In Orthodoxy we fast. Not because we have to. But rather because we ‘get to’. We receive as Holy Tradition, and continue in the practice, begun over two thousand years ago, by the prophets, apostles, and early Church to voluntarily refrain from meat, oil, wine, and dairy each Wednesday and Friday, after sundown on Saturday evening in preparation for the Eucharist on Sunday, and at various seasons during the church year. Like Advent, and the Lenten cycle which is fast approaching. This past Sunday we celebrated, as we prepare for the Great Lenten fast, the Gospel story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:10f), a deeply significant biblical account in regards to humility. The Pharisee publicly boasted about his personal ‘holiness’ and righteousness and that he ‘fasted’ often, calling all attention to himself, thus receiving his ‘reward’. The tax collector, on the other hand, fell face first in the dust, in utter humility before God, and would not event raise his eyes to heaven, and prayed the greatest of all prayers, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Humility. Honesty. Mercy. More than the denial of food, the publican models repentance and humility, for none of our “righteous” works, including fasting, ‘earn’ us God’s favor. But when we fast, if we do so with a true heart, desiring to deny ourselves in order to fill ourselves with prayer and service to others, we can join ourselves, even momentarily, with those who go without food and water every day of their lives.
It is with this in mind that Orthodox Christians around the world do not fast at all this week, for we are being warned by the Church to put to death the pride and self-righteousness of the Pharisee within us, and to embrace a posture of humility modeled by the publican. We are reminded that it’s not the act of fasting, or “giving up” something that really matters, rather it’s the taming of our flesh, the quenching of our passions, and the filling of our hearts with humility rather than arrogance and pride. We deny ourselves so that we can give to others. We hunger so that we know what others feel. We give because nothing belongs to us.
Here are some sobering thoughts from St. John Chrysostom on the necessity of fasting, the need to practice it with great humility, and our mandate to feed those who have nothing.
We are taught to fast regularly as part of our Christian discipline. Why should we fast? How do we serve God by going hungry? Surely we need adequate food each day in order to work hard in God’s service. Jesus criticized most vehemently those who drew attention to their fasting, urging us to fast in secret; so clearly fasting is not a matter for personal pride.
There are two reasons to fast.
The first is to break our attachment to material things, of which food is the most central, and so compel us to depend on spiritual things. When we are eating regularly, food not only sustains our bodies, but provides pleasure and satisfaction. In itself there is nothing wrong with such pleasure. But when we do without food, we are reminded that the only true and lasting source of joy is spiritual. The second is to express solidarity with those whose poverty forces them to go hungry. We may fast from time to time as a discipline; but many people fast continually because they have no money to buy food.
If we are truly to show compassion to the poor, we must experience within our own bodies the consequences of poverty. Fasting is thus an incentive toward generosity…
And the money saved during a fast can readily be given
to relieve the enforced hunger of others.