Posted by Eric (February 21, 2012 at 3:17 pm)
Today is Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday—the day of feasting before Lent begins in the the Western Church. For a Byzantine Catholic, whose Lenten fast began Sunday evening with Forgiveness Vespers, Mardi Gras presents a particular temptation. But not what you might think.
It is not that one is tempted by the indulgence of Mardi Gras going on in the rest of the culture, even among those who do not know that Fat Tuesday is followed Ash Wednesday.
In fact, it is the opposite temptation: the temptation to be like the Pharisee who, in the Byzantine Rite we recalled three weeks ago on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, one of the Weeks of Preparation in advance of the Great Fast: “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men . . . I fast twice a week.”
Those weeks of preparation also included our own version of Carnival—literally “the removal of meat”—called “Meatfare Sunday,” a week before the beginning of the Great Fast, when those who follow the traditional fast eat meat for the last time until Pascha (Easter).
So by the time Roman Rite Catholics begin Lent, fasting from meat on Ash Wednesday and the seven following Fridays, Byzantine Catholics will have already fasted from meat for nine straight days.
In the Byzantine Rite, today is not Fat Tuesday, but Clean Tuesday, the second day of Clean Week, traditionally a period of rigorous prayer and fasting.
For one who undertakes these traditional mortifications, Fat Tuesday—Mardi Gras—Carnival—is a temptation to pride: “God, I thank thee that I am not like these Roman Rite Catholics. I have already fasted from meat more days than they will during all of Lent! As they indulge themselves today, no food has touched my lips in two days!”
I have no wise words to offer in response to this temptation; in fact, the very act of my writing this reflection may be nothing more than a not-so-subtle way to indulge it, giving public voice to those Pharisaical thoughts.
But the truth is that I can’t help but be disappointed that so many of my fellow Christians have given up on fasting—really fasting such that we “limit our food and live on the virtues of the Spirit”*. But to write about this is extremely difficult. One is accused—one accuses oneself—of playing the Pharisee.
For that reason, I have not written about the Great Fast in many years, as much as I’ve wanted to—to urge others to discover how the mortification of a persistent, mild hunger truly helps us “persevere in our longing for Him … rejoicing the while with spiritual happiness.”
Since that time I have kept quite about my fasting, learning some things along the way—like how not even a rigorous fast can prevent a man from forgetting utterly about God for hours or even days on end.
I’ve also come to appreciate the Great Fast more and more. A persistent, mild hunger is a constant reminder that “man does not live by bread alone,” that the desires of the flesh (for food, for sex, for comfort, for distraction) can be quieted, and the desire of the soul for God more deeply felt.
So at the risk of being called a Pharisee this Fat Tuesday, I invite my fellow Christians to embrace fasting this Lent. Don’t just give up the indulgences—the favorite treat, video game, soft drink or TV show. You might miss the those things, but you won’t feel their absence in your flesh, in your body, the way that you will miss eating a full diet.
This Lent, give up having a full belly. Let yourself feel hungry. And see what it does to your soul.
* Quotations from the verses of the versperal stichera of Forgiveness Sunday.