Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Purpose of the Great Fast

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It might surprise some of us that the Church considers us spiritual "catechumens" during the 55 days of the Great Fast. Historically, a catechumen was a non-Christian who desired to join the Church and so entered into a period of religious education and spiritual preparation which was from forty days to eight weeks long. He would go to the main church of the city to hear a series of lessons (catechisms) from the bishop on biblical and doctrinal issues, and engage in a series of exercises which taught him how to pray and fight the good fight. If the catechumen was deemed worthy and ready, he was baptized by the bishop on the night before the Resurrection Feast—Bright Saturday—and he received his first communion with the body of believers during the feast itself.

Today, the catechumenate as a body is virtually gone; most of were baptized into the church as infants, and those adults who desire to be baptized are given a private course of religious education rather than a public one with other aspiring converts. Yet, the Great Fast brings us back to a point of beginning every year. For is not it our experience that we tend to forget and neglect the blessings and rights of our baptism day after day? We have been made children of a King, sons of a heavenly Father, co-heirs with Christ, and temples of the Holy Spirit—a priceless birthright! But we appear so similar to outsiders; the light of Christ does not shine through us.

So the Church invites us every year to "start over", to take the first step again on the difficult road to perfection (Matthew 5:48). All the virtues we desired so earnestly to cultivate but felt we could not, we may begin again to pursue; all the sins we desired to uproot but felt we could not, we start again to eradicate. Roman Catholics have a nice custom of "giving up" one special pleasure during what they refer to as Lent, be it television, beef or even sugar. Our fasting is more comprehensive and ascetic, in accordance with our monastic roots; yet we can choose to "give up" a particular habit or weakness in addition to the Church’s rites on the Holy Great Fast. Why not forego complaining for these 55 days? Or abstain from peevishness, sarcasm, unkindness, laziness—any of a host of the small problematic traits that work to undermine our spiritual growth.

The entire Great Fast effort can indeed be summed up in that all-embracing word, "repentance". It is the decision to make our future greater than our past, in order that we might enjoy God’s presence and love more intimately. For His presence has a special warmth and peace; and we are often far off, where the cold distance between us chills our spirits into a dejected torpor. The Great Fast—if experienced rightly, and not just as an inconvenient diet modification—can light the fire beneath us and throw us into a mode of action and service which will arouse our desire for God. The road is long and the effort strenuous; but at the end awaits the calming solace of Pascha, and the enduring joy of the Glorious Resurrection.

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