The Lenten Fast has started and some may wonder why should we follow this ancient practice of abstinence. Many may dismiss fasting saying, "We are approaching the twenty first century and the rules of fasting are man made". Irrespective of what some people may think or suggest, the fact is that fasting is based on the Holy Scriptures (the Bible) and the Tradition of the Church dating to the time of the Apostles. Fasting was practised by Jewish communities before Christ was born; it is interesting to note that the early Church adapted the Jewish weekly fasts on Mondays and Thursdays to commemorate Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot on Wednesdays and His crucifixion on Fridays. We also know that Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert (Matthew 4:2), and that Elijah (as recorded in the Old Testament) and John the Baptist fasted, and that Christ said we should fast and pray to cast out some kinds of evils (c.f. Mark 9:29).
Christ advises, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). Fasting helps us stop relying on food for the stomach, and helps us realise that we are gathering treasures for ourselves in heaven though our prayers and the spiritual food for our souls. Christ also said, "Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man" (Matthew 15:11). This is another type of fast we have to participate in to lay treasures in heaven, but we have to fast inconspicuously anointing our heads and washing our faces "so that you do not appear to men to be fasting" (Matthew 6:18).
God has no need for our fasting, and He does not ask us to fast for His benefit. We can not gain His love by following some legalistic system. God does not desire sacrifice or burnt offerings, but "the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart..." These He will not despise (c.f. Ps 51:16-17). This is a personal and spiritual struggle based upon love for God and is not a measure of how much or how strictly we fast, or if we fast for the 40 days of the Great Lent. You may recollect St. Chrysostom's words on this very subject, when he said "...If any have arrived only at the eleventh [hour], let him not be afraid because he comes so late. For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first". In other words, we can not buy God's love or grace by simply following a mechanical-like formula for fasting, because God's love is always given freely. However, this love is not forced on us, we have to accept or open ourselves to it and allow it to change us. Fasting is a way that opens us to accepting God's love. We fast because we love God (not because it is a rule).
Why do we fast? You may have noticed that we fast in preparation for a feast in the Church. We fast in preparation for the Eucharist, and fast in preparation for the Great Feast and Christmas. This preparation involves a participation and expectation, and there is even a deeper meaning to fasting. The Church does not separate the body from the soul, but sees a person as a whole. She calls the whole (body and soul) to participate in preparations for the fasts and feasts. Our Orthodox faith is not restricted to the activities of the mind, but involves all the senses. Hence, the Church calls our total being to share in the life of the Church (i.e. all the feasts and fasts). By the way, you may have noticed that the Divine Liturgy revolves around taste (e.g the Eucharist), touch (e.g. kissing the priest's hand), smell (e.g. incense), sight (e.g remembering Christ in the Icons around the Church), and hearing (e.g. the chanting and Bible readings). Each of these require the cooperation between the body and mind. In an analogous way, we fast and pray during the fasting periods (see Luke 2:37).
Fasting is not a rejection of food or the world, but is a search for the kingdom of God. In the same way we fast from all food before the Divine Liturgy so that we might receive the holy Eucharist, which is the true food.
Another aspect of fasting is that the Church Fathers tell us to spend the money we may save to feed the poor.
Fasting is therefore a way our Orthodox Church teaches us to Love God with all our heart, mind and soul, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
from The Truth, v. 5(5), 1998, Perth, Western Australia