Our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, sinner
A lot of people are familiar with fasting before you go do your blood tests or fasting as a diet or the fasting that Muslim people do during the Ramadan .
But I come across so many people who have absolutely no idea what spiritual or religious fasting means , why is it useful and why Jesus thought us how to do it .
As a born and raised christian orthodox, I started fasting when I was a child, even if back then I was doing it for 3 days the most. It is natural to me to do something like this to commemorate a big event like the birth of Jesus Christ or his crucifixion.
And yes, there’s still people who fast and find joy in it and don’t think it’s old fashioned! If you think about it, unless you are a starving kid in Africa, most of us, regular people indulge in whatever pleasures we want: You in the mood for ice cream? a copious meal? Ice cream and a copious meal? Maybe go for a party afterwards and drink yourself out ? Most of us don’t have any problems doing all these things and even more.
But as I said in a previous post, sometimes we need to take care of our soul as well as we take care of our bodies.. wash it, parfume it and groom it the same way or even better than we do with our bodies, because our soul is eternal and our bodies will all end up in the ground.
What is fasting?
Fasting is abstaining from certain foods: meat, eggs and dairy, animal products, alcohol, as well as from certain behaviors that might be considered a sin. Fasting is therefore a time to focus on your soul and let go of the fleshly worries.
What is the purpose of fasting?
The purpose of fasting is not to “give up” things, nor to do something “sacrificial.” The purpose of fasting is to learn discipline, to gain control of those things that are indeed within our control but that we so often allow to control us. In our culture especially, food dominates the lives of many people. We collect cookbooks. We have an entire TV network devoted to food [the “Food Channel”]. We have eating disorders, diets, weight loss pills, liposuction treatments, stomach stapling—all sorts of things that proceed out of the fact that we often allow food, which in an of itself cannot possible control us, to control us. We fast in order to gain control, to discipline ourselves, to gain control of those things that we have allowed to get out of control. Giving up candy—unless one is controlled by candy—is not fasting. It is giving up candy, or it is done with the idea that we fast in order to suffer. But we do not fast in order to suffer.
We fast in order to get a grip on our lives and to regain control of those things that have gotten out of control. Further, as we sing during the first week of Great Lent, “while fasting from food, let us also fast from our passions.”
How important is fasting?
After prayer, fasting is the second ascetic practice you should begin as part of an Orthodox way of life. Of course, if you do not have sufficient faith to participate in the regular worship services, to participate regularly in the sacraments, or time for daily prayer, fasting will not be of much help to you. Fasting is a practice that was shown to us by Jesus as well as the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus fasted for 40 days at the start of His public ministry. We are told “he ate nothing.” The Prophet David fasted, “I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine, no did I anoint myself.“ (Daniel 10:3) Ester instructed Mordicai, “ Go, gather all the jews… and hold a fast on my behalf and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day. I and my maids will also fast as you do.” (Ester 4:16) Paul engaged in a three day absolute fast following the encounter with the living Christ (Acts 9:9). Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days. (Deut 9:9, 1Kings 19:8)
Jesus also asked us to fast. He said that we can overcome the devil only through“prayer and fasting”. (Matt 17:21) In Matt 6:16 Jesus says “When you fast.…” He did not say “If you fast.” He assumes that you will fast and gives instruction on how to do it properly. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matt 9:15)
How can we fast properly?
To be effective fasting must center on God. As we fast we discover the things that control us. David writes, “I humbled my soul with fasting (Ps 69:10).” Fasting reminds us that it is not food that sustains us, but God. It also helps us develop the discipline that is necessary for our spiritual growth.
Our spiritual condition is fallen and the demands of the body reign over the soul for most of us. The challenge is to liberate the soul and give it strength to be in charge of our actions, to become freed from the programmatic responses of our brain which is a bodily function. When we feel hunger, this is a body demand. We almost automatically succumb to its demand without thinking. When we fast we put our soul in charge and choose to overcome the pangs of hunger for the glory of God. This action is an act of the soul. This is how fasting helps develop the strength of our soul. Since hunger is such a basic human need and something we must do often, and one that we frequently overindulge in, fasting is one of the first disciplines taught to build the strength of our soul. After conquering this bodily demand then it is easier to conquer the other lusts. For this reason our Church Fathers teach the primary importance of fasting as apart of our spiritual discipline. But we do so recognizing that fasting is not a virtue. It is means to strengthen the power of our soul so we can act more closely to the will of God. It is a pathway to a virtuous life and our union with God.
Does fasting mean keeping a diet?
Fasting is not a mere matter of diet. It is moral as well as physical.
In the words of St. John Chrysostom, it means “abstinence not only from food but from sins”. “The fast”, he insists, “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”: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice. It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother”.
When are we encouraged to fast?
There are 5 main fasting periods during the year:
Nativity (St. Philip’s Fast) – Nov. 15 through Dec. 24 – we fast in honor of Jesus Christ’s birth
Meatfast – Monday after the Sunday of Last Judgment through Cheesefare Sunday
Great Lent & Holy Week – 1st Monday of Great Lent through Great and Holy Saturday – we fast in honor of Jesus’s crucifixion
Apostles’ (Peter & Paul) Fast – June 11 through June 28
Dormition (Theotokos) Fast – Aug. 1 through Aug. 14
Besides these times, a christian orthodox is encouraged to fast every Wednesday ( the day when Jesus was sold by Judah) and Friday ( the day that Jesus was crucified).
We also fast in times of need and sickness, when we want to pray for someone else or when we feel our souls are too burdened by sin.
NOTE: If you have never fasted before, you should probably find some spiritual guidance from a priest that can teach you more. A lot of times, when fasting and praying, it might seem like you are not getting any answers or any benefits from it. That is because you didn’t persevere enough, or maybe you were not in the right spiritual state, didn’t do it right or didn’t believe in it. Fasting and prayer should be accompanied by attending the Holy Liturgy and followed by confession and Holy communion.
Picture credits www.aletheia.org
Have you ever fasted before? What are your opinions on the subject? Feel free to leave me any questions in the comments sections below.