When our Lord ascended into the heavens after His resurrection, He left to His followers the promise of His glorious return. "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven (Acts 1:10)." These were the words spoken by the two men in white apparel who appeared at the scene.
The first Christian community lived with this expectation. The people converted by Paul and the other Apostles were anticipating the return of Jesus in their lifetime. The words of Paul were taken at face value when he wrote to Timothy, " . . . keep the commandments without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ's appearing (I Timothy 6:14)." He wrote the same thing to Titus saying, ". . . looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13)."
It was not only because Jesus promised, but it was critical for His followers to hold on to this exciting expectation. There had been no discernible change in the world after the holy passion and resurrection of the Lord. The Roman Empire was still intact. The Jewish faith and practice continued even with the temporary interruption brought about by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This kind of destruction and devastation was the norm throughout the history of the Roman Empire. Paul had begun to collect funds in Asia Minor and in Greece in order to assist the impoverished Saints in Jerusalem. Local and world conditions were no different since the Ascension of the Lord. Actually they were worse.
But thanks to God, wondrous signs and miraculous healings began to give hope and to strengthen the faith of Christians. The mighty works that were done in the name of Jesus rallied the developing Christian communities again and again. Eye witnesses of the Resurrected Lord and of the great day of Pentecost were still living.
The hope, then, of the soon return of Jesus was powerful. Be watchful. Be vigilant. Jesus is returning: "Maranatha" (I Corinthians 16:22). O Lord, come!
But the Lord did not return as anticipated. How were His followers to continue in the world? They recalled the words of Jesus that they were in the world, but could not identify themselves with the world. However this new Way, the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, continued to make inroads. Later Christianity was to be given freedom and ultimately was to become the official religion of the Empire.
The Church continued to hold fast to the Lord's promise that He would return in order to claim His Bride, the Church. But not yet. His followers recalled His words that no one would know the day or the hour, but only the Father. Even Jesus chose not to know.
The Second Coming or the Parousia thus became the basic eschatological tenet of the Faith. It remained and continues to remain the firm promise of the Lord. We remind ourselves of this promise each time we recite the Creed: "and He is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead." We are reminded of it whenever we pray the Lord's Prayer saying, "Thy Kingdom come."
The Church, through divine inspiration, incorporated didactic and liturgical means by which we would be always able to recall this coming, cosmic event. She has done so by placing it within the most significant and most important period of the annual liturgical cycle: Holy and Great Lent.
This is the time of the year we must be most vigilant about ourselves, about the Church, and about our Lord. The parable of the Ten Virgins which we hear at the heart of Holy Week is the icon of being watchful, of being vigilant, of being ready. We anticipate the coming of the Lord, the Parousia. Each year at this time we live the fervent anticipation of the Parousia exactly as the first Christians did during the days of Paul.
This basic eschatological belief is never used by the Church to instill fear in Her members. It is never a devise to attract a large radio and television audience and an outpouring of monetary gifts to support self-consecrated preachers, a devise used again and again and many times on an ongoing basis. We do not try to interpret the signs of the times as a means of attracting followers.
The Lord has told us what He wants us to do in remembrance of this great day. He instructed us how we must prepare ourselves. He said, "BUT THE DAYS WILL COME WHEN THE BRIDEGROOM WILL BE TAKEN AWAY FROM THEM, AND THEN THEY WILL FAST (Matthew 9:15)." The Church instituted the main period of fasting, the Great and Holy Lent, to prepare us on an annual cycle of the final days.
What, further, is the purpose of the fast? It is to become spiritually stronger, more alert, more watchful, more vigilant, like the five wise virgins of the parable.
It is unfortunate, to put it mildly, that our teachings and traditions concerning fasting and abstinence have been tainted by non-Orthodox and unorthodox interpretations. We are all aware of some of these. But it is good to remind ourselves especially at this holy time of the annual cycle. Fasting is not self-flagellation. It is not denying oneself something. It is not punishment for our sins. Fasting is not to lose weight or to harm the body in any way. If any kind of fasting brings harm to the body, it is not Christian fasting. For when God created the world and everything in it, especially man, He saw that is was all very good.
Fasting has one purpose: to strengthen the total person by giving close attention and priority to one's soul. If we have to talk about denial or "giving up" something in fasting, it is attention to carnal passions and the lower appetites of the body. Yet this really is not giving up something. The best way to describe this is to say that we ignore those things in the same way that we "give up" or neglect our Christian responsibilities. Fasting, then, is turning our attention from the earthly to the heavenly. It is increased desire and commitment to do battle with those things which keep us earthbound, so that we can become heavenbound. Fasting, therefore, is an active discipline that strengthens one's spiritual powers.
