I was out and about today, running errands with my daughter-in-law and grandbabies. Any chance I have of being with them, I jump at it. It had snowed since last night and was still snowing, so I was happy to not be the driver! As I waited for them, I read my emails, read the news online, and looked at my very pared-down Facebook wall. I had gone through my FB newsfeed (which is sort of like reading all the articles of a newspaper, except they change all the time, based on who’s been selected to view.) and I’ve really taken it down to just close family and friends, and only groups that have to do with my faith. Yesterday, we had some “trolls” hit some of my favorite sites and there was lots of scurrying around, trying to block and/or remove them. They were posting awful comments and pictures. Anyway, it all got sorted out this morning and I was happy to be exchanging messages with a dear friend, when my daughter-in-law arrived.
We ran our errands and as we sat in my driveway catching our collective breaths, she asked me, “So, what is Lent, anyway?” She has had some faith in her life, but still, her question took me aback. Like I thought, I guess, it was a common understanding. But as I raced through my mind on how to explain things to her, I recalled that before I was taught the Catholic faith and traditions, I had just known that they got crosses on their foreheads before Easter (and all the kids always wore them to school as a point of pride) and ate fish sticks a lot. I really did not understand it, either. So I shared some Bible stories with her – like how, after Moses led the Jewish people out into the desert, they wandered around for 40 years. When Jesus went out into the desert to pray, and he was tempted by the devil, he fasted for 40 days out there. I told her that 40 is a significant number in the history of our faith. And because Jesus fasted for 40 days, the Church, in its wisdom thought we should, too (I kept it simple). She asked why we could not eat meat. I told her that I believed that first of all, Jesus gave His flesh for me on the Cross, so I refrain from taking flesh in honor of His sacrifice. But it’s also about the richness of the foods we eat, and meat is rich in content and cost. She said, but fish is a type of flesh, right? (Smart girl!!). I said that, yes, it is a type of flesh, too. I explained how different traditions started all over the world, trying to keep the Fast and that especially in areas in northern climates, fish is allowed. The eastern and the Orthodox allow fish without backbones to be eaten. (Yay for shrimp!). But we also do not use olive oil during Lent. She asked why and I explained it was, in many parts of the world, a delicacy. And for us all to be equal before God, none of us consume it. Sort of equalizing the playing field. It is the same for dairy…it is expensive and we try avoid it during the entire 40 days of Lent. She asked why some people only fast on Fridays (and why is McDonald’s running all these fish sandwich commercials? As my son told her, it’s Lent! Which is one of the reasons this conversation started) and some on a couple of days during the week, and why your church seems so strict? Are we vegans? I explained it all to her, using history and tradition, bringing in our beliefs and trying to remove the “mysterious” from it all. It was a wonderful conversation and I was smiling my head off that she even asked (and praying more of these chats will be in our future)!!
I had been mulling over in my mind how confusing this could be from an outsider’s point of view. I told my daughter-in-law that Lent is not easy, but we continually ask God for His help. She had said, “Don’t you give up stuff that you like, like Facebook or your computer, too? Or even chocolate? Is that the same as meat or can you just do that?” It is all about the mechanics, that people have all the confusion….and so many conversations (and blog posts) and memes popping up. The east and west approach Lent a little differently. It is so hard to explain to someone who has only seen what Roman Catholics do, so have nothing else to base an observation on. Being an Eastern Catholic is different than what is portrayed out there, which is usually just Roman Catholicism. And that’s something that begs for clarification for those on the outside, looking in, and even for many on the inside who don’t know about all the different Churches and our differences, and ways we are the same.
After I had been home a little bit, I noticed I had a notification of a remark on a photo I had posted…it’s the top photo above. It was from a young man on a page I belong to. I thought about it – his question was, “How do they know?” which I chose for the title of this post. How do we know? When I was explaining things to my daughter-in-law, we talked about tradition…the kind that starts with a small “t” and I explained to her that those are ways we find to keep our faith. For example, all the different fasting rules in all the varying churches in union with Rome – there are almost as many traditions as there are churches (22 in all). There are differences in how we fast in different parts of this country, let alone around the world. Those are all little “t” traditions…they vary. The big “T” Traditions do not change. They have come to us from the Apostles. They have come to us from a very vibrant church, in practices handed on long before the books of the Bible were even codified, in 250 AD or so. (Give or take a few years depending on whose history you prefer). Those Traditions are the Church itself. We celebrate the same Traditions worldwide, regardless of which brand of Catholic (Christian) or Orthodox you are. (An example would be Christmas as the celebration of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. Another would be Easter, a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ after three days of His death on a Cross…there are lots more). These are the things received in Divine Revelation and they are immutable, the same forever, static and unchanging. Once the last Apostle died, Divine Revelation stopped. Period. Everything else is just (t)radition. And it can (and does) change.
But how do we know? Well, I gave a simple answer to the young man – Scripture. It seems to help people unfamiliar with (T)radition and (t)radition if you use the Bible as the place where the buck stops, so to speak. And in Scripture, much was said about fasting and prayer. Much! And Lent is all about fasting and prayer. And to say that “if there is no fasting and prayer, there are demons” (to paraphrase) is to say pretty much what Christ Himself said in the Bible. There are several verses to choose from, but the one I like is: “Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:19-21) This is the only verse, I think, that talks about “except by prayer and fasting.” The apostles could not get a demon out, and the Lord rebuked them, saying that their faith was weak, but that this particular type of demon required special attention, and preparation. They needed to pray and fast before tackling it.
The point of Lent is to grow closer to God by shutting out everything that gets in between us and Him. For many of us, food is an issue. The Church asks us to control our passions and we are a gluttonous culture, and so we fast from foods. For many of us, prayer is inconsistent and weak; the Church asks us to attend Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and Vespers, in addition to weekly Divine Liturgy. For many of us, we don’t know a lot about our faith. We are asked to read along with the Church by embracing spiritual reading of some kind. Many spiritual directors will have you read the Scripture for each day, the schedule of which the Church gives us. There are additional prayers at certain times of the day to go along with our reading. It does not take much effort, trust me. A total of maybe 15 extra minutes a day, to grow closer to God and the work of His Church. And how do we know this? Our Traditions instructed us, and our traditions help us carry them out.
Happy Ash Wednesday for my RC brethren (a small “t” tradition like the Mirovanije from Forgiveness Sunday I posted about this past Monday). And prayers for a blessed Lent for all of us, making our way to Pascha!