Religious people are often accused of having a negative morality. Faithful believers are not to do this or that and there are “temple police” to make sure that they toe the line. Dietary regulations, which are prominent in both Judaism and Islam, are often cited as examples of this “negative morality.” People are not to eat this or that because God has forbidden it. Obeying these rules is seen as a way of glorifying God.
The apostolic Church did not adopt the idea that certain foods were “unclean,” based in part on St Peter’s vision in Joppa (cf., Acts 10:9-16). “What God has cleansed,” Peter was told, “you must not call common” (v. 15). In the same way it did not adopt the idea taught by some sects at the time that marriage and sexuality were ungodly. Rather the Church espoused the principle stated by St Paul, “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
Being “Under the Power” of Things
No authentically Christian exercise of asceticism, such as fasting, is done to avoid something evil but to keep us free from inappropriate control by anything. Fasting is one strategy for minimizing the power of food or drink (gluttony), material possessions (greed) or sex (lust) over us.
It is often noted that many people in our society do not have a healthy relationship with food, drink or sex. Many rely on these things to fix emotional problems they were never designed to address. The resulting addictions are simply the most harmful examples of our disordered passions having power over us. As people today say, “What you own, owns you.”
The apostolic Church’s teaching that nothing is “unclean” was perhaps too subtle for some early believers. They felt that, if everything was allowed, unlimited consumption was in order. Paul had to remind them that “Nothing is forbidden” does not mean “consume everything you can.” Rather, he insisted, “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful” (1 Corinthians 6:12). The believer’s goal in life is to be united to God; unlimited consumption does not help us achieve that goal.
St Paul would likely have agreed with Pope Francis’ criticisms of modern prosperity as leading to a “culture of waste.” We are prodded by film, TV and advertising into continually buying more and throwing away what we tire of. “Consumerism has led us to become so used to an excess” of food and other material goods, the pope says, that we no longer value our humanity, much less our relationship to God. The Church’s answer to consumerism – ancient or modern – is fasting.
How Do We Fast?
Most people see fasting as an act of self-denial, but often mistake just what we seek to deny in this observance. Fasting is not so much a denial of food as it is a denial of the ego. In our prosperous society we are used to having whatever we want whenever we want it. Fasting is a means of challenging this impulse to self-satisfaction. When we observe the Church’s fast days we are allowing others to determine what we may eat and when we may eat it. We fast when the Church fasts and in the manner that the Church prescribes. There are, of course, always exceptions for health and other reasons but in such cases the tradition would have us seek a blessing from one’s spiritual father before mitigating the fast. In that way we would not be determining our own version of the fast; we would still be following the Church, in the person of our confessor.
Sexual Morality a Kind of Fasting?
Our age has become known for the sexual revolution in which any form of sexual expression between consenting adults is ok. Some people even promote sexual activity with children and try to encourage its legalization. The Church, while recognizing that sexuality is, after all, God’s idea, seeks to free us from lust as it does from gluttony and greed. It proclaims sexuality as proper to marriage with an openness to conceiving children as integral to marital relations.
Even married couples, however, are subject to the passions. And so refraining from marital relations has been a part of fasting, particularly before receiving the Eucharist or, in the case of married clergy, before celebrating the Liturgy. Thus older editions of the Divine Liturgy begin with these words: “The priest who desires to celebrate the Divine Mysteries must … be continent from the evening before, and be vigilant until the time of divine service.”
Tired of Fasting?
In 1 Corinthians 6 St Paul evokes three basic principles of the Gospel which underpin any Christian ascetical effort. They are timely reminders for us of why we fast, or live the Christian life at all.
The blood of Christ is the “price” of our redemption – “For you were bought at a price” (v. 20): The ultimate reason for any ascetical effort is the union we have with Christ in His saving death and resurrection. We live in the light of Christ’s death on the cross which freed us from the rule of sin and death. As the priest prays when beginning the prothesis at the Divine Liturgy, “You redeemed us from the curse of the Law by Your precious blood.”
We are united as members of one body in Christ – “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (v. 15): When our bodies are immersed in the water of baptism we are organically united to Christ. We do not simply admire Him as an inspired teacher; in the Eucharist we are physically one with Him. Therefore our bodies have as important a role in worship as our hearts and minds. Like bows and prostrations, fasting is a form of physically glorifying God.
We have received the Holy Spirit – Our baptism was sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in chrismation, making us Spirit-bearers: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God” (v. 19). Our bodies are sanctified vessels set apart for the worship of God as much as any holy chalice.
Worship God by the way you use your body – “… therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (v. 20): Our liturgical life includes a number of ways in which we glorify God in out bodies. Among the ways we can do so in our daily life are by striving to lessen the power which food and drink, sexuality or entertainment have over us by regularly fasting on Wednesday and Friday, recalling Christ’s betrayal and His passion, and during the Church’s fasting seasons, particularly the Great Fast.