by Rev. Joseph Daniel, Christkatholische Department feur Theologie, University of Bern, Switzerland
[Editor's Note: Rev. Joseph Daniel is a clergy of Mar Thoma Syrian Church. This article is written from the perspective of Mar Thoma Church. It will be of interest to Syrian Orthodox members too.]
Fasts and Feasts: Fire for the Journey of Faith
'Fast and Feasts' related to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ have been considered as important liturgical acts of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. The constitution of the church has made it obligatory for all faithful believers of the church to observe it regularly as it thinks that the life of a Christian believer should be an imitation of Jesus Christ's journey from Bethlehem to Golgotha and to the mount of resurrection. 'Fast and feast' days are milestones, which enlighten the church about the specific importance of events in the life of Jesus Christ, and it demand members of the church to follow the same path with self examination and renewed commitment.
Over the past decades, many liturgists have called for a closer analysis of different aspects of the liturgical tradition of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church with special reference to the importance of 'fasts and feasts' in the church. However, many of us are ignorant of what it for or we doubt whether 'fast and feast' days are observed in the church or not. There are a growing body of data from the causal conversations with members of the church indicate that approximately more than fifty percentage of members are not confident on the place of 'fast and feasts' in the liturgical life of the church. The present paper provides a brief and organized description of 'fast and feasts', which are related to the life of Jesus Christ is observed by the church as part of its liturgical calendar.
'Fasts and Feasts' in the Mar Thoma Syrian Church
Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar shares the Eastern Reformed liturgical tradition. The church believes the fifty days before the period of Easter, ten days before Easter and Twenty five days before Christmas are fast days, over against the western church. The western church considers the period before Easter and Nativity (Christmas) as days of celebration. It is important to note here that the Early Church practiced every Wednesday and Friday as fast days. The church observes fifty days as the Great Lent, which includes the forty days fast, symbolizing the forty days fast of Jesus Christ in the desert and ten days fast, signifying the betrayal, passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Mar Thoma Syrian church, along with other churches, which claim Eastern liturgical heritage, considers Fast days are for fast and contemplation.
Fast and Self Discipline
As we all aware, each person is the unity of body, mind and soul. A right spiritual diet and a discipline of fasting go together and strengthen each other. Fasting and prayer make us more sensitive to the presence of Jesus Christ with us. So the church urges us to take certain restrictions on food and drink and it demands from us serious reflection, contemplation, self examination and renewed commitment. Restriction on intake of certain kind of food and drink could be seen as self imposed disciple, which would help concentration more effectively leading to sense the pain, hunger and thrust, of which a lot of fellow human beings are passing through. So fasting with a willing spirit means that we keep the purpose of fasting always before us which is to develop self control and self denial, the exemplary nature of Jesus Christ left before humankind in order to deepen piety. Besides, in fast, one must conscious of what he eats and how much he eats. It calls for simplicity in eating. When one who fast takes control of this physical appetite, he would develop strength to take control of his emotional appetite.
Fasting is not intended to receive any special favours from God or to divert divine intension on the one who fasts. But it is intended as a spiritual exercise for an experience of deeper communion with God, which enables a person to see the divine purpose on him/her. God�s purpose for fasting is enumerated in the Book of Isaiah Chapter: 58. God says, He has chosen fasts that would loosen the bonds of wickedness, undo heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, give bread to the hungry and provide poor with housing, etc. However, like so many Christians today including those who claim the unbroken St. Thomas Apostolic heritage Mar Thoma Syrian Christians, fasting is considered as merely a privet and inward act. All of the focus is on the personal dimension. But this is a fallacy about fasting. The purpose of fast is to change the worshipper in ways that have social and interpersonal impact. Observing fast is not just to gratify ourselves, but being empowered to change the world. So fasting calls for actions of liberation into our everyday life and solidarity with the sufferings of others.
