From The Word Magazine, February, 1961, page 3.
From METROPOLITAN ANTONY
ON THE SEASON OF THE GREAT FAST
“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me”(PHIL.4: 13)
The Great Fast of the Forty-days, the Holy Quadragesima, is again upon us. These are days of spiritual rejuvenation, days of spiritual joy for our neglected souls. In the course of the year we are apt to forget our souls in the pursuit of the material things of our everyday lives, the things that satisfy our senses. While striving to feed our body and its senses with the material blessings so bountifully provided by Our Creator, we frequently neglect to nourish our soul with the spiritual gifts available to us from the same Creator. The days of the Great Fast are especially set aside by our Mother Church in order for us to give the spiritual part of our natures the spiritual sustenance it requires.
The spiritual food required by our souls is the Grace of God dispensed by the Holy Spirit. Without the help of the Holy Spirit we cannot do anything worthy of salvation. Just as the body is helpless unless animated by the soul, so a man can do nothing unless the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, comes to aid his. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can carry out the most difficult works. St. Paul ‘ said, “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
The Holy Spirit is enshrined in our souls by fasting and prayer, by the frequent reception of the Holy Sacraments, by listening to sermons and by reading and studying the Holy Scriptures and religious literature. During the Great Fast we fast in fulfillment of the Lord’s words: “The days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them and then shall they fast” (Matt. 9:15). When we feed the body we take material food; to nourish the soul we must deprive or limit ourselves in diet. In memory of the Lord’s last days and His sufferings on Golgotha we attempt to share in His sufferings by overcoming the desires of our senses, our bodies. But it is not merely the giving up of bon-bons that brings us closer to Christ, though for some this is no doubt a real sacrifice! Our fasting is not merely a restriction of the type of food we consume; it is also a spiritual fast, i.e., we learn to control our tongue (what we say), our eyes (what we see and read), our feet (where we go), etc.
In the period of the Great Forty-days we turn more often to God in prayer; prayer and fasting are close partners. While turning more frequently to Our Saviour in prayerful conversation, at the same time we ought to learn to pray without selfishness—for others, for the sick and suffering, for our enemies as well as our friends, for the Lord’s will to be done. We will strive to become more familiar and memorize the wonderful prayers in our prayer-books. These were composed for us by the Holy People, our spiritual ancestors, who lived before us. At the same time we will make prayer so much a natural part of our lives that we will be able to approach God and His Saints at any time, anywhere, in spontaneous prayers of our own making.
The time of the Paschal Fast is the most wonderful period of the year in which to receive Holy Communion more often. A really pious Orthodox Catholic will receive the Precious Gifts at least twice during the Fast, once at the beginning and once near the end so that he can participate better in Christ’s Resurrection. This is the period of the year when all the social activities of the parishes, such as dances, hufflees. etc., are replaced by religious activities: mission services, vespers, lectures. religious movies. These spiritual activities make it much easier to prepare for a worthy Communion. It is easier now also to prepare for Confession. How many there are who treat the Sacrament of Penance like a person who steps up to a ticket window to purchase a train ticket. However, most people who buy a train ticket know where they are going: some who confess their sins do not know what their destination is or even where they have been. Confession needs preparation if it is to be good for the soul. And remember, the soul you save may be your own! If you are one of the many who come to Confession and find you have nothing to confess, you are either a Saint and should be in Heaven, or you have not taken inventory of your stock very well. The Sacrament of Penance should not be a distasteful “duty.” A good confession joined with true repentance can change a person’s whole way of life.
The Great Fast is the time for dusting off the family Bible and for discovering the precious gems contained therein. Reading the Bible has transformed human lives, it has made selfish men generous; it has brought sinners to repentance; it has given hope to the hopeless. The Holy Bible is the Christian’s handbook. No one ought to be without it and everyone ought so to read it that its precious contents will make the soul receptive to the Holy Spirit like morning flowers are receptive to the rising sun. If you are addicted to the reading of modern novels which frequently are nothing but pornography, this time of year you ought to fast from that sort of trashy fare and start the good habit of reading a chapter a day from the Holy Scriptures. We suggest you start with the Gospels of the New Testament, then read Acts, the Epistles, the Psalms, the Book of Job, and other books of .the Old Testament.
This holy period of the year is for attending church services more often, going to evening services such as the Akathiston, to mission services your Deanery may be sponsoring, etc. This is especially the time for attentive regard to sermons and spiritual talks. Blessed is the man who listens to a sermon with an open heart and applies the instruction to himself. Too many of us are busy applying the contents of sermons of our neighbor’s spiritual condition and failing to notice the shortcomings of our own lives! And if one reads the Orthodox religious books, now more and more in abundance, with the intent to learn the Christian and Orthodox way of life, this too will prepare the way for the bestowal of God’s Grace. If we perform these and other good works and cooperate with the action of the Holy Spirit, He truly will abide in us, cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls.
We desire every member of our Archdiocese to grow spiritually in this holy season of the Great Fast, to cast aside the shackles of immaturity which bind us to this world. Most of us are adept at worldly actions, we are mature in the things that are spiritually void and bankrupt: gambling, drinking, gossipping, cheating, etc How many of us there are who expert card players but who do not know how properly to make the Sign of the Cross. How many of us are wonderful dancers, but do not know how to bend the knees in prayer and have never made a prostration? How many are there who can sing all the latest songs, but have no idea how to confess their sins? How many there are who know all the baseball scores and averages, but do not know one single prayer by heart? Too many of us have matured physically but have remained infants spiritually. We live like adults in every respect except as Christians. In their spiritual lives such people have barely emerged from their mother’s wombs.
If you are an expert in the things that soon perish, expert in the things that are lasting, in the things that bring our souls close to the Saviour who desires us to be perfect as He is perfect. In this Great Fast let us begin to care more for our impoverished and starved souls. Let us mature in Christ! Let us open the doors of our heart and soul to the Holy Spirit. Remembering that with His strength we can do all things.