SERMON: Homily On The Beginning Of The Holy Season Of Lent (On fasting) by John Chrysostom
I am pleased and delighted to see the church of God adorned today with the throng of her own children, and to see you all coming together with great joy. I mean, whenever I look upon your beaming faces, I take it as an infallible sign of the satisfaction you feel at heart. — As the wise man said, “The face betrays the joy of the heart.” So naturally I myself arose this morning with more than the usual enthusiasm since I was to share with you this spiritual happiness and I wanted to become a herald for you of the approach of Lent — the medicine, I might say, for your souls. Like a loving father, you see, the Lord of us all, in his desire that we be cleansed of the sins we have committed with the passing of time, desired a remedy for us through holy fasting.
So let no one be gloomy, no one look sullen, but exult and be glad, and glorify the guardian of our souls, who shows us the best way, and welcome with great joy his approach. Let the pagans be ashamed and the Jews dismayed to see the love revealed by our welcoming the approach of this season with such excitement, and let them learn through the experience of these things the extent of the difference between them and us. Let them designate as their feasts and festivals, drunkenness and all other kinds of licentious and shameful behavior, which is typical of them to wallow in, but let the church of God, unlike them, identify feasts with fasting, neglect of the appetite and all the virtues that accompany it. This, in fact, is a true feast, where there is saving of souls, where there is peace and harmony, where the harsh realities of daily life are missing, without tumult and din and the antics of good cooks and slaughter of brute beasts. Utter rest and quiet, love and joy, peace and gentleness, and a thousand other good things are the order of the day in place of that other behavior.
So come now, I beg you, let us discuss these things, my dear people; let me urge you first of all to receive our words with great enthusiasm so as to gain something worthwhile and so return home. It is not, after all, idly and to no purpose that we have come here, for one person to do the talking and the other simply to applaud what is said, and so for us to off home. Instead, it is for me to utter something useful and relevant to your salvation, and for you to profit from what is said and so to leave here for home after gaining much benefit. The church, you see, is a pharmacy of the spirit, and those who come here ought to acquire some appropriate remedies, apply them to their own complaints, and go off the better for it. I mean, blessed Paul confirms this, that mere listening without showing practical response is of no value, when he says: “It is not, after all, the listeners to the law who are at rights with God, but doers of the law who are set at rights.” Christ, too, in his preaching said: “Not everyone saying to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven.” Accordingly, dearly beloved, since we know that no benefit comes to us from listening unless it is brought to its completion in the good works that follow, let us not be listeners only but doers, so that the works following the words may be for us grounds for confidence.
Accordingly, open up the recesses of your mind so as to receive the sermon on fasting. To make a comparison with a modest and demure bride: those with the task of introducing her to the bridal chamber adorn it with drapes and cleanse the whole house, giving no entrance to untidy servant girls, and only then do they conduct the bride to her chamber. I would like you to follow this model, purifying your thinking and bidding adieu to indulgence and intemperance; then, with the recesses of your mind open to receive them, welcome the mother of every good, mistress of sobriety and ever other virtue — I mean fasting — so that you may enjoy greater pleasure and she may provide you with her own special healing. To put it another way: when doctors intend to prescribe medicine to patients anxious to get rid of putrid, harmful fluids, they direct them to abstain from bodily food lest it be a hindrance to the power of the medicine instead of its having the effect of demonstrating its true properties. So much the more should we, on the point of receiving that spiritual medicine — the benefit of fasting — purify our thinking and render our mind alert lest it be sodden with drink and find useless and unprofitable what should be of benefit in the exercise.
I know, of course, that what I say today will strike many of you as novel. I beg you, however, not to let ourselves heedlessly become the slaves of habit, but let us subject these matter affecting ourselves to the process of reason. After all, do you get any benefit from daily gluttony and extreme indulgence? Far from benefit, all you get is harm and intolerable damage. You see, whenever reason becomes sodden through drinking to excess, immediately the benefit gained from fasting is wiped out without trace. I ask you: what could be more distasteful, what more unseemly than people quaffing wine right up till midnight, up to the dawning of the first rays of the rising sun, reeking to high heaven from drinking all that wine, a disagreeable spectacle to people they meet, an object of contempt to their household, the laughing stock of all who have some little idea of correct behavior and in the eyes of everyone when they draw on themselves the displeasure of God through this extreme intemperance and ill-timed, mindless indulgence. “Drunkards,” scripture says, “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So what could be worse than the plight of these people who are driven from the precincts of the kingdom for a fleeting and pernicious satisfaction?
