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The Significance of the Nineveh Fast For Us Today

by: H.E Geevarghese Mor Koorilos, Niranom Diocese

Although the least in terms of the number of days of fast, the "Nineveh Fast" is one of the most important fasts in the Syrian Orthodox Church tradition.

Fasting is meant to be a sign of our giving up of our ego or `selves' for the sake of others. They are, in other words, occasions of self-emptying or `kenosis' of which the supreme example is Jesus Christ himself (Phil.2).

Prayer and fasting are two cardinal corner stones of a Christian life. The what , the why and the how of prayer and fasting are clearly explicated in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.6). Prophet Isaiah brings home to us the concrete manifestation of a genuine spiritual life, itself rooted in prayer and fasting.

Exposing the hypocrisy and the pseudo-spirituality of the people of his time, the prophet challenges them to observe lent and fasting the way God wants them to observe it:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
And to strike with a wicked fist
Such fasting as you do today
Will not make your voice heard on High
Is such the fast that I choose
A day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush
And to lie down in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast
A day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose
To loose the bonds of injustice
To undo the thongs of yoke
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
And bring the homeless to your house

Fasting is an occasion for us to live through the pain of poverty and starvation. For most of us, fasting has become an easy option of `dieting', which many of us do need, to shed the extra kilos that gain, given that we all live in a consumerist society such as today's. As my own spiritual guru, the late lamented Yakoob Mar Themotheose thirumeni (bishop), taught me, fasting should enable us to feel the pain of hunger, which, in turn, will make us compassionate to the poor and the hungry. Unfortunately, we have lost this dimension of serving the poor some where along the lines. May this time of "Moonu Nombu" be a time for us to reclaim and recover this lost sense of charity and compassion towards the less privileged and the needy among us.

The story of Jonah has many lessons for us. Let me highlight just one of them here. All human beings have some sense of pride and ego within themselves- a false sense of prestige. Prophets were no exception to this rule- Jonah certainly wasn't one. He knew that his obeying God's commandment to preach in Nineveh had some risks involved with it. He knew quite well that his God was a compassionate God. He was asked to bring the message of God's anger and wrath onto the people of Nineveh. He knew that when people would regret their ways of living and return to the LORD, they would be forgiven and redeemed. It happened exactly the way he `feared'. For Jonah it was a matter of great disappointment.

His ego was hurt, his `name' affected and pride shaken. He wanted God to punish the people as he had prophesied so that `his' words would come true. But God thinks and acts beyond our perceptions and calculations. Jonah was much more concerned about his prophecy being fulfilled than God's compassion towards the people and their welfare. It is a clear case where even prophets get their priorities wrong. This, in fact, is a grave temptation for all of us, especially for those who work in the vineyard of the LORD- a desire to keep our `selves' in tact, to get our predictions right, even at the cost of the ruin of others around us. We should always strive for the wellbeing of others even if it comes at the expense of our pride and name.

This is the challenge of all feasts, especially the Nineveh Fast, to risk ourselves for the sake of the gospel and Christ, particularly for the poor and the downtrodden in whom Christ can be encountered in our daily lives.

May God have mercy upon us, be gracious to us, and accept the fast of the Holy Church, as HE accepted the fast of the people of Nineveh and spared them.

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