I do not know about you, but I really dislike fasting. It is not that I start every day thinking how much I hate it, but about this time each year (several weeks into Great Lent for the Orthodox, a season for prayer and fasting) I find myself thinking, “Boy, I really don't like this.” You see, I like to eat. I like good food and I like to feel full and content. The Orthodox Church, however, calls me to give up what I like for a few weeks every year. She asks that I give up food that I enjoy and suggests that I eat less of what I do not enjoy. With a wisdom that surpasses my own, she leads me to stop pleasing my own body long enough to notice the spiritual realities which I may have overlooked.
Ever since my childhood I have often gone to my grandfather's cottage which is nestled among the trees on the shore of northern Lake Michigan. After a week or two I return to my home in Lansing and find myself bombarded with the noise of a good-sized city. Horns, sirens, trains, whistles and bells all fill the background. I did not notice them before I left, and after a few days back in town they again move out of my awareness. For those few days in between, however, I realize just how noisy my life really is.
In a sense, I think fasting is something like my time at the lake. For a few days we take a break from our regular routine. We stop giving in to the clamor of our physical bodies: “Feed me, entertain me, let me sleep, let me play, I want to feel full and satisfied.” For a while we are free from this clamor--free to spend a special time with our Lord and to examine our spiritual state. When the fast is over and we return to our regular routine, we may realize in a new way just how noisy our physical desires really are. We can begin to see that our bodies make a lot of demands but not all those demands need to be met. Also, we have hopefully learned to listen to the still small voice of God, a voice that seems louder and clearer when not drowned out by the din of our physical appetites.
Thus, the Orthodox Christian begins forty days of fasting. It seems that all know what to fast from and when our fast begins and ends (any good Orthodox Church calendar will tell you that), but I have found that very few really know why we fast. Someone once said, "If you aim at nothing, you can be pretty sure to hit it." I think a lot of people take this approach when it comes to fasting. They do not know why they fast, but the Orthodox Church says that they should and so they do. While it is good to simply obey the authority of the Lord as exercised through his church even when we do not understand the whys and wherefores, it is much better to obey with understanding.
God has not been silent about his reasons for calling us to fast. Therefore, we can know why we fast and, using this knowledge, better cooperate with the Lord’s work in our life. Let us examine a few of the more prominent reasons for fasting so we can begin to put more into our fast and thus get more out of it as well.
First, and perhaps most obviously, we fast to prepare ourselves. During Great Lent we prepare to participate in the liturgical re-enactment and remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death, followed by the celebration of his glorious resurrection. Fasting helps remind us that “our bodies were not made for the things of this world” (I Corinthians 6:13-20); rather, we have a higher calling to serve and worship Christ and build his body, the Church.
“Abstaining from worldly things,” writes St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), “presents the soul pure and nimble.” It is this purity and spiritual nimbleness which we seek to gain in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. The apostle Paul elicit s the image of an athlete in preparation for a race, “Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline ...I buffet my body and bring it under complete control” ( I Corinthians 9: 25-27). Indeed, the word "asceticism" is derived from a Greek word meaning practice or training for the attainment of a goal. A very important goal for the Orthodox Christian throughout the observance of Great Lent is to more fully participate in and spiritually identify with Christ’s suffering and death and to fully celebrate his resurrection.
Another reason we fast is to grow in humility. David said, "I humble myself with fasting" (Psalm 69:10). When we fast, we come to see more clearly just how dependent we are upon food. St. Clement reminds us, “It [fasting] declares that as the life of each one of us depends upon food, total abstention is the sign of death.” Human beings have a great capacity for pride. We like to feel that we alone are in control, we make things happen, we are independent. How important and humbling it is to remember that without God's provision of something as basic as food we would quickly die.
I find it interesting that eating is so intricately bound up with pride in the very first sin, eating the forbidden fruit. By eating, Adam and Eve sought t o become like God--a noble goal approached in the wrong way. By fasting we humble ourselves before our Creator and Sustainer and, in that humility, allow Him to make us partakers of his divine nature. Similarly, we should take note that the Prodigal Son did not even begin to think of reconci1iation with his father until he had experienced the humiliation of hunger.