Some years ago a preacher who is more involved with social action and politics than the things of the spirit made a public statement in the defense of some people who had broken into stores in order to steal items during a brown out of that city. He said as a retort to comments that those lawbreakers had no morals and principles, that one cannot teach religion to the people with empty stomachs. This false philosophy is more prevalent than we realize. It is no wonder that fasting, religious fasting, is looked upon so negatively. Furthermore, in our day fasting has been removed from its religious and spiritual context altogether and is now used as a political protest, or for physical appeal, or a deliberate suicide.
Today we hear the same lie even from some members of our Church which Satan first announced to our first parents regarding the fruit of the forbidden tree. He said, "You will not surely die," if you eat. On the contrary, "You will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4,5)." A good number of our people, including clergy, do not fast. In their "enlightenment" of knowing good and evil, they find fasting to be unnecessary, something which the monks invented.
Yet, it was God Who told our first parents to abstain from the fruit of that tree. It was God Who first instituted fasting or abstinence, not to deny Adam and Eve anything, but to help them become stronger spiritually. They had been tempted by power and pride and they fell.
Pride, power, and possessions are the greatest temptations of this life. No others are higher. Satan, as we read in Holy Scripture, approached Jesus after He had fasted for forty days and forty nights in order to repeat his previous successes. "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. If you are the Son of God throw yourself down" from the pinnacle of the temple. "For it is written: He shall give His angels charge concerning you, and in their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone." Finally, Satan told Him, "If you fall down and worship me I will give you all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:3,6,9)." The power of the spirit through prayer and fasting had prevailed.
Fasting is the most powerful weapon we can have next to prayer. The two together practiced in the holy name of Jesus perform wonders. "Why could we not cast the demon out? (Matthew 17:19) This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21)."
Prayer and fasting are the secret weapons of the Christian believer. With them he prepared to do battle with his lower appetites by being able to turn away from them. For they identify him with the world. He then battles spiritual forces which attempt to restrict his upward climb.
Our Lord describes how we should fast. He says, " . . . When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to be fasting. But you, when you fast anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret . . . (Matthew 6:18)."
What does this mean? Fasting is not formalistic. Many times we check notes with each other to compare how we are fasting. We go into a special ritual to assure ourselves that we are doing it the right way. We find ourselves arguing between butter and margarine or olive oil and peanut oil. Now we even have Lenten cookbooks which promise us Lenten meals that are not bland, but actually delicious.
Why does our Lord instruct us to fast in secret? Obviously, faith is an inner power. It is developed by the heart and the mind in cooperation with the soul. Man is energized by God esoterically, spiritually. It is important to keep in mind that many of God's servants who had the power of healing were themselves infirm. Some had physical ailments, as Paul did. But the Lord assured Paul, "My strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:19)."
Our secret fasting has a very definite purpose in God's sight. Through this secret discipline we realize that we are dependent on God, and without God we can do nothing. Adam and Eve attempted to achieve greatness independently of God. The Prodigal Son tried to find success with his own talents away from his father. However, they fully realized that only through their Father and with their Father true freedom and success could be theirs. Secret fasting makes us God's instruments for His use and to His Glory.
We do not fast and have additional worship services during Great and Holy Lent because it is Lent. We do so in anticipation of our Lord's glorious return, the Parousia. It is unfortunate that many Christians who observe the Fast are really not aware of this attitude of anticipation. For the belief in the Second Coming of Christ was the cause for the development of Great Lent and not the other way around. The Gospel Reading of the Pre-Sanctified Divine Liturgy of Holy Monday establishes this. But how many of our parish churches have this liturgy on Holy Monday so that our people may hear of the Lord's return? For it is on Holy Monday morning, at this liturgy, when we hear the disciples asking the Lord, "Tell us, when will these things be. And what will be the sign of Your coming . . ? (Matthew 24:3)"
We see from the various hymns and prayers of Great Lent that the theme of repentance and reconciliation with God is most prominent. After the mid-point of this holy period, the idea of urgency enters in. The believer's proper preparation becomes critical because he is due to encounter the Eternal Judge of our souls. In the first part we are given powerful lessons on Christian desire, humility, and repentance. We are then offered additional instructions and reminders, in forgiveness, awareness, vigilance, and love. From the initial, gradual pace during the first part of Great Lent, we now find ourselves with a sense of urgency that lends itself to our excitement, and even fear. Hopefully our preparation and vigilance will identify us with the five wise virgins.
