Some Reflections

on Fasting for Great Lent

By Dr. John L. 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 Christians in North America. Every year, as the Easter Lent approaches, Orthodox Christians begin to wonder what, if anything, to do in preparation for the feast. In general, I think it is safe to say that the practice and idea of fasting is largely ignored in this regard. Many people generally dismiss fasting with the rather simple and naive belief that "This is the twentieth century; fasting is an arcane practice that was made for the past and simpler days," or worse, they dismiss fasting because "fasting is a man made discipline" - as if being "man made" by definition makes something worthless.

Nonetheless, in spite its neglect by most people, we must take the practice of fasting seriously, if for no other reason than the fact that other people, throughout Christian history, have taken it seriously. It is valuable here to consider not so much "how" we must fast as "why" we must fast. A deeper understanding of the significance of this practice in Christianity will help us in determine our own fasting practices.

We must first admit that fasting has a firm foundation in the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church, as well as in 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. We know also that the early Church picked up its Wednesday and Friday abstinence from the Jewish Monday and Thursday weekly fast.

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 order to understand the significance of fasting in Christianity, we must look at it in the context of the Christian view of the world. In spite of the great love which Jesus and His Church have demonstrated for the world and for life in it, there is in Christianity a reservation about the world and human life as it is now. The Church calls this a "fallen world," a world which in all its aspects is in some way separated voluntarily from the love and life of God, its Creator. How does this perspective reflect on the practice of fasting? As it turns out, fasting cannot be separated from this realistic appraisal of the world, and from the struggle to find the Kingdom of God. There is something about fasting, something about refusing to make a total investment in the world as it is, that is associated with the struggle to build the Kingdom of God; for insofar as we are occupied with the delusions of this fallen world, we are impeded in our struggle to find the Kingdom. Fasting, therefore, must be seen as a means of turning away from the fallenness of the world so that we can discover another, better world - i.e. the Kingdom. "Seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be added" we are told. As finding the Kingdom of God is a matter of priority, the importance of fasting as a means of helping ourselves in this endeavor cannot be overstated.

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 for 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 grace 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 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 is not the most important aspect of fasting. If fasting was to be seen primarily as a means of atonment, 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 direct 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 docetic view—i.e. the idea that the world, the body, sex, and all created and material things are essentially evil, whereas all spiritual things are good. In this context, fasting becomes an effort to disconnect the self from any connection with matter—i.e. from food, sex, bodily functions, etc. There has indeed been a tendency towards this view on a number of occasions throughout Christian history, but whenever it has expressed itself, it has consistently been condemned by the Church. The Church has always affirmed that the created world is essentially good, though suffering from 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 Pascha as preparation for the great feast. Nothing in life just happens; that is obvious. All major events require a variety of preparations. The Church recognizes the fact that part of getting somewhere is the journey, and just as important as the journey is 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. In this context, the nature of Orthodox preparations 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. As a season changes in Church, as the colors change, the music changes, the services get longer, the icon changes, and so forth. How does our body share in this except through fasting, except through imitating a change in its normal routine? Now this description keeps the nature and degree of fasting open, and this "openness" is important in our personal spiritual direction. It can involve food, entertainment, sex - in fact, any aspect of our daily and routine lives. It is clear that we Orthodox Christians 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 made 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 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, separated 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, etc. All of these are to be followed 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 those values which the world as it now exists -and human societies which inhabit it - hold as valuable. Insofar as the world is treated as normal - because this is in fact the only world we know - whereas in fact it is not normal or truly worldly in the Christian sense, then it is a deception and a lie, and we must recognize it for what it is. In a real sense, the Church, in asking her people to fast, is declaring a moratorium on the world. A moratorium, whether in the context of war or in the context of spiritual discipline, means the same thing - it means "time out." Those of us who remember the war in Vietnam remember the various moratoria that were declared to stop the fighting. Before a final, lasting moratorium was called, the war had dragged on for almost ten years on an incredibly brutal level, characterized by My Lai; in the meantime, everyone here went about his business, and apart from inflation, no one's life was really affected - we bought our food and celebrated all those little occasions; there was no shortage of butter or meat or autos; and yet, the very normalcy of life here at home, at the same time that wholesale death swept Southeast Asia, was a deception - a deception that was recognized only after a final "time out" was declared, allowing us to come out of the delusional mindset that kept us from questioning the war’s necessity. In the same way, calling moratorium or "time out" on our "normal" worldly routines allows us to recognize the deception inherent in our preoccupation with this fallen world, and allows us to free ourselves from the delusional mindset that keeps us fettered to its routines.

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 state of the world as normal is a deception! There is no hate for the world in this, but there is a recognition that something has happened to the "worldliness" which God created and declared "good."

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 completed 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, then, is 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). This does not mean that we cannot take pleasure in the world.

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, business, school, family, and social affairs. Nothing in human society, the first declares, is sacred in itself and can demand our loyalty - no form of government, regime, ideology, or community. We are freed to conform to the patterns of the Kingdom of God here and now— free to practice sacrifice, love, charity, justice, and faith. To those for whom the world is the ultimate reality and the ultimate gain, 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, there 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 the opportunity to make the better choice.

This article reprinted from

The Word magazine, February, 1997.

Missionary Leaflet # E3b
Holy Protection Russian Orthodox Church
2049 Argyle Ave. Los Angeles, California 90068
Editor: Archimandrite Alexander (Mileant)

(Fasting_ext.doc, 10-21-97)