|MARCH 2009||DEVOTIONAL MESSAGE||
IMPORTANCE OF FASTING IN SPIRITUAL LIFE
Observance of fasting is an ancient tradition carried forth in all puranic religious institutions. The basic foundation of fasting was the discovery of eastern ascetic stalwarts that physical discipline is essential for spiritual purgation. One can effectively relive the mystery only with purified mind and heart. The purpose of Lent is to provide that purification through self-denial and prayer. It is an eternal reality that human being is a composition of soul and body. Whatever happens to the body, it affects the soul also. All religious teachers impart that restraints given to the body is effective for the regulation of the soul. Fasting helps in self-discipline, ablution of body and control of mind.
Christian tradition shaped its background from Jewish culture. So the practice of Christian Fasting also was overshadowed from the Jewish traditions. Customary practices of Lent and Fasting in the Jewish traditions were amended and adapted in the newly formed Christian tradition. It is a well-known fact that these traditions were also influenced by the rituals, customs and practices of primeval eastern, Greek and Roman religions existed before the advent of Christian religion. Indigenous culture across the Roman Empire also had influenced the making up of the Christian tradition of Lent.
As per Christian tradition, fasting is preparation for feasts. Fasting is essential before feasting. The better the preparation, the more effective the celebration will be. At first, our Lord Jesus Christ and then the Apostles and Saints of early Church had self demonstrated the discipline of Fasting. However, Christianity as a religion did not emerge to a preeminent status until the fourth century A.D. In the fourth century, when the Church was freed from persecutions, the believing community commenced to celebrate feasts in a liberated atmosphere. The Lents were organized as groundwork and preparation, in order that the succeeding associated feast could be most useful for their bodily rejuvenation, mental rejoicing and spiritual nourishment.
Early Church fathers believed that the main secret of the inception of the Lents was the preparatory process of Lord Jesus Christ, retreated into the desert, where He fasted for forty days before commencing His public redemptive ministry and its culmination in the resurrection. Accordingly, 40 days Lent was originated in the Holy Church to prepare believers for the celebration of the death and Resurrection of Christ. The Great Lent of 40 days [50 days inclusive of Passion Week] provided the basis for all other Lents. The duration and practice of each lent were organized based on the prevailing social patterns and background. So many regionalized precedents crept into the outlook of practicing these Lents and the Christian festivals continued to show many features inherited from ancient pagan festivals.
December 25th was a historic feast day of celebration in honor of Mithras, the Persian Sun god and Saturnalia, another Roman God. During the reign of the Roman Empire, Mithraism was the predominant religion. So observation of 25 days Lent and Christmas Celebrations had borrowed many customs from these two ancient pagan festivals. It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ.
Feasts and Fasts are meaningfully arranged for the benefit of the believers. Fasts help as an instrument for self-purification. As per the Jewish and Christian belief, Human beings are created in the image of God and man/woman is provided with special divine essence during the creation. The man who was originally of the same image of God, had fallen into his limitations and these limitations were not inherited from the creator. The main disparity between man and other creation is that man inherited the eternal life from God. God shared His freedom to His creation. But the creation had distorted that freedom and fell short in Godly grace.
Liberation from the bondage of sin is necessary to regain image and character given by God. This is exactly the experience of New Life. Fasting is the period of repentance. It is the time to realize the power of God embedded in us. When we cover a glittering gold block with a black cloth we cannot envisage the splendor of gold. But once we remove the mask over the gold-block, the shining of the gold will be perceptible to us. Similarly we are the gold block with image and likeness of God. When we remove the black cloth of sin from it starts shining so that others can feel its glory. Fasting is the process of removing the black cloth from us. It is a great necessity that the soul-body contrast should come out of the mask of the sin. Fasting, prayer, repentance, humiliation, charity these all together unveil the glory of God in man. This is essence of the teachings of ancient eastern school of thoughts. Fasting includes mental, physical and spiritual repentance.
Fasting is the discovery of divine glory within us. That is why in our prayers written by early Church Fathers, it is exemplified that the fasting and abstinence glorify man. Fasting provides man a glorified life. Fasting is inevitable in the process of spiritual purification. Fasting is the great attempt of a man to achieve the glory. This is a reality, which is taught by all religions. It is also a great freedom given to man to regain the lost glory by hard purgation process of the body. This was the essence of all puranic religions.
Under the Ashram system laid out in the Manu Smrti, man enters from Brahmacharya to Grihasthashram and further to Vanaprasthashram and eventfully to Sannyasashram. Sannyasa leads man to salvation or communion with God. These transformations are various stages of man, which lead him to purification. [As per Vedic ashram system the average human life was regarded as one hundred years, consisting of four periods of twenty-five years each. The goal of each period was the ideal fulfillment of four consecutive life stages. 0-24 Yrs is Brahmacharya (Student Life), 25-49 Yrs is Grihasta (Household life), 50-74 Yrs is Vanaprashta (Retired life) and 75-100 Yrs is Sannyasa (Renounced Life)]
While the bridegroom is with them the children of the bride chamber cannot fast as they have plenty and joy, and every day is a festival. But the days will come, when the bridegroom goes away from them, and then they shall fast in those days. This was a hint given by Lord Jesus that when He leaves them their hearts will be with full of sorrow and then the Church shall serve the Lord with fasting as their excessive desire to reunite and to be in communion with the bridegroom. When that desire is consummated by fasting, the person who takes the fast again come into joy, bliss and gratification and enters into the experience of a feast and festival. This great state of hysterical excitation can be well realized only through real experience.
