Week 1: Fasting and Almsgiving
Almsgiving: Imitate the Poor Widow
“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had’” (Luke 21:1-4).
According to the Fathers, the Lord accounts the value of a gift not by how much is given, but by how much is kept back. Thus, the poor widow is counted to have given a great gift, having kept nothing for herself. Those who give out of their abundance but keep plenty back for themselves are counted by God to have given very little.
St. John Chrysostom writes that the only barns (cf. Luke 12:18) we need we already have: “the stomachs of the poor.” St. Basil the Great taught that the bread in our cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in our closet belong to the one who has no shoes; and the money we hoard belongs to the poor. St. Ambrose teaches, “The things which we cannot take with us are not ours. Only virtue will be our companion when we die.”
How to Fast
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Keeping a sad countenance to show off one’s fasting is mere external display. Jesus rejects such hypocrisy. For the one who fasts, the compassion of God outshines the physical discomfort. During the fasting seasons of the Church, the hymns call the faithful to wash and anoint their faces (thus, there is no ‘Ash Wednesday’ in the Orthodox Church). Fasting is for spiritual growth and the glory of God, not to be seen by those around us.
Fasting also is not merely abstinence from food, but consists of self-denial in all areas of life in order to escape the control of the passions. On the eve of Great Lent, we sing, “Let us abstain from passions as we abstain from food.” St. John Chrysostom writes, “What good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fish, but bite and devour our brothers?”