Once, the Elder Epiphanios of the Holy Hermitage of the Graceful Mother of God in Trizina in Hydra related:
A certain spiritual child of mine came and was telling me: “You know, Father, I don’t accept fasting. What does fasting mean anyway?” I answered him, “Fasting is an institution of the Church. It was given as a law in Paradise. The Prophets fasted, as did Moses, the Lord Himself, the Apostles, the Fathers…If you continue not to fast and hold on to this viewpoint, then change Elders!
That’s what I told him. If, however, he told me: “You know, Father, I accept fasting as the Church ordains, but I cannot fast so much. I am trying, however, to achieve something,” I would tell him, “I accept you, my little child. Try as much as you can to live up to what our Church says.” But to tell me: “I don’t accept fasting!” Who are you? What are these things that you are saying? Do you hear them?
He responded similarly to someone, who mentioned to him in confession that he placed the fasts among the smaller obligations and for this reason did not keep them, but “strove to be correct in the basic elements of our faith.”
Won’t you tell me, did you come here as a repentant sinner to receive remission, or as a lawgiver? If the first is the case, you cannot place fasting in the secondary elements of Christian life. If the second is the case, then you are not a disciple of Christ and I cannot read the prayer of absolution over you.”
Throughout these days of repentance and also on those days set aside by the Church throughout the year, Christians must take fasting seriously. It is not our right as individuals, not to mention that it is simply foolish and dangerous, to downplay fasting for ourselves or for others. Having said this, we can conclude as did Elder Epiphanios “…that those who consciously ignore the practice of fasting, without having health reasons, are not really interested in the salvation of their souls.”
When fasting, Saint John of Kronstadt explains, “…one attracts the Holy Spirit and becomes spiritual.” On the contrary, “By feeding largely, one becomes a carnal man, a man of soulless flesh and no spirit…” He provides a telling example: “When cotton is not soaked with water it is light, and a small quantity of it flies up in the air; but if it is soaked, it becomes heavy and at once falls to the ground. It is the same with the soul. How important it is to preserve it by means of fasting!”
In another instance, we learn from St. John that:
Fasting is a good teacher: (1) It soon makes everybody who fasts understand that a man needs very little food and drink and that in general we are greedy and eat a great deal more than is necessary. (2) Fasting clearly discloses all the sins and defects, all the weaknesses and diseases, of our soul, just as when one begins to clean out muddy, stagnant water the reptiles and dirt that lurk in it are revealed. (3) It shows us the necessity of turning to go God with the whole heart, and of seeking his mercy, help and saving grace. (4) Fasting shows us all the craftiness, cunning and malice of the bodiless spirits, whom we have hitherto unwittingly served, and who now malignantly persecute us for having ceased to follow them.
Fasting though is not simply abstaining from foods. The Elder Cleopa of Romania explains:
With the word fasting we mean abstinence from food, but also from all evil desires, so that the Christian may communicate with prayers to God with peace and fervor, kill his evil desire and acquire the Grace of God. The fast is a work of virtue for it bridles the desires of the flesh, strengthens the will, assists in the repentance and thus is a means of salvation.
At the same time, it is also a liturgical action, an effort that glorifies God, when it is done for Him, for it is a sacrifice which originates from our love and reverence for God. It is a means of perfection, of cutting off the inclinations of the body, a visible sign of our zeal and struggle to acquire the likeness of God and His angels who have no need of nourishment…
The aim of the fast is the benefit of the body and the soul. The fast strengthens and toughens the body and cleans the soul, maintains the health of the body and gives wings of ascent to the soul. This is why the Old Testament recommends and imposes it so many times…
It’s important to note that fasting isn’t a Christian invention; it was a divine gift instituted by God at the very beginning of Creation. Saint Basil the Great explains: “O man, be pious and meditate with fear on the antiquity of the fast, for as old as is the world so old is also the commandment of fasting. Indeed this commandment was given in paradise when God said to Adam: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat. For in the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.’”
Accordingly, Saint John Chrysostom in a homily to the people of Antioch preaches:
The value of fasting is not in the abstention from food, but in the departure from sin. If someone limits the fast to abstaining from some kinds of food, this is indeed the person who devalues it. Are you fasting? Show me by those works. What works? If you see a beggar give him alms. If you see an enemy, appease him. If you see a friend doing well do not be envious. If you see a most beautiful woman let it pass. For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from pillaging and avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the hateful theatres and along the pathways of sin. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties…Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speaking and calumnies. Let the mouth, too, fast from disgraceful speeches and railing.”
If fasting seemed an impossible undertaking to the people of Antioch or even to us, the faithful are blessed to find within Scripture numerous examples of those who have heeded God’s command. Reflecting upon the Old Testament, the Elder Cleopa rhetorically asks: “What did the Ninevites do in order not to be lost and to call off the just judgment of God? They fasted… Was not the Prophet King David able to appease God with his prayer and fasting after his fall into debauchery and murder? ...Did not the Prophet Daniel close with fasting the mouths of lions in the den?” The New Testament in no different; within its pages, we learn that John the Baptist fasted, Jesus fasted, His disciples fasted, those whom He commissioned and sent into all the world fasted and those who accepted their teaching and put on the Christ, fasted.
In each and every generation, pious, right believing Christians have fasted. They have abstained from foods when their health has permitted and have abstained from thoughts, words and deeds. When combined with heartfelt prayer, the generous giving of alms, sincere repentance, a regular sacramental life and an abundance of God’s Grace, they have processed through the gates of Paradise opened again to humanity by the Lord’s Resurrection.
Hoping that this fate may likewise be ours, I close with the dismissal prayer of Pre-Sanctified Liturgy that both glorifies God and seeks His blessing upon this Lenten Season that is characterized by our commitment to fasting:
O Almighty Master, Who in wisdom have fashioned all creation, Who, through Your ineffable providence and great goodness, have led us to these holy days for purification of souls and bodies, for restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection, Who, during the forty days, did put into the hands of Your servant Moses the divinely inscribed tablets [of the Law]: grant unto us also, O Good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the Fast, to preserve the Faith undivided, to crush the heads of invisible serpents, to be shown to be conquerors of sins and, without condemnation, also to attain to and to worship the holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is Your most honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.