To the Archpastors, Pastors, Monastics and All the Faithful Children
Dear archpastors, pastors, monastics, brethren, sisters and children, beloved in the Lord!
I congratulate all of you with the arrival of the salvific days of the Great Fast! If we turn to the sources, we see that, even as early as Old Testament times, fasting was one of the elements of the ascetic life. The prophets and teachers of Israel fasted; after His baptism, Christ began His public ministry by first withdrawing into the wilderness, where he spent forty days fasting; and the Forerunner, Saint John the Baptist, fasted strictly before going forth to preach. Kings and simple folk all fasted to achieve reconciliation with God, to show Him their love.
The holy Forty-Day Fast is special, not only in the life of the Church, but in the life of each Christian, who often refer to it as the "springtime of repentance.” The divine services of the Great Fast begin with the penitent words of the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete: "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!" and with the hymn, "Open unto me the doors of repentance, O Bestower of life," thereby affirming that without repentance there can be no salvation. Repentance is the greatest gift God gives a man: it is a second baptism in which, cleansed of sins, we again find the grace which was lost in the fall. But repentance is also a heavy, painstaking interior labor of purifying the heart of moral impurity, which means seeking out the sin within oneself—in one's thoughts, words, actions—becoming aware of it, hating it, and ultimately employing the Church's grace-filled means to root it out. The fruit of repentance is amendment, the transformation of one's life.
It is for this reason that the Church calls us during the holy days of the Forty-Day Fast to fast "an acceptable fast, well-pleasing to the Lord." This is why we add to bodily fasting a spiritual fast: prayer, the doing of good works, the reading of the sacred Scriptures, attendance at the divine services, the offering of sincere repentance, and the communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. This is what constitutes a true fast pleasing to God and saving for us all. The Holy Church calls us to examine our life during the time of the Fast, to test our conscience in the light of the truths of the Gospel. This means that we must not only call to mind our personal sins and sincerely repent of them, but by our personal life we must bring forth spiritual fruits worthy of repentance, such as "love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, loving-kindness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Galatians 5:22-23). The Fast is not a time for arguments or to look for others to blame. The meaning of the Fast lies in the perfecting of our love for God and our neighbor, because it is love that is the beginning of every virtue. Fasting is nothing, asceticism is nothing if love is absent, which is why it is written: "God is love” (I John 4:8), and "As ye will that others treat you, so ought ye to treat them' (Luke 6:31)," the Lord teaches us.
Fasting is liberation from everything extraneous that deprives us of precious energy and time, that distracts us from "the one thing needful" (Luke 10:42). This is a time when one should not only avoid excessive eating, but the purchase of luxury items; it is a time to restrict our access to vain information about this transitory life and open ourselves to the Word of God, the teachings of the holy Fathers and the history of the Church.
What else should we be doing during the Fast? Private prayer, the examination of our conscience and of our life and works in the light of the Holy Gospel, contemplation of the sufferings and death our Savior endured for us, reconciliation with those close to us, conversation with pious people, charity, hospitality.
Let us especially remember that the Great Fast is a time when one should attentively examine everything one says. Our words possess great power: either positive or negative, destructive or edifying. This is why we will be judged not only for our actions, but also for our words. "I say unto you that for every idle word that men utter, they will give answer on the day of judgment; for one is justified by one's words and one is condemned by one's words," said Christ the Savior.
Let us remember, dear brethren and sisters, that our faith consists of two wings: fasting and prayer. A bird cannot fly with only one wing; and so also every believing Christian must also fast and pray. As you begin the Fast, fear pride, self-importance and self-love. Set as your principal goal the acquisition of humility and meekness. Patiently overcome temptations, humbling oneself again and again. Then the Lord will bless you to perceive a gracious influence of the Great Fast upon your soul and body. “Seest thou what fasting doeth?" writes the holy hierarch Athansius the Great; "It healeth sicknesses, driveth the demons away, banisheth evil thoughts, and maketh the heart pure."
I prayerfully desire that all of you pass through the course of the forthcoming Great Fast and arrive at the holy Resurrection of Christ with a pure heart. May the Lord grant you the strength to accomplish this. May He increase within you faith, hope, love, humble-mindedness and patience.
I invoke upon all the faithful children of the Russian Church Abroad the blessing of God.
With love in the Lord and a request for your holy prayers,
Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York,