Tonight, in the Orthodox Church around the world, we celebrate Forgiveness Vespers as the beginning of Great Lent. The service is beautiful, and full of meaning. The hymns set the course for the entire fast, and at the end of the service everyone get a chance to ask each other for forgiveness and be reconciled with those they have offended.

Just as the children of Israel ate the “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3) in preparation for the Passover, so Orthodox Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of the New Passover by observing a fast. From now until Holy Pascha (“Easter”) we abstain, not only from meat, but from animal products, such as eggs, milk, butter and cheese, and usually also oil and alcohol. But this dietary fast, strict as it might sound, is only the surface of the real fast – which is a pursuit of God, and a journey of repentance. The successful abstinence from certain food and drinks is not the goal of the fast, but the means to a deeper spiritual life. As a matter of fact, one priest once pointed out that if the fast is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability.

So how should we understand the connection between the fasting of food and the inner spiritual life? Bishop Kallistos Ware make an appropriate observation: “‘Man is a unity of body and soul, a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible’ , in the words of the Triodion; and our ascetic fasting should therefore involve both these natures at once. The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.”

The abstinence of certain food is an important part, but fruitless without the abstinence of sin, which is what the fast should really teach us. The Great Lent is not a gloomy and self-punitive season, but one of sober joy. One of the hymns we will sing at Vespers tonight says:

Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.

True fasting is to put away all evil,

To control the tongue, to forbear from anger,

To abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury.

If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.

Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food,

But by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.

As we set out on this spiritual journey, I would like to ask all of you who read this – whoever you might be – to forgive me, if I in any way have hurt or offended you. If I have caused you grief by my clumsy words, please forgive me. And pray for me, a sinner.

The best explanation of fasting I have ever read is the Introduction to the Lenten Triodion by Bp. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary. It can be found in its fulness here: