The Church’s liturgical book for Great Lent, the Triodion, opens with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, named for the parable the Lord tells in the day’s appointed Gospel reading. (Luke 18:10–14) As we approach this season of repentance the Church gives us this Gospel reading as a warning and as an encouragement. And, as if to underscore both, the Church then prescribes a practical exercise for the week following this Sunday: No Fasting Allowed. (Let it be noted that it does not say Gluttony Encouraged)
As we begin to prepare and lay out the tools of Lent (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and others) the first practical instruction is to pick up fasting… and put it in a drawer. To do less. Not to use it. Why?
First, as a warning. In the delusion of human pride it is easy for us to think that something like fasting is itself a power, that it has an effect, that it makes us holy. And if this effort of fasting comes from us, then we become the producers of our own holiness—a fatal outbreak of pride. This is as misguided as sailors thinking that it is their sails that power their ships, and all they need to do is to hoist the sails in order to make the ship move.
However, the wise sailor knows well that for all his nautical skill, all his labor, and for all the sail in the world no ship will move if the wind does not blow. For it is the sail’s job merely to be in place so that when the true power comes it may catch it and be pulled forward. Just so with our fasting. For all our effort in fasting it is not the fasting that gets us anywhere. Rather it is only ever the grace of God blowing across the face of the earth that our fasting “catches” to carry us across the sea of life and virtue.
And this should be taken as encouragement. The success of our endeavors does not depend on us, ultimately. We are always in need of God to come and carry us along, to propel us in the way of Life. And this he will do. The wind will blow, catching every little bit of sail we might be able to put up. And it will push us in the right direction.
But for one week the Church asks us to take the sails down, to put away our fasting. We must remember humility. We must remember again that this year, for all our effort, the wind upon our faces is the only thing that will actually carry us to the other side.