We have entered the course of the Great Fast, a period of preparation for our Lord’s Pascha. This wonderful and glorious time of preparation is offered by the Church for the up-building and edification of all faithful. Yet, so often we look upon this time with disdain and chagrin. We are extremely reluctant in our present day and age to allow anyone else to determine what we are to do in our daily lives — and yet this is exactly what the church offers for us during the Great Fast. Throughout the course of this blog, we have examined that the very nature of living a life of Christian Stewardship is something that is all encompassing. This week, we will take some time to consider how we may become good Stewards of the spiritual Gift of Fasting.
Prior to doing this, it is important to review the meaning of this oft misunderstood word. “Fasting” in its proper sense, is the abstinence from food—a detachment of the self from earthly realities and goods. Yet, St. Basil the Great reminds us, “fasting is not just the abstaining from food only; it is first of all, abstaining from sin” (On Fasting, Homily I). Fasting is prescribed as an ascetical effort helping us to deny our own will and unite our will to God. It is for this reason that St. Basil reminds us, “Be of good cheer, for the physician has given you medicine that destroys sin” (Homily I). Just as chemotherapy destroys cancerous cells—so proper fasting destroys the cancer of sin in the hearts of us all.
The benefits of fasting are innumerable. Just as a heavily laden eighteen-wheeled truck takes longer to slow down and is less maneuverable than a sports car, so too are our wills when our stomachs are weighed down with heavy and fatty food. It is so much harder to resist temptation when we are not fasting. And in today’s “modern” and “scientific” age, we are discovering that there are increasingly more health risks with heavy consumption of meat and dairy. That doesn’t mean that we should never eat meat—there is a time for feasting as well. However, the common understanding of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” holds true in this case. Think of the joyous and festal celebration accompanying that first agape meal on Pascha! So, how do we become good Stewards of the Fast?
The Gift of Fasting should first be thought of as exactly that: a GIFT! Our Lord has prescribed this wonderfully potent spiritual medicine so that we might unite our will to His will—thus participating in the energies of God. In fact, He demonstrated its potency with His perfect fast in the wilderness! St. Basil reminds us that this gift enables other spiritual gifts:
“Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness…” (On Fasting, Homily I).
The words of the serpent, which proved so perilous to Adam, transformed through deception the understanding that Fasting is truly the Gift of God. Because of this suggestion, Adam chose to perceive the command of not eating as a burden. So it is with us all. We constantly view the Fast as a burden imposed by uncaring monastics. We need to be reminded that fasting itself comes from God—to strengthen us. To break this idea of fasting as burden (and become good Stewards of this Gift), we should consider our priorities. Do we value the pleasure of our stomachs more than the care of our soul? One is eternal—the other is not. “For satiety brings delight to the stomach, whereas fasting brings profit to the soul” (On Fasting, Homily I).
Once our perspective changes from burden to Gift of God, how do we care for this potent gift? First of all, as our Lord reminds us: “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16). We shouldn’t let others know of our fast and look dismal (or disfigure our faces). The face is disfigured when our inner disposition is hidden by a false external appearance—just like an actor on the big screen. We should not seek to change our appearance to make us seem holier than we are. We should come to God (and one another) honestly. We should approach and endure the Fast with joy.
Joyful fasting is accompanied by continuous repentance. It becomes a daily washing of the soul which finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries of Repentance and the Eucharist. Joyful fasting permeates our prayer life—strengthening it and lifting us up so that the Holy Spirit within us may speak to God. Joyful fasting destroys the shame of our sinfulness—allowing us, like the Prodigal, to come to our senses and return home to God. Joyful fasting softens our hearts so that they may be made more pliable in God’s loving and compassionate hands. Joyful fasting inspires compassion and love of neighbor. Joyful fasting helps to unite us to God in preparing a place for His Son within each of us.
The Joyful Fast is not solely defined in terms of abstinence from foods, for it is also the removal of vices and sin. The Joyful Faster forgives his neighbor—and releases all grudges. The Joyful Faster does not insult—nor does he harbor anger in his heart. Rather, the Joyful Faster becomes the calm haven of Christ, permeated with His Peace.
As we endeavor to complete this second week of the Great Fast, may our Lord, who brings us to this season for our own salvation, grant us the strength and endurance to complete the course of this Gift of the Fast as Good Stewards, enabling us to receive this spiritual medicine with great joy while we struggle to unite our will to His Will!