On Lenten Fasting: Food and Prayer

The word of the day is “food.”  On Meatfare Sunday, we eliminate meat from our diets as we ramp up for the Lenten Fast.  But dairy products are allowed until next Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday.  These prescriptions of Orthodox tradition might give us the wrong impression.  We might think that the focus of fasting should be on the abstinence from certain foods.  But if this is our emphasis in Lent, we should reread Paul’s words in our reading of 1 Cor. 8:8-9:2.  The apostle writes, “But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” (vs. 8).  From the Lord’s teaching, we should understand that what makes a genuine fast is not the type of food we eat or do not eat.  Today we will explore what makes a true fast and what does not.

Food Does Not Defile

Because of the years that have gone by, we might not grasp how radical the teachings of the Lord were.  Take, for example, the traditions of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day.  Their religion was bound up in hundreds of rules applying to the smallest details of life.  The Law of Moses issued these regulations, such as the division of God’s creation into the categories of ritually and morally “clean” and “unclean.”  For example, pork was “unclean,” but beef was “clean.” According to Mark’s Gospel, there were also directives for the pitchers, cups, and containers that held the foods to be eaten.  These had to be ritually washed (Mark 7:8) and so were the hands of those who would partake of the meal (Mark 7:1).

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for dwelling on this kind of minutia instead of the “weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith” (Matthew 23:23).  He observed that food “does not enter the heart, but the stomach” and passes through the digestive track (Mark 7:19).  Hence, food cannot make anyone’s spirit unclean—whether it is pork or beef.  Then the Lord listed the things of the heart that do “defile” a person: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

All Foods Are Clean

Having said this, the Lord rejected the notion of righteousness by special diet.  Some who are reading these comments are observing the dietary guidelines of the Lenten fast.  Others are not.  But the Lord taught that our diet does not ultimately matter.  In The Orthodox Study Bible, Mark reports that the Lord’s teaching had the effect of “purifying” all foods (OSB Mark 8:19).  The Oxford Annotated Bible clarifies what the Gospel writer meant.  It translates, “Thus He declared all foods clean” (OAB Mark 8:19).

We tend to “moralize” our choice of foods, especially in seasons of fasting.  It is as if the crux of sin is to violate certain dietary rules.  In “The True Nature of Fasting,” Archbishop Kallistos Ware wrote, “Fasting is valueless or even harmful when not combined with prayer.  In the Gospel, the devil is cast out, not by fasting alone but by prayer and fasting  (Matt. 17:31; Mark 9:29.  And of early Christians it is said, not simply that they fasted but as an aid to more intense and living prayer, as a preparation for decisive action and for direct encounter with God” (Mother-Mary 1194, 18) (18).

Freedom from Focus on Food

Fasting from foods is not an end in itself. But our fasting is meant to help us to change both heart and mind.  In Lent, we strive to redirect our consideration, that is, to turn our focus away from the matters of food and drink and other earthly things.  The very issues that so often occupy our thoughts about Lent are the things that we should downplay.  We should turn our focus toward our relationship with Christ.  Our concern should be on the struggle with the passions, not the obsession with what kind of foods we eat.  If anything, we should simplify our diet during Lent so that we might have time and effort to practice the disciplines of prayer, reading of Scripture, and charity.

For Reflection

It may be that our response to Lent is an index of the state of our prayer life.  If we are irritable, then perhaps, we need to pray for a spirit of humility and patience.  If we are obsessed with food, then, perhaps, we need a richer diet of sacred readings from Scripture and the church fathers.  If we are bored, then, maybe, we need to recount our sins and the mercy of God.  If we are tired, then, perhaps, we need to find our rest in the Lord’s peace and goodness.  If we are distracted , maybe then, we need to call to mind our death and the futility of earthly concerns.  If we cannot concentrate, perhaps we need to listen to sacred music or talks by teachers of wisdom.  If we are restless, then, perhaps, we should rise up and find ways to serve others.

In all conditions and circumstances, repentance is the key.  Let all our striving this Lent be dedicated to turning around and seeking the Lord.  In Him, we will find the most important of foods, the food for our souls.

Works Cited

Mother-Mary, Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. 1194. “The Meaning of the Great Fast ” In The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan, Pennsylvania  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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