Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recently Tweeted in response to Pope Francis, who was speaking of the Church’s obligation to uphold human dignity: ‘There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice. Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul.’ Needless to say, I—and, I would hope, most other Orthodox Christians—demur on this particular point.
‘Redemptive salvation’ (something of a linguistic redundancy there) is very much so a communal matter in the Orthodox Church. As Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory very aptly and pithily put it: ‘You cannot live the Christian life alone. The only thing you can do alone is go to hell.’ It is worthy of note that he said this in the midst of a lecture on the uniqueness and unrepeatability of each person and the irreducibly-personal work each human being is given of using his or her gifts for the glory of God. But that work is also inescapably social—we work out that salvation by being, in Fr Tom’s words, ‘faithful to, accountable to, answerable to’ and ‘responsible for’ each other.
The communality and sociality of the work of redemption, the work of salvation, is particularly important to understand and embrace during our period of the fast of Great Lent. Even though the discipline of fasting is intensely personal and even private—no one can fast for you, you have to do it yourself—there is nonetheless a public and communal dimension to its observance. I am posting here a couple of excerpts from an op-ed by Oriental Orthodox commentator Natnael Yeibyo:
[Lenten] fasting is not eating and drinking, but as a religious duty it is an act of sacrifice — an act of self-denial and humiliation. It is denying comfort to the flesh but feeding strength to the spiritual personality. The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all parts of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, and the hands from acts of injustice.
How do people fast?
As fasting is a way to subdue the flesh for the sake of the spirit it must be done sincerely and should be kept private. The person fasting is not supposed to reveal it to anyone. For those who fast, the first week is probably the hardest. By the second week, without noticing, they have already gotten used to eating shiro, made from ground chickpeas, ades (lentil), a lot of vegetables and fruits …
When I was a kid, I used to love Ramadan of all other similar fasting seasons of other religions, for during the month of Ramadan our daily supply of dates, pastry and other sweet meals was assured. The Asmara shuk (marketplace) would be busy with street vendors hawking their sweet scented merchandise displayed on a long table for all to see and smell.
Feturek Yasaim! (Eat with healthy relish, O thou who are fasting!) they would shout. We enjoyed the show, the smell, the chanting from the nearby Mosque, the hustle and bustle of the people, bicycles, wheel barrows, taxis, etc. We toured the food sites with our small allowance, we bought some pastry and ate them on the spot, a practice unthinkable to our Muslim friends; for they had to wait until a white thread became impossible to detect in the dusk.
However, this year we will be all fasting at the same time and having a go at a meat sambusa some of our Muslim friends bring for us will be unacceptable. Perhaps they will bring us sambusa made completely from vegetables.
At the end of the day, we Eritreans eat together no matter where we are from or what we believe in. It is a testament to the close knit society Eritreans display everywhere in the world. Fasting, whether it is Lent or Ramadan, is done to further foster love, peace and unity among us.
Note that although the personal reasons for doing the fast, and the rules of the fast, are different between Islâmic Eritreans and Christian Eritreans, nonetheless they still encourage and respect each other in their spiritual strivings. How much more so should it be the same among Christian believers ourselves! Lynette Horner describes for us in her blog that the very structure of the Lenten fast is corporate: we individually don’t decide ‘what to give up’ for Lent—in the spirit of humility, we follow the path on which the Church directs us.
Additionally, Lent isn’t ultimately about food. Abstaining from flesh meats, animal products and alcohol is the basic and necessary means—but it is not the end goal. The end goal is unity with God. This is why we do so many prostrations during Clean Week as we listen to the exhortations to the soul of Saint Andrew. This is why the Holy Fathers, particularly Saint Basil and Saint John Chrysostom, speak so much about the importance during Lent, not only of redoubling our prayers, but also redoubling our charitable efforts, and fasting from evil words and deeds. Here is the Golden Mouth:
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see in enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.
And again, here is Saint Basil:
Do not, however, define the benefit that comes from fasting solely in terms of abstinence from foods. For true fasting consists in estrangement from vices. “Loose every burden of iniquity.” Forgive your neighbour the distress he causes you; forgive him his debts. “Fast not for quarrels and strifes.” You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but do not restrain yourself from insulting others… For neither through greed do you attain to righteousness, nor through wantonness to temperance, nor, in short, through vice to virtue.
Let us consider the example of the man who takes the Lenten fast as an opportunity to draw nearer in love and peace to his Muslim neighbours. Let us take upon ourselves the humility of the converted woman discovering for herself the humble approach of fasting according to the Church’s will, not of her own will. And let us listen with the appropriate reverence to the Holy Fathers who insist that fasting is not merely an abstinence from food and drink, but has much more to do with how we treat others. ‘Loose every burden of iniquity’—this is very much the point of the fast. And this cannot be done except socially, in communion with others.