February 2010 - Vol. 37

Fasting & Feasting: Short Readings for Lent from the Early Church Fathers

Hunger for Righteousness

by Gregory of Nyssa (330-394 AD)

Many say that righteousness consists in always giving to each what is right, what each deserves.  I believe, however, taking account of the depth of the divine dispensation, that the word "righteousness" ought to include something more.

"Blessed are they that hunger...after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied". (Matt. 5:6).

When certain things are offered us as food, all of different sorts and very desirable, we need a great deal of patience to discover what is good nourishment and what is harmful. There is a danger that we will want to eat something that may lead to illness or death.  Well then, only the person who is hungry for God's righteousness finds what everyone ought to be looking for.

In this passage, the Word says that righteousness is offered to all those who are hungry for it.  It is clear that the word "righteousness" means the total sum of the virtues. It means that the person is blessed who possesses prudence, courage, moderation, temperance, self-control, who is hungry, in short, for all included in the definition of virtue.

I insist on "all". It is not possible for one particular virtue to be isolated from the others and to remain a perfect virtue.  For this reason, people in whom we do not find what we reckon as good, undoubtedly have in them the opposite of good. So it is absurd to speak of righteousness as applied to a person who is unwise, foolhardy, uncontrolled or dissolute in  some way. Righteousness includes all the virtues and none is left out.

Let us be wholly absorbed by grace

by Pseudo-Marcarius (300-391 AD)

Inside us evil is at work suggesting unworthy inclinations. However, it is not in us in the same way as, to take an example, water mixes with wine. Evil is in us without being mixed with good.

We are a field in which wheat and weeds are growing separately. We are a house in which there is a thief, but also the owner. We are a spring which rises from the middle of the mud, but pours out pure water.

All the same, it is enough to stir up the mud and the spring is fouled. It is the same with the soul.  If the evil is spread, it forms a unity with the soul and makes it dirty. With our consent, evil is united with the soul; they become accomplices.

Yet there comes a moment when the soul can free itself and remain separate again: in repentance, contrition, prayer, recourse to God. The soul could not benefit from these habits if it were always sunk in evil.

It is like marriage. A woman is united with a man and they become one flesh. But when one of them dies, the other is left alone.

But union with the Holy Spirit is complete. So let us become a single spirit with him. Let us be wholly absorbed by grace.

Let us glory in temptation

by Ambrose (339-397 AD)

The devil does not have only one weapon. He uses many different means to defeat human beings: now with bribery, now with boredom, now with greed he attacks, inflicting mental and physical wounds equally.

The kind of temptation varies with the different kinds of victim. Avarice is the test of the rich, loss of children that of parents and everyone is exposed to pain of mind or body. What a wealth of weapons is at the devil's disposal!

It was for this reason that the Lord chose to have nothing to lose. He came to us in poverty so that the devil could find nothing to take away from him. You see the truth of this when you hear the Lord himself saying:

"The prince of this world is come and has found nothing in me" [John 14:30]. The devil could only test him with bodily pain, but this too was useless because Christ despised bodily suffering.

Job was tested by his own goods, whereas Christ was tempted, during the experience of the wilderness, by the goods of all. In fact, the devil robbed Job of his riches and offered Christ the kingdom of the whole world. Job was tested by vexations, Christ by prizes.  Job the faithful servant replied: "The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away" [Job 1:21] Christ, being conscious of his own divine nature, scorned the devil's offering of what already belonged to him.

So let us not be afraid of temptations. Rather, let us glory in them saying: "When I am weak, then am I strong." [2 Cor. 12:10].

Sin is in no way the fault of our nature

by John Chrysostom 354-407 AD)

"I am a victim of violence in my nature", you say. "I love Christ, yet my nature compels me to sin". If you were in fact compelled to sin, if you were the victim of violence, then you would be forgiven for it. On the other hand, if you sin through idleness, do not expect forgiveness. 

But let us look at the question a moment to discover if we do commit sins by compulsion, under pressure of violence, rather than through idleness or serious negligence. 

It is written: "Thou shalt not kill." But who compels you to kill? Who forces you to do it?  On the contrary, you have to do violence to your own nature to kill someone. Which of us would light-heartedly cut a neighbor's throat? Who would gladly stain his hands with blood?  No one.  So the facts are the exact opposite of your contention. To sin, you have to force yourself. 

God has given our nature the gift of mutual love as a result of which every living creature loves its own kind, every human being loves his neighbor. Do you see? Our nature predisposes us to virtue.  It is the vices that are contrary to nature. If they win a victory, it is the fault of serious negligence on our part. 

And adultery, what shall we say about that? What sort of necessity drives you to that? 

You answer: The tyranny of desire. Why, I ask you? Can you not have intercourse with your spouse and in this way defeat that tyranny? But I am in love with someone else's spouse.  In this case there is no compulsion. Love cannot be compelled. You do not love because you are forced to love: you love spontaneously, of your own free will.  Sexual intercourse may be an irresistible need, but love is a free choice. 

The conclusion is clearly apparent: virtue is consistent with our nature whereas vice is opposed to it. 

Purification of Spirit through fasting and almsgiving

by Leo the Great (died 461 AD)

Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude.

But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.

The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins.  It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God's adopted children.

Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there is still required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.

Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not.  The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will, but also with the gift of peace.

The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.

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