Some Reflections on Fasting

by John Boojamra

Fasting, or more correctly, the practice of abstinence for certain days and certain periods of the year, has long caused difficulty in the minds of many Orthodox in North America. Every year, as the Easter lent approaches, Orthodox begin to wonder what, if anything, to do in preparation for the feast. (Very little direction has come from the hierarchs of the Church by way of guidelines or explanations and each parish priest, if he does more than simply announce that the fast is beginning, will say something different.) In general, I think it is safe to say that the practice and idea of fasting is largely ignored. Many people generally dismiss fasting with the rather simple and naive “This is the twentieth century; those rules were made for the past and simpler days.”

Nonetheless, in spite of practice of most people, we must take the practice of fasting seriously, if for no other reason than other people, throughout Christian history, have taken it seriously. It is valuable here to consider not so much “how” to fast, as “why” fast. This deeper understanding of the reason for this practice in Christianity will help us in determining our own fasting practices.

We must first admit that fasting has a firm foundation in the Scripture and Tradition of the Church, as well as the practice of the Jewish community which gave birth to the Church. We know for instance that Jesus fasted, that the disciples of John the Baptist fasted, and that Jesus said that prayer and fasting were necessary for casting out certain evils.

Fasting And This World

To this emphasis we must add a certain otherworldly emphasis in Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps the most realistic treatment of this is in Matthew (6:19-21).

Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.

In spite of the great love which Jesus and His Church have demonstrated for the world and life in the world, there is in Christianity a reservation about the world and human life as it is now. The Church calls it “fallen world,” a world in all its aspects in some way separated voluntarily from the love, and life of God, its Creator. Fasting must be seen in this light —”Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be added.” It is a matter of priority. Fasting cannot be separated from a struggle for the Kingdom of God and from a realistic appraisal of what the world is. There is something about fasting, something about refusing, as it were, to make a total investment in the world as it is, that is associated with the struggle to build the Kingdom of God.

Before discussing what fasting is, perhaps it would be beneficial to say a few words about what it is not. This is a valuable approach since there is a great deal of misunderstanding regarding the nature and function of fasting, both as an idea and as a practice.

God, we must admit first, is not simple-minded: He has no need of our fasting. Our efforts do not affect Him in any way. We cannot buy His love or His grace. This immediately takes fasting out of any legalistic framework and puts it on the level of personal spiritual growth and struggle. For instance, because one person fasts more strictly than another does not mean that God loves the first more or gives him more grace. It is as unimaginable that you could get more grace from a greater effort as getting more grace from a larger portion of the Eucharist.

Yet many people think of it in strictly legalistic terms. God’s love is always given freely and the degree of participation in that love is conditioned by our ability to receive it and be changed by it. This is the brilliant Orthodox idea of cooperation or synergy — we must open ourselves to the love and strength that God offers freely. Fasting is a way of achieving this openness.

Another view of fasting, which, like the previous one contains an element of distortion, is that which sees it as a means of voluntary suffering, a way of atoning for sins. Indeed, there may very well be an element of this in fasting, but this cannot be a predominant one. This would bring the practice to the level of individual pathology. Again, we cannot pay God back for our sins and fasting as a means of atoning for sins must be seen in the light of trying to reshape our spiritual lives in a more positive direction.

A third view of fasting is common among both Christians and non-Christians. This view mistakenly sees fasting in the history of the Church as an expression of a pathological morbidity with regard to the world, which is based on a dualistic view — the world, the body, sex, all created and material things are essentially evil; all spiritual things are good. Hence, fasting is an effort to disconnect the self from the use of matter — food, sex, etc. There has indeed been a tendency towards this in the Christian history, but it has been consistently condemned by the Church when it expressed itself. The Church has always affirmed that the created world is essentially good, though suffering from a profound distortion and misdirection.

