We have finally come to Meatfare Sunday, the final day of Meatfare Week. The Great Fast begins next Monday. Did you fill up on meat? Our Church – in its original practice – asks us to prepare for the Great Fast, physically and spiritually. By tradition, everybody was asked to abstain from meat, egg, dairy for the entire Great Fast, so the faithful would ease into the fast. For anyone who follows this early practice, Meatfare Sunday is the last day to eat meat until Easter. Monday begins what is traditionally Cheesefare Week which is our last opportunity to eat cheese until Easter.
How about our spiritual preparation for the Great Fast? That is grounded in the Scripture readings. The Gospel readings through Meatfare Week help us to anticipate the Great Fast by recounting the events of Holy Week, as told in Saint Mark’s account of our Lord’s Passion. The apostolic readings are mostly from Saint John’s Letters who goes nudges, pushes, and cajoles us to love in imitation of the One Who is Love. Here are a few of the things Saint John had to say in this week’s readings:
If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen…whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”
Let us love one another…This is love, that we walk according to his commandments. This is the commandment as you heard from the beginning, in which you should walk.”
And at yesterday’s Divine Liturgy we heard Saint Paul implore the Corinthians: “No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.”
These are very blunt words. Last week was with friends at their Roman Catholic church which was about to begin a series of discussions entitled “Things I wish Jesus never said.” Next to the words was a picture of a young man covering his ears with his hands! Did you feel that way hearing these words from Saint John or hearing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25?
“…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
And Jesus said that those on the Lord’s left 44…will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’
[And] 45He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’
Whenever we fail to do for the least of our brothers and sisters, for all intents and purposes, we trivialize and mock what He did for us on the cross, and, as Saint John stated so bluntly we are murderers and liars in spite of our protestations that we love God.
So how do we love? There are so many people hurting. So many people in need. We can contribute money to organizations whose reason for existence is to serve our neighbors in need – from the local food pantry to Catholic Relief Services which help 136,000,000 million people per year in over 110 countries. That’s one way, and let’s not minimize it; but there is another way.
Some years ago during the Second World War a thirteen year old Canadian boy joined the Royal Navy. He served with the navy until he was twenty-one years old. Something stirred inside of him. He went to France where he began studies in philosophy and theology. He earned his PhD in Philosophy and wrote his dissertation on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle. Pretty heady stuff, wouldn’t you say? For a while, after he completed his studies, the young man assisted a priest who was chaplain to a residence for thirty developmentally disabled adults. He returned to Canada to teach ethics and, though his students loved him, but something was missing, so he returned to France at the end of the semester. One day, while visiting a psychiatric hospital, the young man met Philippe and Raphael, two developmentally disabled men. He was taken by their horrible plight, and he acted. He bought a small home in which he, Philippe, and Raphael would live.
The young man I’ve been talking about is Jean Vanier who, with Philippe and Raphael began what would become the first L’Arche community. Today, from that one community there are 151 spread out across the globe on five continents.
In that first home, Vanier discovered that Philippe and Raphael “wanted a friend.” He said, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” The only way Vanier was able to recognize that was to stop, look, and listen so that he might be able to see into their hearts, listen to their words and discover the ways in which they were hungering and thirsting, recognize how they were marginalized and imprisoned, and simply be their friend.
During the Divine Liturgy before the Gospel and Apostolic readings, the deacon commands, “Let us be attentive!” Pay attention! We are about to hear the living Word of God. My brothers and sisters, I would like to suggest that after we are dismissed from the Divine Liturgy to go forth in peace, the Word of God that we have heard today should compel us to be attentive to the least among us. It is there that we find the suffering face of Christ, if we dare to look. What will my response be to Him? What will your response be?
My brothers and sisters, this year the Great Fast begins on March 4th. The Church asks that this be a time of more intense prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Prayer and fasting to strengthen us so that we are not compromised by fear, weariness, insecurity, or a desire for comfort and we care able to reach out beyond ourselves in almsgiving. The Great Fast is a time to sacrificially give to worthy causes. But do not stop there, look closer to home. Let us all be attentive to those are hurting and rather than seek our own advantage reach out to our neighbor, and there you will find Christ. Saint Gregory the Theologian could not say it any better: “Christ becomes for you a stranger, a person without clothes, food, and health, a prisoner…moving about homeless, naked, sick and needy. So long as there is time, let us desire to visit this Christ, to care for Christ, to feed Christ, to clothe Christ, to gather Christ, and to treasure Christ.”
If you feel like you are spiritually dying, caught up in your worries, fears, insecurities and want to come alive spiritually, offer yourself to the suffering Christ wherever you may find Him. Only then will you discover that the words of Jesus are truly words for which to be grateful. Let us be attentive!
By Dn. Thomas P. Shubeck