In our family, we have a Lenten saying, “Wash your face.” In Eastern Catholic families, we have twice weekly fasting and four long fasts throughout the year during which we forgo such common foods as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy and it is as unusual in the modern world as it is rigorous. Because of the high challenge and its strangeness, there is an enormous temptation to complain about it. When our friends are having cheese sandwiches on Fridays while we have lentils, it might even feel justifiable to be bitter and disappointed over what we eat and how we fast. This is a problem not only for us in our relationship with God but also for our sense of morale but it goes even further than we might initially realize. It also causes scandal and might even discourage other faithful or even those who might otherwise convert. The bitterness we feel is toxic; poisonous to us and those around us. That is why I tell my children to wash their faces; it is because I want them to fast properly.
God is His infinite wisdom knows how toxic the bitterness in our hearts is. In the Bible, Mathew 6:16-18 instructs us in the proper way to fast. We should “anoint our heads” and “wash our faces” so as not to make a public display of our fasting, but instead allow it to be a conversion of heart seen only by our Heavenly Father. It is not about putting on a false face in the public eye but really about what we need in our hearts. We fast not out of fear but because we love God greater than these foods and we want to learn to love Him even more. No lightning is going to come down from heaven and strike us dead for eating cheese. We don’t fast because these foods suddenly disappear from all supermarket shelves. We choose to fast because the tiny martyrdom of self that comes from choosing a mushroom burger over a beef burger makes us stronger in our Faith. In the end, it is a choice and if it is going to really mean something in this world, we need to mean it. If we allow our resolve to be eaten away by disappointment and doubt, what happens is rather than growing in love and courage, we seethe in frustration and bitterness and we push away the bright sadness and are engulfed more and more by the darkness.
Great Lent is meant to be a bright sadness. While a sadness is there, it is one of longing and waiting and faithful enduring as the Bridegroom approaches. There is a certain brightness in our hearts that gives us the courage to stand in the darkness, shining our lights out into the night while we wait for Christ, not unlike the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Mathew 25. Our courage might then light the night for others and lead them into the walled city because we withstood the night. If we leave, if we wander away from those we stay at the gate, the light there is less which makes it not only more difficult for those who stay but also for those who might otherwise come. We weaken ourselves but also those around us when we allow the darkness to overtake us. This is why God instructs us to wash our faces, why we are told to go out into the world as if nothing is different and to stand at the gate as if there is no darkness. We wash our faces not to hide what it is we are doing but to reveal our courage. This courage is the Will of God which passes through us unobscured by the frailness of our bodies’ and our individual wills. This is the mission of our earthy lives, to approach, if not achieve, Theosis. In this way, the light which we shine is not of our own making but it is the light of God, leading others to Him.
When I tell my children to wash their faces, I am advising them on the way that Holy Mother Church teaches us to fast: to wash our faces so that we may go bravely forward into the dark to wait for Christ the Bridegroom. We remove anything that might stand in the way of the Light of Christ so that we may be ready for Him on Pascha. It is a good and beautiful thing and though difficult no less wonderful. I encourage you to wash your face today so that we may stand together at the gate. On Pascha, together we will go to the wedding feast and leave the darkness outside.