March 15, 2021

Clean Week - The First Week of Great Lent (Elder Epiphanios Theodoropoulos)

 By Archimandrite Epiphanios Theodoropoulos

Holy and Great Lent begins on the day after Cheesefare Sunday. This period is a period of strict fasting, prolonged sacred Services and of general spiritual meditation. During this period not even marriages take place nor any other joyful events. The fasting of Great Lent is most ancient. The divine Chrysostom says that the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Synod "in assembling together established forty days of fasting, prayer, listening to sacred sermons, worship gatherings, so that during these days we would all with diligence be cleansed, and through prayer and almsgiving and fasting and vigils and tears and confession and by all other means, so that with a clean conscience, as much as it is possible for us," we can celebrate the holy days of the Passion and the Resurrection of the Lord, approaching the Holy Mysteries, which the Lord delivered to us precisely for these days. We fast therefore, says the same Holy Father, "not for Easter nor for the Cross, but for our own sins."

This fast is called "Tessarakosti" because it is in imitation of the fast which our Lord did before He emerged to do His public work, and which took place over the course of forty days. It is called "Great" Tessarakosti in order to distinguish it from the other forty day fast of Christmas ("Sarantaemeron"), which is more lenient. Forty day fasts were done in the time of the Old Testament by Moses and Elijah.

The fast of Great Lent is, as we said, strict. Normally only the eating of dry foods is allowed, and this only once a day, and olive oil is not allowed, except on Saturdays and Sundays. It is understood that this is for perfectly healthy people. The sick are exempt from fasting. There are others also, who are not bedridden, but suffer from various diseases, or are of a weak state, or are elderly, etc., who cannot keep a strict fast. These, even if they have the disposition to fast strictly, should not make the decision on their own. They should seek the advice of their spiritual father and do what he says.

The first day of Great Lent is called "Clean Monday", as the entire first week is called "Clean Week", because the faithful are "cleansed through fasting".

The Value of Fasting

Unfortunately today fasting has very much been sidelined. Few give much importance to fasting. But the value of fasting is very great. Let us listen to what Basil the Great says about it:
-- Do you think I am finding the ancient origin of fasting from the law? Fasting is even older than the law... 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... Since we did not fast, we fell from paradise. Well, now let’s fast, so that we may go back again... Don’t imitate Eve’s disobedience; don’t again receive counsel from the serpent. That’s how we were made subject to fleshly food... A person gets absorbed with filling up, getting weighed down until finally falling into ill health...

Wine wasn’t in paradise; there was not yet any slaughtering of animals, not yet any eating of meat. After the flood there was wine... But we have also been taught about the fasting of Moses when he came onto the mountain. He wouldn’t have boldly faced the smoking summit, neither would he have had the courage to enter into the thick cloud, if he hadn’t been completely armed with fasting. Through fasting he received the commandments from the finger of God written on the tablets... What did Esau throw away, and so was made a slave of his brother? Didn’t he sell his rights as first-born for a single meal? By contrast, wasn’t it with fasting and prayer that Hannah was favored to become the mother of Samuel? What great meal brought into being the invincible Samson? Wasn’t it fasting, with which he was conceived in the womb of his mother? Fasting conceived him, fasting nursed him, fasting made a man of him... Fasting gives birth to prophets; it strengthens the powerful. Fasting makes lawmakers wise. It is a safeguard of a soul, a stabilizing companion to the body, a weapon for the brave, a discipline for champions. Fasting knocks over temptations, anoints for godliness. It is a companion of sobriety, the crafter of a sound mind. In wars she fights bravely, in peace it teaches tranquility. It sanctifies the Nazirite, and it perfects the priest. How the law was introduced is figurative for true, mystical worship. One is not able to boldly face the divine presence without fasting. It made Elijah an observer of that marvelous vision. His soul was purified by fasting forty days, so that in the cave on Mt. Horeb he was considered worthy to see the Lord like one sees a man. By fasting he returned the widow’s child to her—he became stronger than death through fasting!...  Once fasting was discovered, all the saints were led by the hand into the divine way of life... There is a certain kind of substance, that the Greeks call amianton, that is impervious to fire. When it is placed in the flame, it seems to be made of coal, but when it comes up out of the fire, it is cleaner than if it had been washed in water. That’s what the bodies of those three children were like; they had bodies of amianton from fasting in Babylonia. For in the great fiery furnace, their nature being like gold, was then demonstrated to be superior when they were drawn from the fire unhurt. Here’s how their nature was demonstrated to be stronger than gold: the fire did not refine them, but simply preserved their sincerity. When they had not yet even been cast into the fire, the flames were being fed naphtha and pitch and branches, and they streamed out above the furnace forty-nine cubits, so that many of the Chaldeans standing near it were destroyed. Then, with fasting, when they were cast into the conflagration, they were able to walk around on their own feet, and they were breathing a little moistened air in the torrent of fire. And the fire didn’t even damage their hair, because they had been strengthened by fasting. Now Daniel (fasted) from desire, and went without eating bread or drinking water for three weeks. And when he was thrown down in their den, he taught the lions to fast!... Fasting quenches the power of fire; it closes the mouths of lions. Fasting sends prayer up into heaven, becoming like wings for its upward journey. Fasting is the increase of houses, the mother of health. It’s an instructor of youth, an adornment to the old. It’s a good companion for traveling, a secure living companion to those dwelling together...

Fasting is an occasion for gladness. As thirst makes the water sweet, and coming to the table hungry makes what’s on it seem pleasant, so also fasting heightens the enjoyment of foods. For once fasting has entered deep into your being, and the continuous delight of it has broken through, it will give you a desire that makes you feel like a traveler who wants to come home for fellowship again. Therefore, if you would like to find yourself prepared to enjoy the pleasures of the table, receive renewal from fasting... A table is for that very reason more gratifying after fasting. It’s like that both for the rich who live graciously, and for those with a simple and subsistence lifestyle... One fasting has a healthy complexion, not breaking out in a shameless, blushing redness, but moderation is adorned with paleness. One fasting has a gentle eye, a calm gait, and a thoughtful face. There is no intemperate, arrogant laughter, but rather fitting speech, and purity of heart...

Don’t you know, that just like when one army defeats the other, the flesh is handed over to the conquering spirit, and the spirit is changing the rank of the flesh to slavery? “These things are adversaries of each other.” So if you want to make the mind strong, tame the flesh through fasting!...

Won’t you despise destructive foods? Wouldn’t you rather receive a desire for the table in the kingdom, that fasting here prepares beforehand? Don’t you know that by excessive filling you are preparing for yourself a fat worm to torture you? Who has received anything of the fellowship of the spiritual gifts by abundant food and continual luxury?... Don’t you shudder at gluttony, lest you be shut out from the good things you are hoping for?...

But don’t limit the goodness of fasting by abstaining only from foods. For true fasting is the enemy of evil. “Loose the chains of injustice!” Forgive your neighbor’s offense, and forgive his debts. Don’t “fast unto judgment and strife.” You don’t eat meat, but you eat your brother. You abstain from wine, but stubbornly hold on to insolence. You patiently wait until evening to partake, but you spend the day in court. --

This then is true fasting - to fast from food and from the passions. This fast that is praised by Basil the Great, is what the Church has in mind, and invites us to chant:

"Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord! A true fast is alienation from the evil one; the holding of one's tongue, the laying aside of all anger,  the removal of all sensuality, of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing. The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing."

Source: From the book Περίοδος Τριωδίου. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.