Fasting As Preparation

What fasting is will necessarily involve us in a discussion of the nature of man and the nature of the world. Fasting is, as the Church uses it, a preparation. Every time we encounter a fast it is prior to a feast. We all know the fast before the Eucharist as preparation for the Eucharist and the fast before Easter as preparation for the great feast. Nothing in life just happens; that is obvious; all sorts of things require a variety of preparations. The Church recognizes the fact that part of getting somewhere is the trip and more than the trip, the anticipation. This is a basic human psychological quality. Perhaps children understand this expectation and anticipation best of all. Full participation demands this kind of expectation and preparation. Now, the nature of Orthodox preparation is no mystery. The Church has taught that man is a unity, he is not a being which has a body and which has a soul; rather, he is a body and he is a soul. The Christian vision is that of a total and unified personality — body and soul. Hence, the Church calls on the entire being to share in the fast and the feast. A season changes in Church — the colors change, the music changes, the services get longer, the icon changes. How does our body share in this except through fasting, except through initiating a change in its normal procedure. Now this description keeps the nature and degree of fasting open. It can involve food, entertainment, sex, in fact, any aspect of our daily and routine lives. It is clear that we Orthodox are not spiritualists or intellectualists, we are Christian “materialists.” The Church’s emphasis on fasting is precisely a reflection of this materialism.

Our Lord says, “lay not up treasures on earth” and fasting is in effect the reminder that our heart cannot be invested like our money in the world. We all know the feeling we have for something when we have an investment in it. People always try to protect their investment. This is natural. That is what our Lord meant. Here we find a rejection of the world, not in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense. The world in itself is valuable only when it is seen in its relationship to God. Since the world is in effect separated from God, freely, then it cannot be fully normal and the Church says limit your participation in the life of the world, not because it is evil, but because it in itself is limited.

Food is the most obvious example. Everyone agrees that eating, after the process of breathing, is the most necessary and normal activity of our life. It is in this area which is regarded in a worldly sense as normal that the Church says stop! think! question everything which the world calls normal and necessary, because the world itself is “abnormal.”. That is, it is abnormal as it now exists apart from God’s love. But fasting is only a beginning and this questioning must be our approach to all the values that the world regards as necessary and even virtuous — victory, self defense, getting ahead, accumulating wealth and property, competition, popularity, self-aggrandizement. All of these are then signed with a question mark.

Fasting And A Clear Image Of The World

Mind you, this is not a rejection of the world, it is a questioning of the values which the world as it now exists, and human societies which characterize it, hold as valuable. Inasmuch as the world is treated as normal, because this is in fact all we know, and inasmuch as it is not normal or truly worldly in the Christian sense, then it is a deception and a lie and we must tell it as it is. In a real sense the Church in asking her people to fast is declaring a moratorium on the world. Remember the various moratoria against the Vietnam war? The same idea is implied. The war had been going on for almost ten years on an incredibly brutal level characterized by My Lai, yet everyone went about his business, apart from inflation which was blamed on pay raises, no one’s life was really affected. We bought our food, celebrated all those little occasions, there was no shortage of butter or meat or autos. The very normalcy of life here at home, at the same time that wholesale death swept Southeast Asia, was a deception. On a cosmic level, the fast is this effort to put the world and life in the world in its proper perspective. To accept the present patterns of the world as normal is a deception! There is no hate for the world in this and it recognizes that something has happened to the worldliness which God created.

I think we must then see fasting, never as a rejection of food or the world, but as a search for true worldliness; a search which must necessarily pass through the stage of preferring something else to the world. “Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you.” In the same way we fast from all food before liturgy so that we might receive the one true food in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist that we can get a glimpse of the true nature of food. There is no judgment on food as such. The same is true of the world. As food completes itself in the Eucharist, so the entire created world completes itself in the Kingdom of God.

The world is ours, it belongs to us and needless to say we were not meant to be slaves to its pleasures, its categories, and its values. Fasting is then a declaration of independence from the world and a proclamation of victory over its limitations and evil. “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

It is a recognition that the values of the world are limited and often perverted. Here we are freed, liberated in a real sense, not only from sin but from the fears that characterize life, free to act without fear of criticism as God wants us to act in our everyday life, in politics, in business, in social affairs.

Nothing in human society, the fast declares, is sacred in itself and can demand our loyalty, no form of government, no regime. We are freed to conform to the patterns of the Kingdom of God here and now —love, charity, justice, faith. To those for whom the world is the ultimate reality and the ultimate value it is essential to buy the love of the world and the world will only love those who accept its values. Our Lord assures us that the world will hate us; it has to, because the Christian is the on-going judgment on an on-going corruption that infects human relations and human societies.

For us Christians who live in the world, we are offered a choice: we can consume the world or allow the world to consume us. The first is the only creative approach. The second is psychological and personal disintegration. The fast is what gives us this opportunity.

God, we must admit first, is not simple-minded: He has no need of our fasting - Our efforts do not affect Him in any way. We cannot buy His love or His grace. This immediately takes fasting out of any legalistic framework and puts it on the level of personal spiritual growth and struggle.

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