On my way home from work today I stopped by Kroger to grab more tofu/soy food. Kroger is great because they have taken all the hunting and guesswork out of it- there is an entire section, complete with 6 mini-aisles and a wall of freezers completely set-apart for organic and vegan foods.
While I was there pulling “soy n mac” out of the freezer, there was a guy next to me who seemed completely confused. I asked if I was in the way and he said no, but added, “Geez, is this ALL they have here in the way of icrecream?? What a horrible selection!” I responded, “No, this isn’t it, this is just the soy icecream. You’re in the organic section.” He scurried away, relieved.
Cheezy enough, this whole thing got me thinking about Lent and it’s purpose. Last year, I heard lots of Orthodox Christians about how they felt “guilty” for eating all of these soy substitutes. The New Testament church didn’t have them when they fasted, and so why should we? Is it REALLY a sacrifice if we’re eating substitutes? It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when a visiting priest to St. Seraphim gave a homily about the PURPOSE of Lent that I realized what a misconception the West has about it.
Many Christians today look at Lent as a type of “punishment”. We should pick something that we rely on and then simply deprive ourselves of it in an effort to remind ourselves to pray every time we miss it. I have known people to pick things to “fast” from like coffee, chocolate, caffeine, even Myspace! This is no coincidence, as the Catholic church were the first to see Lent as a time of deprivation- a time to identify with Christ and suffer as he suffered.
If this was the Orthodox view of fasting, then I would be wrong to be buying all of my not-as-good substitutes at Kroger today. But this priest was able to put into words the message behind an Orthodox Christian’s view of Lent. The first is that instead of seeing it as deprivation or punishing ourselves, the Orthodox Church sees Lent as a time of setting ourselves apart, a time of beating it into our thick skulls that we are “not of this world”. Every time we have to ask for weird food at Taco Bell, every time we have to pick a restaurant that serves at least one or two vegan items, every time that we have to turn down pizza or burgers being offered to us for free by random strangers(it happens to us, and only in Lent! Go figure), we are reminded that we shouldn’t live like those here because we- well,- DON’T live here! We are just visiting.
This falls right in line with why the other vegans I know make the dietary changes that they do. They want to be different, either for a cause or because they are sick of the obesity rate in the US. They want a daily reminder of their decision to be different, and they want to convince others to join them.
Funny enough, this philosophy conjures up bad and scary memories of my old church and how legalistic it became before the big split. When I hear “setting ourselves apart” or “not of this world”, I immediately think of shapeless ankle-length skirts and long uncut hair. I think of all the women who told me that I was going to hell because my parents were no longer homeschooling me. I think of the time I was condemned for being one of the girls with pierced ears, or how my mom was judged on the basis that she had ONLY FOUR children.
I know now that their primary purpose in doing these odd things was so that the WORLD would know that they’re different. They wanted people to stop in the grocery store and think, “Woa! Those Christians aren’t like all those other slutty girls who want a career someday!” In other words, they purposefully tried to stick out like sore thumbs. At best, it was part of their plan to evangelize. At worst, it was an effort to convict others only in order to promote themselves.
The Orthodox Church’s mandate to set one’s self apart is nothing like this, simply because it’s not about other people noticing. The only one that should be saying, “Woa!” should be the one fasting, NOT those around you. In other word, it’s not so that others will stare at you in the grocery store- it’s so that you will stare at yourself and the selfish thoughts and sins going on inside of you when while passing by the “REAL ICECREAM” aisle.
Setting ourselves apart will require deprivation, but always in an effort to set ourselves apart and reveal our own sins, not those of others. This is the second reason that the Orthodox Church views fasting the way it does. Whenever we remind ourselves that we are set apart, surprisingly enough, our hearts rebel. We like being part of the world, and so when things are taken away to make us different, our inner child throws a tantrum. This kind of fasting is like pulling a mask off of all our inner selfishness. Priests tell parishioners to watch out for all sorts of selfish thoughts and feelings to surface the moment one starts fasting. When these things surface, we are confronted with our sin and are able to begin the process of eradicating it. The more encumbering sin we eradicate, the easier it is to focus on Christ. The more we focus on Christ, the more Christ-like we become.
And there it is- you have to set yourself apart in order to be handed the first real opportunity to re-pattern your identity after Christ. This is why Orthodox Christians don’t reserve fasting for just Lent- we fast 2 days a week the entire year, not to mention the Advent, Apostles’ and Dormition Fast. We want to always be reminded that not even our decisions about our food are our own. When control is taken away, we get to the REAL root of what drives us and discover what really causes us to make the decisions that we do.
So the next time I’m at Kroger and I’m only able to shop in my tiny corner of the store, it’s not necessary that I feel deprived in order to keep with the spirit of Lent. All I need is to be reminded that I’m different. And get ready for the chain reaction becoming Christ-like requires.