Friday, March 09, 2012

Fasting and the Holy Qurbana: Heaven on Earth

Fast is the willful abstinence from anything that pleases one’s body, for a period of time. Willful abstinence gives the clear indication that what is available to please our body is to be kept aside for a predetermined period of time. Fast is not abstinence for the want of something. It is not the celebration of the lack of opportunity. It is the most effective use of our free will in the midst of ample of opportunities.

Why do we abstain from certain things? Is there a spirituality that supports this action?
Religions of all kind have one or other type of fast. Some fasts are very rigorous. Some are very light. Some are public. Some other fasts are private. There are many reasons behind fasting. Fast has both physiological as well as spiritual aims.

In the book of Daniel (1:3-16), we read the following story:

The king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility- young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service. Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way. Now, God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men of your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”

Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food, and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food and drank wine. So the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead. To these four young men, God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

Scientists have found that regular and monitored fasting reduces risks of cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, insulin resistance, immune disorders, and more generally, the slowing of the aging process, and the potential to increase maximum life span.

Let me share with you about the spiritual elements behind fast, especially from the backdrop of our rich tradition.

Human existence in this world is experienced through body. Minus body, man is not of this world. Man has two contradicting but complementing principles behind his existence, viz., body and soul. Soul is identified as spirit or mind. Hence, in every philosophical system, there is a substantial section that deals with the explanations on the body-soul dualism and monism.

In the third G’hanta of our Holy Qurbana we recite the Pauline theology of the humbling of Eeso Mishiha by taking the mortal body. For the Apostle Paul, a complete human being means, one with a rational, intelligent and immortal soul and a mortal body.

Mortal body is meant for the life on this earth. What about our life beyond this visible world? Do we have an existence beyond this world? Is there a life for us without our body?

Christianity is a way of life that teaches us to focus on a life beyond our normal sense and sensibilities. It urges us to strive for perfect union with God. Without our body only, this union is possible. "It is the spirit that gives life, flesh is useless."(John 6:63) We consider heaven as the abode of God, and Eeso clearly teaches us that there are no bodily pleasures in the heaven: “For, when they rise from the dead, men and women do not marry, but are like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25)

There is no eating, drinking and merry-making in heaven. Is it possible for us to have preparation for heavenly life, while living in this world? Eeso answers the devil,”Man cannot live on bread alone.” (Luke 4:4) In the heavenly life there is no pleasure as far as the body is concerned.Body is of this world. Soul is of the other world. What we have in the other world is what the soul really requires now in this world. Any pleasure that is of the body will stop us enjoying the life in the other world. It is with this view that abstinence from bodily pleasures became a very important spiritual exercise among the followers of Eeso Mishiha from the beginning of Messianic Age.

Christians of the first couple of centuries had hoped that Mishiha was coming soon. Hence they lived a life of preparedness. But when the Church became a glorified church, this attitude slowly diminished. This was the reason why people started going to wilderness. Wilderness was not a place for bodily pleasures. They hardly had food and drink. They spent time in singing psalms and lived in total insecurity. Wilderness made them realize that everything in this world is passing. Monks of the deserts and monasteries trained themselves for a life in the other world.

Fast is a training time for our life in the other world. It is nothing but a dress-rehearsal for the heavenly life. It is the perfect understanding of the spiritual significance of our existence in this world. It is neither because somebody else fasted nor because the Church insists us to fast that we fast, but by clearly knowing about our future that we observe fast here on earth.

Let us look at the fasts in our tradition. Mar Toma Nazrani Tradition gives utmost importance to fasts. We have several types of fasts. We have seasonal fasts and non-seasonal fasts. Among the seasonal fasts, the most important ones are 50-day fast, 25-day fast, 15-day fast, 8-day fast and 3-day fast. Wednesday fast and Friday fast are the non-seasonal fasts. What are the significances of all theses fasts?

In all the four seasonal fasts, the last days are the most solemn feasts of our tradition.
At the end of the 50-day fast, we have the feast of the Great Resurrection. At the end of 25-day fast, we have the Nativity of Mishiha. At the end of the 15-day fast, we have the assumption of Marth Mariam and at the end of the 8-day fast we the feast of the Nativity of Marth Mariam. These are the four most important events that happened in this world. Hence, in all these cases fast is a prelude to a great feast. In other words, fast is nothing but an advanced feast. 3-day fast is an alarm which reminds us the commencement of the Weeks of Great Fast after three weeks. Thursday following 3-day fast is again a great day of solemnity.

