The topic of why we fast in the Orthodox Church was touched on in the previous article (see here) but was not completely explained. The reasons why Orthodox fast during certain periods such as Great Lent or on Wednesdays and Fridays were dealt with in Part 1. Here, we will examine why we fast at all.
It is worth remembering that fasting is referred to in the Bible as something positive. It was the first commandment given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:16-17). From the extensive fasting laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy to the examples of fasting in the books of Kingdoms and Jonah to provide only a couple of examples, the Old Testament is replete with fasting. The effects of it can be seen when the sinful inhabitants of Nineveh, upon hearing that their city was to be destroyed, humbled themselves through fasting and wearing sackcloth in an attempt to appease God (Jonah 3:1-7).
We can see that this was still the practice in the New Testament, during and after the earthly ministry of Christ. John the Baptist fasted, eating only “locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4), as did his disciples (Matthew 9:14). We know that the Pharisees fasted, with the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector saying “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). Christ Himself went out into the desert and fasted for forty days (Luke 4:2), and gave instructions on how to act “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). This continued into the early Church and is mentioned in the Didache at Chapter 8, which outlines the practices of that time. The tradition of fasting for forty days during Great Lent was codified at the First Ecumenical Council in Canon 5.
Having seen that there was this tradition of fasting, it is now necessary to understand precisely why it was and still is taking place. The importance of fasting in the spiritual struggle was made clear by Christ during His earthly ministry when He said of demons that “this kind does not go out except through prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). In this way we need to fight our own demons, our sins and our passions, through prayer and fasting.
Prayer and fasting go together. The purpose of fasting is to assist in prayer, worship and repentance (St Basil the Great, On Fasting 1.3). It is not to make a simple sacrifice or to give something up for reasons which are separate from God. It is to strengthen our willpower so that we might be able to, like a tiring runner in a marathon, push on with our spiritual struggle in the hope that we might be victorious. St Symeon the New Theologian writes in the Discourses: “Fasting, aided by vigil, penetrates and softens hardness of heart. Where once were the vapours of drunkenness it causes fountains of compunction to spring forth.”
Abba Dorotheos writes in his Directions on Spiritual Training that: “in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue”.
This brings us back to the original question of how we should fast. Where previously the physical aspect of how to fast was discussed, now we shall dive into the mental aspect and try to understand the spirit in which fasting should be conducted.
Christ shows us through the example of the Pharisees how one should not fast: “When you fast, do not look sombre 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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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).
St John of Damascus continues this theme in On the Holy Fasts (Homily 3): “It is good to fast, but may the one who fasts not blame the one who does not fast. In such matters you must neither legislate, nor use force, nor compel the flock entrusted to you; instead, you must use persuasion, gentleness and a word seasoned with salt”.
These quotes show that we must be careful in fasting that we not fall into sin as a result of our fasting. Fasting must be practiced in a spirit of humility and without judgment of those who do not fast. This is especially difficult in the modern context where fasting is a rarity rather than a norm. As with many aspects of the spiritual life, it is best not to concern ourselves with what others are or are not doing and to focus on our own struggles, because they alone are more than enough for us.
And so when fasting, we should remember the words of Clement of Alexandria, who writes: “[I]t is necessary that we fast from worldly things, in order that we might die to the world and after this, having partaken of the divine nourishment, live in God”.