Most Christians have given up the traditional practice of fasting. In today’s Western societies, it seems burdensome and irrelevant. For those who appreciate its eschatological and sacramental significance, though, it is as essential as food and drink.
Why indeed do Orthodox Christians still fast? For most people, life is challenging enough without adding self-imposed limits on what we eat, drink and do on certain days of the week and during long periods of the Church year. Does God really care if we eat meat on Fridays or clear the fridge of dairy products during Lent? Does it really matter?
To this kind of question some have added an objection to fasting based on the hypocrisy that at times accompanies it. We refuse to indulge in certain foods for spiritual reasons, yet we do little or nothing to change our behavior towards other people. A Lenten-linked accusation (variously attributed to St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom) puts it with biting precision: “You abstain from meat – and devour your brother!”
To St John of Sinai, however, the real spiritual danger lies in over-indulgence. “Gluttony,” he asserts, “is hypocrisy of the stomach…it is the stomach that is the cause of all human shipwreck!”1 This is a perception found throughout the Church’s ascetic writings, whether it is directed at monks or lay people. St John Cassian, for example, states the purpose of fasting very simply. It is, he says, “to avoid over-eating and the filling of our bellies.” “Food is to be taken insofar as it supports our life,” he adds, “but not to the extent of enslaving us to the impulses of desire. To eat moderately and reasonably is to keep the body in health, not to deprive it of holiness.”2
These observations are based on the Fathers’ pastoral experience, yet the intuition behind them is rooted in biblical injunctions like the apostle Paul’s: “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
The ancient Church’s ascetic tradition points to several reasons for fasting. Proper fasting purges toxins from the body, it facilitates prayer, it helps control various “passions” and temptations, and it encourages solidarity with the poor. That tradition, however, insists on an approach to fasting that is often forgotten today: balance and moderation.
We can become absorbed by an obsessive “label-reading,” to make sure that what we buy in the grocery store contains not a micron of dairy; we can starve ourselves to the point that our health is endangered; and we can gloat over our “success” and pass judgment on the less zealous among us. All of which makes a mockery of fasting discipline.
Many people who become members of the Orthodox Church are faced with a dilemma when they return home or accept invitations from non-Orthodox friends and acquaintances who are unaware of or unconcerned about our fasting practices. Balance and moderation are especially called for in such cases. To avoid pride in our fasting, it is healthy and wise at appropriate times to relax the regimen. “By relaxing our usual practice,” advises St Diodocus of Photiki, “we shall keep hidden the mystery of our self-control.”3 When we risk offending others with our fasting, a healthy rule of thumb is St Paul’s counsel to “eat what’s set before you” (1 Cor 10:27).
Yet such counsel still doesn’t answer the question as to why we are called – invited – to accept a discipline of fasting, whether it involves total abstinence for brief periods or a restricted diet during Lenten seasons. Evagrios the Solitary, an Iberian monk who died in the remote Egyptian desert of Kellia in 399, suggests the real reasons why fasting has been so prominent in Christian life. “Fast before the Lord according to your strength,” he advises, “for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the mind, drives away the demons, and prepares you for God’s presence… To abstain from food, then, should be a matter of our own choice and an ascetic labor.” Ilias the Presbyter, an 11th – 12th century priest-monk, specifies this aim with an image of the Kingdom to come. The person who practices fasting and continual prayer, “the one in conjunction with the other, will attain his goal, the city from which ‘pain, sorrow and sighing have fled away’ (Isa 35:10 LXX).”
Fasting only really makes sense insofar as it is held in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. However much it may serve to purge the body and to help us gain control over temptations toward gluttony and self-indulgence, these hardly justify its rigors. The discipline of fasting has one basic purpose: to prepare us for the feast that follows. We abstain totally from food before we receive Holy Communion, not simply to empty the belly, but to create hunger for the true Eucharist, the Heavenly Banquet prepared for us from before the world’s foundation. The same is true for prolonged periods of fasting during the Lenten seasons of our liturgical year. They help immensely in the vital task of “sanctifying the time,” of opening our hearts and minds to transcendent reality and the promise of fulfilled hope.
Fasting, then, finds its true rationale in the overall sacramental life of the Church, which nourishes and guides the faithful toward eternal life, joy and peace in the Kingdom of God. It lifts us above the everyday needs of our mundane existence, to set us firmly on a trajectory that will lead from this life to life beyond. Fasting is not a sacrament in the strict sense; but it is profoundly “sacramental.” It is both sacramental and eschatological, in that it sanctifies our present life and activity, deepens and intensifies our personal and communal prayer, and creates within our innermost being a vital thirst for the promised Banquet, the eternal Festival to come.
Fasting is a reminder that the way to glory is the way of the Cross. Fasting may impose minor inconveniences: frustration of our urge for instant gratification, and a bitter reminding that much of the world’s population goes to sleep hungry every night. But that is all to the good. For those inconveniences direct body, mind and soul toward what is essential: toward that heavenly City in which the soul is exalted, the mind is sanctified, the demons are vanquished, and we dwell eternally in the presence of God.