Lent begins this week, the season of preparation for Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the culmination of the economy of salvation. In preparation for the ultimate sacrifice and gift, the death and resurrection of the Son of God for the salvation of souls and the renewal of all creation, Lent is a period of penitence and fasting. As with the veneration of the martyrs, fasting is difficult for the contemporary Christian. This is not just because we live in a world of instant gratification, where pleasure is literally at our fingertips. It is also because we modern Christians consider our faith to be an intellectual thing, a matter of belief understood as an intellectual, mental acceptance of truthful propositions. We have difficulty accepting the connection between body and mind, the way physical submission of the body strengthens the entirety of our self and the support it offers us in our lives as Christians. While “fasting” has become something of a dietary fad, these fasts only reinforce the separation of mind and body: they are undertaken for physical reasons, to cleanse the body or to affect our physical appearance. Recent health science is supporting what ancient practices have long known, that mind and body are interconnected, but popular understanding of both physical health and spiritual life has yet to catch up. Fasting, in its ancient Christian and Armenian Christian form, often seems to us an antiquated form of self-loathing or a thinly veiled rejection of the physical world that has no connection to the propositional truths of Christian belief.
It doesn’t help that in its most common form, Lenten fasting takes the form of the question, “What are you giving up?” As our primate Fr. Daniel Findikyan has eloquently argued, fasting in the Armenian Christian tradition is not about giving things up, or deprivation and self-denial as an end in itself. Such a narrow view of fasting, as if God awards “salvation points” for those who are able to deprive themselves of their favorite things only further distorts our image of fasting. Fr. Daniel and others, such as Arpi Nakashian here on Vemkar have done an excellent job laying out principles for effective fasting during Lent and offer guidelines for understanding and practicing fasting that is more in line with the traditional position of the Armenian Apostolic Church. They also offer some of the reasons the Armenian Church fathers have given for fasting, including the typological relationship of the Lenten Forty-Day Fast with the fasts of Moses, Elijah, and of course Jesus Christ himself at the beginning of his ministry.
Instead of rehashing these beautiful statements of Lenten fasting, today we will point to some of the Armenian patristic sources on fasting and highlight how fasting itself can be a source for both strength and renewal. Fasting as source of strength is emphasized by most Armenian writers on fasting. Perhaps paradoxically, a practice that could be seen as weakening the body provides the one who fasts with strength to resist all kinds of temptations. St. Gregory the Enlightener, in sermons attributed to him collected in what have become known as The Oft-Repeated Discourses of St. Gregory the Enlightener, speaks of being “fortified with fasting.” In other words, by discipling the body through fasting, she who fasts gains the strength to resist temptation and to live fully the live God desires for her. Likewise, Catholicos Hovhan Mandakuni writes that by the forty days of fasting “The Lord defeated the tempter, Satan, on the Mount of Temptation.” Jesus’ forty-day fast “is to be held as an ideal example of victory for all believers,” demonstrating the seemingly paradoxical source of strength fasting provides. This strength to defeat temptation gained through fasting is a theme that runs through all the patristic injunctions to fast.
|Opera Selecta Teriana||This special volume of the St. Nersess Theological Review includes a significant portion of the essays written by Dr. Abraham Terian, including “Mandakuni’s ‘Encyclical’ on Fasting,” which translates and comments on an important statement on the Lenten Fast by the fifth century Catholicos.|
|Srboy Horn Meroy Eraneloyn Grigori Lusavorchi Hachakhapatum Chark Lusavork||The Oft-Repeated Discourses, a set of sermons attributed to St. Gregory the Illuminator, includes exhortations to fasting and explanations of fasting. In Armenian. At St. Nersess.|
|Handēs amsōreay : baroyakan, usumnakan, aruestgitakan||An important and long-running journal of Armenian Studies, emphasizing theology, published by the Vienna branch of the Mkhitarists. Volume 18 includes the Armenian text of “The Teaching on the Forty-Day Fast” by Khosrovik Vartapet and other volumes have articles addressing arguments for fasting by other Armenian patristic writers.|
Fasting as a source of spiritual strength is perhaps the most direct and obvious way that the practice of fasting is itself a source. Less obvious is the way fasting can act as a source of renewal. To start, Lent is often taken as a moment of personal renewal. As one deacon’s litany states, “We rededicate ourselves to one another and the Lord God.” Loving God and loving each, the greatest commandment and its twin, take effort. Lent and the forty-day fast invite us to renew our relationship with God and each other, to rededicate ourselves. This is one form of renewal from fasting. Earlier this year, we discussed renewal in the context of tradition, noting that tradition is not a stagnant thing, but a living conversation that constantly renews itself through the practice and thinking of contemporary Armenian theologians. Renewal in this sense is not limited to the individual resolutions common at the beginning of the year but includes our collective life within the tradition of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Renewal, as Christian theologians have long pointed out, can be even more cosmic than this collective traditional renewal.
As Fr. Daniel points out in his article “Giving it Up?” if “fasting is a personal commit
Its objects are plainly interpersonal.” He continues by describing how it interpersonal: “Fasting is about the healing of the community and of God’s people, the church.” So, fasting is a source of renewal for the church, the community of Christians. Fasting is, as Fr. Daniel insists, intimately connected to charity. Together, fasting and charity support the community of Christians that is the church. They not only support but also heal. In other words, they renew. Fasting is a form of personal renewal, but it also heals and renews the Church.
Finally, the renewal of fasting can be truly cosmic. Christian theologians have always stressed the renewal of the world that comes with Christ’s Incarnation, the coming of God into the world which we celebrate at Christmas. Christ is the new Adam, a renewal of the original humanity of Adam in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Christ’s Incarnation therefore renews human nature and creation. Yet some of our Armenian hymns go further: during the Blessing of the Water, which we offer on January 6 as part of the Epiphany celebrated by Armenians alongside Christmas, it becomes clear that Christ’s Incarnation renews all of creation. Christian salvation is healing for the whole world. In recent years, Eastern Orthodox theologians have connected ascetic practices such as fasting with renewal of creation and care for the whole world. To suggest how cosmic the renewal of fasting can be, what a source of both strength and renewal not only for individual selves but for the Church and all of creation, we will end with some insights on fasting from the Orthodox thinker John Chryssavgis:
“What does fasting imply? To fast is to learn to give and not simply to give up. It is not to deny but, in fact, to offer; it is learning to share, to connect with human beings and the natural world. Fasting means breaking down barriers with my neighborhood and my world: recognizing in others’ faces icons, and in the earth the face of God. Ultimately, to fast is to love, to see clearly, to restore the original beauty of the world.”
|The Treasury||The quarterly magazine of The Fellowship of St. Voski, this issue includes Fr. Daniel Findikyan’s excellent essay on Lent and fasting, “Giving it Up? Fasting during Great Lent in the Armenian Church.”|
|Girkʻ pahotsʻ||Sermons on fasting during Lent by the great theologian Basil of Caesarea. Basil also famously gave a series of sermons on the Hexaemeron, the six days of creation. We see the link between fasting and the renewal of creation in this great theologians’ sermons. In Armenian.|
|Toward and Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation||This amazing collection of essays by Orthodox thinkers mines the Orthodox Christian tradition for perspectives on nature and the environment. It includes several essays that address the connection between fasting and the renewal of creation.|
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