The majority of today’s Christians understand neither the cause for rejoicing, nor the meaning of a true fast. Many, very many people of this day and age regard the essence of the fast to consist solely in the prohibition of certain foods: meat, milk, cheese, eggs; and they do not understand the purpose of such a prohibition. Some who enjoy eating go so far as to become indignant at the Church for having established this tradition. “There is no reason for it; it’s unnecessary,” they say. “It makes no difference what you eat. ” And in practice they ignore the fast and make no effort to keep it. It is rare nowadays to find anyone who rejoices at the approach of Lent and who keeps the fast, especially one who keeps it as prescribed by the Church typicon. Most people simply disregard the fast, or they think up various excuses and justifications for not fasting; some even say that it is impossible to find and to prepare lenten foods. We are not speaking here of those who, on account of frail health or illness, are unable to fast; such people are excused from fasting both by the canons of the church and by the Holy Fathers.
It is important to know and to remember that a true fast does not consist in bodily abstinence alone. It is a gross error to think that the essence of Lent lies simply in not eating certain foods. This was never the teaching of the Church. On the contrary, it always taught that with the fast of the body it is indispensable to join a spiritual fast-which is at the heart of the matter and the very reason the Church instituted fasting.
The week preceding Lent we address our souls:
“You abstain from meat, Oh my soul, and do not cleanse yourself of the passions; in vain do you rejoice in not eating; if the fast does not serve for your amendment, it will be false and despised by God, and you will only be likened to the evil spirits who abstain from food altogether.”…
The fast of the body–for those who are able to keep it strictly–is exceedingly important, beneficial and necessary, but only as a powerful, secondary means which supports what is of primary importance–the spiritual fast. The aim of the fast is to bridle the flesh where sin finds root, and also to bring oneself into humble obedience to the Church. Our life’s task is to uproot the sinful passions: gluttony, avarice, pride–from which stem all the other numerous passions able to stir up an eagerness for sin. These serve the cause of evil in the world and bring countless misfortunes upon man. Already in this life these passions can create a foretaste of hell and ultimately lead a man to death, even spiritual death–which is the reward for sin (Rom. 6:23).
In the profoundly edifying hymns of the first week of Lent the Church sings:
“While fasting with the body, brethren, let us also fast in spirit…”
How are we to fast “in spirit”? We are told:
“Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them; that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.” (Wednesday Vespers stichera)
Even more clearly is this expressed in the stichera for Monday’s vespers:
“Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is to put away evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood, and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.”
What further explanation is needed to understand what is a true fast, a spiritual fast? It is the withdrawal of the soul from all evil. Of course, this is what each and every true Christian must always be doing, but in the frenzy of worldly life it is too often forgotten; many spend their energies in serving the very passions they should be struggling to uproot. With Great Lent the Church makes a special effort to impress upon us the need for spiritual labor; it calls us to repentance, to the battle against evil which springs from our sinful passions.
If you are honestly unable, if you haven’t the strength to keep the fast of the flesh, then at least keep the spiritual fast; this everyone can do. and you will be a faster such as the Church desires to behold.
Let us keep the Fast not only refraining from food but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions.(Tuesday Vespers stichera)
Then there are those who keep a very strict fast, eating almost nothing, while at the same time they make no effort to war against evil thoughts and feelings; they freely allow their tongues to malign their neighbor and engage in idle talk, upsetting and tempting others, instigating them to evil actions; they become irritated, angry with their neighbor to the point of working themselves into a perfect rage; they give themselves over to gluttony, drunkenness and fornication; they slander and accuse the innocent; they lie, they violate oaths. The fasting of such people is not only vain; it is a pharisaic hypocrisy.
How often nowadays do we meet those who either avoid fasting or who keep only the bodily fast, while priding themselves before those who do not fast as strictly; they exalt themselves as being righteous, seeking praise and accepting it to the satisfaction of their vain-glory. These earn for themselves the incriminating words of the Lord which He directed towards the Pharisees:
Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within fuel of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. (Matt 28:27-28)
It is not good to be like the pharisees; on the other hand it is also not good to violate the fast out of fear of being branded a Pharisee -as indeed happens in this age of light-mindedness and unbelief. Such accusations are widespread; even where there is genuine piety and an honest effort to live according to the commandments of God and the ordinances of the Church.
To avoid becoming infected with phariseeism, in any of its forms, we must always have in mind the parable concerning the publican and the pharisee. Here the Lord teaches that one must not think highly of oneself, judging and belittling others. On the contrary, one must constantly humble oneself in one’s thoughts, judging oneself, not others. There exists no worse, nor more pernicious mania than this self-exaltation which leads to the very depths of hell. “For I say…to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3).
“Let us flee from the proud-speaking of the Pharisee and let us learn the noble humility of the Publican, crying out with repentance,” as the Publican prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
With such an inward disposition…
“Let us set out with joy upon the season of the fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we fast from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit may we persevere with love, and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and with great spiritual gladness to behold His holy Passover.”
(Forgiveness Sunday Vespers) (Translated from “Pravoslavnaya Rus’,” March 14, 1975)
Appeared in Orthodox America, Issue 47 Vol V, No.7, February, 1985