Taken from Catechesis 54 of St. Theodore the Studite
Brethren and fathers, the season of Lent, when compared to the whole year, may be likened to a storm-free harbor, in which all who are sailing together enjoy a spiritual calm. For the present season is one of salvation not for monks and nuns only, but also for lay people, for great and small, for rulers and ruled, for emperors and priests, for every race and for every age. For cities and villages reduce their hubbub and bustle, while psalmody and hymns, prayers and entreaties take their place, by which our good God is propitiated and so guides our spirits to peace and pardons our offences, if, with a sincere heart, we will only fall down before him with fear and trembling and weep before him, promising improvement for the future. But let the leaders of the churches speak of what is suitable to lay people, for just as those who run in the stadium need the vocal support of their fellow contestants, so fasters need the encouragement of their teachers. But I, since I have been placed at your head, honored brethren, will also talk to you briefly. Fasting then is a renewal of the soul, for the holy Apostle says, Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward is being renewed day by day. And if it is being renewed, clearly it is being made beautiful according to its original beauty; made beautiful in itself it is being drawn lovingly to the one who said, I and the Father will come and make our dwelling with him.
by St. John of Kronstadt, from My Life in Christ
Fasting is a good teacher: (1) It soon makes everybody who fasts understand that a man requires very little food and drink, and that in general we are greedy and eat a great deal more than is necessary—that is, than our nature requires. (2) Fasting clearly shows or discloses all the infirmities of our soul, all its weaknesses, deficiencies, sins, and passions; just as when muddy, standing water is beginning to be cleaned it shows what reptiles and what sort of dirt it contains. (3) It shows us all the necessity of turning to God with the whole heart, and of seeking His mercy, help, and salvation. (4) Fasting shows all the craftiness, cunning, and malice of the bodiless spirits, whom we have hitherto unwittingly served, and whose cunning, now that we are enlightened by the light of God's grace, becomes clear, and who now maliciously persecute us for having left their ways.
by St. John Chrysostom
Do not say to me, I fasted for so many days. I did not eat this or I did not eat that. I did not drink wine, that I endured want. Instead, show me if thou, from an angry man, has become instead gentle. If from a cruel man, thou hast become benevolent. If thou art filled with anger, why oppress thy flesh? If hatred and avarice are within thee, of what benefit is it that thou drinkest water instead of wine? Do not show forth a useless fast, for fasting alone does not ascend to heaven.
by Fr. Ayman Kfouf
Great Lent 2012
I- Historical Background
Fasting is not new in the Church. Fasting had its origin in the life of our first parents Adam and Eve. Fasting was the first, and only, law given to Adam and Eve1.
The Old Testament provides an extensive record of fasts kept by the Jews as commanded by God2 and fasts, without specific commandment, in times of distress, grief or when asking for forgiveness3.
In the New Testament, the Lord Himself fasted for forty days4. He commanded His disciples to fast after His ascension5 and prescribed fasting as a spiritual weapon against evil6. After Christ’s ascension, the disciples continued to practice fasting, beside prayer, in every aspect of their apostolic lives7 and they handed down this tradition to their disciples to preserve and practice it after them.
The aforementioned scriptural examples of fasting inspired Christians to imitate them, thus fasting quickly became part of the regular Christian experience. Evidently, the earliest Christian documents show that fasting in the first five centuries took different shapes and passed through various phases of transformation until it evolved into its current form today.
The practice of fasting in the first and second centuries took the shape of complete abstention from food for a day or two8. During the third century, fasting was extended to a full week in preparation for Pascha (Easter). By the fourth century, fasting had transformed in form and length and had evolved from a one week preparation for Pascha into a forty day fast9.
by Fr. James C. Meena
from The Word, March 1985
First I think it is necessary for us to understand what renewal really means before we go on to talk about asceticism. You have heard it said that Jesus Christ makes all things news. According to St. Paul “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is passed away, behold, the new has come,” (II Cor. Chapter 5 Vs. 18).
Renewal is not simply making something appear as new. We take an old piece of silver, for example, and we polish it up until it shines and we say it is like new. That is not renewal in the Christian sense. Renewal is to take something old and worn and weighted down by sin and corruptibility and by the exerting of the Divine Will to recreate it anew so that that which had made it old no longer exists in its character. The word, “renewal,” does not apply to material things. Anything that has existed for any length of time cannot be renewed in the Christian sense but the human being who is committed to Christ Who, by His Divine Will makes all things new, that creature becomes a new recreated person. That newness in Christ means the total expunging of all that was the old so that one may start again as a new person. Our record is washed clean. All of our sins are wiped away from the slate of our life and we are given a new start.
by Fr. Peter G. Rizos
from The Word, April 1986
The Holy Fathers of the Church have determined that there are three indispensable means of participating in Great Lent. They are fasting, spiritual vigilance and prayer. These disciplines derive from God's word and have through the centuries been the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox spirituality or life in Christ.
When Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights in the wilderness in preparation for His saving ministry, we are told that the devil tempted Him to change stones into loaves of bread. The Lord rebuked the tempter with the words, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God'"(Matthew 4:14; Deuteronomy 8:3). In this way Jesus succeeded where Adam had failed (Genesis 3:1-6). His answer to Satan is a trenchant affirmation that to live our lives as though God did not exist, that is, "by bread alone," is to live according to a demonic lie.
