Renewing Ourselves With the Fast

Why do football teams take a halftime break? What about timeouts in a basketball game? What’s their purpose? Let’s even think about the summertime; why do we go on vacation?

Halftime, timeouts, and even vacations, often serve the same purpose – to give us a break, to refresh us, to renew us, to reinvigorate us, and to help us step back from our normal schedules, re-evaluating what has been going on and reorienting us in the direction that we should be going!

The Church Father’s understood well this concept of a “timeout,” of “stepping back and reorienting ourselves.” This is why they established throughout the year four distinct times of what we call “Fasting Periods.” Whether the 40 day Fast before Easter and Christmas, or the 14 day Fast before the feast of the Virgin Mary on August 15, or a varying Fast before the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29, each of these periods remind us to change our normal schedule and way of life, to rest and renew ourselves from the cares of the world, and to focus on something greater – our pursue for union with God!

We all get busy in our daily lives – whether through working, establishing a career, raising a family, enjoying or struggling through our time of retirement, or simply filling our days with our pursuit for entertainment. Our lives seem so busy and full that we often can’t seem to find time to pursue what is most essential in life. Our busyness even makes us forget what the essence of life is all about!

Once, Jesus visited his dear friends Martha and Mary, and Martha occupied herself so much with  the cares of hospitality that she became irritable. When she anxiously turned her attention to her sister asking for help her instead of having her sit at Christ’s feet listening to His words, our Lord gently reprimanded her by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things, but one thing is needful! Mary has chosen the better part.”

This “one needful thing” is ultimately our pursuit for God, not only our desire and longing for union with our Creator but our active quest for God! “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all His righteousness,” Jesus taught his disciples, “and all else will be given to you.”

Yet how many of us prioritize truly “seeking FIRST the kingdom of God?” I recently talked with someone who told me how they didn’t have time to go to church, to focus on God, or make God an emphasis at this stage in their lives. Should there be states in our lives when we prioritize our relationship with God? Christ tells us clearly to be vigilant and attentive at each and every stage of life, and this is why the Church gives us four different fasting periods throughout the year!

As we enter into this August Fast of the Virgin Mary, let’s reflect on whether we are truly creating time to commune with our Lord? How many of us carve out time each day to talk with God and to listen to Him? How many of us find time throughout the week to seek the Lord’s guidance and direction through His Holy Scriptures and the wisdom of the Church for our daily schedule of activities? How many of us set aside a day each week in pursuit of God? Isn’t this what the Old Testament commandment of the Sabbath, the 7th day, was all about? And yet, we have minimized the Lord’s Day, Sunday, into a one or two hour commitment to participate in the Divine Liturgy (and that is IF we come to church on time). The Lord meant for at least one day out of seven to be dedicated to our sole pursuit of God!

We have forgotten, or maybe never learned, about the importance of this discipline of time! Christ calls us to become good and faithful stewards (i.e. administrators and caretakers) of all that we have. In Church, we often emphasize the stewardship of our money and our talents. Yet we ALSO need to be good stewards of our time! God has given us precious little time on earth. In terms of eternity, our time on earth is so limited! How do we use this time on earth to draw closer to our Lord and better fulfill His will in our lives?!?

To remind us of this “setting aside a time for the Lord to pursue the one thing needful,” the Church places the Fast of the Virgin Mary before us in the middle of the summer, this season when we take vacations. This special period begins today and for 14 days tries to draw our attention away from worldly pursuits and toward a more spiritual quest in our lives.

Starting today, we hold up in a special manner the Virgin Mary as not only our heavenly Mother, but also as an earthly model to imitate. We draw attention to her life, call upon her for help and intercession, and struggle to cultivate and imitate the virtues she exemplified in our own lives.

Serious Orthodox Christians will use this Fasting Period to increase our spiritual struggle in hopes that we will “taste and see how good the Lord is.” Let us be vigilant and consistent in our daily prayers. Let us struggle and develop our self-control through fasting and self-denial. Let us become more generous in our charity, offering our time, our talents, and our money to support the ministry of the Church and to help those in need.

We are reminded that our spiritual journey is not simply a sacrifice but a blessing as well. Every weekday night during this Fast we come to Church to offer the beautiful Paraclesis Service to the Virgin Mary, asking for her help and supplication for those in need. We firmly believe that the Mother of God and our dear Mother hears our prayers and wants to help us with our needs.

The more intense our effort and struggle, the more we will experience blessings. Always remember that sacrifice and discipline demanded in a serious spiritual life is not the end goal. The saint never focuses on their sacrifice but on the joy and  abundant life they experience and live. As one of our prayers say, “through the cross JOY has come into the world.” By dying to our selfish desires, we discover authentic and meaningful life. Through fasting and self-denial, we discover how to fill ourselves with meaning, joy, peace, and hope.

So how can we use this “halftime,” this “time of rest,” this special time of the Fast most appropriately and productively. Let us begin by establishing or increasing our daily morning and evening prayer time, intimately communicating and communing with God. If you do not have a prayer book to help guide you in this discipline, I highly recommend you buy one of the prayer books from our book store and use it to guide you in your morning and evening prayers. If you are making a start, it will initially take you five or 10 minutes when you wake up, and before you retire for the night. It is not a commitment of great time, but in order to be fruitful, it must be done consistently. Every morning and evening we pray and commune with God. And if you already have a prayer rule, try to increase it during this season of the Fast.

Second, seek God’s guidance and enlightenment throughout the day. In our work, in our conversations, in our relationships within our families or with our co-workers and friends, and in all the decisions we make daily, whether big or small, seek our Lord’s guidance and direction. A very concrete manner in which we find inspiration is by beginning each day with reading Holy Scripture. The Bible is meant to be a source of daily nourishment, spiritual food that strengthens and inspires us.

Thus, I recommend that all serious Orthodox make a commitment to reading the Bible each morning during the Fast. If you don’t have an Orthodox Study Bible, buy one, and use it to help you in your reading. Either begin by reading one chapter a day, starting with the Gospel of Matthew, or read the assigned daily readings found in our church calendar or sign up for my  daily email and get it sent to you. As you read and meditate on Scripture, ask God what He is saying to you personally in this passage, expecting to find inspiration, and then apply its lesson in your life that day.

A third practice during these first 14 days of August is to Fast. Deny yourselves certain foods – meat and dairy products in this case – in order to act as a constant reminder that you are in a special period of the year. Unlike the rest of the year, during times of Fasting we are consciously seeking after God more than usual, and fasting is a constant reminder of this commitment.

A fourth discipline should be a conscious effort of generous charity. Make a special monetary donation to the Church as well as to those in need during this season. Make a decision to do something different than usual with your time – like visiting someone who is homebound or sick, taking a young person out for lunch, or doing a kind, anonymous act of love to someone who may not be expecting it! Reach beyond yourself during the fast!

Finally, during these days of the Fast, come to Church several times over the next two weeks and participate in the beautiful Paraclesis Service we pray each evening. This is one of the most moving services which we offer to the Virgin Mary, asking for her intercession and help. Can you take time each evening, or at least several times throughout the week, to stand before the blessed Mother of us all and honor her by asking for her help!

It’s halftime in our yearly game of life. The Church has called a timeout for us to regroup. After going on our summer vacation, we now have our spiritual vacation, to rest in the loving hands of our Lord, and reinvigorate ourselves for the upcoming challenges of life. Mother Teresa use to say that “To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.” This August Fast of the Virgin Mary is our time to put oil back in the lamps of our lives and shine radiantly with the light of our Lord.  I pray that this period of the Fast will be one of the most serious and special in your lives, and that you will “taste and see how good the Lord is!”

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