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The True Meaning of Fasting in the Orthodox Church
by Philip Kariatlis
When we think of fasting in the Orthodox Church today, our mind almost immediately goes to certain rules relating to what we can and cannot eat. Moreover, this practice is especially associated with Great and Holy Lent. And so, when it comes to this “forty-day” fast, there are some who will almost exclusively focus all their attention on familiarizing themselves with all of the Church’s prescriptions regarding when they need to abstain from particular foods. Then, there are some who might go to great lengths, meticulously checking all ingredients of certain food items in supermarkets for example, in order to ensure that there are no traces of foods which they know are not permitted during fasting periods, also rejoicing with delight when they happen to find substitutes to their favorite food. What necessarily results from such an understanding of fasting, amongst its practitioners, is a belief that if they have been “successful” in this effort, they are then prepared to receive the risen Lord on Easter night.
A question which justifiably arises, however, is whether this in fact is what fasting is all about. If Great Lent is a preparatory time within the Church’s liturgical year meant as a means for preparing the faithful to encounter the risen Christ on the day of Easter, how does such an understanding of fasting assist in this “spiritual” journey? Is this the true meaning of fasting? Or, have we reduced it merely to rules about what foods are permitted and what are not?
In studying some of the hymns found in the Triodion—a liturgical book out of which many beautiful hymns are chanted during the period of Great Lent—the hope is that we might recover the true meaning of fasting. This approach is plausible to the extent that the hymns of the Orthodox Church, more generally, reflect its theological vision; indeed, they reveal, in sung form, the theological outlook of the Orthodox Church. More specifically, we will briefly look at certain hymns known as “Aposticha idiomela” of Vespers since they all specifically focus on presenting the Church’s understanding of fasting. Indeed, these would have been intentionally inserted in the Service to remind the faithful of the true meaning of fasting. Unfortunately, the connection of these hymns to fasting have been lost sight of and therefore their significance largely overlooked today.
Even a cursory study of these Lenten hymns clearly shows that fasting is primarily about renewing our relationship with God, neighbor and the world more broadly. Already, at the Vespers Service of Pure Monday, we are reminded that fasting involves a personal cleansing of our whole self and not simply a dietary “detox”:
Let us fast in a way that is acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is flight from evils, temperance of the tongue, refrain from anger, separation from lustful desires, and from lies, from falsehood and from perjury. The absence of all these makes our fasting true and acceptable.
In this instance, fasting is connected with the dynamic of purification. Following Christ’s call for holiness (cf. Mt 5:8), many fathers of the Church speak of purification as a necessary first step towards encountering God. Fasting therefore needs to be accompanied with effort in purification.
In the same way, the hymn in question, is an injunction for purity. The meaning of purity, like fasting, ought not to be impoverished. Purification [κάθαρσις] essentially signifies a process towards integrity [κατ-ἄρτιος]—note the etymological proximity between the two concepts. Accordingly, purification is understood as internal consistency or integrity of character which, in the face of temptation, remains totally devoted to God. Put another way, it involves a gradual transformation from brokenness to wholeness. And so, according to the hymn, true fasting is a ‘means’ towards “wholeness.”
Together with an undertaking towards temperance from the passions, the purpose of fasting is to open up the faithful to the splendor of the new life that comes from the Cross. Namely, in experiencing a little physical hunger through fasting, the hope is that this might be recast towards ‘hunger and thirst’ for Christ. This transformative aspect of fasting is captured in the troparion sung on Tuesday of the first week of Lent:
Let us observe fast, not only by abstinence from food, but also by separating ourselves from every bodily passion… so that we may be counted worthy to partake of the Lamb [τῆς τοῦ Ἀμνοῦ μεταλήψεως]… the Son of God… Thus, we shall be lifted up on high in the joy of virtue and by the delight of excellent works we shall be glad in God, the Lover of Humankind.
Accordingly, fasting finds its true meaning when the outward abstinence of food is connected with the inward struggle to intensify our longing for God through the dynamic of purity and repentance—the consummation of which is realized in Holy Communion.
Coupled with observing a balance between the material and spiritual aspects of true fasting, there is a third necessary dimension, namely, practical compassion towards neighbor. At the first Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, the Idiomelon makes this explicit:
While fasting with the body, o brethren, let us also fast in spirit; let us loosen every connection with injustice… Let us give bread to the hungry and introduce into our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive from Christ our God the great mercy.
True fasting requires not only fasting from foods but also practical works of compassion which, in this case, include working towards overcoming injustice and extending hospitality—philoxenia—especially to those in need. In simple terms, the hymn underscores that there cannot be genuine fasting without love towards the “other,” especially those in most need. In the end, fasting is a means to remind us not only of our dependence upon God, but also the often-forgotten truth that God is beheld in the face of the “other.”
Without this struggle to fix our eyes on God through beholding God in our neighbor and all of his creation, mere fasting from food has no value. On the other hand, when truly practiced, fasting becomes a positive action, nothing less than a true theophany opening us up to the beauty and splendor of the Risen Lord.
This article was first published in Public Orhtodoxy which seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity.
Philip Kariatlis is Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, Australia.