We have just entered the period of Great Lent (February 27), and our Church calls us to observe the traditional fast and prayer. Several people will raise again the questions why should we fast, or how much should we fast, etc. The following thoughts provide some answers to the general questions which are raised at this time both inside and outside the church.
Fasting is a God-given institution. It was instituted by God Himself at the beginning of our creation. It began in Paradise with God’s commandment to the protoplasts, which prohibited them to eat from the fruit of the tree of good and evil. This commandment was given before man fell into sin, and therefore its purpose was not connected with repentance or deliverance from the passions which emerged after man’s fall. It was rather connected with man’s need to remember God, to be in constant communion with Him and to rely on Him for his well-being. In other words, fasting in Paradise was stipulated so that the protoplasts may never forget their Creator, who by virtue of having created them was ultimately the only one who knew what was good and evil, or life and death for them.
It is precisely this sense that we encounter in the fasting of the saints, those of the Old and those of the New Testament, who fast before they approach God through prayer. This sense is especially revealed in the establishment of the two Testaments, the Old and the New, inasmuch as both of them began with a period of fasting. Moses fasted for 40 days before he ascended Mount Sinai and received God’s Law through which Israel was constituted. Christ did exactly the same in the New Testament. He fasted for 40 days in the desert and then began his three-year ministry, which was consummated with His sacrifice on the Cross, His Resurrection, Ascension and the sending of the Gift of the Holy Spirit through which the Church was established as the Arch of salvation.
Following man’s fall, fasting became a greater necessity. As the Fathers of the Church explain, the fall created havoc in the human psychosomatic existence. The balance of the soul and body was lost. The soul lost its hegemonic role over the body. As a result, the body was subjected to passions, while the soul suffered internal disorder in the operation of its spiritual powers (thumic, rational and noetic). Thus, fasting was offered to post-fallen humanity in order to curtail bodily passions and to recover the way of returning to communion with the Creator. This appears very clearly in both the Old and the New Testaments, especially in the teaching of Christ.
St. Epiphanios, writing against the heretic Aetios who did not fast because he regarded fasting a Jewish bondage, says this: “The mindless Aerians did not know, that, as the blazing sun of the summer burns up human beings with its fiery rays and the north wind comforts them with its mild breezes and drives away stifling and refreshes all things, so fasting drives away bodily burning, which is caused by gluttony and excessive eating, and restores health to the mind of the soul through purity and to the body through light-weight. This does not mean that excessive abstention from eating is approved. Just as the excessive eating results in sickness, and often in debauchery, so the excessive abstinence from eating causes bodily debilitation and spiritual dizziness. The truth is that reduced eating and fasting keeps the body healthy, while, on the contrary, excessive eating impairs the sound judgment of the soul and the health of the body.”
St. Maximos the Confessor gives us the golden rule: “We must eat in order to live, and not to live in order to eat, because the former is proper to a rational nature, whilst the latter to an irrational one.” So the excessive eater is like an irrational animal. The wise person, however, follows the Apostle Paul who advises us to refresh our nature with fasting and prayer. This is the spirit that governs the endorsement of fasting by the Apostles and the Fathers.
The Fasting of Great Lent was instituted by the Apostles and the Fathers. The 68th Canon of the Apostles and stipulates complete abstinence from meat, fish, eggs, cheeses and generally dairy products. This Canon was also endorsed by the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicaea in Bithynia (AD 325). It resembles the Fasting of Wednesdays and Fridays which is observed as a reminder of the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. The Great Lent is the annual repentance that we observe for the passion of the Lord which was caused by our sins. It typifies the final restoration of our communion with God in the Kingdom of heaven and grants us in the course of the present life a foretaste of our ultimate salvation.
The importance of Great Lent has been stressed and explained by many of the great Fathers, such as Athanasios, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, etc. They see it as an opportunity for deliverance from the passions of the body and for inner purification and spiritual renewal. They liken it to the journey of the Israelites from the land of slavery to the holy land of the promise, and from the type of the Law to the truth of the Gospel.
May we all have this new year of salvation a good and refreshing Great Lent.
Fr.George Dion. Dragas