As we fast we can also grow in our appreciation of the humility of Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God, the King of Creation, became man, experiencing the weakness of creation. He himself fasted for forty days and the Bread of Life hungered for want of food. We, as humans, will never really know that total humiliation which Jesus gladly accepted on our behalf, but through fasting we can begin to taste it and identify with it more and more.
Jesus, however, warns that fasting will not always produce humility. In fact , if approached in a wrong spirit, pride can just as easily emerge. “And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you go without food, wash your face and comb your hair, so that others cannot know that you are fasting--only your Father, who is unseen, will know. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you" (Matthew 6:16-18).
The Orthodox Church looks to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) as the way to approach spiritual asceticism. The Pharisee stood apart, praying with himself, extolling the virtue of his own deeds, while the tax collector did not even raise his head but only beat his breast, saying, “God, have pity on me a sinner!” “I tell you,” Jesus said, “the tax collector and not the Pharisee was in the right with God when he went home. For everyone who makes himself great will be humbled and everyone who humbles himself will be made great.”
The death of Christ was the ultimate tragedy of history. We must never loose sight of the fact that our sin, our rebellion, required the penalty of death. Jesus Christ was murdered by human hands, not because of any wrong He committed, but because He willingly offered himself as payment for our sins. The absolute darkness which Christ endured, he endured for us and because of us.
The Orthodox Church will not allow us to push this event into the deep recesses of past history. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, exists outside of time. His death and, indeed, his resurrection are not simply commemorated during Holy Week and Easter, but in a mystical sense they are relived. As we mourn the suffering and death of Christ in Holy Week services, we do not speak of Christ’s death as a past event. Rather, we proclaim it today! “Today, Judas forsakes the Master...Today, the Jews nailed to the cross the Lord.. .Today they pierced His side with a spear...Today is hung upon the Tree He who suspended the land in the midst of the waters.” It is also today that, “Every member of Thy Holy Body endured dishonor for us: Thy Head, the thorns; Thy Face, the spittings; Thy Mouth, the vinegar and gall; Thy Ears, the blasphemies; Thy Back, the lash; Thy Bands, the reed; Thy Body, extension upon the Cross; Thy Joints, the nails; and thy Side, the Spear” (from the vespers of Holy Thursday).
Great Lent allows us to express through fasting and prayer sorrow for the sins which required the suffering and death of Christ. During Bright Week and, indeed, each and every Sunday, we celebrate His resurrection, but now during Lent we set aside time to mourn. We should have genuine sorrow for our own sin and repent, repairing the wrongdoing we have committed.
We also sorrow over and seek mercy for the sins of our family, our fellow believers and those of our country. The prophet Daniel provides a tremendous example and inspiration for us in Lent, “I prayed earnestly to the Lord God, pleading with him, fasting, wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes [an Old Testament expression of severe sorrow]...and confessed the sins of my people...Lord, hear us and forgive us” (Daniel 9:3-19).
Viewing Great Lent as a time of preparation, humility and mourning will help us find more meaning in our fast. There are, of course, many other things which may provide a useful focus, but these three can serve as a place of beginning from which we can grow and develop a great appreciation of both the fast itself and the celebration we anticipate.
Fasting alone is not all that we are called to do during Great Lent. Prayer, reconciliation, attendance and participation at Lenten services, acts of mercy and charity and other spiritual labors must also be included to create a balanced and profitable Lenten experience. What is important is that we never become lethargic in our Christian walk, simply going through the motions of our spiritual obligations, void of understanding and appreciation of their challenge to us. The Pharisees during the time of Christ kept every minute law and tradition of the Jewish faith, yet they did not profit from all their labor and failed to recognize their own Messiah when he stood before them. Throughout Great Lent may we seek to see with spiritual understanding the meaning of our fast, that we may more clearly discern the risen Christ when he is revealed in all his glory as we receive the Light.
[This article was first published in Theosis, Newsletter for Orthodox Spiritual Renewal, April, 1984. Reprinted with permission.]