[Jesus’] feet” (9:16). Later, in chapter 18, the Publican praying in the temple was so full of sorrow, he would not even look in the direction of the heavens, but cast his eyes down and smote his breast while praying for mercy. And it is more than mere coincidence that we prostrate when we say the prayer of St. Ephraim during Great Lent, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. . . .”
All of the Holy Fathers of the Church, as well as many of the saints from both the Old and New Testament, practiced fasting, including Christ Himself. In fact, Jesus also taught that certain forms of evil could not be conquered without it (Matt 17:21).
Father Thomas Hopko reminds us that man does not fast because it pleases God if His servants do not eat, for, as the Lenten hymns of the Church tell us, “the devil also never eats.” Neither do we fast in order to afflict ourselves with suffering and pain, for God takes no pleasure in the discomfort of His people. But we fast only to gain mastery over ourselves and to conquer the passions of the flesh.
If I may insert a personal note here, fasting helps me on several levels. First, when I cannot have any amount of meat or dairy, my body reminds me. My lack of contentment with what I eat is something of which I am continually aware. But this helps me become more focused in prayer because my sensitivities have not been dulled by foods that satisfy. Also, it gives my spirituality a realistic barometer that lets me know where I am with my faith. It’s easy to use the verbiage of an addict (“I can begin the fast anytime I want to”) because we are all addicted to food to various degrees. But it is a very practical dilemma with which we have to come to grips meal after meal. For example, do I love the Big Mac more than I love the Lord and doing his will? Is there any real harm to that cup of cappuccino? After all, God is going to have to forgive me of much bigger sins than eating a cheese sandwich. Excuses are never very far away.
It can be easy to justify not participating in the fast to your greatest ability if that is your desire. If you’ve never done it, it’s hard to describe what you’re missing. But it’s a great first step to growing as a Christian. Fasting can be a lot easier when it is viewed not as an end in itself, but as something which aids in our repentance. So, ask your Spiritual Father to give guidance if you’ve never fasted before. Avoiding the foods from which the Church asks us to abstain is easier if you replace them by increasing worthy activities like self-examination, works of love, giving to the poor, prayer, reading the Scriptures and the Fathers, and refraining from gossip. If you are only avoiding certain foods and aren’t doing those things which edify, then you are not really fasting; you’re just on some kind of weird diet. The bottom line is Christ fasted (Matt 4) and taught His disciples to fast (Matt 6, Mk 2). Are you participating as best as you can …? Are you one of His disciples?
Fr. Stephen is pastor of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, Wichita, KS.