Monday, January 17, 2005

The great thing about being a member of a Church that encourages fasting

is that, occasionally, the Church forbids fasting. Yesterday in the Byzantine church was the Sunday of the Publican. It recalls the story in Luke where the Pharisee stood in the front of the synagogue, thanking God that he was not like most people. "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get." Meanwhile, the tax collector (an unsavory occupation even then) stands in the back of the synagogue, merely saying "God, be merciful to me a sinner." This Sunday always occurs the week before the Lenten fast starts, which for us begins next week, with Meatfare Sunday, where we say farewell to meat until Easter. So, very soon we will be fasting lots. But this week, the Church mandates that we do not fast, to remind us not to be like the Pharisee, taking pride in our fasting. Rather, we should feast, but we should also direct our ambition to be more like the lowly tax collector, who does not fast, but who begs for mercy.

It's a good reminder before the Great Fast. Have you ever gotten into a "my fast is bigger than your fast" conversation? You know, where you ask your friends, "What are you giving up for Lent? Oh, that's easy!" To do such a thing is to fall right into the trap of the Pharisee, who is doing the right thing by tithing and fasting, but is doing it not out of humility, but in order to exalt himself.

T.S. Eliot says somewhere that the greatest crime, the greatest treason, is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. (It rhymes, but he was a poet.) Think about that as you fast this Lent.

No comments: