Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Great Fast and Breaking Our Chains

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You might one day discover that the Great Fast is a wonderful time of surprises. It will surprise you by showing how much progress you can make in the spiritual life, even when youve started out at ground zero. It will surprise you by revealing how much strength there is in you to fast that you never imagined you had. It will surprise you with how much determination wells up inside you to fight and defeat certain weaknesses before the Fast is over. In a life of spiritual dullness and frailty, you will discover that this is the period of spiritual zest and might. It is the perfect time to follow St. Pauls injunction to "strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees" (Heb 12:12).

But the Great Fast is a time not only for building up (ones spiritual life) but also a time for breaking. That is, it is a time not only to fast and pray but also to break apart chainsthe chains that have so many of us bound and paralyzed in the spiritual life. Much of the time, we think the chain to be unbreakable. It is made up of too many links; its steel is too strong; it has become wrapped around too much of my body.

We are now in the fasting season of the Church that was established, among other things, to prove this very idea wrong. In the early days of the Church, the Great Fast was the official period in which a group of Pagans seeking Christian baptism (called catechumens) were to undergo the greatest struggle of their lives: the transition from the old life of sin and pagan worship to a new life in our Lord Jesus Christ. Once baptized, they were called neophytes, or the newly illuminated, for the drastic change they made in their lives from the darkness of sin to the light of purity and righteousness. It was not any easy transition; many of them had been almost hopelessly chained by sexual sin, theft, anger and revenge, pride, and the like. But what gave them strength to conquer were precisely the Churchs prescription to fast and pray. And the new life they experienced was found to be so much superior, so much fresher, so much more pleasing than the old as to be worth dying for.

For this reason the Church has preserved this period of renewal even for baptized believers today. Through the Great Fast the Church makes with us an urgent plea: break your chains. Have you been bound by the sins of the flesh for too long and wish to be free? This is the time to do it. Have you for too long carried the burden of trying to please others? This is the time to throw it off. Have you been feeling too far separated from Christ for so long and wish to be reunited in heart and mind, to make Him once again the good shepherd of your life? Now is the season of reunion.

But all this implies a fight; you will reach your goals (by Gods grace) only through a prolonged and patient struggle. Why is the fast 55 days? Because that is sometimes how long one must continuously fight to gain a definite spiritual victory. Spiritual chains do not break easily. They almost never break in a single day. But one thing is for sure: they are breakable. And the Lord wants you to break them. And most probably, you also want them broken. But I am too weak, you might say. Your weakness is not as much of a hindrance to spiritual progress as you may think. For when St. Paul made the same complaint, Christ responded (in a way brushing aside St. Pauls weary cry), "My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness. This gave the apostle reason to firmly proclaim, I will therefore most gladly boast in my infirmities (my weaknesses), that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (II Cor 12:9).

One of the most indispensable weapons in this fight is fasting. The fourth century Coptic monk, St. John the Short, made an apt illustration: If a king wanted to take possession of his enemys city, he would begin by cutting off the water and food; so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: if a man goes about fasting and hungry, the enemies of his soul grow weak.

So what are you waiting for? Why put off the spiritual struggle day by day just because it seems so formidable? You cannot win spiritual battles that way. A spiritual war is never won by chance. Victory requires first a decision to fight and second a resolute will to keep fighting to the end. And you can be sure that with the combined effort of fasting, prayer and Scripture readingall under the guidance of your spiritual fatherspiritual victory will be in your sights. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrowbut your crown is on the horizon. Your chains will be broken. Sometimes it takes a journey of 55 days to reach the horizon. But it is all dependent on your will not to give up. As long as you are determined to get there, the Risen Christ has promised to help you arrive at your goal; and once there, you are sure to feast together in joya joy that will itself take at least 50 days to celebrate.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13).

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