Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Balance of Fasts and Feasts

I like to feast. That’s probably becoming more apparent as my girth expands. That’s because I feast too much. My Sicilian rector once observed that I am “a good fork.” God be merciful to me, the sinner.
But it’s not a bad thing to feast and to celebrate on occasion. Feasting itself is a good thing.
Recall the parable of the prodigal son. What does the father do when his son finally returns home to him? He kills the fatted calf and feasts and celebrates with his beloved child.
Jesus himself attends and contributes to a wedding feast in Cana.
The Church gets in on this too. We feast. We celebrate. On every icon screen are twelve icons of events we call ‘feasts.” We call them feasts because they celebrate events that call for a feast. Above all, this refers to the eucharistic feast of the divine liturgy – but it also carries the sense of celebrating and sharing a good meal with friends and family. There’s a time to fast and a time to relax our fasting, to cut loose and party. This is part of what’s good about being human and being children of God.
The first Franciscans were no Friar Tucks. They fasted severely and practiced strict asceticism. So much so that one day Brother Morico came to St. Francis and asked him if they should fast even on Christmas Day, because it fell on a Friday.  St. Francis was flabbergasted. Fast?! “On the day on which the Child was born to us? It is my wish,” he said, “that even the walls should eat meat on such a day, and if they cannot, we should smear the walls with meat!”[i] Francis, it would seem, recognized that here is a time for feasting – and even for rather extravagant feasting.
But today’s gospel begins with feasting of another kind. Jesus says, “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He not only feasted, but feasted sumptuously, and he not only feasted sumptuously at times in celebration of great occasions, but feasted “every day!”
And furthermore, he acted in this way while the poor man Lazarus lay starving and full of sores just outside his gate (Luke 16:20). He did not ask this man in. He did not invite him to join his feast or send any portion to him at the gate. This is grotesque.
The prophet Amos saw grotesque imbalance like this in his day. He was a simple shepherd called by God to speak against corruption and injustice at a time of great material wealth and decadence. He says,
Woe to those who… eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall… who drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first of those to go into exile, and [their] revelry… shall pass away (Amos 6:4-7).
And we continue to see imbalance like this in our own day. Being as well sated as many of us are – as I am – can render us insensible to the sufferings of others. Too much comfort can blind us to the discomfort of the poor and needy. Perhaps we hate to be reminded of that because it disturbs our precious comfort.
The tradition of the Church gives us a remedy we ignore at our peril – a remedy that may well have saved the rich man from his torment in the flames had he observed it faithfully: a balanced cycle of feasting and fasting.
We celebrate occasional feasts as expressions of our joy in the Lord. Note that this feasting is occasional. We are not to feast every day, like the rich man. Cookies aren’t for every day, as Pani Katie tells the children and me, but only for special occasions. I should probably listen to her. And when we feast, let’s also remember that the less fortunate are always invited and welcome to join us.
And to balance this feasting, the Church invites us also to many days and seasons of fasting. Count them all up and about half the days of the year are fast days. Half and half. This is a balance.
Fasting is for many reasons, but sometimes we forget the reason of justice. We fast to humble ourselves before the Lord. We fast to train ourselves in virtue and to cleanse our hearts of vanity. We fast also so that we will have more to give. Fasting is to enable giving. Proper fasting consists in consuming less, which means spending less money. These savings are not meant to pad our investment accounts. They’re meant to be given to the poor.
The Shepherd of Hermas tells us,
You must taste nothing except bread and water on the day on which you fast. Then, you must estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day…, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need. In this way you will become humble-minded (Herm 56: 6-8).
This is good and practical advice for us if we are to avoid the tormented condition of the rich man in today’s parable. We might consider drawing up a more austere grocery budget during the fasting seasons and giving the savings to Food for the Poor or to another charitable organization. Or, better yet, giving it directly to those in need in our communities.
Our next fasting season, which will be in preparation for the feast of the birth of our Lord, begins in less than a month, so give this some thought.
Each fasting season ends with a feast. And a life lived simply in the Lord, without flaunting extravagance in the face of the poor, but rather sharing all that we have with those in need, will end at the heavenly banquet table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Matt 8:11).

Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. 2nd – 4th century.

