Great Lent: The Holy Fast.

The FIRST WEEK/“Zewerede=ዘወረደ” (“Zewerede” means the one who descended from above)/ Museni/ Fast of King Heraclius”)

Great Lent is considered as the Holiest fast since our Lord Jesus Christ Himself had fasted it. Our Lord’s call to the apostles “to follow Me” was intended to mean [including ourselves] “to take my life for you.” Fasting is the first action taken upon receiving the Holy Spirit. The Life, work, and fasting of our Lord at mount rank as the first battle against the world. It is also an exemplary act of unction and of being filled with the Holy Spirit. During this Lent, we follow the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, who fasted on our behalf forty days and forty nights (Matt. 4: 2). Great Lent is a time of renewed devotion, prayer, and almsgiving. Most importantly, it is a season of repentant hearts returning to the greatest commandments: love God and love thy neighbor. When we begin repentance, God does not desire just our remorse. The very first hymn for Zewerede sets the tone for the season: 

“Serve the Lord with fear, And rejoice with trembling. 

Kiss the Son, lest He be angry”.

 [Psalms 2:11]

St. Ephraim the Syrian teaches us to come to this holy season with the kind of spiritual zeal and attentiveness of the tax collector from the Gospel of Luke who “would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ prayerfully saying, 

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of slothfulness, faint-heartedness, lust for power and idle talk. 

But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. 

Yea, O Lord, and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for blessed are thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.” 

Because of the significance and holiness of the Great Lent, the Church designates a week of preparation before the 40 days of fasting. The Church teaches us to prepare for Great Lent in a spiritual manner. The preparatory week is not the only fast which the Church designates to get us ready for Great Lent and Holy Week. Two weeks before Great Lent, there is Jonah’s Fast, also known as Nineveh’s Fast. It is a short fast, only three days, and it is a fast of repentance. During this fast, we live with Jonah while he fasted and repented while in the whale’s belly. We also live with the Ninevites, their fast, and repentance. Just as the fast accompanied by repentance saved Jonah and the Ninevites from perdition; moreover, our fasting accompanied by repentance will save us from eternal destruction and death from sin.

In our church, each Sunday during Great Lent carries a spiritual theme. These themes help us engage in spiritual dialogue with God through the incarnate, crucified, and risen, Christ. The first week of Great Lent is called Zewerede (God came to the earth) / Museni/ The Fast of a King (Heraclius). The first name of the week is “Zewerede”-He who comes down. The first theme teaches us about the incarnation; that God came down from Heaven, became man in Bethlehem through the Holy Virgin Mary and works of the Holy Spirit. God came down from Heaven to teach us that He loves us, therefore we should love one another. Only in the person and works of Jesus Christ can we find God, His love, and eternal life. The Holy Bible teaches us, “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” [Jn 3:16]. Based on the teaching of St. John the beloved, “No one has ascended into heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is the Son of Man who is in heaven”[John 3:13], St. Yared chanted the Hymn “Zewered” saying, “Jews have crucified God who came to earth to save Adam.” As evidenced by the Word of God, St. Yared sung here about the path of salvation (i.e., birth, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection) taken by our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:9-11; 3:13-21). 

For centuries before the Lord’s advent, the world suffered under the yoke of sin. Sin, by definition, is turning away and rejecting God’s will based on one’s reasoning, choice, and will. When Adam fell, the Church Fathers teach, that the image of God in man remained intact but was damaged with sin. One the Scholar of the Church speaks of the image buried as in a well choked with [sin] of debris. The lack of God’s grace [that had preserved and sustained man in holiness and obedience] and the rejection of the divine indwelling Holy Spirit had made the human mind so darkened, and willpower so impaired — that humans were no longer able to attain the likeness of God. The orthodox fathers do not believe that Adam, after his fall, was without God’s grace. God’s grace was working from outside, not the same as that indwelling divine life that the original parents had enjoyed. We are not responsible for the personal sins the first parents committed, nor should we bear any guilt of it. However, as a consequence of Adam’s disobedience, all descendants of Adam were born to the state of death, corruption, and being separated from God for good. Sst. Cyril and Severus, both said that we are born mortal of mortal parents, but not born sinful. We are born into a state of separation from God, and even living without sin after the fall didn’t provide humanity the renewal of the grace of the indwelling Spirit and intimate relationship that our first parents enjoyed.

For this reason, the blessed St Paul stated, “death reigned from Adam to Moses.” These consequences extend to all his descendants, which Adam, himself, experienced after the fall. The blessed St. Paul again said that “We are members one of another, and if one member suffers, the whole body suffers.” By virtue of our participation in the human race, not only Adam but all humankind become under the state of death, incorruptibility, and separation from God. Therefore, the first and foremost problem of human beings after the fall was not that humans would be punished for the original sin that the first parent committed but that we all are born into a state of physical, moral, and spiritual death. The most important thing that needs to be stressed here is that after the fall, human beings become dead and separated from the living God – crying out for redemption- not for improvement or repair- but a complete transformation of life. Because repentance and just living “right” gave no exemption from the consequences of disobeying God. Moses’s Law also fails to realize our salvation, for according to St. Paul, it looks like a mirror that discovers our sin, ignorance, and mortality. All it could do was teach people the need for salvation by a Savior.

In “fullness of time (after 5500 years)”, God sent His Son to this world. “For us, men and for our salvation, the Word of God came down from heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” As our Holy Church believes and teaches us, our Salvation was finally achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. Therefore, the first week is named Zewered from St. Yared hymnal, Tsome Digua. We meditate on the path our Lord took – His descent, incarnation, and crucifixion for our sake [Jn 3:13]. We understand that this holy season is divine and life-giving. We were blessed to learn this act from Jesus Christ as complementary to baptism. A Christian can not claim a fully mature Christian life if he or she overlooks fasting. Our Lord and God taught us that it would be impossible for us to carry His cross, get through the temptation of the devil, the order of the world, and the challenge of sin without fasting. The temptation of the Lord Jesus occupies a significant role in our salvation since it is part and parcel of God’s work in salvation. Fasting is a necessary tool or means of Christian life/skill that leads to the way of life and salvation.  

Our Holy forefathers taught and described this fast in many ways: some described it as a fast transition. As Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights to secure his people’s transition from the Law of conscience to that of the Tablet, so did Our Lord to bring about our transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Others called it the fast that blessed monasticism. By fasting in complete seclusion, Our Lord blessed the life of celibacy like that of Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as others that came after. Mainly it is a fast preparation and excellence.  

Few people stop to think about temptation. Some may not recognize temptation when it comes. Our Lord and Savior, has done what a noble teacher does to his disciples. Rather than solely tell the disciples in words, He shows them practically what is expected of them/us to be holy. “Jesus, our leader, allowed himself to be tempted so as to teach His children how to fight”[St. Augustine]. In the story of Jesus Christ being tempted by the devil, our Lord has provided basic principles on how to identify, tackle in our temptation with the help of the Holy Spirit. He showed us that fasting is a spiritual weapon to overcome and be victorious over the three cardinal Sins- greed, vainglory, and covetousness. (Mat. 4:1-11). The temptation of Jesus on the mount is recorded in three of the four Gospels. It is recorded in Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13.  

Source – Excerpt from “Tewahdo Orthodox Spiritual Journey  From Fast of Nineveh to Good Friday”  by Deacon Medhanie Haile.