The Theological Basis of Fasting
Do not say to me that I fasted for so many days, that I did not eat this or that, that I did not drink wine, that I endured want; but show me if thou from an angry man hast become gentle, if thou from a cruel man hast become benevolent. If thou art filled with anger, why oppress thy flesh? If hatred and avarice are within thee, of what benefit is it that thou drinkest water? Do not show forth a useless fast: for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven.
– St. John Chrysostom
Fasting is one of the most pervasive spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Christian. The Church has set before us a fasting discipline that is always close at hand. We have four fasting seasons: Great Lent, the Apostle’s Fast, the Dormition Fast, and the Nativity fast. These fasts range from a couple of weeks to almost two months in length. We also have regular weekly fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is a weekly obligation, except during those weeks (usually following a feast) that the Church declares to be fast-free. Finally, we have the Communion fast, which is a total abstinence from midnight to when we receive Holy Communion.[i] But fasting is never an end unto itself, as the quote from St. John Chrysostom suggest. Rather, it is a scriptural admonition of great theological importance, and it is a physical discipline by which we attempt to raise ourselves to spiritual renewal. Keeping the fasts is an obligation of an Orthodox Christian and the catechumens. But it is important to understand not just when we fast but why we fast, and how we fast.
The Scriptural Basis of Fasting
There is no doubt that fasting is mentioned with great frequency in both the Old and the New Testament. The prevalence with which fasting appears in scripture alone should counsel Orthodox Christians to be scrupulous in attending to the fasts. When you think of it, one of the first instances of fasting was found in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were instructed by God: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:17). Though God created the tree, and though, like all of God’s creation, it was good, this rule of fasting – to abstain from certain foods – was given by God for the spiritual growth and self-discipline of Adam and Eve.[ii] From this instance, fasting is found repeatedly in the scriptures. Moses fasted before receiving the Ten Commandment; Daniel fasted in mourning for a vision he received (Daniel 3); David fasted following the death of Saul (2 Samuel 1); the Prophet Elijah kept a forty-day fast in the desert over the sins of Israel, (3 Kings 19:8-12). In the New Testament, Christ Himself fasted before beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2); Luke tells of the prophetess Anna who worshipped in the temple day and night, praying and fasting (Luke 2); Barnabas and Saul were ordained and sent out on Apostolic journeys only after prayer and fasting (Acts 13). These are but a handful of dozens upon dozens of references to fasting in the scriptures. Given the overwhelming frequency of fasting in the scriptures, one wonders how the West managed to almost remove completely fasting from the practices of the faith! In the East, however, fasting has remained a central component of Orthodox praxis. In modern times, it is certainly the case (and especially in the West) that adherence to the fasts are lax in some parishes and jurisdictions. However, simply put, the practice is obligatory for Orthodox Christians.
Fasting as Preparation
Fasting in the Orthodox Church is often tied to the ideal of preparation. We fast during Great Lent in preparation for Pascha. We are preparing ourselves spiritually for the Resurrection of our Lord. Fasting as preparation is tied to scripture as well. Moses fasted in preparation for receiving the Ten Commandments – in fact he fasted twice. Recounting the many instances of how fasting has prepared the people of scripture to accede to good, St. John Chrysostom comments,
“Do you now recognize the harm caused by intemperance? Look in turn at the instances of good behavior due to fasting. The great Moses, after keeping his fast for forty days, was able to get the tables of the Law; and when he came down from the mountain and saw the people’s sin, the tablets which he had been successful in obtaining through such intercession he threw down and smashed, thinking it was preposterous that an indulgent and sinful people should receive laws of the Lord’s own making. Accordingly, that remarkable prophet had again to undergo forty days of fasting so as to be able to receive again tables like the ones he had broken through the people’s sin, and bring them down the mountain. (24b) The great Elijah, too, underwent a similar period of fasting, escaping the power of death and going up as it were into heaven with a fiery chariot, and to this day he has not experienced death. Likewise Daniel, passionate man though he was, spent many days fasting and received as recompense an awesome vision so that he tamed the fury of the lions and turned them into the mildest of sheep, not by changing their nature but by diverting their purpose without loss of their ferocity. The Ninevites made use of this remedy, too, and won from the Lord a reprieve, ensuring that animals as well as human beings should apply the remedy and so abstain each of them from evil practices; thus they won the favor of the Lord of all. (24c) We could list many other examples celebrated in both Old and New Testaments—but why refer to servants when we should come to the case of the common Lord of us all? Our Lord Jesus Christ, you know, himself underwent fasting for forty days, and, thus prepared, he entered his contest with the devil, giving us an example that through fasting we should arm ourselves and by acquiring strength from that exercise we should come to grips with that formidable enemy.”[iii]
Even our Lord prepared Himself in fasting – notably fasting the same number of days as Moses and others, showing both His humility and humanity – and overcame the worldly temptations of the Devil. When we are buffeted about each day with the temptations of the evil one, how can we even think ourselves too “busy,” too “modern,” or too “spiritually advanced” to fast? The necessity of preparation is also consistent with the Orthodox understanding of synergy between man and God. Scripture shows time and again how Christ heals those who join with Him in the healing: the paralytic who must pick up his bed, the lepers who must travel to show themselves to the priests. Each of these receive their reward in cooperation with God. Likewise, when we prepare ourselves, we too receive the fullness of the grace of God. In the fast before Holy Communion, we empty ourselves physically, so that the first thing we receive in the day is the Body and Blood of Christ. We also prepare spiritually with Confession so that we have cleansed ourselves spiritually from the stain of sin. We pray the pre-communion prayers asking God to make us a worthy receptacle of His life-giving bread. We are preparing, so that like those many faithful of the Holy Scripture, we may accede to the good things that God has prepared for us. This is true of all of our fasts, but particularly the Lenten fast, where we prepare for the Resurrection by cultivating a repentant heart. The Forerunner and Baptist John prepared the people for the coming of Christ, baptizing them with a baptism of repentance and warning them, ““Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” It is this same repentance we are cultivating through our Lenten journey, including the fast, as we prepare for the Kingdom to be manifested in the Resurrection of our Lord!