[i] Saint Francis of Assisi, Celano, Second Life, Chapter CLI

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Lord Gardens as well as Sows

on Luke 8:5-15
There is no question as to whether or not the Lord has sown the seed of the word of God in your heart. He has done so. He pours out his grace upon all of us constantly. He is present with us always. So, rather, the question is, do we receive him? If we become like good soil, we can receive the seed and with it live and grow forever.
Maybe we can recognize ourselves in the various kinds of soil that Jesus describes in his parable of the sower.
Perhaps, like the overtrodden soil, into which the seed cannot nestle, we are beset constantly by distractions and temptations – devils convincing us to turn away from the word in our hearts – from what we really know is beautiful, good, and true, and to turn instead again and again to our enslaving passions and sins, gluttony, lust, pride, or drunkenness, or whatever else.
Perhaps, like the rocky soil into which the seed cannot grow roots, our commitment to the Lord is fleeting. We embrace him with a quick fervor when we hear the good news that Jesus offers us abundant life (John 10:10b), but when it becomes all too apparent that the way to this life is the painful and difficult way of the cross (Luke 9:23), we find there are stones within us blocking further growth – a stony stubborn unwillingness to give that much, to yield, to let go of our own way (cf. 1 Cor 13:5b).
Perhaps, like the thorny, weedy soil, which chokes the seedling to death as it tries to grow, we are not so much discouraged by suffering as seduced by comforts and pleasures of this life, so that, while the word of God sounds good enough to us, we’re deluded into believing we don’t really need it. That’s nice enough for other folks, we think, but I’ve got what I need from my bed or my couch and TV and internet. Endless diversion and entertainment at my fingertips. Who needs to go to church so often?
Perhaps, like me, you’re thinking, yikes, my soil is weedy, rocky, and overtrodden all at the same time.
But whatever kind of soil we have been like so far in our lives, the Lord returns and sows the seed again and again. Like a good gardener, he’s out every year with his bag casting seeds. A sower does not plant only one season, but every planting season as it comes around. We go through seasons in our life. However we have been until now, there is no reason to despair. There is every reason to hope. Our sower has not abandoned us. He is coming again and again.
We want to become like good soil, so that the next season when he comes around, we are prepared to receive him. Much can be done with soil to prepare it to receive seed. Gardening isn’t only sowing, and our Lord is a good gardener, not only a sower.
You and I are the earth. Remember that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). We are the earth in which the Lord is preparing to plant his garden.
If he sees that you’re overtrodden, he’s building a fence around you to redirect the path away from you. Your deliverer is coming to deliver you from the devils that tempt you. To cooperate with him in building this fence, change your habits. Stop treading the well-worn path from one sin to another. Stop returning again and again to your sin like a dog to his vomit. When the temptations come, as they surely will, immediately take refuge in the Jesus Prayer – “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” And the Lord will deliver you. Repeat the prayer as often and as long as the temptation persists.
If the Lord sees that you’re like rocky soil, he is raking out the rocks. Whatever stony idols you’ve clung to, preferring them to God, he’s raking them out. He’s taking out your heart of stone and giving you a heart of flesh. He’s breathing his spirit into you so that you will walk in his ways. He is delivering you from all your uncleanness. And he’s summoning the grain and the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field and making it abundant (cf. Ezekiel 36:25-30). The Lord is the good gardener. To cooperate with him in this raking, yield and do not resist him. Let go of whatever you’re clinging to that is not God. You let it go and he’ll rake it out. He’ll loosen the soil and make it receptive to his seed.
If the Lord sees that you’re like soil choked with weeds, he’ll uproot those weeds. Whatever riches or comforts or pleasures you’re overly attached to are passing away. The Lord is uprooting your attachment to them. Unlike the stones, which are negatives, the weeds are positives – they’re living things too – but anything, even any good thing, that we put in the place of God will be uprooted. To cooperate with the gardener in pulling up the weeds, embrace ascesis. Simplify your life. Give any excess to those in need. Fast. Pray. Make some prostrations in your prayer. Humble yourself before your creator.
Finally, the soil is almost ready. It is no longer trod upon, nor rocky, nor weedy. The gardener has prepared it. Only one step remains. If we are gardeners or farmers, we know how best to enrich the soil at this point – with the compost. Soil is enriched by death and decay, out of which grows forth new and abundant life. Soil thus enriched will easily receive a seed and help it grow strong and lively. The remembrance of death will enrich our hearts to hear and keep the word of God.
In a Romanian skete on Mt. Athos, they keep the bones of the departed monks in an ossuary. And on the skull of one of them is written, “What I am, you will be, too. What you are, I’ve been myself.” Brothers and sisters, we are going to die. And then, we will stand again in the glory of the Lord. This whole life is preparation for that coming experience of God.

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