Throughout the Great Lenten period our desire encourages us. We accepted to go on this spiritual journey willingly. As we go, our desire becomes stronger. Desire for what? Desire to see Jesus! Just as Zaccheus ran ahead and climbed the sycamore tree, we, too, want to run ahead excitedly to see and to meet Jesus and to receive Him joyfully into the home of our hearts. We understand that together with this desire we must show humility because we are to be confronted by a humble God, a God who knelt and washed the feet of His disciples. We must also do what He never had need of doing. We must repent, as the Prodigal Son repented. Luke, quoting the Lord, says of the Prodigal, "He came to himself." We, also, must come to ourselves. We will not like what we see. We will realize how deprived we are of God's grace and glory. Therefore, we will make the decision to change our focus, our direction from the physical to the ethereal, from the material to the spiritual, from the earthly to the heavenly.
In preparing ourselves for this change, we must exercise mercy; for God is merciful. We must show forgiveness; for God is always ready to forgive us. We must reconcile ourselves to those separated from us by our shortcoming or theirs; for God reconciled Himself to our fallen nature even when we were His enemies, even though we did not know Him. We must love others sacrificially; for God's love has been poured out to us through the Supreme Sacrifice.
We must continue to approach and to receive this Supreme Sacrifice, now bloodlessly offered, so that we may continue to proclaim the death of Jesus, as well as to be nurtured by His life-giving power. Paul states it so clearly to the Corinthians and through them to us. He says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes (I Corinthians 11:26)."
In being aware of all these things and remaining vigilant, practicing them with total conviction and sincerity of heart and mind, we will be able to see ourselves in the company of Zaccheus and of the five wise virgins.
As we go forth on this annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem to meet our Lord, we will encounter the scoffers of this age. They are always there. But they will not detract us. Peter speaks of them when he says that in the last days people will cynically be asking, "Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation (2 Peter 3:4)." They may not be using these same words, but their life-style, their behavior, their speech, their obsessions with the things of this world, all will witness to their unbelief, their cynicism and their scorn.
Nevertheless, we will persevere. We will go on with our fasting, our good deeds, our increased time in prayer. In a symbolic way the three-week period, called the Triodion, is our crossing of the Red Sea from pagan Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. Forty days of spiritual toil and traversing await us. As the Israelites zigzagged through the Sinai peninsula, some times obedient to God, but many times reverting to their pagan past and rebelling against God, so we will travel this difficult wilderness, sometimes standing strong in our faith, sometimes falling. The Israelites could have reached the Promised Land much sooner than they did, had they traveled a more direct line. But God kept them in the Sinai for forty years, so that the generation which had come out of Egypt and which had been heavily tainted with idolatry and rebellion would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. It was the second generation, those born in the wilderness of the Sinai, who were to enter. This was the way God wanted it.
In the very same way the Church leads us, as Moses led his people, through this forty-day sojourn. It will take all of this time for those of us who wish to discard the vanity and the idolatry of this world to be transformed and to continue on as newborn children of the spiritual wilderness into the Promised Land: Holy Week and Holy Pascha.
The additional and lengthy services, the periods of silence and introspection both in the services and in private prayer, will help us to wind down, so to speak, and to rid ourselves of our impatience, our anger, our foul talk, and of all the various expressions of our rebellion against ourselves and against others. We must rid ourselves of all those little habits which do not allow us to be at peace with ourselves, with one another, and especially with God.
At the end of this forty-day pilgrimage during which we will hopefully have discarded all the excess baggage which we may have taken along with us, we will be able to climb the mountain and not only peer into the Promised Land, but we will enter it. We will finally approach the Holy City and on that first night we will hear a loud cry breaking the silence: "Behold the Bridegroom is coming!"
At the end of the week the fasting will be over and we will hear the words of our Lord as He first spoke them:
"Can the friends of the Bridegroom fast while the Bridegroom is with them? (Mark 2:19)"
Finally at the Agape Vespers of Holy Pascha we will hear the words of the second Apostichon:
"Come from that scene, O women, bearers of good tidings and say to Zion: Receive from us the tidings of joy, of the Resurrection of Christ; Exult, rejoice and be glad, O Jerusalem, for you are beholding Christ the King as the Bridegroom coming forth from the Tomb."
Our Lenten preparation will not have been in vain, for "He who testifies to these things says, "Yes, I am coming quickly! Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20)."