Last Sunday began the traditional season of pre-Lent in the Catholic Church. Last Sunday was traditionally called Septuagesima Sunday. Septuagesima means 70, as in last Sunday there were 70 days until the completion of the Easter Octave. Today is traditionally called Sexagesima Sunday. I’m sure you guessed that means 60. Then the following Sunday, a few days before Ash Wednesday, is what was once called Quinquagesima Sunday, which means 50. The Christian Orthodox in the East still hold to the season of pre-Lent even though we discarded our celebration in the Catholic Church in 1970. Today the Orthodox celebrate what they call Meat-fare Sunday. Today for the Orthodox is the last day to eat meat at all until Easter. Before refrigeration meat would spoil before too long and so Meat-fare week was the week to feast and eat all the meat in the house. Then tomorrow, Monday, begins what is called Cheese-fare week which culminates next Sunday with Cheese-fare Sunday. By next Sunday all the cheese and dairy must be eaten as it cannot be enjoyed by the Orthodox until Easter. Does that sound scary? I don’t know about you but I love meat, cheese, and dairy!
There is a slight difference in why the Orthodox fast and why the Catholics fast. For us in the west it tends to be about repentance for sin. It wasn’t always just that way. I imagine the heresy of Jansenism had some influence on this. Jansenism is a heresy that existed in France and Ireland within the past three centuries. Essentially it said the body is bad, the spirit is good. The thought was that we must punish our bodies for the sinful things we do. The United States’ greatest Catholic missionaries who came here in colonial times until about 50 years ago were the French and Irish. While they did much to build up our country they also tended to bring in some Jansenistic thoughts. It is my opinion that when most older Catholics look unfondly upon the 1940s-60s when they came of age they are referring to some of the Jansenistic traits that still existed within American Catholicism.
I would much rather us get back to the traditional (not the 40s-60s idea) of what fasting is for. For the ancient Church as well as the Orthodox who still maintain it today, fasting is about making room for God within us. Fasting should not be so much sorrow for our sins as calling us to realize what we are made for: to grow ever greater into the image and likeness of God. By fasting we are reminded that we cannot be spiritually filled with this world’s goods, that we must make room within us for the presence of God. It is a bit of a paradox but one cannot fast unless they pray. One cannot also pray unless they fast. See the paradox? And of course all this fasting is so that we can put our hope totally in the Lord.
As Easter approaches I would like to turn my homilies to this idea often forgotten in the Catholic west: Divinization. Through the Sacraments we are slowly – that is if we worthily receive the Sacraments and confess our sins – being transformed ever more into the likeness of God. He is continuing His good work in us and desires to bring it to completion. Completion is that a people totally unworthy and brought low by sin might be able to be so transformed that we may stand in His presence for all eternity. Let us pray and fast, then, with the knowledge of the good things God desires for us! -Fr. W.