Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

A Fast, a Whale, and a New Beginning

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Well, here we are again: standing at the threshold of the longest and most arduous ‎spiritual marathon of the Coptic year. We often enter into the Great Fast with mixed ‎feelings. There is, on the one hand, the mysterious longing for this greatest of spiritual ‎seasons of the church, a unconscious hint of its grandeur and power. The Great Fast ‎presents itself to us as something monolithic and colossal, like Jonah’s whale, with the ‎ability to take us into its innermost bowels and spew us out again new beings. We realize ‎the transforming power of this period, we embrace it, and we rejoice.‎

More often, on the other hand, feelings of fear, worry, or weariness prevail upon us when ‎we think of the start of the Great Fast. Another long stretch of 55 days without animal ‎food? Will I really make it this time? When we reach the end of each Great Fast, it seems ‎almost like a miracle that we survived; and yet with each new year, the past seems like a ‎fleeting memory, while the present seems to us solid and real, challenging and formidable.

‎It would really help us if we would consistently stop and think of why we go to all the ‎trouble of fasting. How disillusioned so many people have become with the Great Fast ‎because they have seen in it nothing but vegetables! No. We do not come to this sacred ‎period with the aim of a mere diet change. All the pasta and potatoes and peanuts in the ‎world will not bring us an inch closer to God. And to think that we have done God a ‎favor because we asked for our salad without cheese is to be sorely mistaken. If we hold ‎to such illusions, we are preparing for another long period of disappointment.‎

The original intent of the Great Fast was literally to be a time of renewal. The Great Fast ‎has always been for the Church a transformative force. The pressured steam under which ‎the Great Fast subjects its pupils has as its purpose the rejuvenation of old and weary ‎lives. What goes into the system is different from what comes out. In this we have reason ‎to rejoice! Who of us does not need changing—and a good bit of it? Yet, for many of us, ‎our weaknesses run too deep, our strength is too frail, and our failings too numerous to ‎offer us any real hope. But what normal life has failed to achieve, the Great Fast can ‎certainly achieve.

‎In this sense the Great Fast is very much like Jonah’s whale. For one thing it is large, ‎larger than life; so large, in fact, that it can swallow us whole. As the prophet was lost in ‎the belly of the whale, so those who wait for the Great Fast with longing do "become ‎lost" in its experience. All of life becomes"lenten"—the whole world and existence take ‎on a new "tone". It is the lenten tone, the spiritual state, the sublime sense that life is now ‎heading toward something, that at the end there is a great culmination, a gathering ‎together of all thoughts, all actions, and all events toward a single point of joy.‎

Jonah was swallowed by a whale for three days then climbed out a new prophet. Our ‎Lord was swallowed by the tomb for three days then stepped out a New Man. And we ‎enter the wide, gaping mouth of the Great Fast trembling, hesitant, yet knowing that we ‎shall step out again as new creatures. We must all look for a new beginning. The past is ‎done; it is unchangeable; it is immovable. And yet, it is also powerless. Our former lives ‎do not dictate who we are, but the near future shall determine who we will become. In ‎this near future we have the gift of the Great Fast, the grace of Holy Pascha, and the glory ‎of the Glorious Resurrection Feast.‎

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