Thus, fast prepares a person to train his body, mind and soul towards God and to needs of human beings. So it involves learning process. As a good athlete go through rigorous self discipline in order to keep ones body, mind and muscles in good condition so should a Christian keep his/her body, mind and soul in good condition and under self control to achieve these two ends. This condition of the body, mind and soul prepares a context for contemplation and prayer. As we all aware, prayer is an act of the whole body, mind and soul. Fast, as we have seen, prepares the whole body, mind and soul of a person to concentrate fully on prayer.
Fast and Contemplation
Eastern Liturgical tradition upholds the participation of the whole body in prayer through posture, speech and acts. The posture for prayer in the Eastern tradition is standing posture, facing east, with arms uplifted or folded in adoration and worship. As we aware, words are not the only means of expression. Non verbal expressions are also powerful means of communication. The non - verbal and verbal communications can be used as means to worship God. Fast days liturgical prayers contain verbal and non verbal prayers. So use of gestures of prostration, bowing the head, making the sign of the cross is non verbal communications to God.
Bowing is a sign of adoration; Lifting up hands with palms open can mean petition, penitence and intercession in prayer. Prostration is the sign of complete surrender and submission and placing in the hands of God with complete trust in Him. Making the sign of the cross is a way of reminding ourselves that we have been saved by the cross of Christ. It is also a reminder that we are crucified with Christ. I am pretty sure that all of us know how to make the sign of the cross and what steps involved in the signing of the cross and what it stands for. However, the aim of the present illustration of signing the cross is to demonstrate the depth of its meaning. Keep the thumb, index and middle fingers together to touch the forehead, which symbolizes the Trinity, and slowly make a descending motion to the lower side of the chest to symbolize the descend of Jesus Christ from heaven to earth for our salvation, then slowly move the finger to left arm, then take fingers from left arm to right arm, signifying that we were on the left side as children of darkness, the cross of Christ have now been brought to the right side of God as children of light. Fingers movements from the forehead to the lower part of the chest, signifies the vertical bar of the cross and finger movements from left arm to right arm signifies the horizontal bar of the cross. The crux of theology is encrypted in it � the vertical relation with God and horizontal relation with fellow human being. Signing of the cross reminds this fact to the church.
It would be appropriate to stop the study of fast here in this article, in order to remind the fact that, celebrations in relation with the life of Jesus Christ are also important in the liturgical life of church.
Major feast days are Danaha, Feast of Annunciation, Palm Sunday, Easter, Day of Ascension, Day of Pentecost, and Day of Transfiguration. Danaha (Epiphany), feast celebrates on 6th January every year. To the Western church the epiphany signifies the visit of Magi from the East to the baby Jesus. However, in the Eastern Church it is the birthday celebration of Jesus. The Feast of Annunciation is celebrated on March 25th indicating the annunciation of Angel Gabriel to Virgin Mary about the birth of Jesus Christ. The Palm Sunday feast signifies the royal entry of Jesus Christ to the Jerusalem temple. The day of Ascension comes forty days after Easter. This seems the vindication of the faith of believers in Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit guides the church to fulfill its task in the in between times, the celebration of the Pentecost Day deserves special place. The day of Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit to the church. The Day of Transfiguration of Jesus celebrates on August 6th to observe the transfiguration of Jesus Christ. As the function of these feasts deserves special study of its own, it is not dealt with in this paper.
The cross is the epicenter of our spirituality. The crucified Jesus Christ is the only accurate picture of God, the world has ever seen. So life journey of Jesus Christ towards the Cross is the key to the nature of God. Jesus came from the glory of God�s presence and he went through the valley of suffering and death in world. But he returned to His glory after His death and resurrection. The observance of fasts and feasts prepare our body, mind and soul to meditate on the journey of Jesus from Bethlehem, to the cross and ascension. This journey invites the church to follow the foot steps of the one who died on the cross - Jesus Christ, who journeyed from Bethlehem to Golgotha and to the mount of resurrection.
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We Orthodox Christians, in obedience to the words of our Divine Savior, and in imitation of the saints, set aside a period of intense fasting and prayer in order to purify our spiritual senses so we may see the Holy Resurrection.
When we have gone through the labor of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards went down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting.
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