In researching this issue a bit further, I came across the following article here:http://www.saintignatiuschurch.org/mm0698.html
. It may shed some light on the issue."'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are helpful. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be enslaved by anything."
1 Corinthians 6:12
Faced with a choice between remaining silent and speaking out, the Fathers of the Church, because of our pride and lack of knowledge, virtually always profess silence as the higher virtue. This month's meditation is a reluctant expression of my thoughts on the recent Synodal directives of the bishops of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America first to show support and trust for my bishops and secondly, to appeal to the radical reactions on either side of the debate.
The specific directive which has my attention is the discipline and practice of the Antiochian Archdiocese where, beginning the first Sunday after Pascha (St. Thomas Sunday) through the 32 days until the Feast of Ascension, we are no longer required to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (amounting to five Wednesdays and four Fridays).
I must confess my own curiosity over this change in discipline as well as the timing of it (especially considering how Orthodoxy in North America seems to be crying out for issues of commonness rather than difference). I must also confess my very limited understanding of the evolved history of the Church's cycle of fasting and feasting. As a 37 year old cradle Orthodox, with humility I admit that it is only within the last 13 years that I have had any extended knowledge of this subject at all!
The reasoning behind this directive is clear. The forty days in which the Resurrected Christ walked with and taught His disciples is a time for celebration. "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?" (Mark 2:19). If we as Orthodox believe that we enter into the eternal now of Christ's redemptive actions and not just memorialize them, it is easy to understand this time as a time of celebration. Consider how the Church liturgically celebrates the awaiting of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost by not praying the great prayer of the Holy Spirit "O Heavenly King" until the day of its feast. It is not inconsistent, therefore, for the Church to celebrate the physical presence of the Risen Christ and the "absence" of the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost (though neither are true outside of the eternal "once for all" nature of Gods' Redemption and Holy Will).
I, however, like many of us, am rationalistic and well-defined in the things I think I know. I was trained under the discipline of Bright Week (the week following Pascha) as the fast-free celebration of Pascha, then, after St. Thomas Sunday, the regular cycle of fasting begins again. Considering my own well-defined rationalism and my sole model of comparison, it is not hard to understand why others might view this new directive as an unprecedented innovation.
My curiosity, however, led me to humbly ask a few questions to discover the reasoning behind the change. The answers I received, from two very respectable sources, were virtually the same. It was explained to me that the forty day fast-free celebration of Pascha is a historical practice within the Patriarchate of Antioch and within the Russian Orthodox Church as well. These answers lead me to believe that I need both more balance and more study on the subject.
The most difficult and sad part of this issue, as is often the case, is the debate and the irrational reactions of both extremes; and for what reason other than a lack of both love and right judgment? There are those who proclaim that this change is a relaxation of standards leading us to the great apostasy (I was recently taught the Greek word vlakias meaning "legalism" also means "idiocy") and those who praise this change as liberation from the tyranny of self-denial (I recently heard the comment, "Next time you drive by your favorite fast food restaurant on Wednesday or Friday stop in for a burger... just because you can!"). Both greatly reveal a lack of grace and good discernment.
St. John Chrysostom captured the meaning of the need for standards of restraint when he explained fallen man's tendency to abuse freedom, "For our nature cannot bear to be doing nothing [liberty], but easily turns aside to wickedness" (Homily 36 on the Gospel of St. John). However, St. John, St. Basil and other Fathers "seem to refer to fasting in terms of advice rather than rigorous precepts... (reflecting how) the Orthodox Church prefers to give directives rather than literal instructions" (The Year of Grace of the Lord, S.V.S. Press, p. 130-31, #9). Therefore, our personal application of this directive must carefully reflect the true aim of discipline, according to conscience and circumstance, with graceful discernment between "the spirit and the letter of the law" (ibid.). Becoming judgmental and too pridefully defined or losing sight of our need for vigilance in our freedom, reveals that both extremes have forgotten that the spirit of the fast and the spirit of the feast are one and the same spirit, leading us always to Christ.