When prophet Isaiah had an awful divine vision of manifestations of the glory of God, the terror of the sight of Godís glorious majesty had put him into the conscious of sin and repentance. He was relieved against that consternation by an assurance of the pardon of his sins. The experience of this vision was enigmatic and it transformed Isaiah and he took up a great commission from God. In the same way the experience of Fasting cannot be expressed in words. It gives us a renewable experience within us, which is inexplicable and incomprehensible.
Denying the servantship is needed to master something. Teachers, Rishis, ascetic stalwarts of different ancestral religious traditions, who sought insights, had emphasized self-restrictions in order to attain the mastery of our passions. This involves mastering of certain pleasures by another, in other words, exchanges of passions or by correct deployment and employment. As an example if wealth has a dominion over us, when we give alms, we can refrain to be the slave of the wealth. Fasting rebuilds the power to dominion and seek over or to master certain things, relationships or certain slaves of habits. Courage for voluntary renunciation of anything, which is very dear to us, elevates man to win over dominion of passion and desire. Body and soul are two realms, two levels of reality. For this reason, abstaining from certain food and some bodily relations cause our body not to imprison the soul. By abstaining from food, man rises above the level of the body and above matter, and this is the wisdom behind fasting.
The concept of dominion is one of the key themes in the biblical account of the relationship between mankind and the rest of the material creation. After the creation God gave the man dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. God brought them to the man and he named each one of them. The man's authority over the world was the gift of God. Source of this authority of man over the world was in the fact that he is created in the image and likeness of God. God shared His freedom with man though man could not sustain same. The authority given to the man is the freedom for him not to be enslaved by any. Fasting recaptures the mastership given to man by God and enable him to reinstate this authority.
Fasting and prayer are the two wings of Lent. Fasting without prayer is a body without a soul. It is taught in every religion that alms-giving should be associated with fasting. The radiant love of God is reflected in man through alms-giving. That is why St. Paul witness that God loves a cheerful giver. Our Charity should not be merely to satisfy the importunity of those who ask. We are obligated to give liberally, cheerfully with an open hand and with an open countenance, being glad for the providence to be charitable. The charity out of persuasion or law is not sourced out of our love. The charity out of love reveals the source of mind of the giver. The alms-giving associated with the lent should be viewed in this particular perspective: It is not mere a charity, but it is an obligation.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has taught us that we should love one another. 'As I have loved you, that you also love one another': This was the new command given by Jesus to His disciples. He gave them an example that they also should do as He did to them. Greater love has no one than this that one lay down his life for his friends. This was the example God had given to us. Self-sacrificing is the greatest reflection of great internal love. This love we should attain through fasting. When we start loving others there will not be any enmity in us towards anybody. Lord taught us that this reconciled state of mind is greater than the sacrifice. Charity without reconciliation is meaningless.
Fasting is the feast of Love. Love and forgiveness is the essence of Gospel and really the essence of fasting. On the eve of the Lenten Fast, on the Sunday of Repentance it is liturgically arranged for the Shubakono service, which is a deliverance and ministry of reconciliation. At the-end of the vespers the worshippers come up to the celebrant and ask for forgiveness after which they turn to each other asking each other for forgiveness. It is precisely this act of love, this act of becoming one that marks the beginning of the Fast. Basis of this is the bible verse: "If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering." [Matthai 5-24] Nothing pleases God, which comes not from a true heart. The lifeblood of Christian life is sacrifice through love and love through sacrifice. Charity and fasting with out forgiveness is incomplete. Love is not achieved from the sacrifice. But sacrifice is achieved from love. Through fasting we become the messengers of love.
When we love each other we come in friendship with Lord. Love is the great entry to the discipleship. Lord has given us peace and joy. We regain this happiness, peace and joy of comradeship with Jesus through our Lents. In a spiritual meaning, Lent is a period of celebration through which we experience bliss and serenity. The intoxication of the joy and peace we get out of lent should be preserved throughout our life. All the fasts end up in feast. Forty days lent which resembles the forty-year pilgrim journey of the patriarchs to Canaan, the Land of Prosperity and Peace. The forty-day journey of self-denial is towards the feast of Resurrection. The deserted painstaking journey is towards an abundant blissful life. The hardships of fasting are the radiant sorrow, which is the beginning of spiritual renewal.
Holy Lent of 25 days is observed as preparation for the Birth of Christ. Nineveh Lent is to rebuild the relationship with our Lord. 13 days Lent celebrated in commemoration of 12 disciples and St. Paul. Shunoyo Lent remembers the assumption of St. Mary. Through Fasting and Prayer we enter the eternal heavenly rejoice. All Wednesday and Fridays also are considered as the days of Fast. We have to preserve the Ancient tradition of the observation of Fast and Lent in our life.
When a woman is conceived with a child, she lives a life of dedication, afflictions and grief; but when the child is born she forget all past hardship and enter into a exotic joy and happiness. The severed relation with God is rebound through observation of fasting. Lent is narrow thorny path for comeback to God. To enter into a spiritual bliss we need a preceding way of cross. There is no crown without a cross. During the cyclic motion of time and seasons, while the earth is moving around the sun, we too turn towards the sun of righteousness through our traditional holy Lents of the holy Church.
[Extract from Message given to Gregorian TV : Courtesy to Gregorian TV
Original in Malayalam : Translated for LOL by Editor Dr. Rajan Mathew Philadelphia, USA]
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