Forgiveness Sunday/Cheesefare Sunday [Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21]

Our Epistle and Gospel readings go hand in hand this morning, offering us great words of wisdom and preparation as we begin Great Lent this evening. Over the course of our pre-Lenten preparation, we’ve been instructed in the perspective we’re to enter the fast with. Going back to Zachaeus Sunday, we’ve been presented with a series of questions through the parables of Christ—is our hearts desire to see the Lord? Are we prepared to humble ourselves before the Lord? Are we ready to return to Him in repentance and broken-ness of heart? And finally, we were presented with the Last Judgment, to ensure that we consider the question of our salvation with all seriousness and sobriety.

Great Lent is all about returning to Christ…and we struggle with fasting and repentance and prayers and almsgiving and spiritual readings to do just that. The most prominent feature of Great Lent is our fasting. And today, we hear from Christ and St. Paul exactly how it is we’re to undertake our fast.

Christ warns us, when you fast, don’t fast like the hypocrites. They want everyone to know about their fasting. They present for the world to see the ascetic struggles they’re undertaking ‘for God.’ Hypocrites seek the praise of others for their fasting. They say the fast is for God, but it’s really to obtain the praise of men. And when they receive this praise, Christ says, that is their reward. When we fast, our Lord teaches us, we’re to carry ourselves as usual, so that no one has any idea what we’re doing. We’re not to call special attention to our fasting. The only one who should see and know our labors is God, and He’ll reward us as He sees fit, in His good pleasure. Our fasting is to be solely for God, as an offering of our lives and our wills and as an offering of love to our Saviour.

This point is very much related to something St. Paul said in the Epistle reading as well. As we are fasting, we’re not to worry about what other people are doing. St. Paul writes, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:3-4). We’re not to let others know what we’re doing, and we’re not to worry about how others are keeping the fast.

St. Paul then goes on to remind us that the day of our salvation is close at hand; the day we’re to stand before the Throne of the Lord of Glory is closer now than its ever been. And so we offer a fast of repentance, according to the words of Christ. And to that fast from food, we join a fast from all sin. We put off the works of darkness, and clothe ourselves in the armour of light, as St. Paul writes to the Romans (13:12). The Fathers of the Church warn us that our fasting can easily be for nothing—if we fast for the praise of men, then it’s worthless. And if we don’t fast from works of wickedness, then our fasting from food is for nothing. St. Paul writes, “Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Romans 13:13-14).

There is also a wonderful and related story from the life of St. Basil the Fool-for-Christ of Moscow. The story exists in several forms, but basically is says that St. Basil was greatly revered as holy man in Moscow. And the fools-for-Christ would prophecy (tell the truth about God) by doing things that seemed very absurd to the public. So one Holy Friday, St. Basil say on the steps of the cathedral as people entered for service, eating meat. And as the people were scandalized, he said, “why should I fast from food when I give myself daily to sin.” And this scene brought many of the people to repentance, realizing that’s what they had done during the fast.

This evening we’ll begin our Lenten journey to that great and holy day of our Lord’s Resurrection. But we must keep in mind that our Lenten journey will be of no use if it’s simply a dietary modification for the course of 40+ days. We’re called by our Lord to lay aside all sin. And to focus all of our energies on being with Christ. We’ll end with a quote from St. John Chrysostom to set the tone for our fast—“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?”