March 9, 2011

Metropolitan George of Paphos Interviewed Concerning the Fast of Great Lent

Militsa Polemitou
March 6, 2011

Walking the path of the Orthodox Christian Church we encounter fasting on certain days of the year.

The greatest period of fasting is Holy and Great Lent, which along with the observance of religious traditions we also follow that of fasting, as defined by the Orthodox Church; the abstention of foods of animal origin.

The fasting, however, of Holy and Great Lent is not considered enough. It must be combined with spiritual fasting, more prayer and study of the Holy Bible.

Particularly interesting is the following interview with Metropolitan George of Paphos on fasting, the first command given to the first-created by God.

Your Holiness, from Clean Monday to Holy Pascha, the Orthodox Church asks its flock to maintain its religious traditions and fast. Why is this period of Great Lent so important?

We are on the verge of Great Lent, the holiest period of the Church, which prepares us for Pascha. It is called Great Lent to differentiate it from Holy Week. With forty days, it begins on Clean Monday until the Friday of Lazarus.

On the Friday of Lazarus Great Lent has its culmination, and there is inserted the weekend of the Resurrection of Lazarus and Palm Sunday, and then Holy Week begins.

It is a period of intense prayer, fasting and the attempt to acquire virtue, so that we may be able to be found worthy to venerate the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.

Why does "Sarakosti" [lit. "Forty Day" Fast], as it is called, have forty days, beginning on Clean Monday to the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus?

As for why there was chosen to be forty days in Great Lent, there are two reasons. First, there are biblical prototypes. Moses fasted forty days to receive the tablets of the Law, Elijah also fasted forty days in order to prevent rain from falling and then again to bring rain to the earth; and so forty days is biblical.

And Christ after His baptism fasted forty days. There is, however, another reason. The Jews were forced to give a tithe, that is 1/10 of their property that they acquired throughout the year for the poor, widows, and orphans. We who are the New Israel of grace, give something much more important, we give 1/10 of our lives. Of the 365 days of the year, 40 days of this period is a dedication to God.

A Misunderstood Institution

What is the fasting of Pascha for the Orthodox religion?

Fasting is a tool that helps us to acquire virtue. Fasting is a misunderstood institution by those who fast and those who do not fast. Those who do not fast do not foresee any benefit from fasting, which is why they abolished it. As for how much it was abolished, we can see during Cheesefare Week [i.e. Carnival].

How many people abstain from meat? Or even on Clean Monday, which for our Church has the same weight as Good Friday, since it is the first day that humanity lives far from Paradise.

It is a day of mourning. On Clean Monday, then, people go out into the fields. Not eating anything at all but olives. Many people cook meat however.

This shows how far people have abolished fasting. They see no sense in any fasting. And if you talk about fasting, you receive an ironic smile.

But those who fast have also misunderstood fasting and think that God is pleased with our refraining for short or long periods of some food items.

Within them there is a wrong perception that is non-christian, that some types of food create spiritual uncleaness. When this belief tried to enter Christianity, the Apostles called it the teachings of demons, because there is no creature of God that causes uncleaness.

That which stains humans, Christ said in another case, is not what we eat; that which stains humans is our words, which come from the mind and heart. Therefore, fasting is not associated with this meaning.

It Is Not An End In Itself

What is the meaning of fasting and how useful is it?

There are many reasons fasting was imposed on the Church. The first is for ascetcism. Fasting is a gymnasium, and is not an end in itself.

It is to empower ourselves. Fasting is exercise, because for fifty days our sense of taste in our bodies pushes us and asks for different foods, but we say no.

In this way we learn to oppose the Evil One. If we succeed in fasting and do not succeed in the real battle with the Evil One, there is no success.

Those who are experienced in spiritual struggles, say that there are great benefits in fasting. That is the purpose of fasting, it is an asceticism, evidenced by several provisions that govern it.

First of all the authentically sick should not fast because they are destroying their bodies. Fasting kills passions and not the body. One who is ill, will kill himself with fasting. One cannot undertake spiritual struggles who will kill himself.

The Real Meaning of Fasting

There are some related foods some of which are allowed and some forbidden, such as the olive and olive oil. What meaning does this have because the oil is not derived from animal fat?

We eat olives, but do not eat oil for some days. This is not because there is something wrong with oil, but because this allows a thousand and two foods. You can make all the beans with oil, potatoes, and a thousand and two other dishes, while the olives can be eaten only as olives.

And when the Church endorses asceticism, it forbids oil to limit types of foods?

It is also during fasting that we eat fish roe (tarama), but do not eat fish. It is because of the intensity of asceticism allowed by the Church. Also, because this is the point in fasting, asceticism, it is not allowed in the period of fasting to make many kinds of meatless dishes to delight us as food. There should not be much taste either. Just enough food that keeps you alive. This is the meaning of fasting.

The second reason is that fasting shows our reliance on God and our repentance. If we look in the Old Testament, when the prophets had been preaching repentance, the people understood it as fasting. In Nineveh Jonah was sent, preached repentance, and the people immediately declared a fast. And the king furthermore issued a proclamation, not only for humans but also for animals. This is because fasting is a way of repentance and reliance. When we are free we do whatever we want. When we have the Lord, we obey the commandments. Obeying, therefore, the Church and avoiding certain foods, we show that we are not individualists. We rely on and acknowledge one God.

It is therefore an indication of repentance. This is why the fasts are always installed before major events of our religion. Before Pascha, before Christmas, so we can prepare ourselves in our reliance and our repentance, to celebrate these events.

It Proclaims the Unity of All Orthodox

What other virtues should accompany fasting to bring a person to repentance, as mentioned above?

Other virtues follow from it. Basil says, "True fasting is freedom from passions, temperance of the tongue, abstention from anger, separation from desire, the abolishment of false oaths."

Fasting, therefore, must be accompanied by other virtues to be true. If I fast from meat and judge people and do a thousand excesses, it did not correct anything.

Fasting proclaims the unity of all Orthodox around the world. We all fast for the same purpose. And during the time people did not know theology, they said: "This is not fasting, it is Turkish."

That is, they distinguished the days of fasting of us Orthodox from the non-Orthodox. This indicates, therefore, fasting is the unity of Christians. And there are many other reasons for fasting, for example, to save money on the simplest dishes to give to charity.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos