Admit it, no one likes to fast -- especially not for a week and definitely not for forty days. Anything past a day or two and we begin to develop headaches, our energy levels get sapped right down to nothing, and we begin to get insatiable cravings for food, even food we normally don't like. We'll take anything; just give us something other than beans and vegetables.
The Church has a lot of rules and canons about fasting, most of which were written during another time and another place. And that is part of the problem with fasting in our modern culture. It is out of vogue. There is an unspoken acceptance that perhaps fasting as a discipline is somewhat outdated, too strict, and even irrelevant to the religiosity of a Christian. Even those Christians who do fast quite faithfully usually only garner attacks of hypocrisy thrown at them from the rest of us. It seems fasting has become another throwaway discipline of our contemporary lifestyle, even though the ancient temptation to eat is what drowned out God's voice and brought about our ruin.
Food disguises what only fasting can reveal. Food can cover a multitude of wrongs, but when we go without food for a while our anger, bitterness, jealousy and pride all come to the surface and show us for what we really are. By fasting we are tested and discover that there is ugliness in our hearts. We find out that we are not that interested in God after all, but we are rather slaves to food, television, irrelevant chatter, and constant background noise.
St. Nectarios of Aegina declared that prayer and fasting "serve as means of self-study, of discernment of our true moral state, of an accurate estimation of our sins and of a knowledge of their true character." Fasting humbles us by revealing our true nature. Fasting reminds us that we've probably been acting like Christians for all the wrong reasons. Fasting exposes the frailty of our lives and our dependence on God. Fasting opens our eyes to the misery that most of the world suffers night after night as they go to bed hungry. And fasting teaches us that only Christ can satisfy-we need His flesh and blood to live. We are spiritual anorexics without Christ no matter how much we feast on the external forms of religion.
As Christians we want rules. We want to have everything laid out for us in black and white. That's because it is less painful for us to follow some rules of not eating, than it is to care for orphans and widows, to show mercy and kindness, and not to scheme against each other. It means we can feel holy without actually being holy.
We would much rather avoid eating our chicken and ribs for a while than to have to risk serving God. We want rules that control external behavior rather than repentance that controls our hearts and minds. We prefer the ease of external piety rather than the risk of authentic Christianity. We demand adherence to religious laws and rituals rather than devotion to the love of God. Maybe this is why the world sees through our fasting. We are professionals at religiosity but amateurs at holiness.
Fasting however is but the means to the goal not the goal itself, which is why fasting, is always interconnected with prayer and service to the poor. It is the only way to keep us from senseless boasting. There is no fasting without prayer and service to the poor, and there is no foundation for prayer and charity without fasting.
Listening to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah we can see how severely our superficial fasting is contrasted with the true expectations of God:
You are fasting to please yourselves.
What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
... This kind of fast will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance ...
Do you really think this will please the Lord?
No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
Lighten the burden for those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help ...
Then your salvation will come like the dawn ...Your godliness will lead you forward ... Then when you
call, the Lord will answer" (Isaiah 58:3-9 NLT).
Fasting must lead us to do the opposite of what the world tells us to do; that is, we must forget about our selfishness and open our souls to God. Fasting is good and beneficial only when it is lived out with a genuine effort to change our way of thinking, the things we spend time and money on. Our fasting must help transform us into new creations. It must guide us to new, deeper-tangible--ways to serve God. John Chrysostom wisely wrote that we must abstain not only from food but from sins: "The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body."
If our fasting is motivated solely by an obligation to follow some dietary rules then all we are doing is starving ourselves for a period of time. At best, we might get some health benefits out of the exercise. But the joy of getting nearer to God through deeper prayer and greater desire for Him will be lost. And joy there must be because that is how fasting should transfigure us, into joyful Christians brimming with the knowledge that we are near God.
The reward of fasting is drawing nearer to God, to prepare to be in God's presence. We cannot let our faith be governed by strict rules of fasting, any more than we can say that Christianity is governed solely by an ethical code of behavior. It is our drawing nearer to God-coming closer to the light-that changes our fasting, our behavior and our hearts and minds.
It is not a question then of 'if' we should fast, but 'how.' Sometimes we like to impose our idea of religious discipline on everyone. It is an age-old problem. Yet our Church has always had, in its teachings and tradition, a more gentle approach of encouragement according to the strength of each of us. But fast we must, otherwise how can we expect to control our more sinister appetites or our judgment of others if we cannot hold on to a simple fast? The Church always challenges us, like an athlete, to push the boundaries of our prayer, discipline, and commitment to God, but it does so with a spirit of understanding for our broken condition in the world. Paul Evdokimov once wrote a poignant description of a modern, urban discipline that can help change our focus on fasting from food alone:
Christian ascetism is only a method in the service of life, and it will seek to adapt itself to the new needs ... Today the combat is not the same. We no longer need added pain ... Ascetism would be necessary rest, the discipline of regular periods of calm and silence, when one could regain the ability to stop for prayer and contemplation, even in the heart of all the noise of the world, and above all to listen to the presence of others. Fasting, instead of doing violence to the flesh, could be our renunciation of the superfluous, our sharing with the poor and a joyful balance in all things.
Fasting and its spiritual counterpart prayer can guide us to God's will for our lives. It can lead us towards the natural progression of humbling ourselves with fasting to the sorrow of repentance and the renewal of our lives. Jesus Christ launched His work on this earth driven in prayer and fasting for forty days. Do we honestly believe then, that we can make a difference in people's lives on a full belly? It is time to go fast and then see the world change.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.