Monday, June 04, 2007

A Cinderella Fast?

Ah, here we are — another opportunity to fast for a season! Monday, June 4, began the Apostles' Fast, leading us to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, on June 29. Is there “joy [that] cometh in the morning,” or “weeping and gnashing of teeth?” I find that Orthodox Christians can hardly object (thought they may want to) to Great Lent, or even the Nativity Fast (“Advent”), but find their voice when it comes to the summertime fasts: The Apostles’ Fast, as well as the Dormition Fast. These latter, perhaps especially the Apostles’ Fast, are relegated to a netherworld of plausible deniability. I skip that one, we say. Truly the Apostles’ Fast is the Cinderella of Orthodox fasting seasons: we may acknowledge her as a sister, but we’d rather pretend she wasn’t there.

It’s funny how we love those fast-free weeks, thinking them quite proper and appropriate, while one of these “lesser fasts” (they’re actually called that, in the books…) hardly warrant our attention. If they do, they loom as a major imposition that seems hardly applicable to us. “Isn’t this one of those “monastic disciplines,” we demand. “Good grief,” one says, “did you realize that, when the feast of Saints Peter and Paul lands on a Friday, it’s a fast day?” Then we roll out the non sequitur, as if it were self-evident: if the feast isn’t important enough to override a fasting day, then the fast that prepares for such a feast must not be that important. "Why bother?" we declare, "After all, it’s summertime."

In my experience as a priest, no appeal or argument will dam such tsunamis of avoidance. Some of us have made up our minds; Great Lent and “Advent” are quite enough for some.

The rest of us may be not really happy with the prospect of another fast, which sometimes (in our ignorance) arrives like an unexpected and difficult guest. Yet, truth be told, we want to be faithful to the holy traditions of the Church and her cycles of worship. Nevertheless, as good Americans, we want to know why. “Why, in heaven’s name (no other authority will do) is there this Apostles’ Fast? What’s this one 'for?'"

The answer, in a sense, is really no different than the answer for any other fast or spiritual discipline. It’s the Orthodox Christian way. We prepare, then we feast. We empty ourselves, then God fills us. The classic tools of Christian spirituality are prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. There is no real stoppage in these dynamics of spiritual life: we slow it down, and enjoy, for the really big feasts like Pascha, Pentecost, and Christmas. This is our way, and now that Pentecost is done, and so-called “ordinary time” is here, it’s time to get on with it.

Nevertheless, the Coptic Pope Shenouda III helps us a good deal more with this:

The Apostles’ fast in the New Testament: When the Lord Jesus Christ was asked why His disciples did not fast, He replied: ‘But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast’ (Matt.9:15). The Apostles did fast together and not in secret, and the Lord accepted their fast. Some examples of the Apostles’ fasts: “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then, having fasted and prayed, they laid hands on them.” (Acts 13:2,3). —“Communal Worship and Fasting” by H.H. Pope Shenouda III
This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? On the one hand, fasting came after our Lord’s Ascension in anticipation of God’s great Gift of the Spirit; on the other, the Apostolic Church fasted after Pentecost to “stir up” this self-same Spirit for complete infilling and mission. In our day, the entire Church is called to apostolic life and mission — to gather the world up into God’s net, to echo the festal hymn of Pentecost. If Jesus predicted such fasting, and the Apostles did such fasting as they prepared for and engaged in mission, why wouldn’t we follow their example?

Isn’t that, after all, the meaning of the post-Pentecost season? Isn’t this why we get on our knees for the Kneeling Prayers at Vespers for the Feast of the Holy Spirit, on the Monday after Pentecost? If anything, to my way of thinking, it is the absence of fasting during that post-feast Trinity Week that demands explanation. Fasting just makes sense for the authentic Christian and church. The Apostles’ Fast gets us back on track, in the normal mode of sacramental discipleship.

Christianity Today Magazine just published an incredible interview article with an interesting fellow. Simon Chang is not only an Evangelical Protestant theologian native to Singapore, in the so-called “Third World”; he is also a member of the Assemblies of God, a pentecostal denomination (AG). Remember, the AG was one of the fastest growing denominations in the 20th century. Yet, remarkably, in considering Christian mission, this pentecostal theologian demands that we must ask

What is the mission of the Trinity? And the answer to that question is communion. Ultimately, all things are to be brought back into communion with the triune God. Communion is the ultimate end, not mission.

If we see communion as central to the life of the church, we are going to have an important place for mission. And this is reflected in the ancient fourfold structure of worship: gathering, proclaiming the Word, celebrating the Eucharist, and going out into the world. The last, of course, is mission. …

Such a vision is precisely what we in the Orthodox Church teach. This is why the feast of All Saints flows from the headwaters of Holy Pentecost. And it is why the rapids of the Apostles’ Fast come on the heels of All Saints. Mission flows from communion with the living God, and mission requires a total reliance upon God that is expressed so rightly in fasting and prayer. It’s no accident that Chang is so Orthodox in his understanding of the relationship of mission to community of the Holy Trinity, as he demonstrates his point from the Orthodox Liturgy itself:

… [I]f you go to an Orthodox service, you'll be amazed at the elaborate way in which the end of the service is conducted. It's not just a word of dismissal—there are whole prayers and litanies that prepare us to go back out into the world.
Perhaps you and I don’t really “get” what we do every Sunday, and need this wise Pentecostal theologian to literally re-orient ourselves to our Eastern Orthodox Faith and life. With the Apostles’ Fast, we are sent out—dismissed!—into the world to effectively bear witness to communion with the Living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! This fast, then, is “about” mission and life in the Spirit as we journey in this world in radical dependence upon God, celebrating, worshiping, and participating in the life of the Holy Trinity.

That is what the Apostles’ Fast is all about. So, let us not nag and cajole our brethren who would rather ignore this wonderful season of Orthodox Christian discipleship! Rather, let us simply “do it” with joy, washing our faces and living the Life of Christ. After all, this fast may be like Cinderella, a lovely lass, though misunderstood and distained by some. Yet, in the end, she wound up with some pretty good company, as I recall.

1 comment:

gabriel said...

Though entirely unqualified to comment on this matter, I do think that a fast ought to be followed by a feast. What prevents making Sts. Peter & Paul a fast that obtains on a Friday?

Otherwise, very interesting and valuable thoughts.