I was asked last year by an acquaintance in town: “Does your Church observe Lent?”
I quickly explained that we did. I was then asked how our Church fasted, and I explained something of the general outlines of Orthodox fasting. They then said to me that they needed their nourishment and instead had taken up walking every day as a Lenten discipline. The conversation ended with some pleasantries.
Why do Orthodox fast?
Fasting is far older than Christianity, and has taken various forms, from abstaining from certain foods (as we now do), eating less (as we also do), or refraining from food altogether (which is rarely done except by some monks). Some say that the first fast was commanded by God in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were told that they could eat everything they wanted except fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is also said that the first sin was mankind’s rejection of the fast that God had set. That is true to a degree but the story of Adam and Eve is far richer than the fast that was part of it.
So why do we fast?
Christ Himself fasted and said that His disciples would fast. But what is its point? It can be said that fasting is to the body what prayer is to the soul. We are frequently ruled by our bodies and the demands they make. We do not like to deny them anything, whether it be food, experience, or any other desire. The simple practice of denying food to ourselves, first in the kinds of foods eaten, and also in the amount we eat. Bringing our body and our will into greater submission to God strengthens us in the work of repentance.
But the fast of Great Lent is far more than changing our eating habits. It includes increasing our time at prayer. The services are longer and we should make every effort to attend – at least more services than we have been attending. Fasting includes what we do with the goods of this world. Denying ourselves the benefit of our own riches, we share them with those who have less. This action conforms our heart to the heart of God and teaches us compassion. The fast extends even beyond these few examples. St. John Chrysostom, writing in the early fifth century offered these thoughts on the Lenten fast:
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?
May He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us.