121: Fasting and “Joyful Sorrow” of Great Lent

n Orthodox Christian writer shares with us, today, how Fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Great Lent contrast with so much of our contemporary culture, producing a Joyful Sorrow that prepares us for renewal.

    But what exactly is involved in the Orthodox fast of Great Lent? These Orthodox traditions are tougher than almost any other Christian custom of fasting. So, I asked Father Gabriel Jay Rochelle, who wrote today’s piece, to explain a little more about his church’s customs.
    Currently, Father Gabriel is developing the Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but he’s also got a strong background in interfaith dialogue, because he served earlier with the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College. He was happy to tell us more about Orthodox customs:

    “With occasional exceptions, the Lenten fast is basically a vegan diet: no meat, no dairy, no wine — nor alcoholic beverages of any kind.  We do not consider shellfish ‘meat,’ so people do indulge in shrimp and clams during Lent. We work our way into the fast by saying farewell to meat two weeks before the First Sunday of Lent, then farewell to cheese (and dairy in general) one week before the First Sunday.”

    This is a remarkable spiritual commitment in our era of nearly constant consumption, so we hope you’ll be inspired by today’s meditation by Father Gabriel, which he headlined simply:


    I was in a store the other day and, after making my purchase, the young woman at the counter said the perfunctory: “Have a nice day.”
    I replied that I was having a wonderful day. Yet here I am, in the midst of Orthodox Lent!
    We Orthodox maintain more ascetic discipline than other churches. The Lenten fast is tough: no meat or dairy. No one pries into your eating habits, however, to make sure you keep the fast.  The aim is not abstention but athleticism. This is training for the soul, carried out through the body.

    St John Chrysostom (4th Century) warned against hypocritical fasting: “It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting. How? When indeed we abstain from foods, but do not abstain from iniquities; when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor; when we do not become drunkards with wine, but we become drunkards with evil pleasures; when we abstain all the day, but all the night we spend in unchaste shows. What benefit is abstention from foods, when on the one hand you deprive your body of a selected food, but on the other offer yourself unlawful food?”

    Orthodoxy is an ascetical church. Askesis is the Greek word for training, say, to win a race.  St Paul used the image in I Corinthians 9.
    Marie Henein, a Coptic (Egyptian) Christian, reminds us that the church asks some form of fasting on two hundred days out of the year.
     Two hundred! 
     We also keep the Lenten disciplines of prayer and charity. Additional worship services give the faithful opportunity to pray, to examine our lives in light of the Gospel, and to receive sustenance for training.  We look outward with intent; we offer extra gifts of work and money to special charities.
     This contrasts to the ease with which many people approach religion, in two ways.  First, much American religion is do-it-yourself, a blend of interests and values, many of them self-determined and self-centered as well. This shallow approach ends if you realize that you are making up not only the way but also the truth. Orthodoxy sings, “We have seen the True Light… We have found the True Faith…”
    How refreshing is this attitude, when we see so much pandering in the name of religion.

    Secondly, Lenten discipline goes against the grain of that motto: “Have a nice day.” I may be joyful, but not because the road is easier. I don’t have nice days.
    Lent is “joyful sorrow.”
    The sorrow comes because my sin makes my road rocky, dangerous, and steep. The joy comes because God paved a new Way to love us in and through Christ, and our first step is repentance.
    Orthodox learn the meaning of repentance through the daily Lenten prayer of St Ephrem (a 4th-Century saint pictured in the icon at left):

    “O Lord and Master of my life, do not give to me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
    “But give to me, Your servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.
    “O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages.


    Faith has more to do with being than with thinking. Many people approach faith as an intellectual exercise. Orthodox exercise is different: We train body and soul in order to reach the prize, transformation in Christ.
    By training the body to let go of evil passions, we hope to release the godly passion of love toward others, the created order, and God who is “the lover of mankind.”  We are in a period of intense exercise, so we say: “Have a good Lent.”

(THUS ENDS Father Gabriel’s story.)

    WANT TO READ MORE about Orthodox Great Lent?

    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 2 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

    As an ADDED BONUS today, we’ve got a link to visit Marie Henein, who is mentioned above, who has contributed to an online resource for vegetarians by offering some great recipes that reflect her Orthodox background. This web page includes recipes for Stuffed Grape Leaves, Lemon and Dill Potato Salad — and Fool Medemmas, made with Fava Beans.
    All avoid the foods that Orthodox families give up for Great Lent and yet: Mmmm-mmmm, they’re tasty.
    Plus — in her Web page of recipes — Marie gives us a little taste of her family’s Orthodox culture as well.
    She writes: “My family is Christian — Coptic Orthodox to be exact. This
was one of the earliest forms of Christianity … Many of the
following recipes have been passed down from generation to

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