God forbid that anyone of you gathered here should be overcome by that weakness. May you instead celebrate each day as it comes with restraint and sobriety, and be free of the storms and tempests that indulgence is accustomed to cause, and thus reach the harbor of your souls — I mean fasting — so as to be in a position to gain its advantages in abundance. I mean, just as indulgence proves to be cause and promoter of countless evils for the human race, in like manner fasting and neglect of appetite have invariably proved the cause of innumerable benefits to us. God, you remember in forming human beings in the beginning, knew that they had particular need of this remedy for the salvation of their souls, and so from the outset he gave the first human creature this command: “From all the trees in the garden you are to eat your fill, but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil do not eat.” That text about eating and not eating refers figuratively to fasting. Although man was obliged to keep that command, he did not do so: overcome by intemperance and guilty of disobedience, he incurred a sentence of death. When the devil, as you remember, evil spirit and enemy of our nature as he is, saw the first human being living in the garden, how his life was carefree and how he lived on Earth in bodily form yet like an angel, he wanted to trip him up and dislodge him with the hope of greater promises, and so he cheated him of the possession of what he had. This is the extent of the evil of not keeping within proper limits but aspiring to greater heights. A wise man has made this clear in the words. “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” Do you see, dearly beloved, how from the beginning it was from intemperance that death had its entry? Notice likewise that later, too, sacred scripture repeatedly accuses indulgence, in one place saying, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to entertain themselves”; in another, “He ate and drank, grew fat and heavy and for his love returned him scorn.” The inhabitants of Sodom, too, brought that implacable anger upon themselves from this sin, not to mention their other faults. Listen again to the words of the prophet, “This was the sin of the Sodomites; indulgence amid plenty.” In short, it crops up repeatedly like some fount of source of every evil.
Do you now recognize the harm caused by intemperance? Look in turn at the instances of good behavior due to fasting. The great Moses, after keeping his fast for forty days, was able to get the tablets of the law; and when he came down from the mountain and saw the people’s sin, the tablets which he had been successful in obtaining through such intercession he threw down and smashed, thinking it was preposterous that an indulgent and sinful people should receive laws of the Lord’s own making. Accordingly, that remarkable prophet had again to undergo forty days of fasting so as to be able to receive again tablets like the ones he had broken through the people’s sin, and bring them down the mountain. The great Elijah, too, underwent a similar period of fasting, escaping the power of death and going up as it were into Heaven with a fiery chariot, and to this day he has not experienced death. Likewise Daniel, passionate man though he was, spent many days fasting and received as recompense an awesome vision so that he tamed the fury of the lions and turned them into the mildest of sheep, not by changing their nature but by diverting their purpose without loss of their ferocity. The Ninevites made use of this remedy, too, and won from the Lord a reprieve, ensuring that animals as well as human beings should apply the remedy and so abstain each of them from evil practices; thus they won the favor of the Lord of all. We could list many other examples celebrated in both Old and New Testaments — but why refer to servants when we should come to the case of the common Lord of us all? Our Lord Jesus Christ, you know, himself underwent fasting for forty days, and, thus prepared, he entered his contest with the devil, giving us an example that through fasting we should arm ourselves and by acquiring strength from that exercise we should come to grips with that formidable enemy.
At this point, however, someone who looks critically at things and keeps his faculties alert may perhaps post the question: why is the Lord seen to fast for the same number days as his subjects, and why did he not surpass that number? It was not idly or to no purpose that this happened, but according to the Lord’s own wise purposes and his loving kindness. I mean, in case it would appear that he had simply come on Earth without taking flesh and becoming a human being except in appearance, he fasted for the very same number of days to make this point, not adding any days, so as to curb the rivalry of people wanting to act unrestrainedly. You see, if there are still those rash enough to speak this way even when the Lord acted as he did, what would they not have attempted to say if he had not in his providence robbed them of any pretext? So he resisted the temptation to fast for a longer period of days than his subjects; thus he taught us a lesson, that he has taken the human condition on himself and is not living apart from our human situation.
