The Preparatory Weeks for the Great Fast were bookended on the one side by the Publican and the Pharisee and on the other by the call to hidden fasting.
On the first week, we read:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This past Sunday, we heard:
(Matthew 6:7ff, although in Church we only read from "For if you forgive men...")
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
The first hymn of the Apostikha for Matins today ties these two readings together beautifully:
LET US BEGIN THE PURE FAST, O PEOPLE,
WHICH IS THE SALVATION OF OUR SOULS.
LET US SERVE THE LORD WITH FEAR;
LET US ANOINT OUR HEADS WITH THE OIL OF GOOD DEEDS.
LET US WASH OUR FACES WITH WATERS OF PURITY.
LET US NOT USE EMPTY PHRASES IN PRAYER,
BUT AS WE HAVE BEEN TAUGHT, LET US CRY OUT:
OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES,
FOR YOU ARE THE LOVER OF MANKIND.
We must fast. It is presumed of Christians, by our Lord himself. And he himself teaches that our fasting ought to be in private. We don't sound bells, we don't draw attention to it. We don't ask for separate menus (we accept with gratitude what is served to us wherever and whenever we go...). Fasting isn't about food, rather it is about the curbing of our will, submitting it supremely to the will of God.
But we do fast, and we fast from food, in addition to entertainment, idle talk, and the tradition even teaches: from marital relations.
The hymn for this morning not only highlights Jesus' teaching about prayer and fasting, but puts some additional substance to it for us who are slow to understand.
Don't simply not announce your fast, and don't simply avoid vain repetitions.
Don't simply wash your external countenance and comb your hair.
That is, don't simply be concerned with guarding the inward with some outward cover (washing and anointing)--that is, a Pharisee who washes *both the inside and outside of the cup*. Rather, let the washing be with waters of purity--a changed and holy life. Let the anointing of our heads be faith in action: good deeds demonstrating the reality of what we believe.
And let our prayers begin with the words our Savior Himself taught us, beginning with true repentance.
O Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us and teach us to forgive!