Sunday is the day of the Lord, whereas Friday is the day of the Church. It is not because Eeso Mishiha was crucified of Friday that we fast, but because it is the brithday of the Church. Church is heaven on earth and hence we celebrate the birthday of the Church by fasting. Similarly, Wednesday is the day to honour Marth Mariam. Many popular Marian feasts originated in Eastern-rite Catholic liturgies, especially in the Greek Church. Indeed, a close look at the prayers used in the Roman rite's occasions for honoring Marth Mariam reveals that many simply are translated paraphrases of their Eastern originals. The Byzantine liturgy, in particular, is rich with Marian hymns, odes, and prayers. And the same can be said of the Ethiopian and Syriac Churches as well. We fast on Wednesdays to symbolically participate in the heavenly life of Marth Mariam. Moreover, Marth Mariam is the only human being who lived on earth and led a heavenly life even with her body.

Fasting is the nature of God. Hence, fasting has spiritual results only if we obey the commandments of God. In the book of Zechariah, Yahweh asks: ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?  And when you were eating and drinking, were you not just feasting for yourselves?” (Zech 7:5-6) Yahweh preferred administering true justice, showing mercy and compassion to one another to fasting.

We read in Isaiah (58: 6-7),

 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of wickedness,
   to undo the straps of the yoke,
   to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
   when you see the naked, to cover him,
   and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?"
Hence, fast is not an external action. It has to come from within, spread to all our actions and raise us to the heavens.

Fast is not a period of sadness, it is a period of enjoyment. It is a period of enjoying heavenly bliss. It is not the period for wearing a gloomy face and attending Way of the Cross, but rather, is the period of celebrating the Holy Qurbana and the Liturgy of the Hours in the most solemn manner possible. It is the time of being with God in His temple. A clear example is the arrangement of readings in our tradition. During the seven weeks of great fast, in the first week, in the fourth (middle) week and in the seventh (last) week and on all Fridays, we have four readings from the Scriptures for the Holy Qurbana. An obvious indication of the solemnity of the celebration of the Holy Qurbana, is the number and length of the biblical readings. It is an irony that passing through the stations of the Cross is a great experience for us than using the permitted biblical readings during the regular Holy Qurbana.

Having said that fast is not a period of sadness and it is a period of enjoyment, how do I justify it. Eeso says: When you fast, do not put on a miserable face as do the hypocrites. They put on a gloomy face, so that people can see they are fasting. I tell you this: they have been paid in full already. When you fast, wash your face and make yourself look cheerful, because you are not fasting for appearances or for people, but for your Father who sees beyond appearances. And your Father, who sees what is kept secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18). Nowadays we start the Fast with an ashing ceremony. This has no basis as far as the teaching of Eeso is concerned. It was never part of our tradition. In the New Testament era, it is the glory in heaven that is aimed at instead of the sentimental pious exercises which exploit the weaker sides of the faithful. It is the Resurrection that is important for us rather than the Passion.

Celebrating the feast using food and drink is not a typical eastern tradition. Rather, in the feast, the liturgical celebrations are more important. Lengthy and repeated readings and services and prayers add to the solemnity of the feast. They are nothing but the heavenly experience brought to the world. Food and drink come as the last item. Hence in the fast also, more than not eating or drinking or taking part in any bodily entertainments, it is the spiritual entertainments that are more important.

Fast is not a period of big NOs. It is a period of YES to the Liturgical celebrations. In the heavenly life there is no pleasure as far as the body is concerned. If fast in the Old Testament was a sign of repentance, in the New Testament it is for acquiring the divine qualities and is equal to the heavenly life.

Fast is for purifying the heart. It is for humbling ourselves in the presence of God in the heavenly kingdom. We know the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 9-14). The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But we know, the tax collector, rather than the other, went home justified before God. St Paul warns us not to be mistaken in thinking that contempt for the body is a sign of holiness.(Col. 2:20-25) Fewer kilos do not mean more Spirit!

Fast is a precursor to heavenly life. It is a period of thrill and excitement. It is a time for purifying the body. It is the preparatory period for the heavenly life. How do we purify our body? To purify our bodies there is nothing on this earth that is comparable to the Holy Qurbana. The Holy Qurbana we celebrate everyday is the experience of heaven on earth. It is not the linguistic styles or the instrumental music that is making Qurbana a heavenly experience, but rather the real and authentic celebration with clean hearts and pure thoughts. Styles and music are more related to sensual pleasures. That is the reason why Church teaches us not to use unauthorized music, words or actions in the Qurbana. It is neither the creativity of the priest nor the professional displays of the choir that is to be enjoyed but the creative role of Qurbana itself in our life.

The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be complemented by charitable works and increased prayer. To engage in fasting without them is practically useless. Holy Qurbana reminds us everyday the purpose of fasting and leads us through the fruits of fasting, the heavenly life. Let me bring to your notice the specific references in our Qurbana about purifying our body which is equivalent to the experience of fast?

In the first Slotha on Feasts of our Lord and other important Feast days the priest prays: “With clean hearts and pure thoughts may they (those who firmly believe in Your name and earnestly confess that faith) offer You priestly ministry and always praise You for the salvation that You have mercifully granted...”(p17)

The Marmitha on ordinary days declares in no uncertain terms who should fast and for whom it is beneficial.
Lord who may abide in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy mountain?
Lord, help us stand at Your altar with holy thoughts....

Who does not slander a neighbour, does no harm to another, never defames a friend
Who disdains from the wicked, but honours those who fear the Lord;
Who keeps an oath despite the cost
Lends no money at interest, accepts no bribe against the innocent. Psalm 15 (p 22)

Before reading Gospel, the celebrant prays : “Sanctify our souls with Your truth so that we may be faithful to Your words and obedient to Your commandments” (p 33)

In the hymn of the Mysteries, we can understand how we can live the heavenly experience. We pray, “by prayer, fasting, and contrition, let us find favour with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (p 43)

Before the Creed, as the celebrant approaches the entrance of the Madbaha, he prays,"Lord, our God, Grant that we may enter the Holy of Holies with clean hearts and pure conscience.May we stand before Your altar with devotion, diligence, and purity." This would probably be the best prayer one can have during the period of fast.

There are four supplication prayers in the Qurbana of Mar Addai and Mar Mari. In all these supplication prayers (Kusappa), the proper attitude of any one who wants to be in heaven is mentioned.

In the first Kusappa, the celebrant prays: “Lord, God, Jesus Christ! Regard not the multitude of our sins, nor anger at the depth of our evilness. Let this Qurbana help us to wipe away our transgressions.” (p 46)

In the second Supplication Prayer, the celebrant prays: “Lord! Free our minds from every impurity, evil-doing, jealousy, deceit, and hatred. Instill in us, through Your mercy, love and unity among ourselves and with all the other people.” (p50)

In the third Kusappa, the celebrant prays quoting Isaiah 6:5: “My lips are unclean and I live in the midst of people with unclean lips.  My eyes have seen the King, the almighty Lord. How awe-inspiring is this place where today I have seen the Lord face to face! This is none other than the House of God! Lord, may Your mercy be on us. Clean us who are unclean and sanctify our lips.” (p 52)

Finally, in the last supplication prayer, the celebrant prays: “Lord, O God! Deal with Your people and me, Your unworthy servant in accordance with Your mercy and the abundance of Your goodness. Do not judge me in accordance with my sins and transgressions. In Your mercy, may we be made worthy, through the Holy Body that we may receive with true faith, for the remission of debts and forgiveness of sins.” (p 55)

Penitential Psalm at the beginning of the Rite of Reconciliation is most befitting.
Have mercy on me, O God, in Your lovingkindness.
In Your great compassion, wipe away my sins.
Wash away my iniquities and cleanse me form my sins.
For, I am aware of my sins and those are always in front of my eyes
I have sinned against You, in Your presence I have committed iniquities
You are just in Your words, Your judgement is impeccable
I was born in sin and I was a sinner since conception
Sprinkle me with hyssop, I will be cleansed. (p 58)

In the final incensing, the celebrant prays: “O Lord, Our God! Wash me from my iniquities and fill me with the divine fragrance of Your love.” Crossing the hands across the chest, he continues to pray: “Forgive me all my sins and offences, known and unknown to me.” (p 59)

During the Penitential Karozutha, the deacon announces: “With pure hearts and true faith, let us recall His passion and His Resurrection.” (p 64)

The celebrant prays after the Karozutha: “In your mercy, make us worthy to receive this gift in all purity and holiness.” (p 66)

He prays again: “Lord, our God, make us worthy to be in Your presence with the confidence You have mercifully bestowed on us. Enable us to stand in Your presence with cheerful face and pure hearts.” (p 66)

After the holy communion and after consuming wine and water, the celebrant prays:
“O Christ, hope of all mankind, sanctify our bodies by Your sacred Body, pardon our offences by Your precious blood and purify our conscience with the hyssop of Your compassion.”

During these weeks of Great Fast, let us seriously reflect on fast and its spiritual significance. What are the ways in which our fast can be more effective? Always proud of being a member of this great Church, I wonder at the step-motherly treatment given to the Holy Qurbana, which is the most sublime prayer we can have here on earth, which is the real bringing down of heaven on earth. If we can have 10-day Rosary Celebrations every year, why can’t we have at least 5-day Solemn Holy Qurbana celebration? If we can have the Way of the Cross during every Monthly Recollection and during every week of the Great Fast, can we not celebrate the Raza, more than once a year? Why are we very anxious and disturbed, if the duration of the Holy Qurbana on ordinary days is extended beyond 35 minutes? Why do we have Bible Services and Prayers Services on the eve of major feast days instead of solemnly offering the Liturgy of the Hours?

If the aim of our life is a life in heaven, here it is. You observe a meaningful fast, celebrate the Holy Qurbana, you are already in heaven.

(Talk for Monthly Recollection at Dharmaram College on March 10, 2012)

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