Fasting: Surveying the Scriptures

Even as we enjoy the fast-free week before us, Ortho­dox Chris­tians are prepar­ing for the com­ing strug­gle of the Great Fast. To aim our read­ers in the prepa­ra­tion, we offer this excerpt on the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline of fast­ing from the recent pub­li­ca­tion, A Prac­ti­cal Hand­book for Priest­ly Min­istry com­piled by Holy Trin­i­ty Monastery and pub­lished by Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions.  

Here we must also speak of fast­ing, atten­tive­ness, and sobri­ety, all of which the word of God joins with prayer: But take heed to your­selves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carous­ing, drunk­en­ness, and cares of this life.1   Be seri­ous and watch­ful in your prayers2 …that ye may give your­selves to fast­ing and prayer3 There­fore, we also should in like man­ner offer our prayers, sup­pli­ca­tions, and thanks­giv­ings with watch­ful­ness and seri­ous­ness, and at the prop­er sea­sons also with fasting.

There are two forms of fasting—social and reli­gious. The first kind is oth­er­wise called philo­soph­i­cal or nat­ur­al; so far as pre­scribed by med­ical rules, it falls under the sub­ject of diet. The sec­ond kind, the reli­gious or eccle­si­as­ti­cal fast, is a holy and Chris­t­ian observance.

Fasting is abstinence from all kind of food and drink or at the very least from all that is pleasant or superfluous.

The dif­fer­ence between the two is this: the first depends sole­ly on our own choice, and its object is to pre­serve health and enable us to per­form our duties, but the eccle­si­as­ti­cal fast depends on Divine pre­cept and so on faith and piety. The pur­pose of this kind is to hum­ble our­selves before God, to sub­due the force of car­nal lusts, to assist us in true repen­tance, in prayer, in Divine Wor­ship, and in oth­er duties, and to obtain mer­cy and grace from God, as we are taught by many pas­sages and exam­ples in God’s word.

Fast­ing is absti­nence from all kind of food and drink or at the very least from all that is pleas­ant or super­flu­ous. Such a fast as this was ordained by God Him­self in the Old Tes­ta­ment to be observed at the year­ly purifi­ca­tion: This shall be an ordi­nance for­ev­er for you: … you shall hum­ble your souls with fast­ing.4 Accord­ing to the exam­ple of this statute, when­ev­er the Israelites repent­ed before God, they always hum­bled their souls with fast­ing: The sons of Israel were assem­bled with fast­ing, in sack­cloth, and with dust on their heads … and they stood in their place … and con­fess­ing to the Lord and wor­ship­ing the Lord their God. 5

Some holy fathers of the Church con­sid­er the begin­ning of fast­ing to be in par­adise. St John Chrysos­tom, in his first ser­mon on Gen­e­sis, writes thus:

As glut­to­nous appetite is the source of count­less evils for mankind, so also is fast­ing and the non-indul­gence of the appetites of the bel­ly the con­stant source to us of unspeak­able ben­e­fits. There­fore God, when He had first made man and knew that this was the med­i­cine he would most need for his soul’s sal­va­tion, gave him, even at the very begin­ning of all, this first com­mand­ment, say­ing, ‘Of every tree of the gar­den you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowl­edge of good and evil you shall not eat.’ By these words fast­ing was instituted.

St Basil, in his first ser­mon on fast­ing, traces it to the same begin­ning. Fast­ing was espe­cial­ly joined with prayer by all in the Old Tes­ta­ment at times when the Lord by His just judg­ment was prepar­ing to bring any pun­ish­ment on sin­ners. But even in this case, He Him­self, sole­ly in His love for mankind, will­ing to cor­rect the chil­dren of Israel and to turn away His own just wrath, ordered all to fast and pray: Blow the trum­pet in Zion, con­se­crate a fast, call a sacred assem­bly, gath­er the peo­ple, sanc­ti­fy the con­gre­ga­tion. 6 And such a pub­lic fast, joined with prayer, was always an effec­tu­al means of deliv­er­ance, as appears plain­ly from the same chap­ter, where the Lord, see­ing them pray­ing with fast­ing and weep­ing, turned His anger into mer­cy: The Lord was zeal­ous for His land and spared His peo­ple. 7

