In 1955 in a labour camp in Soviet Russia, the time was approaching for the release of the prisoners. Everyone prayed in expectation and one of the prisoners, a priest, gave the following sermon: “We all know that Saint Nicholas is a great intercessor, helper and miracle worker. He even helped people of other faiths. Let us therefore pray to Saint Nicholas for our release and let us keep a three day fast before his feast day”. Forty of the camp inmates agreed to do this and for three days before the feast of the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas (22nd of March according to the civil calendar), they proposed to eat nothing at all, although camp conditions were severe. When the time came to keep the fast, only 26 of the prisoners observed the fast, plus the priest who communed them during this time. On the feast day of the saint, news arrived of the release of the prisoners. Only 27 names appeared on the release document. How devastated were those who had abandoned the fast!
Whenever a fast approaches, people look at the minimum that they can do. Instead we should always look at the maximum and recognize our weakness and lack of faith. And indeed those who look at the minimum tend in the long run to abandon fasting altogether. The Wednesday fast is an example. This fast day should be observed the same as the Friday fast. We should not expect to eat any food until after the ninth hour, that is after 3 p.m. We should also eat only one meal which should be very simple, consisting of raw vegetables or fruit. This is an example of the maximum. Metropolitan Philaret emphasizes this in one of his sermons. The Metropolitan explains that fasting is not set aside only for clergy or monastics, although we have many examples of great ascetics in the Church such as Saint Chariton, but is a general rule of the whole church. Fasting is a law of the Church. Not to keep the law of the Church requires a special reason. If such a reason exists it is because the Church reaches out to meet our needs and weaknesses in many ways. For example, sick people are not expected to keep a strict fast. This also applied to travellers, especially in the days when travel was long and hazardous. A dispensation from fasting was usually to allow the weary traveller to eat an extra meal, for journeys were long and people had to walk or ride great distances. Today of course there is no need for a dispensation when you can recline in the seat of an aircraft (order a vegetarian meal – editor’s note) and 11 hours later arrive at your destination no worse for wear. We should never use this former travel dispensation to indulge our appetite.
Unfortunately many people say “It is all the same to God whether I eat potatoes or ham”. Of course God does not need your fast, but you should understand that the fast is for you. God does not need to fast. It is you, who are overfed, that needs to fast. Saint Seraphim of Sarov says that he who does not keep the fast is not a Christian. Let us therefore acknowledge our weakness to please our stomachs and refrain from the hypocrisy of denying the law of the Church. If we cannot keep the maximum, let us confess it. Never say that fasting is a new invention or that it is not necessary. If you keep the fast then you will know what benefits God bestows on them that truly love Him and keep His commandments.
(Reprinted from: “Kafedral’nyie viesti” [“The Cathedral News”], No. 29, November 1998, pp. 6-7)