Let us begin the fast with joy!
Let us prepare ourselves for spiritual efforts!
Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh!
Let us abstain from every passion as we abstain from food!
“Forgiveness Sunday Vespers”
Each year we begin our Lenten journey by singing this verse from the Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday. It reminds us that we undertake the fast “with joy” as we recall our Lord’s words to us Matthew 6, and not be like the hypocrites. And St. Paul cautions us in his Epistle to the Romans to not condemn those who do not keep the fast properly. Taken together, they serve to teach us an important lesson, one of control both inwardly and outwardly. And it gives us an answer to the question, “What is so important about fasting?”
It is with this concept of control in mind that we can truly understand the purpose of fasting. Some people think of fasting as a way of imitating our Lord who made the ultimate sacrifice for our benefit and for our salvation. So they give up “something” for Lent. Or they look at the fasting rules of the church as a type of sacrifice since they are not partaking of certain foods for the length of the fast.
This is not really an Orthodox approach to fasting or to Lent in general. For the Orthodox Christian is called to fast within the context of control, control of our will. A control that governs not only food, but all the passions that we may encounter on a regular basis. For it is not what goes into the mouth that causes one to sin, but what comes out of it. In this way, gossip, false accusation, lust, anger, and nearly anything we can think of that arouses our passions can lead to sinfulness. It could be the seeking of pleasure from social involvement, the various media resources at our disposal today, or the social media itself can also lead us into temptation and a fall from grace.
So the true reason to fast is not found in the sacrifice, but in the control of the self-will and the self-willing of what we chose to do or not to do, say or not to say, eat or not to eat, and so on. For true fasting is as much a source of instruction to ourselves as it is the abstinence from things. We can learn how to control our desire for certain foods or drinks, our participation in events and even conversations, and by this practice of control of the self that we also learn our true nature.
The real purpose of practicing a fast is to discover the real person that God created us to be. When Adam and Eve transgressed the Lord’s command not to eat from the tree, they lost the ability to see themselves as the image of God or His likeness. They desired the fruit because they thought it would make them like God, for they did realize they already were like God. That deception of the serpent was exactly this, for he said “If you eat it you will be like God, knowing good and evil. [Gen. 3:6] So we can see why this makes our effort of fasting so important, for fasting was the only command that God gave Adam and Eve, and they could not do it.
So the truest purpose of our fasting is to restore the mastery of our own will, not just in fasting from food, but in control of our desire for worldly pleasures (which are fleeting), from improper thought (which can lead to even more sin), and from laziness (the failure to practice the increased life of prayer in Great Lent). Nor can we simply think that struggling with fasting is all we need either, for there is also a all to do positive things in Lent as well.
This past Sunday of the Last judgment shows us what we are also called to do in the positive light as well. Care for those less fortunate than ourselves is paramount in restoring our life in Christ. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned are also acts that help us on our Lenten journey.
So we see the three callings of Lent, Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving are all necessary for us to accomplish our goal in Lent of drawing closer to Christ, of being more like Him in our own life. Practicing these three callings will help us gain knowledge of our true image and likeness; it will help us become the real person we were created to be, a living example of Jesus Christ to others.
It is my prayer that each of you will find this path towards the true image and likeness during this Great Lent and by that path discover who you really are in Christ. May you all be blessed with joy and strength to complete the fast with joy and rejoice in the Holy Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.