By: Mother Mary (of Bussy-en-Othe) and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware1
… (In) order for us to experience the full power of this Paschal rejoicing, each of us needs to pass through a time of preparation… without this expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost… So it is that before the festival of Easter there has developed a long preparatory season of repentance and fasting.
… Just as the children of Israel ate the “bread of affliction.” (Deut. 16: 3) in preparation for the Passover, so Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of the New Passover by observing a fast. But what is meant by this word ‘fast’ (nisteia)? Here the utmost care is needed, so as to preserve a proper balance between the outward and the inward. On the outward level fasting involves physical abstinence from food and drink, and without such exterior abstinence a full and true fast cannot be kept; yet the rules about eating and drinking must never be treated as an end in themselves, for ascetic fasting has always an inward and unseen purpose. Man is a unity of body and soul, a living creature fashioned from natures visible and invisible… The tendency to over-emphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true orthodoxy. In both cases the proper balance between the outward and the inward has been impaired.
… The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God. If practiced seriously, the Lenten abstinence from food – particularly in the opening days – involves a considerable measure of real hunger, and also a feeling of tiredness and physical exhaustion. The purpose of this is to lead us in turn to a sense of inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us, that is, to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement, “Without Me you can do nothing,” (John 15: 5). If we always take our fill of food and drink, we easily grow over-confident in our own abilities, acquiring a false sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency. The observance of a physical fast undermines this sinful complacency… Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us “poor in spirit,” aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God’s aid.
Yet it would be misleading to speak only of this element of weariness and hunger. Abstinence leads, not merely to this, but also to a sense of lightness, wakefulness, freedom and joy. Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively. As many doctors acknowledge, periodical fasts contribute to bodily hygiene. While involving genuine self-denial, fasting does not seek to do violence to our body but rather to restore it to health and equilibrium. Most of us in the Western world habitually eat more than we need. Fasting liberates our body from the burden of excessive weight and makes it a willing partner in the task of prayer, alert and responsive to the voice of the Spirit.
… If it is important not to overlook the physical requirements of fasting, it is even more important not to overlook its inward significance. Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical. True fasting is to be converted in heart and will; it is to return to God, to come home like the Prodigal to our Father’s house. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means “abstinence not only from food but from sins”. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” “It is useless to fast from food,” protests St. Basil, “and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
… The inner significance of fasting is best summed up in the triad: prayer, fasting, almsgiving… Divorced from prayer and from the reception of the holy sacraments, unaccompanied by acts of compassion, our fasting becomes pharisaical or even demonic. It leads, not to contrition and joyfulness, but to pride, inward tension and irritability…. Fasting, then, is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer.
In the Gospels the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone, but by “prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17: 21; Mark 9: 29); and of the early Christians it is said, not simply that they fasted, but that they “fasted and prayed” (Acts 13: 3; Acts 14: 23). In both the Old and the New Testament fasting is seen, not as an end in itself, but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action or for direct encounter with God. Thus our Lord’s forty-day fast in the wilderness was the immediate preparation for His public ministry (Matt. 4: 1-11). When Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34: 28) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (3 Kgs. 19: 8-12), the fast was in both cases linked with a theophany. The same connection between fasting and the vision of God is evident in the case of St. Peter (Acts 10: 9-17). He went up on the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became very hungry and wanted to eat; and it was in this state that he fell into a trance and heard the divine voice. Such is always the purpose of ascetic fasting – to enable us to “draw near to the mountain of prayer.”
… Paradoxical though it may seem, the period of Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness. It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a “Joy-creating sorrow”… The fast is not a burden, not a punishment, but a gift of God’s grace.
… Such is the way in which we interpret our abstinence from food. Bread and wine and the other fruits of the earth are gifts from God, of which we partake with reverence and thanksgiving… When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic – no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.
- Mother Mary (of Bussy-en-Othe) and Ware, Archimandrite Kallistos. “The Meaning of the Great Fast: The True Nature of Fasting,” In The Lentern Triodion, edited by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, 13-28. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002.