As the first week of Great Lent draws to a close, encouragements to persist in the fast increase, and recipes (some of them very tasty) are shared. Fasting for Orthodox is a rigorous practice of virtual veganism for the duration of Lent and Holy Week. Sustained by communal support, the individual believer is called to fast, pray, and give alms.
This first Sunday in Lent is celebrated as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, accompanied by a procession of icons (often carried by as many that want to participate) and a reading of the conciliar anathemas (sigh, really?). Adam DeVille highlights recent scholarship’s clarification that iconodule theology was a triumph of a theology of incarnation, not necessarily a theology of images or of their aesthetics. He hints at the need to develop the latter, which I think should only happen as the result of the continued development of the former.
So distracted are we with the triumph of the objects, we sometimes forget the persons to whom they point, and the underlying radical claim that the divine is not just made visible in Christ, but the divine is uniquely manifest in and through each and every person. After all, we are human persons created in the image of God and are called embody our likeness unto God in our lives.1 It is not simply a person painted on wood, but their story, their unique ability to love God and neighbor. It is their faith-hope-love-filled relationships that are celebrated. Our iconic gaze however, is not meant to simply rest on their lives, but instead move to them, and through them back to our own our lives. We are the living images of God whose likeness we share not because we look like God in Christ but because we relate to all of creation like God in Christ.
Which brings me to Lent: Lent is primarily characterized by practices of prayer (usually in communal liturgy) and fasting. Honestly, alms-giving sometimes feels a bit tacked on if only because it is not practiced together, which is appropriate given that it should be in secret. As should fasting, but I digress. Food, ironically, becomes an obsession as Orthodox attempt to cook an virtually vegan diet.2 The frequency of meals shared before and after lenten services knit the community together in their common struggle, their common ‘ascesis’. For many, the week after Pascha feels a bit of a let down as the emotional intensity of Lent and Holy Week when spending portions of every day with your community in exhausting liturgical celebration suddenly dissipates into the comparatively solitary Bright Week. For many of us, it feels a bit like the sudden end to summer camp. It is that intense, that bonding, that communal.
But is this type of community bonding the primary purpose of the fast to which we are called? Is the purpose of Lent fasting and prayer, or is fasting and prayer meant to be a means to something else?
Isaiah 58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday. (Isaiah 58:6-10)
Perhaps the placement of the Triumph of Orthodoxy can serve as a reminder of this call towards justice. On this day, we celebrate the triumph of a theology of the incarnation where divinity is embodied, where we are the hands and feet of Christ (thank you St. Francis). Typically, our liturgies focus on the conciliar triumph over the forces of darkness (which is a manifestly unfair characterization of iconoclasts whose main concern was one we share: idolatry), or perhaps our ability as a community to survive the fast as if Lent is the premier example of “Orthodoxy: Christianity. Only Tougher” (google it, we even have an image that makes such an embarrassing declaration almost…idolatrous). What if we instead asked, how does Lent help us become better lovers of God and neighbor?
It is this train of thought that led Mother Maria Skobstova, the “Saint of the Open Door” to write excoriating indictments of mountain-top monasticism where the goal is to live apart apart from the world in an effort to seek personal spiritual perfection. Likewise, the person who pursued looked fed the hungry or clothed the naked, but did so out of an effort to attain personal salvation (what is academic language is called “instrumentalizing the poor”) was misguided. In her mind, this is not the love the world needs. Her canonization in 2004 was controversial for many reasons, not least because she was known for such biting critiques of our Orthodox sacred cows (monasticism and asceticism) and her willingness to care for anyone who came to her door, when they came to her, often to the detriment of liturgical attendance. Her canonization is made more comfortable by her martyrdom in Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday of 1945, only days before liberation. She, and her son, had been imprisoned for helping French Jews escape the German occupation.
My point (and Mother Maria’s) is not that cenobitic monasticism is wrong. There are those who are truly called to pray for the world. This is the point of a monastic life, prayer for the world, not personal spiritual attainment. Monastics with a true calling know this. Nor is my point that we Orthodox should expand our vision of monasticism to include monasticism in the city, though I certainly think this would be a good thing.
Rather, my focus is on those of us who are not monastics but who are asked in the time of Lent to adopt what originated as a severe monastic practice. I am frankly not at all interested in whether we do or do not become virtual vegans, whether we make exemptions for the gluten intolerant and diabetic or hypoglycemic, the traveling, the sick, the just too damn busy. Rather, I want to press that the point of Lent is not fasting. It isn’t even communal prayer. Everything we do, what we eat, who we love, where and when we pray, is meant to orient us towards this: becoming better lovers of God and neighbor.
This is, after all, what is really celebrated in the triumph of icons: the Spirit of God is everywhere and and all things, and we, via our bodies are to be like God to one another. Icons are a celebration of the fundamental understanding of salvation for Orthodox: theosis, divine-human communion which is embodied virtue. We are God’s body, his hands that hold and comfort, her breasts that feed and nurture, the feet that walk beside, the mouth that speaks love and compassion.
Fasting should orient us towards justice which is love. Perhaps, our practice will be as small as stopping before we are full, perhaps we will forego all solid food as a reminder of human need, perhaps we will give away the money we save by not buying meat. Perhaps we will not fast at all since obsessing about food is more of a distraction than a help to become more like God. The truth that is rarely heard among Orthodox is that there are many ways to keep the “fast”. Whatever way we choose, however we engage in Lent, let it be with the goal of becoming better lovers of God and neighbor, better oriented towards the world of which we are a part. Let us together make love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness the character of our lives. This is the “Triumph” of Christianity (not just Orthodoxy): that in Christ we are given the freedom to become more like God who is all these things and more.
- Orthodox theology distinguishes between the “images” and the “likeness” in Genesis 1:27. The image is what we have and the likeness is what we seek to achieve through working with the grace of God. It is NOT excellent Hebrew exegesis, it is however, a very ancient way of expressing the paradox of human persons both being and becoming like God. ↩
- Shellfish of any kind is fair game. Their lack of spines made them garbage food in the ancient world (given what they eat, this is actually true though for reasons other than their exoskeleton), rendering them ‘not-meat.’ Yes, the true vegan should find this strange. ↩