(Pemptousia) - Let’s have a brief look at some of the features of true fasting.
This is precisely the spirit expressed in the hymns we hear in Great Lent:
- Fasting isn’t an end, but rather a means for purification from the passions. This is why the Fathers liken it to a sword or a knife which cuts off the passions.
- With fasting, the Church doesn’t show disdain for food or the human body, since everything’s a gift of God, His own creation. What is sought is liberation from the passions. The Fathers of the Church put it beautifully: ‘We haven’t been taught to be killers of the body, but killers of the passions’. Gluttony fuels the fleshly way of thinking, and sparks outbursts of passion. Fasting makes fleshly desires wither, subdues the rebellions of the flesh and is death to love of pleasure.
- Christ stresses the secret nature of fasting. There’s no point in fasting if we do it to show off: ‘And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. (Matth. 6, 16-18).
- Fasting isn’t only a change of food. There has to be a change in quality, certainly, but also in quantity. The saints of our Church say: ‘Fasting is not only abstaining from food, but also eating less and with less variety’. Food should be limited. And above all, should not consist of expensive items which fall within the term ‘food for a fast’. That’s a parody and a mockery of fasting.
- Bodily fasting needs to be accompanied by a spiritual fast. There is, for example, no point in abstaining from certain foods, on the one hand, but, on the other, reviling people. A saintly ascetic once said: ‘It’s better to eat meat and drink wine than to eat the flesh of your brothers and sisters with whispers and censure’. Fasting also loses its meaning when it’s separated from love. Lots of people fast meticulously, they observe the letter of the rules for fasting, but retain hatred for their brothers and sisters in their hearts. They won’t even wish them “Good day” and often for the most insignificant of reasons. A fast such as that is useless.
- There’s also the social dimension of fasting, which we often forget today. The Fathers of the Church insist that fasting must be accompanied by almsgiving. The faithful should cut out something and offer that to somebody who is in need. In other words, it’s an act of love. We forget this dimension today and fasting becomes just a change of eating habits. And an expensive one, at that.
- True fasting is an expression of genuine repentance. Without repentance, fasting is warped. It’s not only of no benefit to us, but can even lead us astray and create a sense of spiritual self-sufficiency within us. God makes this clear to us through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah. The language this fiery prophet uses in the name of God is very harsh, but also very stirring: ‘They now ask of Me righteous judgment and they desire to draw near to God, saying: “Why did we fast and you didn’t see? We humbled our souls and you didn’t know”. For in the days of your fasting, you find your pleasures, and you wound those who are under your power. If you fast in order to quarrel and fight, and you strike the lowly with your fists, why have you fasted to Me like this, so that your voice can be heard? I did not choose this fast,as a day for people to afflict their souls nor that they should bend their necks as if under a ring, nor spread sackcloth and ashes beneath themselves. Do not call this fast acceptable. I did not choose a fast such as this’ says the Lord. ‘But loose every bond of injustice, undo the noose of harsh bargains, set free the wounded and cancel every unjust account. Break your bread for the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home. If you see someone naked, clothe them and you will not disregard the family of your own seed’. (Is. 58, 2-7, Septuagint)
‘Let us observe an acceptable fast, pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away evil, to control the tongue, refrain from anger, abstain from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Fasting is abstention from these and is true and acceptable’.
‘Let us observe the fast not only be refraining from food, but by putting away all material passions, so that we, who are enslaved by the tyranny of the flesh, may become worthy to partake of the Lamb…’
‘While fasting in the body, brethren, let us also fast in the spirit. Let us loose every bond of injustice, let us undo the noose of harsh bargains and cancel every unjust account. Let us give bread to the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our home, that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God’.