In imitation of Jesus’ 40 Days in the wilderness, during which he was tempted by the devil, Christians practice a season of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and self-denial called Great Lent. Lent has a fascinating history — when it formally began, how long the season was, etc. — but for sure, since the days of the first Christians, instructed by Jesus himself, Christians pray, fast, and give alms.
The most notable aspect of the Great Fast is the actual fasting — that is, an abstinence from certain foods and drinks for a certain length of time, for a spiritual training. It should be stated from the start: While every aspect of fasting in the Christian way concerns food in the most basic definition, fasting is not about food. Fasting can be defined in the following ways:
— Going voluntarily hungry to serve those who are involuntarily hungry.
— Practicing, through food and drink, “not my will, but thy will be done.”
As the results of the Reformation continue to manifest themselves in radical individualism, it is not surprising that even Lenten fasting has been reduced in the West to “what are YOU giving up for Lent?” But this way has not always been so. The Ancient Christian practice is a common fast, for all who are able. Generally, the very young, the very old, the infirm and the pregnant are relieved of the fast.
As one of my teachers instructs concerning such spiritual disciplines, “do what you can, when you can, because there will come a time when you cannot.”
During the routine year, Christians fast on almost all Wednesdays (the day that Judas agreed to betray Jesus) and Fridays (in memory of the Crucifixion), as well as in various seasons, Great Lent being central.
The common fast is abstinence from meat, dairy, wine, and olive oil. In the Orthodox Churches, this practice remains a universal spiritual discipline, which brings about the natural encouragement: “we’re all in this together”. For example, one is not put in the strange position of going to a friend’s for supper — you having given up steak, and he, beer — and you bring him beer as a gift, while he serves you steak. This leads to the rather unbiblical situation of each saying, “Bummer! I gave that up for Lent!” (In actual practice, each of those should enjoy what is offered with thanks to God and with joy, but that is another question.)
Fasting — routine and prolonged — coupled with prayer and acts of mercy, is a vital spiritual weapon that humbles us and gives us clear vision. I am reminded of my days as a soccer player when I was young. We had a coach who would, for an hour-long practice, make us run and run (laps, hills, sprints, etc.) for 45 or 50 of those minutes, leaving only about 10 to play soccer. This was awful from a kid’s view. “We are here to play soccer!” But the coach was wise. “If you can play exhausted, you will beat any opponent, because no one will be in better shape than you. You will outlast them.” We had many successful seasons like that. Fasting is the same: If you can “play hungry,” you will become a true Christian, a real human being.
You see: A hungry person gets snippy, short with others. Every little thing can seem annoying. But coupled with prayer and church services, and the consolation that in the Christian community, one Lenten aim is “to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother,” well, we have the chance to take note of our snippiness, self-centeredness, etc., and nip it in the bud. And if we can prolong that practice, it will have a good Christian affect on us in the longer term.
The services of the Ancient Church remind us that the first sin involved food (the fruit of the forbidden tree) and self-will. Generally speaking, our stomachs have become our governors — not just our governors, but dictators: “I am hungry. Eat.”
The Lenten fast — far more than giving up dessert or beer — puts the hurt on self-will at mission control: the stomach. One of the fourth century Desert Monks, Abba John the Dwarf, put it this way: “If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh: If a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak.” In the Scriptures, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.”
And as we begin to set our feet into the waters of the Great Fast, as our stomach growl and howl, “Feed me!” we can then turn toward the beginning of the spiritual path, saying to our stomachs — to quote one of my favorite movies — “you ain’t the boss of me!” Then hearing, in that same growl, the cry of the hungry, we can take some action to practice act of mercy and generosity, in a personal way, toward someone in involuntary need.
Father John Parker is an Orthodox priest and is pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community of Mount Pleasant. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 881-5010.