Source: Fr. Serapheim's LiveJournal
There are many questions that one hears today about fasting. Such questions come from the Orthodox, other confessions and non believers. Although much is said about fasting, we would like to propose a view to fasting, in unity with life itself. The issue is that in contemporary articles, fasting is structured and divided (four fasts in a year, on Wednesdays and Fridays, Fast before Holy Communion, children’s Fast, spouses’ Fast etc.), even though all the writers are trying to pay attention to the spiritual side of fasting, (logic in the fast, fast in words, deeds, not judging others), this division leads to a divided examination of each part of the fast and not that of a unified manner. This brings us to a misunderstanding of the essence of fasting, in other words, an interpretation in the wrong light. Thus, some, mainly non believers, do not understand at all why it is necessary to fast and consider fasting as a medieval remnant, an expression of conservatism and so on. Some believers consider fasting as a kind of tribute to God, an action which brings God’s benevolence towards us. Of course, the interpretation of non believers is wrong. But, if we take apart the right statements, such as, fasting is a weapon against demons, passions, a period of spiritual effort etc. and examine each separately, we cannot understand what fasting offers us, in its entirety.
St. Isaac the Syrian says that “a fast was a commandment, in the beginning given to our nature warning us against eating food, and by breaking the fast, the beginning of our creation fell”. So, the commandment of fast (an abstinence of the forbidden fruit) was given to man by the Lord himself in paradise, after the creation of man. Therefore, the fast could not be regarded as a simple weapon which is given to us to fight our existing passions. The fast is a wonderful weapon, a commandment of life and a unique memorial of the life of man in paradise. Created man did not yet have passions, he had not yet fallen, he had not yet sinned. Nevertheless, abstinence becomes an integral part of human life. So, we see that abstinence does not depend on the fall of man, it is a satellite and a way of human life. Abstinence is a guarantee of the divine harmony.
If we look at the Bible narrations regarding the Creation of Man, his aim and the commandments given to man by God before the fall, we can find startling things regarding our theme - fasting, abstinence. In a blessing given to man in Gen 1:28 we can see the purpose of man, his aim to subdue the earth. Hence, we have the commandments (which we can generally see as a technical description of how to do everything said, in practice) - be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, subdue it and dominate the animals. In the following verse, food given to man by God is described – it is vegetarian.
Comparing all the abovementioned to a blessing of God to Noah (who already had a fallen nature), it is clear that man does not subdue the earth anymore, he does not dominate the world of animals, the animals fear and dread him. Food is already every moving and living thing. It is clear that we have two blessings with a different content, so we can say that the commandment “be fruitful and multiply” acquires a different meaning. Thus, we can say that, in paradise, man did not kindle the passion towards the other sex.
Coming back to the narration of the life of man before the fall, simply speaking, we see the following – man did not kindle the passion towards the other sex, he was fasting (he did not eat meat, milk, eggs), he ruled the earth without imposing fear, without kindling and harmoniously lived today’s ideals of abstinence. Abstinence did not require any hardship or compulsion; it was an element of life.
Some see the consequence of the breaking of the divine commandment of abstinence of the tree of knowledge of good and bad – “thou shall surely die” – as a “menace of punishment for breaking the commandment”. However, Isaac the Syrian uses the word “warning”. But if we see the fast as an element of life, then it comes out clear that by rejecting life, naturally, we get death. We cannot think by this pattern – “you made a mess now be punished”. That is why Isaac the Syrian uses “warning” and not “menace” or “punishment”. In this case, abstinence, as a physical law, is inherent to a human, to all humans, whether they are believers or not, whether they are righteous or sinners etc. If one were to put his finger in the electric socket and be shocked, of course it is possible for this to be regarded as punishment for a certain deed, but it is also possible for this to be considered a natural consequence.
In order to see better what fasting, abstinence is, we can address the unwritten sources, the “law written in the hearts of men”, to our life experience.
We can find abstinence throughout our life. Every achievement, in economy, sport, science etc., is a fruit of abstinence. We want to buy a house, so we abstain from spending and patiently collect money. We want to win at the stadium, so we have to abstain and train ourselves in order to become winners. We want to make a family, friends, so we have to bear our neighbors, be humble and abstain from and reject our opinion etc. So, we can say that a person cannot get rid of abstinence and will abstain throughout life, wittingly or unwittingly. Thus, aside of Ecclesiastical Fasting, we use abstinence, in an awkward way, in order to get by (for example, by going to the health center in order to get rid of gluttony).
So, to say that the Church established the fast, is to speak only in a narrow sense. From the beginning of the Creation of Man, fasting existed; it existed in paradise and after the fall, in Old Testament times, in the time of Christ, the Middle Ages and it exists in our time. The Church, as a living body, simply confirmed what it had received from the Apostles and Fathers. So, it is better to examine Ecclesiastical Fasting, not in an isolated, but in a unified manner, comprising all its aspects.
For example, we can see abstinence from food as a kind of training, in order to achieve… life.
St. Ignatios Bryanchaninov says that one who does not fast cannot preserve virginity, control anger etc., and on the other hand, the fruits of fasting are: humbleness of spirit, chastity, modesty…, and the most important, the ability to receive divine grace. Here, we can clearly see the unity of abstinence in food with the ability to receive grace, in essence: unity with God. On the other hand, let us examine the following words of St. Ephraim the Syrian: “If you are angry with your brother and do not forgive his trespasses, in vain you pray and fast: God will not receive you”. In these words, we can see that when the fast and even prayer are examined in an isolated way, their meaning is lost, when separated from life, from God .
Hence, when the questions about what, how, when and where to eat, are raised, it is necessary to provide the reason. It is better, of course, for the Orthodox Christian to have a Spiritual Father who can guide a person, but this is, of course, another story.
In Her care of the Education of Christians, the Church confirmed God’s decision on abstinence as an integral part of human life and of course, appropriately formed its practical implementation.
The Lord says that the faithful in the least, are also faithful in much. Hence, in the paradisiacal life, such great things as communication with God, life in harmony and absence of passions etc., were secured by “faithfulness in the least”, by abstinence of the tree of “knowledge of good and bad”. Simply speaking, we have here an abstention of certain food. So, the physical fast is this “least” with an aid of which it is possible to reach “much”, it is a kind of lever of influence to a human soul. With the aid of the material, we succeed in the spiritual. That is why the Church, by using the Old Testament and by providing us with the pedagogical deeds of the Lord’s experience, appoints the fasts for the believers.
From the beginning, the Church orders fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, fasts before the celebration of the Resurrection, Great Lent and Passion Week. These fasts are catholic or canonical; they were affirmed by the councils of the Church (69 Apostolic rule, 52 rule of 6 Ecumenical Council).
Throughout history, the following fasts were also ordered: The Holy Apostles, which begins a week after the feast of Pentecost and finishes on the day of Apostles Peter and Paul (29June); the Dormition Fast, from 1 to 15 August, the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God; the Nativity Fast, from 15 November to 24 December. One day Fasts – on the Eve of Theophany, the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. These fasts were not obligatory to everybody, but later were brought to practice through the monastic regulations. Now, all the fasts are obligatory to all.