In the New Tes­ta­ment, our Lord and Law­giv­er Jesus Christ Him­self fast­ed and in defend­ing His dis­ci­ples before the Phar­isees He exempt­ed them from fast­ing only while the Bride­groom was with them, but for all remain­ing time, after the Bride­groom would be tak­en away from them, He dis­tinct­ly con­firmed the duty, Then the dis­ci­ples of John came to Him, say­ing, “Why do we and the Phar­isees fast often, but Your dis­ci­ples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bride­groom mourn as long as the bride­groom is with them? But the days will come when the bride­groom will be tak­en away from them, and then they will fast.“8Mt. 9:14–15  Fur­ther­more, He instruct­ed us how to fast, so that our fast­ing should not be like that of the Phar­isees, nor have its reward from men, but from God: More­over, 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.9 And again, the great Physi­cian of our souls and bod­ies Him­self showed how great is the pow­er and ben­e­fit of fast­ing when, for the expul­sion of a dev­il that had set­tled itself in a man, He pre­scribed no oth­er med­i­cine than prayer and fast­ing: How­ev­er, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fast­ing 10

The fasts of the Church of the New Testament are nothing else than appointed times for repentance and days of yearly purification.

Here we may remark that fast­ing, as well as prayer itself, is said to be a ser­vice pleas­ing to God: …and this woman was a wid­ow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the tem­ple, but served God with fast­ings and prayers night and day11 for which rea­son the Apos­tles also, when they served the Lord, joined fast­ing with their prayers: As they min­is­tered to the Lord and fast­ed, the Holy Spir­it said, “Now sep­a­rate to Me Barn­abas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.“12 There­fore, the min­is­ters of the Lord’s altar, and all who desire to serve or wor­ship the Lord accept­ably, in puri­ty and sobri­ety, do only that which is becom­ing and their duty when they pre­pare them­selves, accord­ing to the mea­sure of their bod­i­ly strength, by fasting.

It is known to all that upon this foun­da­tion, that is, upon the words of God, Christ’s Church of the New Tes­ta­ment has appoint­ed year­ly fasts and par­tic­u­lar days of absti­nence. This was done so that the chil­dren of the new Israel, through prayer to God, with fast­ing and con­tri­tion of heart and con­fes­sion of their sins, would be brought to true repen­tance. Con­se­quent­ly, the fasts of the Church of the New Tes­ta­ment are noth­ing else than appoint­ed times for repen­tance and days of year­ly purification.

The Chris­tians of the first ages observed mod­er­a­tion and tem­per­ance always, and at appro­pri­ate sea­sons fast­ing also, joined with prayer, as the spe­cial marks among them­selves of an hon­or­able Chris­t­ian life and decent civ­il soci­ety, and at all times they abhorred lux­u­ry and excess. To this St Clement of Alexan­dria bears tes­ti­mo­ny in the first and sec­ond books of The Instruc­tor.

How­ev­er, it is absolute­ly nec­es­sary that he who keeps out­ward fasts also fasts spir­i­tu­al­ly, that is, he who fasts and prays out­ward­ly must at the same time avoid all sin and unright­eous­ness and be char­i­ta­ble and dili­gent in every good work. For …prayer is good with fast­ing, alms­giv­ing, and right­eous­ness. 13But if any man keeps the fasts extreme­ly strict­ly, but remains with­out char­i­ty or hon­esty to his neigh­bor, such a fast is not accept­able to God:

If you fast for con­dem­na­tions and quar­rels, and to strike a hum­ble man with your fists, why do you fast to Me as you do today, so your voice may be heard in cry­ing? I did not choose this fast, and such a day for a man to hum­ble his soul; nor if you should bow your neck like a ring and spread sack­cloth and ash­es under your­self, could you thus call such a fast accept­able. I did not choose such a fast.  Says the Lord:  ..rather loose every bond of wrong­do­ing; untie the knots of vio­lent deal­ings; can­cel the debts of the oppressed; and tear apart every unjust con­tract. Break your bread for the hun­gry, and bring the home­less poor into your house. If you see a naked man, clothe him, nor shall you dis­re­gard your off­spring in your own house­hold. Then your light shall break forth as the morn­ing, and your heal­ing shall spring forth quick­ly. Your right­eous­ness shall go before you, and the glo­ry of God shall cov­er you. Then you shall call cry out and God will hear you. While you are still speak­ing He will say, ‘Behold I am here’” 14

Sim­i­lar instruc­tion is also giv­en by the Lord through the Prophet Zechari­ah15 See also St John Chrysos­tom, in his fourth ser­mon on Gen­e­sis, for a very prof­itable dis­cus­sion on the same subject.

Sobriety is necessary for one’s entire life because without it a person cannot keep himself in order.