Since it is now clear to you from the example both of the Lord and his subjects that the value of fasting is considerable, and that great benefit accrues to the soul from it, I beg you, my dear people, now that you know its benefit not to resist its saving power through indifference nor lose heart at its approach, but rejoice and be glad, as blessed Paul says, “The more our external selves are destroyed, the more the inner person is renewed.” Fasting is nourishment for the soul, you see, and just as bodily nourishment fattens the body, so fasting invigorates the soul, provides it with nimble wings, lifts it on high, enables it to contemplate things that are above, and renders it superior to the pleasures and attractions of this present life. And just as the lightest ships cross the seas more rapidly whereas those weighed down with much cargo take on water, in like manner fasting leaves the faculty of reason nimble and enables it to negotiate the problems of life adroitly and fly to Heaven and the things of Heaven, despising the things of this life as being no less evanescent than shadows and dreams. Indulgence and intemperance, on the other hand, weigh down our reason, fatten the body, and shackle the spirit, hemming it in on all sides; they deprive the judgment of reason of any dependability, inducing it to follow dangerous courses, and thus work in every way against our salvation.
Let us not be careless, dearly beloved, in dealing with matter concerning our salvation; recognizing instead the troubles that could come from that evil source, let us avoid the harm it produces. After all, we are warned against intemperance not only in the new dispensation by its greater attention to right thinking, its more frequent struggles and greater effort, its many rewards and ineffable consolations. Not even people living under the old law were permitted to indulge themselves in that way, even though they were sitting in the dark, dependent upon tapers, and brought forward gradually into the light, like children being weaned off milk. Lest you think I am idly finding fault with intemperance in what I say, listen to what the prophet says: “Woe to those who fall on evil days in sleeping on beds of ivory, luxuriating on their couches, living on a diet of goats picked from the flocks and suckling calves from the herds, and drinking strained wines, anointed with precious unguents — like men treating this as a lasting city, and not seeking one to come.” Do you see the heavy accusation the prophet levels against intemperance in charging the Jews with these faults of stupidity, sensuality, and daily gluttony? I mean, note the accuracy of the words: after attaching their gluttony and their drinking to excess, he added, “like men treating this as a lasting city, and not seeking one to come,” all but stating that their satisfaction got as far as lips and palate, and they went on to nothing better. Pleasure, however, is brief and fleeting, whereas pain never lets up and has no end. The truth of this comes from experience, the true meaning of lasting realities — “like men treating this as a lasting city” — and fleeting things — “not seeking one to come” — that is, not lasting for a moment.
All human and carnal things, after all, are of this kind like pleasures, human glory and power, like wealth and all the prosperity of this present life; these things have nothing firm about them, nothing steady, nothing fixed, but shift more rapidly than the currents of a river, leaving naked and desolate those swept along in them. Spiritual things, on the other hand are not like that — quite the opposite, in fact: firm and immovable, not subject to change, lasting forever. What folly, then, would it be to exchange the immovable for the tottering, the permanent for the passing, the enduring for the fleeting, what promises to give joy in eternity for what offers us terrible punishment there?
Considering all this, therefore, dearly beloved, and placing great store on our salvation, let us despise intemperance as mindless and harmful, let us embrace fasting, and right attitudes along with it; let us display a renewed lifestyle, and address ourselves daily to performance of good deeds. In this way, having spent all the holy season of Lent dealing in spiritual goods and amassing great wealth of virtue, we would thus merit to arrive at the day of the Lord and approach with confidence that awesome spiritual banquet, and with conscience pure share in those ineffable and immortal goods, being filled therefrom with grace and with the prayers and intercessions of those well-pleasing to Christ, our loving God, to whom the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power, and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages.
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