You can read the Arabic version here
A Pastoral Letter for the Great and Holy Lent, 2021.
My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 1:2)
Once more we stand at the threshold of that Blessed Season which is the Great and Holy Lent. This year the Fast will begin on Monday, 15th February. This day, the seventh Monday before Pascha is traditionally known as Clean or Pure Monday, Καθαρά Δευτέρα. Our kitchens should be clean of all non-fasting foods and their derivatives.
This Lent will be the second since the Covid19 pandemic took captive the universal human family. However, as different a place as the world has undoubtedly become in the last twelve months, the invitation to prayer and fasting, penance and charity, remains ever constant. The reasons for the observance of the Lenten Season are perennial, and while the details of the penitential season have developed throughout the history of the Church, East and West, the spiritual purpose remains perpetual.
Let’s remember that “Fasting is as old as mankind itself. It was given as a law in Paradise. The first commandment Adam received was, ‘From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil do not eat.’ Now this command, “do not eat,” is the divine law of fasting and temperance. If Eve had fasted from the tree, we would not have to keep this fast now.” (Orthodox Fasting, OCA)
In the synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - it is our Lord, Jesus Christ who establishes the rhythm of active ministry and prayerful retreat. At the very beginning of his public life, following his baptism by John in the Jordan, the Divine Spirit leads our Lord into the wilderness for a time of prayer and fasting, and for a confrontation with the Evil One. Indeed, the pattern of “work and prayer” became the modus by which both Jesus and his Disciples regulated their lives.
Perhaps, it is a certain familiarity with the Gospel narratives that most often causes us to take for granted the references to the life of prayer that was the way of life for our Lord. For example, between the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, recorded in the four Gospels, and the walking on the water, narrated in Matthew, Mark and John, the night is spent in prayer. “After he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” (Mt 14:23)
Even the most cursory review of the Gospels and the New Testament writings, makes it clear that like their Master, those who follow Jesus must be men and women of prayer; and that prayer must be accompanied by fasting. It is this combination of prayer and fasting that Jesus says is most effective against demons. (Mk 9:29) As St Basil the Great notes, “Fasting is a weapon against the armies of demons.” (First Homily on Fasting)
Some will say that prayer, fasting and abstinence are already part of our lives. However, it is during the formal times of penance, especially the Great Lent, that the Church calls us to be especially aware of the spiritual significance and effects of our penitential discipline.
It is possible that some customary days of abstinence, such as Wednesday and Friday, can become routine, matters of habit. These are the days we do not eat meat but replace it with delicious seafoods! However, it is during the more formalised fasts, such as the Great Lent, that the Church invites us to be truly mindful of what we are undertaking. As St Paul urges us, “Set your mind and keep focused habitually on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth…” (Col 3:2)
To the question of why we fast and abstain, we simply answer, because it is good for us to do so. Many, especially in the West, associate Lent with giving up something particularly enjoyed, such as sugar in coffee, or chocolates, or a favourite food, or delicacy. This type of penance can sometimes lead to a narrow minimalism.
However, the traditional fast involves not eating a range of certain foods, limiting other foods we eat, and the times at which we eat and drink. And we do so not because there is something wrong with meat or dairy products or eggs or whatever; but because these things are good. All food is a gift from God, as the psalmist says, “When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.” (Ps 145:16)
Fasting from certain foods, and limiting the quantities we eat, are reminders of God’s loving kindness and care. So often we forget how much we have, how much is wasted, and how little is left to be shared by so many throughout so much of the world.
And, of course, this inevitably leads us to the matter of almsgiving, charitable donations. In the Byzantine tradition, our Lord is often called The Divine Philanthropist, The God-Who-Loves-Humankind. The many signs, or miracles that Jesus granted to petitioners in the Gospels, arise from his love for those afflicted in one way or another. And what should be our motivation for charitable works? St Paul says it for us, “The love of Christ compels us.” (2 Cor 5:14)
When examining our commitment to charity, the most important thing to keep before us is to remember that nowhere in the Gospel does Jesus ever turn away someone who comes to him in distress. And sometimes this involved crowds of several thousand. (see Jn 6:1-15)
During the Great Lent, we have the heaven-sent opportunity to put aside a regular amount either of money or goods, especially foodstuffs, to donate to a reliable charity, starting by those charities attached to our Eparchy. So worthy before God is the support of the disadvantaged that St John Chrysostom says, “Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.”
As well as the traditional opportunities for fasting and abstinence, our contemporary society provides numerous occasions for penitential discipline – limiting our use of the mobile phone or social media or television, etc. The benefits of the Great and Holy Lent are limited only by us. The easiest person to deceive is myself!
It is my fervent prayer that for each of you this Lenten Season will be a time of many spiritual gifts and abundant grace. Indeed, may this be a Joyful Lent.
Blessed Lent, Καλή Νηστεία, صوم مبارك
With prayers assured and with my paternal blessing,
Robert Rabbat, DD
From our Eparchy in Greenacre, New South Wales
14 February 2021.