The first Sunday of the Triodion, in preparation for Great Lent and Easter, was that of the Publican and the Pharisee. The message was one of humility, of not hypocritically
advertising what we think of as our righteousness to other people, but bending our all too human selves to God, humbly. The corollary for ourselves was not to be self-righteous and judgmental of our fellow human beings. We cannot treat others worse than we would like to be treated by God.
The second Sunday of the Triodion was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. If the message meant anything, it was one of unconditional love and forgiveness of the father. If a human father can do what the father in that story did, how much more can our Father do so? And have we so humbled ourselves, to our fathers and our mothers, our brothers and sisters, so as to be able to ask God for that same forgiveness and love?
Last Sunday’s lesson, was about love. Real, personal, individual love. As you do to the least of these my brethren, you do also to God. And truly, how else could we serve God but through his likenesses here on earth, whether we always recognize God in each of those likenesses or not?
Today’s gospel message is a bit of all the previous messages and more. Today’s gospel talks about fasting, about forgiveness, and about our hearts belonging first and foremost to heaven.
Jesus often spoke of prayer and fasting. Today, God says, as we fast, do not do as the hypocrites do, in public and with much show, but in secret between ourselves and God.
Today’s message is a reminder that as the original expulsion from the Garden of Eden involved food, so we are asked to discipline and purify ourselves by fasting. We don’t begin a marathon race with no training and a gluttonous meal. Lent requires equal preparation. Renewal of our faith and our dedication to God requires strength, discipline and commitment. Renewal requires that we be fully focused on what it is we need to do. Fasting will sharpen our awareness and spiritual senses.
Fasting requires that we be strong enough to deny or postpone our physical desire for certain foods. Fasting requires more. Fasting requires that even if we refrain from eating certain foods, that our intake of all food and drink be reduced and extremely temperate. Our spirit is stronger than our flesh. Our desire to focus on spiritual renewal is stronger than our stomach’s immediate needs.
We should avoid situations where we cannot fast, where we will not have a choice of what to eat. If we have to go out, however, we do not need to advertise to a host that we are fasting. We don’t need to say, “Sorry I can’t eat that, I am fasting.” We can certainly take a very modest helping of what our host serves, avoiding a larger helping or second helpings. If a host worked to prepare food to please us, is it not more unkind to reject those efforts by saying that we choose not to eat what has been prepared than to eat a small amount with gratitude and appreciation? We can atone for our breaking the fast in some way that is equally purifying. God will show us the way. Our fasting, remember, is not public. If we want our fasting to help us serve God, we do not want or need worldly recognition for it.
While fasting strengthens our spiritual side, it is not enough by itself. We must also ask for forgiveness of our sins. This does not mean merely asking for forgiveness. This means recognizing our sins and being sincerely and truly sorry for them as well as undertaking to ourselves that we will not repeat them. This means not just asking for forgiveness, but also taking action to right or make up for the wrongs. If we cannot alter the wrongs, we should undertake affirmative deeds of atonement.
It goes without saying that what we ask of our Father, we must also be willing to grant to others. We must be willing to forgive others whatever actions or failures to act that we hold against them. Forgiveness is something we should do whenever needed, but this season is the time we are reminded, more than any other, that whatever is left undone in our lives should be mended as part of our spiritual renewal.
Let us not look only for those people from whom we know we need to ask forgiveness. Let us also make a special effort to sincerely befriend, a form of forgiveness, all those whom we have ignored or thought not part of our social, intellectual, work, or other sphere. They may well think we do not like them or hold something against them – otherwise why would we have ignored them. We have not treated them as fellow humans who are as needful of real, personal love as we are – as needful as the least of God’s brethren in the gospel lesson for last week.
Jesus said that we should lay up treasures in heaven, not on earth. Treasures on earth may be destroyed or stolen, but nothing will harm heavenly possessions. If what we most deeply care about is in heaven, then our heart will be there also. That is true not only of fasting in secret, but also of everything else we do. Whatever work we do each day – the best we can do it, whatever good deeds we perform, whatever we do to embrace and care for our fellow human beings, we should do it all humbly for God. We should think of our reward as in heaven, not here on earth. If that is so, we will the more treasure what we are able to do, and will the more be encouraged to increase our efforts.
Let us welcome this Lent as the beginning of a cleansing personal discipline. Let us welcome Lent with a sincere quest for forgiveness from God and from our fellows. Let us experience Lent as an opportunity to show real, personal love and caring for all of our fellow humans. Let us experience Lent as a journey of spiritual vitalization and joy, as never before.