What exactly is fasting in the Church?

Quite often people seem confused about the issue of fasting and its benefits to a degree where they don't take it seriously, or totally reject it. Others connect all sorts of superstitious beliefs to fasting, or practice it legalistically and out of fear. This of course, is not proper fasting..... So what is true fasting? Is it simply just keeping away from certain foods? Or keeping our stomach under control? Fasting never works autonomously. As an only daughter she is hypocritical and dangerous. When she coexists with her sister virtues, then she is of value. The sisters of fasting are five: 1) prayer, 2) charity, 3) humility, 4) abstinence, 5) love.

Fasting and prayer

The Christians of the early Church fasted and prayed, for a certain decision in the life of the Church or in the election of pastors. "As they were liturgising to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.... Then fasting and having prayed, they laid their hands on them and sent them on their way" (Acts 13:3), The Lord, also, speaking about battling Satan, presented both prayer and fasting paired together: This kind cannot be expelled by other means, except by prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29).

Fasting and charity

If fasting is the forfeiture of sinful passions, then it is a resounding NO to the worst passion, greed. Exercising discipline on this passion is called charity. The relative 'slogan' of the first Christians was: "We will fast so as to be merciful". This is why in the Gospel reading of Cheesefare Sunday (last Sunday before Lent), the Lord, after speaking about true fasting castigates the treasuring of material things:

"Do not store up treasures here on earth" (Matthew 6:19).

Fasting and humility

The monster of pride is only satisfied by eating mainly virtues. St. John Chrysostom calls vanity a virtue-killer. For this reason the Lord considers humility as a suitable covering for fasting: "When you fast, comb your hair and wash your face, so that others may not know you are fasting, but your Father who knows your secret. And your Father who sees your secret, will reward you openly" (Matthew 6:18). Whoever is rewarded here on earth for their actions had better not await a reward in heaven. "They have received their payment" (Matthew 6:16). Fasting without humility is abhorrent to God. Is there a greater faster than the devil? But he has no trace of humility. Humble fasting is that which is set by the Church. If we add or take away periods of fasting, we reveal egoism since we put our opinion above that of the Church, above that of God's commandment.

Fasting and abstinence

True fasting controls the passions. St. Basil the Great says: 'True fasting is when we alienate ourselves from evil" (E.P.E. 6:48). What is the use if our mouth doesn't eat meat but our tongue destroys our brethren or the eyes seek satisfaction with disgraceful spectacles, or the body with seeking unlawful fleshly desires?

Fasting and love

According to the Disciple of love (St. John the Evangelist), hatred is equal to murder, to cannibalism: ".Whoever hates his-brother,-is-a-murderer"-- (1 John 3:15). No matter how severe your fasting, even if you end up a skeleton from fasting, if you don't forgive your brother, do not expect salvation. This is why the Lord considers love, mercy and forgiveness, as basic presuppositions of fasting: "If you forgive people's transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" Matthew 6:14). We pray for a good fast. Let us try our hardest. Let us control the passions with true fasting, so that we may become, again, friends with God, to be indeed close to him.

from The Orthodox Messenger, March-April 1998,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia

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