The Great Fast: Keeping it in Spirit and in Truth

–Fr. Justin Patterson

 In the English language, Orthodox Christians call the season of preparation before Pascha (Easter) “Great Lent.” The word “Lent” comes from an early English word indicating spring. Indeed, both the feast of Passover in the Jewish tradition and the feast of Pascha in the Christian faith which is historically and theologically connected to the Jewish Passover, take place from towards the end of spring. For both the Jews and the Christians, these spring feasts herald the grace of God and, for Christians, Feast of Christ as the New Passover Lamb.

In Russian, the literal translation of Great Lent (Velikiy Post) is “The Great Fast,” clearly indicating what Orthodox Christians assume lies at the center of Great Lent: fasting in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s Pascha. The fathers of the Church are very clear that authentic fasting must have two components:

  1. fasting in terms of our diet
  2. fasting in terms of the very way we live, including adjustments to our prayer life, heightened awareness of our words and deeds towards others, and spiritual examination.

Keeping the Fast: Fasting from Food

Among Orthodox Christians, it is often said that it takes “five to seven years to grow into fasting.” Many people fear that they may become legalistic in their fasting, and, as a result, they excuse themselves from fasting, hoping to steer clear of the temptation of Pharisaism. Imagining that they will “grow into the Fast” at some future date, they end up avoiding it altogether. The only way to grow into fasting, however, is to actually do it! Naturally, this process implies many falls and much repentance. But the Church confesses that we grow into the Fast spiritually only as we begin to keep the Fast physically. Our bold confession of the Lord’s Incarnation forever keeps before us the fact that the physical and the spiritual are intertwined and inseparable.

So what do the fasting guidelines look like? It is customary during the first week of Lent for Orthodox Christians to keep a “strict fast,” at least until the first Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts on Wednesday evening. Technically, a “strict fast” implies that we eat nothing! Practically, though—if we are medically able—we eat only what we require to keep up our strength. In fact, it is good for us, as we prepare for our first Wednesday Liturgy, to attempt “dry eating” (xerophagy) on Monday and Tuesday. (Vegetables, fruits, nuts and breads are considered “dry foods.”) If we must eat a little on Wednesday so that we can work, any food we take should be “dry” and must be eaten before noon (after which we maintain complete abstinence from food and drink until our evening Communion). The common practice of xerophagy allows us to keep up our strength so that we can do the things we need to do while also allowing us to bypass elaborate meal preparations (thus leaving more time for prayer). Children should be included in adult Lenten meals. Parents may need to supplement these fast-appropriate foods with non-Lenten foods; but our children can and should participate in the lifestyle changes that Lent brings into our homes.

During the remainder of Lent and Holy Week, it is usual for a healthy Orthodox believer to abstain from all meat and dairy. Alcoholic beverages and olive oil are generally reserved for the weekends. If you are not medically healthy or have a condition (e.g. pregnancy or diabetes), see the priest and discuss with him how it might be best to keep the Fast in light of your condition.

When we—of our own will and without the grace of accountability—exempt ourselves from the Fast or “bend” that fasting norms, we cheat ourselves of God’s grace and presence. Orthodoxy does not “work” unless we embrace Lent wholly and completely—fasting and all. Lent, as we have inherited it in the Church, is the roadmap the Lord has given us for seeking and finding Him in this season of repentance! Orthodox Christians who denigrate the fasting guidelines of the Church cheat themselves, in a certain sense, of the joy of Pascha. As we confess boldly during Sunday Matins, “Through the Cross, joy has come into the world!”

See more about the Orthodox Church’s guidelines on how we should fast, on the OCA website.

Keeping the Fast: Living the Life

While Orthodox Christians place the literal “fast” at the center of our Lenten discipline, the Orthodox Church proclaims with marked emphasis that fasting without humility–without something happening in our hearts–is worse than not fasting at all! This is why, three weeks before Lent begins, the Orthodox throughout the world meditate on the Gospel lesson of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee does everything “correctly.” And yet it is the sinful tax collector (the Publican) who goes home righteous before God rather than the very “orthodox” Pharisee: because the Publican was fully aware of his profound need for God and was prostrate before Him in contrition!

Perhaps no one frames this connection between fasting from food and fasting as part of our ongoing conversion in and to Christ as well as the great 4th/5th century saint, John Chrysostom (for bio see St. John writes the following:

Sharpen your sword and your sickle which has been blunted by gluttony–sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on it.

Fasting is a medicine. But like all medicines, though it be very profitable to the person who knows how to use it, it frequently becomes useless (and even harmful) in the hands of him who is unskilled in its use.

Do you fast? Give proof of it by your works. By what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see an enemy, be reconciled with him. If you see a friend gaining honor, do not be jealous of him. If you see a beautiful countenance, pass it by.

And let not only the mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feel and the hands and all members of your bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from plundering and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves with strange beauties …

Do you not eat meat? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of your eyes! Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. Let the mouth fast also from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl and yet bite and devour the brothers and sisters? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brothers and bites the body of his neighbor. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, ‘If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another’ (GAL. 5:15).

You have not fixed your teeth in his flesh, but you have fixed your slander in his soul and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion, and you have harmed in a thousand ways yourself and him and many others, for in slandering your neighbor you have made him who listens to the slander worse, for should he be a wicked person, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness. And should he be a just person, he is tempted to arrogance and gets puffed up, being led on by the sin of others to imagining great things concerning himself. Besides this, you have struck at the common welfare of the Church herself, for all those who hear you will not only accuse the supposed sinner, but the entire Christian community….

And so I desire to fix three precepts in your mind so that you may accompany them during the fast:

1). to speak ill of no one,
2). to hold no one an enemy,
3). and to expel from your mouth altogether the evil habit of swearing.”

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