“Abouna, why do we fast?”

by Fr. Philaret D. Littlefield

Reprinted from Sophia, Volume 31, Number 1, Jan. – Feb. 2001

– More on Lenten Practices –

“Why do we fast?” Each year at this time the question of fasting arises. Though the Church offers us numerous opportunities for fasting, this practice is especially emphasized and stressed as an important aspect of our Lenten journey towards Great Week and the Pascha of the Lord. Often fasting is referred to as one of the four hinges of a true and faithful lent — together with prayer, almsgiving and confession.

Rules and obligations regarding fasting have certainly changed throughout the centuries. Originally the fast for Pascha consisted of a Eucharistic fast of one day only. Later the Bishops of the Church in various localities, called for a forty-day fast, and this was accepted throughout the Christian world. The period of forty days was chosen in imitation of the example set by Our Lord Himself Who, after His Baptism in the Jordan, withdrew to the wilderness where He fasted and was tempted for forty days. Perhaps one of the origins of the Great Fast came from the practice of the monastic communities in and around Jerusalem. These holy fathers and mothers withdrew from community life for forty days and, in strict imitation of Christ, went into the desert regions. Their only food was dried bread and water, and their chief occupation was ceaseless prayer. Remember that the monks and nuns fasted from animal foods throughout the year, so their forty-day fast before Easter took on a special seriousness and intensity.

In time each particular Church developed its own observance and rules for fasting. In the West, for example, fasting often meant eating two small meals and only one full meal. Abstinence meant eliminating meats and dairy products from one’s diet. Inmost of the Eastern Churches, fasting consisted of abstinence from food from the evening until the following noon. And abstinence included eliminating meat, dairy products, fish, wine and oil. And there have always been variations in these rules. St. Benedict in the West, for example, decreed that poultry did not break the rules of abstinence from meat.

In our time and in our Melkite Church, emphasis has been taken away from the letter of the law. Indeed, the obligation of law for fasting and abstinence has been greatly reduced from all the days of the Great Lent, to only the first day, Clean Monday, and Good Friday. Nevertheless the Church recommends fasting and reminds us of its importance in the spiritual life of the Christian. To return to the question ” Why do we fast?” we must say first of all, we fast in imitation of Christ. Fasting was used by Our Lord during the time of His spiritual struggle against the Enemy before He began His public ministry. And we, engaged in the same struggle, are offered this powerful weapon. The Church reminds us that Jesus, by beginning His public ministry, called together a community of disciples, and set out on the journey towards Jerusalem — that is, towards His arrest, passion, death and glorious Resurrection.

We can say that we fast because it is part of our tradition. This Tradition is not a mere collection of practices and customs. It is the life-giving fountain of our Faith which includes the Holy Scriptures, the Sacred Mysteries, the Creed and Councils, the teachings of the Fathers. In other words, it is the heritage of the faithful who continue that community of discipleship first formed by Our Lord. If we take our faith and our heritage seriously, we must include this practice of physical self-denial which was recommended and commanded by the Church Bishops in every age. It is given to us not as a punishment or a mere “practice,” but as a tool. And the use of this tool is to assist us to gain self-mastery over our passions. And by this self-mastery, with God’s help, we gain freedom.

By limiting the amount of food we take, and the times when we eat, we curb our appetite. We do not permit our instinct to control us any longer. But we accept God’s invitation to have dominion over creation — beginning with our self. By abstaining altogether from certain classes of food simplify our life. Certainly by avoiding satiety we attain alertness in prayer and vigilance in our struggle against sin. Following the strict rule of eliminating meats and animal products from our diet is seen as a return to Paradise, where our first parents lived in harmony with Creator and creature, eating only vegetables and fruits. For it was only after the Flood that God permitted Noah and his family to eat meat. So the fast can also serve as a source of contemplation on nature our use of it, and our position as stewards in the whole scheme of God’s created world.

Above all, in fasting we should remember that it is a method, not an aim in itself. We embrace fasting as a discipline which will help us to pray, to imitate our Savior, and to practice charity and peace. No one fasts perfectly, even if he/she is able to follow all the rules. David reminds us in Psalm 50: “Sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit. A crushed and humbled heart God will not turn away.”

(Fr. Philaret D. Littlefield writes from Milwaukee)