The Fast as a path to our Heavenly Homeland

A homily by His Grace, Bishop Partenij of Antania, given at Forgiveness Vespers on March 6th in the Year of Our Lord 2022.

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In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Let us, first of all, thank God, my beloved, for granting us to come once again this year at this wonderful service, called Forgiveness Vespers, on the eve of Holy and Great Lent.

Најнапред, да Му се заблагодариме, најмили мои, на Бога, што нè удостои и оваа година да стасаме до оваа прекрасна богослужба, наречена Умилителна вечерна на проштавањето, во навечерието на Светата и Велика Четириесетница.

Fasting is one of the means of acquiring spiritual riches, the one thing needful. When instructing us on what we should focus our energies and thoughts, the Lord Jesus Christ says in the Gospel: “Do not lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Therefore, our riches are yet to come, they are in eternity. Our riches are precisely the wealth that our Triune God has prepared for us through the Son and the Word of God, Who reopened the doors of Heaven for us with His voluntary Crucifixion and Resurrection on the third day.

At the services on the Sundays before Great Lent, the Church sings Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1). This psalm refers to the period in history when the Jews were held captive in Babylon for seventy years. They were given over to such severe oppression because they had previously turned away from faith in the true God and given themselves over to idolatry, becoming full of bad habits and immoral dispositions. Under the bitter yoke of slavery, the prophets and teachers of the people constantly exhorted the people of Israel to repent. This is why we can palpably feel the repentance and deep sighs of nostalgia for a lost homeland that permeate this psalm. The Jews mourned for their holy and glorious earthly city of Jerusalem, they thought of their temple and the Holy of Holies, and so they sang: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy” (Psalm 137:5-6). What sustained them during that difficult period was the thought that one day they would return to the Promised Land and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. We too should constantly keep this thought before us, that longing for the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22).

It is this concern for acquiring eternity that builds a spiritual temple in our souls in which we offer God our sacrifices of goodness and love. Great and Holy Lent is a most appropriate and particularly blessed time when we strive to adorn our inner temple with virtue. Therefore, the essence of fasting is not a mere change in our eating habits and thus thinking that we are doing something very important. Food is only one and perhaps the most insignificant part of Lent. The most essential thing in fasting is building up one’s spirit and directing it towards the Kingdom of Heaven. We must have a distinct, fervent desire to unite with God and a longing to leave behind all that is earthly and vain and to feel what it is like to be a citizen of Heaven. To be a citizen of Heaven means to live with the joy of Christ and to be filled with the thought of His love because He Himself is the Kingdom of Heaven. True prayer is just that: lifting up the heart to God.

Only when we approach fasting with love and humility is it truly pleasing to God.  If a person does not commune with Christ and does not experience Him in his heart as joy, mercy, and goodness, they would be unable to endure any kind of struggle for very long. This fast lasts seven whole weeks, symbolic of the seventy years of Israel’s Babylonian Captivity. Only after the Jews had soaked the deserts of Babylonia with tears of ardent repentance did God’s mercy grant them to return to the Promised Land and rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. In the upcoming seven weeks, we should emulate them and try to feel that this world is actually a form of captivity for us, that our spirits are oppressed by material desires and pleasures and because of them, cannot rise to the realms of Divine freedom and joy. Let us strive to acquire the true treasure, the treasure of the peace of Christ. With our desires and energies directed entirely toward Christ, let us bow down before His saving Passion and behold the never-setting brilliance of His all-radiant Pascha, which is the true purpose of our lives.

Great Lent is a sort of sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. We offer him our self-restraint, prayers, open hearts, goodness, and joy. The Savior teaches us that if we want to offer a sacrifice we must first be reconciled with everyone: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). This is exactly the reason why the Church calls us today, before the beginning of this Forty-Day Spring, to make peace with all people, and to ask for forgiveness for our mistakes and failures. In the time of the Old Testament, there was a similar day, an annual holiday called the Day of Atonement when Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. It is important to note that they also forgave each other before approaching the altar. Christians, people of the New Testament and of grace, thus have an even greater responsibility to forgive each other so that we can offer God-pleasing sacrifices of mercy and kindness. If we do not forgive from the heart, how will we offer a pleasing gift?

God is mercy, goodness, and love. His fatherly care extends over the whole world. Those of us blessed with knowledge of Him, who have been deemed worthy to serve His Revelation should thus make an effort from the heart, with ascetic feats according to our strength, to offer Him a humble gift of thanks. Let’s use this time of purification to show Him that we really love Him as His children. This ascetic feat of ours is more than necessary, first of all for our own sake, but at the same time for those who are in darkness and apostasy. As messengers of God’s truth, we bear a responsibility for the whole world, which, as we all see, needs God’s peace. Humanity is troubled by unrest and wickedness, which are the result of a lack of repentance. On the other hand, true, inner peace arises only as a fruit of our repentance. Therefore, we must not become discouraged or despair, thinking that we can do nothing about the world’s many problems. On the contrary, each of us individually can contribute a lot to a solution if we get closer to God and acquire Christ’s peace in our souls because this immediately spreads from us to the world around us. Those who are filled with Christ are peacemakers and thus the Lord says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God!” (Matthew 5:9) The sons of God! Is there any greater dignity than this? Christians are therefore called to please the greatest Peacemaker, the Lamb of God, Who took the sins of the world upon Himself (John 1:29), the meek and humble Christ, Who willingly ascended the Cross for us.

Unfortunately, we are witnessing an increasing decline in respect for the value of human life. Today we have a war on Orthodox soil. People are dying every day, not only there, but all over the world. Let’s not forget that we are only guests in this world, we pass through it and then we leave. Take note that your path is directed to the Heavenly Homeland. Let’s try with all our spiritual and physical strength to abstain from evil by fasting and prayer and cling to the good so that we can beg our gentle Savior Lord Jesus Christ to instill a desire for repentance in everyone. May peace dwell in our souls and in all people, and thus will peace prevail in the world. The door of the Kingdom of Heaven is open to those who strive for it with humility and love. Christ says that the Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force and only the strong will take it (Matthew 11:12). He does not mean they will do this violently, with war or the weapons of this world, but with ascetic feats, by compelling our own nature and will, by igniting within ourselves a desire for eternity and union with God. Thus, we have to wage a war within our own selves against passions and sins and against everything that keeps us away from our heavenly Homeland.

May the merciful Christ God give us the strength to endure this fast in a God-pleasing way, in humility and reconciliation, so that we would be worthy to worship the Holy Cross of the Lord and His Holy Pascha in joy and peace. Amen!