I want to address one of the things that is hard to understand about the customs, traditions and sacraments of the Orthodox Church: fasting. It is so foreign to the western Protestant mindset that anyone should tell you what to do.
Fasting practices among western churches, in my experience, are personal and largely non-existent. In my pre-Orthodox days, fasting was reserved for special prayer when my uncle was gravely injured, with prayers for his recovery, and once, when the worship team decided to do this together as a practice for a season. Each of us “fasted” from something, be it entertainment, food, whatever. Each of us chose our own thing. It seemed oddly forced, and missing something, although that may be more a sign of what was happening in my own heart.
For me, however, this fasting thing is an odd practice, and yet anyone who has read the New Testament has probably been puzzled as to why we don’t fast today like the early church appeared to do. And what does fasting mean? I tended to think of fasting as a medical term for refraining from all food and drink for a period of time. And that is surely one type of fast. Another is to refrain from all food for a time. Still another, in Orthodox practice, at least, is to give up certain things for certain periods of time. Wednesdays and Fridays, for example are considered a strict fast, and if one is to keep it strictly, one gives up all meat, dairy, oil and wine. There are additional fasts throughout the year, for longer periods and may refrain from meat, but dairy, oil and wine are permitted, or just oil and wine are permitted, but for the lenten fast, a period which varies in time but is approximately 40 days, it is a strict fast, with few exceptions. There are a few days in there when oil and wine are permitted, for example. The apostles fast is a shorter period of time, but is similar, and a fast preceding Nativity is lengthy, but not as long as Lent. And there are feast periods where fasting is not permitted.
Doing this as a community makes it easier, and each of us keeps the fast “as we are able”, and as to cause us no physical harm. Some have dietary restrictions that must be followed for their health, and that is understood. Also, before Liturgy and the taking of communion/Holy Eucharist, one refrains from eating or drinking (some say even of water, though I find that one impossible). If, though, one must have food with a medication, that is permitted. Certain medications will make me ill if I don’t eat something, but a couple bites of dry toast suffices for me, so that is what I do, I don’t eat eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy!
Why fast, you ask? There are many reasons, and as fasting is a fairly new practice for me, I am trusting others on this one. First is that if I cannot control what I put into my mouth, how am I to resist other sins? This seems a fairly logical and practical reason, though it is certainly not the most important. Fasting removes us from the physical, and allows us a deeper sense that we are not merely physical, temporal beings. And fasting is not a solitary practice. Fasting is to have the companions of the giving of alms, prayer, and good deeds. Justice, mercy and kindness are all to be the companions of fasting.
Others have written far more eloquently about fasting, the benefits, the discipline, the spiritual aspects, and such, so I won’t attempt to recreate their work…but I do want to say one thing. For those who snort, “Oh, so they still EAT, that’s not a fast…” as if it is less difficult to do an Orthodox fast because you may still eat SOMETHING…please, try it. Give up meat, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, fish, poultry, oil and wine. One minute? Great. One hour? Standing on my head. One day? Usually not so bad. A week? Ummm,… A month?
Have you fainted yet? Are you trying to figure out what on earth to feed yourself while avoiding all those things? Yeah, me too.
We are weak. The fast teaches us this. Or, it teaches ME this. I once thought this sounded an easy task. It is not. Sometimes a single day is more than I can manage, as terrible as this sounds. And to do this, one must plan ahead. Plan, plan, plan. It is required, or you will find yourself at Wendy’s trying to force yourself to buy a plain potato and a garden salad (no dressing please) and instead ordering a mushroom cheeseburger.
And the weakness is not just in the eating and drinking! It is also in our hearts, and I think the fast teaches us this. The fast, in some mysterious way, helps me to see my own lack of love, compassion, mercy and justice. It challenges me to be more holy, to act with more mercy and love. And it reveals to me how much my heart rebels against such acts of love. It reveals my own selfishness to me. I am forced to ask for the mercy of Christ to work in me, for the Love of the Father to work in me, to have the Holy Spirit work his compassion through me, this weak, miserable vessel.
To the fast!!!!!