Where fast­ing and sobri­ety are not prac­ticed, but instead of them con­tin­u­al overeat­ing and drunk­en­ness, count­less mis­chief will be engen­dered, no less spir­i­tu­al than bod­i­ly: Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for plea­sure that war in your mem­bers? 16 In such peo­ple that sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and hon­or in which the apos­tle admon­ish­es every one to pos­sess his ves­sel will find no place; that each of you should learn to con­trol your own body in a way that is holy and hon­or­able, not in pas­sion­ate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this mat­ter no one should wrong or take advan­tage of a broth­er or sis­ter. The Lord will pun­ish all those who com­mit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 17, but they will become the dwelling-places only of fierce, bru­tal, and dev­il­ish pas­sions: Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoc­cu­pied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it sev­en oth­er spir­its more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final con­di­tion of that per­son is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked gen­er­a­tion. 18 as is shown beyond any doubt by the dis­solute­ness and over­throw of Sodom and oth­er examples.

St John Chrysos­tom, in his first homi­ly on Gen­e­sis, writes thus:

“See how Divine Scrip­ture always reproves a life of indul­gence! At one time it says, ‘The peo­ple sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play,’ at anoth­er, ‘Jeshu­run ate and drank, grew fat, thick, and broad, and apo­s­ta­tized.’ And the peo­ple of Sodom, beside their oth­er sins, by this sin most of all drew down upon them­selves God’s wrath and destruc­tion from heav­en, for hear what the prophet said, ‘This was the iniq­ui­ty of Sodom,’ for it was in full­ness of bread and wine that they fell to lust after evil plea­sures, and so intem­per­ance is, as it were, the source and root of all evils.”

In order to be able to observe the order of prayer and all oth­er duties con­nect­ed with it, we have the great­est need of spir­i­tu­al sobri­ety and vig­i­lance, nor can we neglect these duties as regards the body. This rule is pre­scribed us by our Lord Jesus Christ Him­self: Take heed, watch, and pray; and what I say to you, I say to all: Watch! 19 Behold, I am com­ing as a thief. Blessed is he who watch­es, and keeps his gar­ments, lest he walk naked and they see his shame. 20 And the Apos­tles also, in the spir­it of Christ’s words, exhort us to do the same: Be sober, be vig­i­lant. 21 Let us not sleep, as do oth­ers, but let us watch and be sober 22 Such atten­tive­ness and sobri­ety are no less nec­es­sary for Chris­tians than eyes are for our bod­ies or the light of the sun for our eyes.

All these things—fasting, attentiveness, sobriety, prayers night and day, ascetic labors and struggles—are appointed in the Lord’s commandments solely to help us become holy and blameless before God

  Sobri­ety is nec­es­sary for one’s entire life because with­out it a per­son can­not keep him­self in order. Sobri­ety is not mere­ly to not be: weighed down with carous­ing, and drunk­en­ness, and cares of this life. 23 but also in keep­ing our­selves free from the inward pas­sions of anger, envy, cov­etous­ness, and the like. For all these pas­sions dark­en the inner eye of the heart and deprive us of sound rea­son, no less than drunk­en­ness. There­fore, the Apos­tles Peter and James exhort us to lay aside all mal­ice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speak­ing… and …gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope ful­ly upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the rev­e­la­tion of Jesus Christ. 24

All these things—fasting, atten­tive­ness, sobri­ety, prayers night and day, ascetic labors and struggles—are appoint­ed in the Lord’s com­mand­ments sole­ly to help us become holy and blame­less before God in the faith of the Gospel and in love, that is, to fill us with the fruits of the Holy Spir­it. But if these are not found in us, then all our prayers and labors will prof­it us noth­ing, as the exam­ple of the five fool­ish vir­gins plain­ly shows:

And while they went to buy, the bride­groom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wed­ding; and the door was shut. After­ward the oth­er vir­gins came also, say­ing, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But He answered and said, ‘Assured­ly, I say to you, I do not know you.’  Watch there­fore, for you know nei­ther the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is com­ing 25Matt 25:10–13

About The Book

A Prac­ti­cal Hand­book for Priest­ly Min­istry is a guide for the con­tem­po­rary Ortho­dox priest in his appli­ca­tion of the Apostle’s words to his every­day life, as he serves to con­vey God’s grace as a shep­herd of Christ’s flock.  It focus­es on the inter­nal for­ma­tion and prepa­ra­tion of the soul that should under­pin the priest’s pas­toral mission. 

The text was edit­ed and com­piled by Holy Trin­i­ty Monastery from recent and his­tor­i­cal sources reflect­ing the rich her­itage of the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church, for the ben­e­fit of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry pas­tor and aspi­rant to the priest­hood.  It is replete with detailed quo­ta­tions from the Holy Fathers and the Canons, togeth­er with over one hun­dred ref­er­ences to Holy Scrip­tures, cov­er­ing every con­ceiv­able pas­toral issue. 

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