We find ourselves in front of the great feast of Christ’s Nativity. The Church as from yesterday, has invited us over to a period of fasting. Each fasting period is a period of struggle for change. Even for a temporary change in the conditions of our lives, and the terms of our existence in the world. Fasting means not only abstention from certain foods. This stays also correct in the power of each person. Fasting means to leave aside for a while the tunic of our daily habits and pleasures for the sake of others and the world. It means that we should leave aside the complicated relationship to the world that we hold; that we should follow a simpler path of lifestyle and that our life becomes eventually simpler and leaner.
Consumerism is the modern scourge of our world. People seek all too often to acquire more and more shiny consumer goods, play with them for some time and then dispose them for the sake of some other more glittering. An exertion of the world that turns out to be misuse and paranoia. The church is inviting Christians to fast, invites them into a course reverse of consumerism. It urges them to preserve the world as created by God. It urges them to be made into yeast that will ferment all the world leading it on to a path of respecting the integrity of creation and of each human person. Fasting is thus a struggle for social justice. It is a summon for changing the terms of distribution of the resources of this earth. This will happen in the name of the justice terms in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Browsing through the Bible one can face with numerous passages that refer to the importance and need of social justice. I’ll come along only one example that offers a more global view of our subject. This is about the great issue of tension between the future and the realized eschatology. Social justice and the kingdom of God coexist and remind us of that in the Bible there is a constant tension between that which already exists and the not yet realized. In what has been already revealed in the person and life of Christ and in what is going to be revealed complete at the final times, in the second coming of Christ and His Kingdom. A particular example of such an attitude can be found in the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy. There, in verses 4-5, and after the holy writer has already made reference to the Jubilee Year, i.e. the year of prescribing all debt, goes on combining the regulatory command to the drama of the eschatological reign: So says, "There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today”. Further down, however, in verse 11, a more realistic perspective appears, that shows the task that the people of God ought to perform in these intermediate times: "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’
It could be really easy to add more biblical passages. The crucial and substantial question is: How Christian communities have responded to this call of the gospel? How the word of Bible has been incorporated as factual life in the lives of Christians? To give a response to this question, I am going to use an example from the history of the Church.
Hermit Sisinnius has been starring in the example and the testimony was recorded by John Moschus in his book Leimon or Leimonarion (Spiritual Meadow), written in the early 7th century. Sisinnius was an anchorite in the grounds of Palestine, near the river Jordan. One day, and while being in the cave that was his residence and performing the service of the third hour, a Saracen woman came into his cell and stripped in front of him. Sisinnius not being troubled completed the rule of prayer and then in all quiet and fear of God told to the woman. "Be seated in order to talk to you and then I’ll do whatever you want". The woman sat down. Sisinnius asked her: "Are you a Christian or an idol-worshipper?" She said: "A Christian." Sisinnius asked her again: "Don’t you know where the practicing prostitutes are going?" She replied: "Yes, I know." "And why then you fornicate" asked Sisinnius anew. She replied: "Because I am hungry". Then the hermit said: "Don’t fornicate any longer, but just come here every day". And the story ends with the phrase of Sisinnius: "I went on giving her food, from what God was giving me, until the moment that I departed from these places”.
At the beginning of the narrative, Sisinnius is performing his monastic duties, chanting hymns and reading prayers, he celebrates the liturgy as worship of God. The coming of the woman is described as an unexpected temptation that places pressure to the monastic rule of the monk and his pledge for virginity. The woman addressed him looking for financial aid, while she offers in return the only tradable good that she owns: her own body. The woman although fails to disrupt the call of Sisinnius, the rule of prayer and the worship to God, she succeeds to enter and become a part of liturgy according to the second meaning of the term. Sisinnius is a former bishop who abandoned his seat in order to live as a hermit, a monk. But as a former bishop he wants to fulfil the tasks that a Shepherd of God is attributed. A political leader of the time is required to provide services to the citizens on his own expenses. Bishop ought to do anything no less than that. That is why Sisinnius henceforward started to fulfil this function in the same way as he fulfilled his monastic duties: uninterruptingly. The practice of feeding the woman daily from his own stocks constitutes an act to worship God and a service to the community: it is a single and impartible function.
Sisinnius is a hermit, an ascetic whose one of the functions is continuous fasting. His fasting is not an indication of deprivation and misery, but a fulfilment of the poor woman being satiate. The response of Sisinnius to the moral dilemma posed by the invasion of the woman into his cell is not the one we would have expected from a monk. Sisinnius turns a seemingly sexual temptation into a challenge – an invitation of a political and economic nature. The woman's body does not attract the monk’s desires of the flesh, but it refers it to the needs of the Christian body, to which Sisinnius feels bound. At the end of the history we read that Sisinnius gave food to the woman till the moment he left from those places. This end emphasises first the fidelity on the performed action. In another perspective, however, it shows us that the monk, and the Christians in general, is primarily a celebrant before the living God.
The Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century remind us not only of their theology but also of their practices; the Christian encounters Christ in the person of the poor, the stranger, the prisoner, the social pariah, as so emphatically the gospel of Matthew, 25th chapter, has described in the parable of the final judgment. St. Gregory the Theologian, coming to emphasize the case of lepers, says that the illness does not just ruin only their health and their bodies, but also their own identity. They fail to recognize themselves and the others too are unable to recognize them, in the double sense of the term. They fail to recognize not only their identity because of the alteration that their bodies undergo, but they are not also recognized – and not accepted as members of the public body of Church, as they lie overlooked at the margins of social life.
Ancient Greece knew the institution of
patronage, the obligation of the rich to spend money for the welfare of the
city. The historical researchers, however, find out that the Cappadocian
Fathers of the 4th century take two more steps towards a substantially new
direction. At the centre of their interest is not the venerable members of the
town, but the untouchables, the pariahs whom the traditional city had given up
for lost. The second step is even more substantial. The Cappadocian Fathers
embody the life of a completely new type of donor and benefactor. By forsaking marriage,
family and property for themselves, they opt voluntarily poverty, virginity and
the ascetic generosity.
As a conclusion, I would like to draw to the classic exhortation of the gospel for a joyous and spiritual fasting: "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces,that they may appear unto men to fast… But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly". (Matt. 6, 16-18).
Josef Roilidis, Kotikirkko, Helsinki, Sunday, 16.11.2014