“We fast in order to be able to participate in the Passover of Christ, His death and Resurrection, at the end of our forty days. This is the work to which He calls us–to deny ourselves, to take up His cross and follow Him, to die with Him and rise with Him. For this journey we travel lightly, like the Israelites in the desert, hoping that God will sustain us to reach the goal of the great day of His rising, the day which has no end.
The Didache, an early Christian document which dates from the early second century and reflects the practice of the Church at the end of the first century, the apostolic era, tells us that the first Christians considered fasting an important part of their life in Christ. ‘Pray for enemies,’ it says, ‘fast for your persecutors.’ Fasting, we see, is a form of prayer, an aid to prayer. This document goes on to urge Christians to fast on every Wednesday and Friday. This practice of the very early Church, which we continue in the Orthodox Church today, is done as a way of partaking in the passion and death of the Lord, Who was betrayed by Judas on a Wednesday and put to death on a Friday.
To sum up our practice of fasting, we can say that we fast in order:
- to repent of our worldliness
- to weaken the tyranny of our bodily appetites and passions
- to express our faith that it is the Word of God that sustains our life
- to lighten our souls that they might face God in prayer and hear His word
- to undergo a little death in and with Christ, in the chastening of our mortal flesh, so that we might rise with Him in the spiritually glorious body of immortality
Fasting must be positive, joyful. As Christ tells us, in Matthew 6:16, the Gospel read on the day before Lent begins: ‘When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men…when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father Who is in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.’ We cannot think that our fasting makes us better than others who do not fast. Such pride destroys and devalues the Fast. Fasting must be accompanied by humility, lowliness of heart, or it is worthless. It is this humility that enriches fasting and makes it joyful and radiant. The Fathers of the Church, as well as the Scriptures, make this abundantly clear. As Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us: ‘The tendency to overemphasize external rules about food in a legalistic way, and the opposite tendency to scorn these rules as outdated and unnecessary, are both alike to be deplored as a betrayal of true Orthodoxy.’ In the words of our Lenten hymn: ‘There are forty days in the Fast; let us keep them all with joy.’”
From “The Light of Orthodoxy” Radio Program, Fr. Thomas Mueller, Ss. Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Milwaukee, WI