The Lord's words and steadfast self-denial alert us to the particular lifestyle He expects of His followers, expressed elsewhere: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13-14).
by Judy Yentzen
from The Word, March 1993
I would like to quote from THE SPIRITUAL COUNSELS OF FATHER JOHN OF KRONSTADT, Select Passages from MY LIFE IN CHRIST, edited and introduced by W. Jardine Grisbrooke. “The Christian has great, spiritual, divine enjoyments. Carnal delights must always be subjected to these higher delights; and when they hinder the latter they must be checked or suppressed. It is not to afflict man that food and drink are at certain times and seasons forbidden him by the Church, not to limit his freedom, as worldly people say; it is done in order to afford him true, lasting and eternal delights;. . . “. The Gospel reminds us how we are to fast, “. . . when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
I have only been in the Orthodox Church a short time — two years now and this will be my second Lenten season as an Orthodox. Because of that, I would like to share with you my first real introduction to fasting, the preparation, and how it affected my life.
I grew up in a protestant faith and, therefore, knew nothing about fasting. In my late thirties, I started going to the Episcopal church where I first read and heard a little about fasting — but only for the Lenten season, There was little said about it and even less importance placed upon it.
by the Rev. Fr. John Namie
from The Word, March 1968
There is a tendency today in our society to diminish the importance of various aspects of Christian life which is taught by the Orthodox Church. One of these things is fasting. We are surrounded in our society by different types of religions, by atheistic influences, and especially by the great trend towards materialistic living which affects all the preceding.
Materialism has become the battleground in the church whether we wish to accept this or nor. All religions and all groups are directly or indirectly taking shape according to materialistic principles. Even the Roman Catholic Church which had been so traditional in its spirituality has been influenced to the extent that no longer does it deem fasting as a necessary element in the life of her people. This diminishment is definitely a product of materialistic thinking and compromising to the materialistic way.
The Orthodox Church has not reached yet the point that it feels that fasting is not necessary, although many people in the Orthodox Church feel this way. While fasting is not a means that leads us directly to salvation, nevertheless it is necessary in that it helps us to salvation. This may seem like a strong statement. but if we understand fasting and Orthodox spirituality in its real sense, we will find the front line of the battleground against materialism here.
by Rev. V. Berzonsky
from The Word, February 1971
Before the Great Lent begins the Orthodox Church reserves three weeks in order to encourage in its members a proper mental preparedness towards the season of intense prayer, meditation and fasting. We must learn not merely to accept lent as a spiritual obligation, an intrusion into a life of fun and diversion, but rather we must learn to welcome its discipline if we are to benefit by it spiritually.
Let us first mention certain misconceptions regarding this period: the great danger of keeping a strict lent is that one tends to become self-righteous. Wisely the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is put at the very start of the Triodion Cycle to impress upon our minds the distastefulness of self-righteousness. It would be far better not to observe the lent than to have it result in an arrogance, a ‘holier-than-you’ attitude.
Neither is Lent intended for scoring points in heaven. The hairs on our head may be numbered, as the Lord tells us; but it is highly unlikely the angels keep track of whether we had a cheese sandwich or boloney for lunch. We sometimes tend to keep the letter of the lent and fail to develop an over-view, a general framework for understanding why we deprive ourselves of certain foods and pleasures.
by Nick Papas
from The Word, December 2001
My dad oversaw many projects in his years of working as a manager for Westinghouse. He learned various managerial methods along the way. One fascinating lesson he passed along to me can be applied to the Church and fasting. It has to do with helping anyone involved in a project to see “the big picture.” Dad explained that seeing “the big picture” gives people a sense of fulfillment. Being able to see how their piece fits into the puzzle also helps them to do their work in a less burdened manner.
Often, when involved in a project, we have incomplete, strange and even wrong reasons given to us for why we are doing what we are doing. This can happen to Christians that are given the “project” of fasting. We often do not have “the big picture”; instead we have incomplete or poor information. By applying my dad’s managerial method maybe believers would find fasting to be less burdensome and more fulfilling.
What is “the big picture” when it comes to fasting? To know that God loves us! I am reminded of the story of when someone caught a glimpse of St. Herman of Alaska carrying a huge log. The log was well beyond the weight of something he should have been able to haul. Here is a literal example of a heavy load being made light. Did Herman possess superpowers? Yes. He possessed the superpower of the knowledge of God’s personal love for him.
It helps us grasp the truth about what really matters, and it’s a “transferable discipline.”
Why do we fast? According to some Protestants, we believe that we are earning God’s salvation by fasting. That is not the case, however. Fasting does not save us; the God-Man Jesus Christ saves us. But God uses means, including fasting, to do so.
We don’t fast because we despise the body. Extreme dualism, which surfaces regularly throughout history, disparages the physical and the body in an unchristian way. The Incarnation and the Resurrection, however, tell us that God does not despise the body, and neither should we. Fasting is not a punishment of the body, as though the body were the source of sin; it is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person, not his or her natural bodily needs.
Fasting is not a way of proving one’s Orthodoxy or piety, to God or to anyone else; we see this in the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which comes five Sundays before Lent in order to prepare us for it. According to Proto-Presbyter Alexander Schmemann, “No one can acquire the spirit of repentance without rejecting the attitude of the Pharisee. Here is a man who is always pleased with himself and thinks that he complies with all the requirements of religion. Yet, he has reduced religion to purely formal rules and measures it by the amount of his financial contribution to the temple” (“The Liturgical Structure of Lent”). And, one might add, he measures it by the strictness of his fast.
I enjoy good food. And our Orthodox Christian faith is a sacramental faith, a faith which teaches us that the earthly joys of this world—including good food—are gifts from God. And certainly, our ancestors—whatever one’s heritage—have known deprivation, and have prayed that their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren would know peace and prosperity, and not go hungry.