Pastoral Message for the Season of Great Fast — February 2009

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Dear Bishops, Clergy, Monastics and Laity,

“While fasting bodily, O faithful, let us also fast in spirit; let us loosen every bond of injustice, let us tear apart the strong chains of violence; let us rip up all unjust assertions; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome the poor and homeless to our houses, that we may receive from Christ our God his great mercy.”

This beautiful prayer is from the vesper service during the first week of the Great Fast. It reminds us of all the myriad tasks that will help you and me journey across the Ocean of the Great Fast and reach the joyful shore of the Resurrection of the Lord. We are moved from the purely physical to the spiritual realm. The prayer contains implicitly the triptych of the Lenten Season: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Without these we are unable to loosen bonds, conquer violence, keep just our assertions, feed the hungry and invite the poor to our homes.

The Fathers of the Church: John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria and Basil the Great, tell us that prayer is: standing with our mind centered in our heart, a conversation with God raised to heaven, the raising of the mind to God and the asking for good things, nourishment for the soul with divine thoughts, centering the mind to a cheerful and calm state. During this Lenten season we need to strengthen our efforts during communal prayer in our parishes and families along with setting aside a specific time each day for personal prayer. We need to remember others in prayer, whether they are our friends or enemies. We need to read the scriptures and choose a verse to reflect on throughout the day. Without prayer, the Great Fast has no meaning. How will you pray during this special season?

Tertullian encourages us to feed prayer with fasting. Fasting is often understood as the refraining from food and indeed it is. There are the prescribed fasting regulations of the church for the faithful during the Great Fast. By the grace of God, some are able to fast beyond the required prescriptions of the Church and adhere to the more complete traditional fasting. However, we all must remember that fasting is not an absolute virtue but the foundation for other virtues. The holy men and women of the past warn us that unless fasting is followed by a temperate partaking of food, one will not be able to arrive at the goal of perfection.

We know that when we speak of fasting it includes more than just food. The true fast is one, which drives us away from sin, and our sinful passions. We need to fast from violence in words, thoughts and actions. We need to fast from falsehoods and all unjust assertions. When going to church during this special season we need to fast from saying negative comments – true or false – to anyone and about anyone. Fasting allows us to say the right thing at all times and refrain from saying the wrong thing at the extremely tempting moment. Sometimes we need to fast even from the past, especially when it takes us away from the present where God acts in our lives. Without fasting, the Great Fast has no meaning. How will you fast during this special season?

Saint Clement tell us that fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving is better then both. Another way of saying almsgiving is to leave love as your footprint. The Great Fast is the time to be generous from our bounty and our need. It is the time to remember the widow’s mite in the gospel. It is the time to give to the poor and this is becoming more difficult during the present financial crisis of our country and in fact the world. Almsgiving is not only concerned with material things but also with emotional, psychological and spiritual realities of our lives. Even the person without a single penny can give the alms of a prayer, a compliment, a word of encouragement, a greeting, forgiveness, gratitude or just a smile. There is no reason for a Christian not to give alms whether material or spiritual. On the other hand, there is no reason for a Christian not to accept alms from another. Without almsgiving the Great Fast has no meaning. How will you give alms during this special season?

We, as Christians, are always called to be people of prayer, fasting and almsgiving but most especially during the Great Fast. However, the emphasis is on us and our obligations; we are not to bother ourselves about the actions of others. That is why, we pray in the prayer of St. Ephrem: O Lord and King, grant me the grace to be aware of my sins and not to judge my brothers and sisters; for you are blessed now and ever and forever. Amen.

Asking the Lord to send his blessings on each of you and your families during the Great Fast, I remain:

In the name of the Lord!

Metropolitan Archbishop of Pittsburgh