By faith Moses, . . . considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. (Heb. 11:26)
. . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross . . . (Heb. 12:1-2)
The Church gives us several fasting seasons throughout the year: Great Lent, the Apostles Fast, the Dormition Fast and the Advent Fast. Additionally, there is the ongoing Wednesday and Friday fasting. But why do we fast? Why do we have these seasons?
When you fast, do you ever feel sorely challenged, irritated and impatient; annoyed with the lack of food? Sometimes the fasting experience seems negative. “Why do I put myself through this?” I sometimes ask. What keeps us fasting, attending services, observing a daily rule of prayer and following the ascetical practices of the Church?
As I was growing up in rural Northern Illinois, my friends and I used to love to go camping. The kind of camping we did was not state park camping. No, our favorite spots were in pastures where cows would graze, perhaps beside a creek that wound its way between cornfields, or near a stand of timber on the back acreage of a farm. We’d get permission from the farmer, usually someone who knew who we were or belonged to our church, and we’d load the car with all the necessary stuff to spend a night outdoors. Food and utensils were boxed up; water was put in coolers; sleeping bags and bug spray were rounded up. We’d also throw in our tents, plastic to put on the ground, pillows, flashlights, and all the stuff needed to start a fire and keep it going. We’d drive as close as we could to the camping spot and then haul all that stuff by hand the rest of the way. It was a lot of work! Then we’d sleep on the ground, fight the bugs, get smoke in our eyes, wake up damp and unrested . . . only to pack everything up again and haul it away.
Why did we do all this?
We did it for the reward of immersing ourselves in the beauty of our natural world: to sit among the greenery of summer; to gaze on a pastel sky at dusk; to feel the coolness of night on our backs and the warmth of a campfire on our faces. We did it to hear the sound of the locusts, watch the moon rise, see the stars come out, and sleep to the sound of the wind in the trees. And we did it to experience the joy of each other, in stories and laughter, or quiet conversations, and the satisfaction of undivided attention.
In other words, we did it to experience a reality different from the insulating comfort of our homes.
This is why we fast and participate in the ascetical disciplines of the Church: we do it for the reward! What is the reward? All the benefits of drawing nearer to Christ. In Him is true joy, true peace, true relationship and communion. There’s a way to get to these things, but we have to go outside of ourselves, outside the “house” of our comforts and dependencies. By allowing the efforts of fasting, prayer and almsgiving to lead us to repentance, we get to experience something of real life in Christ, which holds much more than the world of our fleshly existence. The reward may not be immediate, but there will be a reward. And on many levels we experience that reward even now. We should not be ashamed of seeking the reward that comes with ascetical effort. Christ himself sought to motivate his followers by the rewards of the Kingdom of heaven. In the sixth chapter of the gospel of Matthew He commands us to observe what have become the three primary ascetical disciplines the Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For each, He promises rewards:
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:3-4)
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:6)
But 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. (Matt. 6:17-18)
Christ Himself endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him.” (Heb.12:2) He endured the cross because he loved us, but this is not in opposition to the reward of joy that is communion with God the Father and with us, for which He endured the suffering. If Christ was motivated by joy, so should we be.
Fasting is a “get to,” not a “have to.” It is an opportunity not an obligation. I can stuff myself with food, and it doesn’t give me true life; but I can refrain from food in prayer, and begin to experience the Bread from heaven, Jesus Christ.
So if you ask yourself why we observe the ascetical discipline the Church, the answer is simple: for the joy of knowing Christ. Not because we “ought” to, not because we normally eat too much, not because we need to be a better person, or more virtuous . .. and not because we must suffer with Christ. All these things may be true, but they do not truly motivate motivate us in our Christian journey. Our goal is Christ. We gladly undertake the ascetical effort because Christ is our goal, and because of the inherent joy of knowing Him. Christ means true joy, true peace, and true communion with my Creator, and with others. I want to experience these things. But I must leave the “house” of my physical comforts to do it.
For the joy that is set before us, let us continue to seek Christ in all seasons, and greet Him in the joy of His Resurrection!