Fasting as Mourning
Repentance is a form of mourning. It is a mourning for our sins, combined with a metanoia or turning around, as we reject our sinful failings and resolve to live in accordance with the commandments of God. The Holy Fathers see this “mourning” of repentance as an essential step in breaking the bonds which the passions lay upon us. St. Gregory Palamas, for instance, spoke of how his mourning “sighs” illumined the darkness. Mourning is the inevitable consequence of spiritual perception. When then nous is freed from the bonds of the passions and is able to see the darkened condition of the person weighed down by worldly cares, there can be no reaction other than mourning. But mourning is not simply sorrow and pain. This mourning creates in us the necessary conditions to experience joyfulness and spiritual gladness. As we are freed from the passions, the true treasures of the soul are revealed to the repentant one.[iv]
This mourning is not merely an emotional state. It is a journey of repentance that encompasses rejection of sin, prayer, self-reproach, watchfulness, and also fasting. Never confuses spiritual mourning for the sadness and self-pity we associated with worldly mourning. As the Apostle Paul says, “godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Cor. 7:10). See how spiritual mourning for our sins must lead to joy? Though we mourn and sorrow for our rebellion and separation from God, in this turning around, we also experience the indescribable joy that comes with the promise of eternal life in Christ!
Fasting as a part of mourning is also well established in scripture. For instance, after the death of Saul, “David took hold of his own clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son, for the people of the LORD and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”[v] Similar connections between fasting and mourning are found in Joel, Ezra and the Psalms.
The Connection Between Prayer and Fasting
When the demon possessed boy was brought to the disciples of Christ, they were unable to heal him (Mark 9:17-30). But Christ heals him and tells the disciples that this demon can come out only by “prayer and fasting.” St. Jerome tells us that the spiritual medicine of fasting is linked to that of prayer in a real way. “The folly which is connected with the softness of the flesh, is healed by fasting; anger and laziness are healed by prayer. Each would have its own medicine, which must be applied to it; that which is used for the heel will not cure the eye; by fasting, the passions of the body, by prayer, the plagues of the soul, are healed.”[vi] St. Ignatius Brianchaninov called fasting the foundation of the virtures, “the greatest of the [which] is prayer.” Christ models both, from his post-baptismal fast to his frequent withdrawal from the crowd to pray. Both spiritual disciplines work hand in hand to enable us to advance in the virtues. St. Justin Martyr found the dual practices of prayer and fasting to be a necessary part of living out our faith. “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them.”[vii] Thus we find in prayer and fasting two integrally linked practices which serve particular functions. Prayer is directed to the healing of the soul, while fasting is aimed at the taming of the body (the carnal passions). Both, however, further the same function: the attainment of the virtues.
