is no room for improvement. A 100% test score usually indicates perfection (depending on the test) because all the answers circled were correct. All the answers were right; therefore, nothing can be improved upon.

But what about Adam and Eve? They were sinless. At the moment of creation, they hadn’t done anything wrong. So how were they imperfect? Here is my answer: Adam and Eve had knowledge of Good and Evil, or rather theoretical knowledge. They didn’t know obedience by experience. They didn’t know evil by experience. They hadn’t rejected evil. They stood to gain something at the point of their creation. God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to create man and woman and allow them to freely choose Him or reject Him with one simple commandment.

This is where it gets interesting. When I was younger, I used to think that to not eat the fruit was the ONLY rule in the garden. Not so. Man had the moral code inside of him. Taking murder as an example, he not only knew it was wrong, but felt 0 inclination to commit that sin. In order to test man, God used one of His good creations, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, to test them. God instituted a fast, so to speak. A fast, in proper understanding, is abstaining from something that isn’t inherently sinful. The fruit wasn’t sinful. God put on a disciplinary rule. A rule He had to communicate towards man, since it wasn’t something covered in the natural law.

Man had something to gain by this fast. Upon the successful completion, they would know, by experience, good and evil. Man would have gained experience by choosing good over evil, and in a spiritual way, would have partaken of it. It is my opinion that God wouldn’t have kept that tree off limits. In fact, I think the only reason it had that name was not because the fruit had any magic properties. The fruit didn’t make them smarter. The fruit didn’t enlighten them. The fruit didn’t fill them with sin. That fruit didn’t do anything. However, it was the action which was the real fruit – which in this case was the fruit of the experiential knowledge of evil. That fruit poisoned and corrupted Adam and Eve. They broke the fast, and all hell broke loose.

There is a key player we haven’t mentioned yet. The serpent. The serpent was an outside force of evil. Why? The serpent was actually Satan. He had already made his decision to go against God. As we know, Adam and Eve sinned because of the serpent’s lies. Because of this, God extended His mercy to us. I will forgive you if you repent, and I will save you. But, you will still feel the effects of your actions. Woman’s labor pains were increased, and they were cursed to always desire the power of her husband. We have seen that occur today with the abortion lobby and the 3rd wave feminist movement. Women have the tendency now to want to abandon their motherly vocation and try to be a father instead. They cry for equality, while simultaneously hating and making men want to “pay.” They will even kill their own unborn children to assert their equality with and/or superiority over men.

Man was punished too. Men were cursed to have to labor to till the Earth for food. Does that just apply for farmers? Ever notice that many married women want to be in the workplace, so they can support themselves if they leave their husbands? She is praised as being brave and standing up for equality. What if a man wants to be a stay at home dad while the wife works? He is criticized severely for being a deadbeat. It is ok if a woman wants to be a housewife but not ok for a man to be a househusband according to the cultural norms. This is part of it! The field man must till isn’t just a field. It could be working at the office long hours for little pay. Working hard to just make a living. That is the curse. Our work likely produces little fruit in the terms of material needs.

But wait. These punishments don’t make sense. If God wanted to save us, why would He make us miserable? Why wouldn’t the punishments be rehabilitative? The thing is, they actually were. Let us look at the woman’s punishment. Her sin was that she wanted to be like a god. She wanted authority. She wanted power. She didn’t want to be under anyone anymore. Not her husband, not God. So that punishment was so that she would embrace humility. Humility is what would save her. It was to weaken her to turn to God. And the childbearing pain? Who said it was physical as in the actual act of going into labor? What about knowing that you were the reason that the little one you bore would be immersed in sin? Or the pain experienced when they sin against you or do something evil and wrong. That would be to give a taste of the pain God experienced when He saw his creation turn against Him.

And man? It was not as if Adam was just standing by Eve and didn’t know what he was doing. Adam isn’t off the hook. The thing is that Adam had a duty to protect Eve – and he didn’t. Therefore, Adam’s punishment affects both man and woman. The duty to till the Earth with little fruit would mean less materials to rely on. How is this fitting or rehabilitative?

Man turned away from God by seeking the material good of the fruit. The fruit was worth turning away from God in Adam’s eyes. He didn’t need God. Not only would he possess the knowledge of good and evil, but now he would be freed from the “curse” of obeying God. This is why the punishment was rehabilitative. Man refused to accept a fast. The purpose of a fast, as I stated in my previous post, is to soften our hearts, turn to God, and embrace Him over material goods. By making it harder for Adam to acquire food means that man would go hungry repeatedly. Thus, in the absence of these materials, man could more easily turn to God.

So, as we see, fasting isn’t a punishment due to sin. Fasting is rehabilitative for our sinful nature, and fasting, no matter how sinless you are, is a good way to get closer to God. After all, fasting and working existed before the fall. Why should we reject fasting and working just because Christ redeemed us for our sins?

How to Approach Fasting and Penance

Now that we are out of the Easter Season, we can start looking again at prayer, fasting, and alms giving. Contrary to what many may think, fasting isn’t just a Lenten thing. Fasting is something that we should be doing on a weekly basis, with some exceptions of course. Friday of course is a day of abstinence no matter where in the year it falls – unless there is a major feast that mitigates it. But why should we fast outside of Lent? Some may point to the Code of Canon Law which designates Lent and all Fridays as penitential. This is why some people will give up something instead of meat to fulfill that penitential obligation. I disagree with this practice. Not because it goes against tradition or it allows weaker penances, but because I don’t really agree behind the mentality of penance to begin with.

Penance has been construed to be something we do to essentially “work-off” a debt. People point to the temporal punishment due to sin and that by fasting and abstaining we face it now rather than in purgatory. I have to wholeheartedly disagree. In the past, the Roman Catholic Church has taught that in purgatory you serve a certain number of years, and indulgences and penances would reduce your sentence by a certain number of years i.e. partial indulgence of 7 years. (I designate Roman because it was never the teaching of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and was never a defined dogma, thus was never really the official teaching of the Catholic Church albeit it was popular). The Catholic Church then began to teach that Purgatory isn’t a celestial jail but a place of purification and cannot be thought of in temporal terms. Thus, people later corrected themselves by saying things such as “Oh, this particular partial indulgence means that you get the same temporal relief as you would if you did 7 years of hard penance!”

But again, I have to disagree with even that! My issue is that we are putting a numerical measurement on God’s unlimited and infinite grace, which is not something that is tangible! Imagine creating units for love. “I have given my wife 3 loves today and God 5 loves.” That sounds absolutely absurd! Why, then, would we refer to God’s grace as some spiritual currency? The Eastern Churches teach this: the blood of Christ has wiped away all of our debts past and present, provided we repent. That being said, we still walk on the way to perfection. Just because we are forgiven does not make us saints, and it takes time for us to grow in faith. Because of this, moved out of sorrow for our sins and a desire for reparation, we do penances to change who we are into something better.

The question you may ask is how is that any different than the temporal punishment that the Roman Catholic Church teaches. My answer is that it isn’t. However, it is a different way of looking at it. The action and the result are the same. The action is penance and the result is a saint or holier person. But the intent is completely different. The Western intent is to serve off punishment for crimes committed against God. The Eastern intent is to rehabilitate the sinner from their attachment towards crimes committed against God.

This leads us back into fasting. If fasting isn’t something to punish us for our sins, then what is it? It is true that fasting and repentance are intimately connected. In order to get a good understanding of this, we need to look at Jesus, who fasted. Jesus wasn’t fasting to serve off temporal sin. Jesus fasted to prepare for his ministry AND to give us an example for our own lives. If you recall, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. And what occurred right afterwards? Satan tempts Him. “Turn this rock into bread.” Jesus replies with “Man does not live on bread alone but on everything that proceeds out of God’s mouth.” Man does not live on bread alone. We have been convinced that all we need are the material pleasures of this world. We don’t need God. We have our food, our homes, our clothes, etc. And when Jesus was at His weakest, He refused food since it wasn’t the appointed time, since He had God.

One verse in the Bible says: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.” A hardened heart means you turned away to God. By fasting, you weaken yourself so that when you turn to depend on God rather than on materials, you soften your heart. And by doing that, you are more receptive to the feast you are fasting in preparation of. Fasting makes us turn to God and is a medicine, not a punishment. So if we start looking at penance in medicinal terms rather than punishment terms, our hearts will open, our prayer will be energized, and we will become holier as a result.