To the Reverend Clergy, Monastics and Faithful of the Diocese of the West:
But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:8-13)
Has there ever been a time in our lives, no matter our age, when we needed Great Lent more than this moment? One year ago, we entered a different Lent neither anticipating nor appreciating the darkening clouds of pandemic gathering over our entire world. In some ways, it feels like we have been in a strange kind of “lent” for the past twelve months — isolated in an imposed quiet with all sorts of time for prayer, meditation and edifying reading. Many of our faithful have not stepped foot into the temple (nor had anyone in their own homes) for a year. God only knows if we turned to Him to transfigure those endless moments into something more fruitful than fear and isolation, something more fruitful than figuring out “what to stream next.” Profitable or not, those moments are gone and we have arrived at the threshold of another Great Lent.
On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, as part of our preparation to enter into Great Lent, we hear the words of St. Paul above. The preparatory lesson is simple: legalism is not the goal of fasting, our salvation does not depend on what we eat or don’t eat, how “many” prayers we say, or how many church services we attend. In and of themselves, they make no one a saint. And yet, there are two realities. The first is that while “numbers” and “amounts” and the “allowed foods” do not make me a saint by themselves, it is undeniable that every saint lives all of that. So we should strive to be saints by emulating them and praying, fasting and giving alms generously; not legalistically, but as the product of a rich and growing interior life.
The second reality is that our “liberty in Christ” should never scandalize our brothers and sisters. “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat…” We keep fasting rules to discipline ourselves and to help lift up the weaker among us by example. It is so easy to fall into triumphalism, to be so puffed up with our “orthodoxy,” that we condemn those whom we see as “weaker” or “less orthodox.” It is so very easy to keep my focus on my brother’s plate instead of my own, without understanding the “kitchen” where my brother has his plate prepared. This past year should lead us all into gratitude for another chance to make a special effort to transcend the pettiness, the judgment, the hardheartedness that we not only exhibit, but in which we feel quite justified wallowing. More than anything, our prayer for this Great Lent 2021 should not be that we get back to a “normal” church life and Lent, but rather that the past twelve months create a desire for more than normal, and a desire for just a bit more mercy, love and forgiveness for those with whom we disagree, both in- and outside the Church.
Let us bow down before each other and seek (and grant) forgiveness as we enter into this time of the year. Let us pray personally, and corporately, with a sincere and humble heart. Let us live disciplined lives that do not scandalize anyone. May we fast in order to create a space for the One who is going to His Passion and Resurrection for us. I wish for all my faithful parishes and each and every one of you a most fruitful and joyous Fast. May we all rejoice in the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection at the end of these most holy days.
With love in Christ,