Fasting as a Weapon Against the Passions
The function of ascetical practices must be every present in our minds when fasting. Fasting is never an end to itself. A “perfect fast” is not one which follows every technical rule, but rather one which marks the spiritual progress of the faster. As St. Ephraim the Syrian said, “A excellent faster is he who restrains himself from every impurity, who imposes abstinence on his tongue and restrains it from idle talk, foul language, slander, condemnation, flattery and all manner of evil speaking, who abstains from anger, rage, malice and vengeance and withdraws from every evil.” St. Clement of Rome speaks of “mortify[ing] the works of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit.[viii]
The fast is directed at the carnal passions – lust, anger, gluttony, sloth, pride – by physical action. St. John Cassian wrote on the control of the stomach, reminding the faithful “’do not be deceived by the filling of the belly’ (Prov. 24: I 5. LXX) or be led astray by the pleasure of the palate.” He linked the fullness of the stomach to the passions of unchastity and sloth.[ix] “God desireth not such a vain fast; for by so fasting unto God thou shalt do nothing for righteousness. But fast thou [unto God] such a fast as this; do no wickedness in thy life and serve the Lord with a pure heart; observe His commandments and walk in His ordinances, and let no evil desire rise up in thy heart; but believe God. Then, if thou shalt do these things, and fear Him, and control thyself from every evil deed, thou shalt live unto God; and if thou do these things, thou shalt accomplish a great fast, and one acceptable to God.”[x] He emphasized that spiritual battle is won by the use of all the ascetical weapons given to us. “Self-control and fasting are especially important for bringing about that specific purity of soul which comes through restraint and moderation. No one whose stomach is full can fight mentally against the demon of unchastity. Our initial struggle therefore must be to gain control of our stomach and to bring our body into subjection not only through fasting but also through vigils, labors and spiritual, reading, and through concentrating our heart on fear of Gehenna and on longing for the kingdom of heaven.”
Many of the vices are the product of unconstrained desire. Whether that desire is for sexual excess, copious amounts of food, an unrestrained tongue or love of money, the ascetic discipline of the fast aids us in practicing self-control. The full stomach leads us to indulgence and sensual pleasures – the eating of rich and scrumptious foods is sensual: the smell, the taste, the feeling of being satiated. Through fasting we being to control ourselves against the sensual, choosing to put our mind of higher things. This is one reason the fast is always accompanied by spiritual work: an increase in prayer, spiritual reading, almsgiving, and more frequent attendance at services. It is difficult to control the stomach when we are thinking only about hunger. Thus, we join our physical labor with spiritual practice so that our fast is not simply one of self-denial, but also of spiritual growth and the attainment of the virtues. The worst fast is a vain fast, one that deprives us of food but does not work any spiritual benefit to us. As St. Ephraim the Syrian warned “If thou, O man, dost not forgive everyone who has sinned against thee, then do not trouble thyself with fasting. If thou dost not forgive the debt of thy brother, with whom thou art angry for some reason, then thou dost fast in vain.” Embrace the fast for the opportunities for spiritual growth that come with it, knowing that in taming the passions we advance in the virtues!
Fasting is Commanded, But Pride in Fasting is Forbidden
Finally, we should be always on guard not to develop pride in our fasting. Christ commanded us to fast, saying “WHEN you fast” not “IF you fast.” But he also made it clear that we were not to make ourselves the center of attention in our fasting.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18).
We undertake the fast joyfully, knowing that it is for our spiritual benefit. We also know that even the scrupulous keeping of the fast does us no good if we are not addressing the spiritual purposes of the fast. In fact, pride in our fasting can undo the entire purpose of the fast such that the efforts have been a complete waste! Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself”[xi]
Your fast is also your own. Though we are struggling together in these fasting periods and communally engaged in the preparation attendant to the fast, we are to be attentive to our own efforts. The saying “Keep your eyes on your own plate” is particularly instructive. We are not to monitor the efforts of our friends or compare our fasting success to theirs. This is one of the ways that you can develop either pride or despondency, both of which are damaging to spiritual growth. Rather, focus on your own efforts. If you experience temptations toward jealousy of the ease that another fasts or anger over someone breaking the fast, recognize it for what it is: an assault by the evil one on your own spiritual practice. What you are feeling isn’t about that other person, it is an effort to distract you from your own fast!
[i] In the case of vesperal liturgies and presanctified liturgies in the parish, the priest may prescribe a starting time for the fast before evening communion.
[ii] See The Fall of Man by Vladimir Moss (http://www.orthodoxchristianbooks.com/articles/878/-fall-man/)
[iii] John Chrysostom. (1986). Homilies on Genesis 1–17. (T. P. Halton, Ed., R. C. Hill, Trans.) (Vol. 74, pp. 24–25). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press
[iv] Repentance According to St. Gregory Palamas (Part 1) (https://pemptousia.com/2021/04/repentance-according-to-saint-gregory-palamas/)
[v] The New King James Version. (1982). (2 Sa 1:11–12). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[vi] Catena Online (https://catenabible.com/com/5735de63ec4bd7c9723b9bdc)
[vii] St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. LXI.
[viii] Pope Clement I, Two Epistles on Virginity, Ch. XII
[x] Shepherd of Hermas, Lightfoot, J. B., & Harmer, J. R. (1891). The Apostolic Fathers (p. 443). London: Macmillan and Co
[xi] Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers